Friday, April 27, 2007

A Lesser Evil

Rumor has it that Beijing plans to clear away its air pollution with cloudseeding:

China has announced plans to induce rain in Beijing in the days before the 2008 Olympics in an effort to clean the air. Scientists are wary about the effects of the process.
It’s interesting to compare this story with a similar story from last year:
Rain won't be the only threat when the Olympics take place in 2008. Beijing's smog is as big a threat to China's image-makers as a few raindrops.

That's somebody else's problem, says weather guru Zhang: "I can't do anything about the air pollution."
The widespread practice of cloudseeding has led to disputes between Chinese cities. Oddly enough, the attempt to modify weather tends to make ordinary weather events seem sinister:
One Zhoukou official accused Pingdingshan of intercepting clouds that would probably have drifted to other places.
These rather surreal conflicts notwithstanding, the question of whether cloudseeding actually increases rainfall remains open:
A 2003 report by the US National Academy of Sciences…concluded that after over 30 years of trying, "there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts."
I mention all this as the preamble to an interesting article on the ethics of geoengineering by Professor Steve Gardiner at the University of Washington, Seattle. Gardiner addresses Paul Crutzen’s argument that geoengineering may be a “lesser evil” than runaway climate change, and should accordingly be researched now in case it becomes “necessary” later:
It is not silly to think that substantial investment in geoengineering will itself encourage political inertia on mitigation and adaptation, and also facilitate the actual deployment of geoengineering "solutions". In short, Crutzen treats the decision to do research and the decision to deploy as if they were causally isolated. But it is not clear what justifies this assumption - indeed, the history of technological innovation suggests otherwise.
This is precisely correct, and it can’t be overemphasized. The similarity to space-based missile defense would be striking even if fanatical star warriors like Lowell Wood weren’t already positioning themselves to cash in on it. Money warps the perception of options like gravity warps space-time, and it’d be a shame if the self-justifying “necessity” of some geoengineering project caused us to overlook more practical adaptive tactics, like installing gills in Glenn Reynolds’ neck.

Gardiner also finds fault with the notion that geoengineering might be justified, despite its risks, by the state of exception in which the changing climate has placed us. The fact that we’ve put the world in grave danger doesn’t automatically ennoble whatever flailing attempt we make to remedy the situation, any more than our invasion of Iraq has ennobled torture or indefinite detention or the erection of security walls. As Gardiner notes, “there seems to be an important difference between preparing for an emergency and preparing for an emergency that is to be brought on by one's own moral failure.”

The most cogent argument to be made for geoengineering is that we’re already doing it, and may as well get good at it. It’s agreeably romantic to believe in Virgin Nature, but romanticism about virginity generally does more to enable brutality and exploitation than to oppose it.

On the other hand, “in for a penny, in for a pound” isn’t a very good guideline for ethical decision-making. And I’m not comforted by the idea that future climate change may result from techno-messianic busywork instead of shortsighted greed. Gardiner’s prescriptions – which include alternative energy research, “a massive international climate assistance and refugee programme,” and “a very substantial compensation fund” – seem a lot more sane, ethical, and achievable.

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