Future Tense

Geoengineering’s Moral Hazard Problem

Would treating the symptoms of climate change give people permission to ignore the causes?

Geoengineering could curb the symptoms of climate change, like sea level rise—but what if it makes people complacent about the causes?

Photo by DeltaOFF/Thinkstock

For more than a quarter-century, policymakers worldwide have puzzled over how to deal with climate change. If nothing else, these negotiations have served as a productive greenhouse environment for jargon. In particular, two modest-sounding words—mitigation and adaptation—have grown to occupy a special position, together including all possible responses to climate change. Mitigation attempts to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases by making humans emit less (via renewable energy, fuel-efficient cars, well-insulated houses, and so forth) and helping the Earth absorb as much or more (by, say, protecting or expanding forests and wetlands). Since we haven’t mitigated enough already, we need adaptation as well, which softens the negative effects of higher temperatures, rising seas, and changing rainfall patterns by switching to drought-resistant crops, protecting coastal areas from floods, and trying, in hundreds of other ways, to make human and natural systems more resilient and robust. These two approaches are pretty comprehensive. Classically, the only other option is the default—proceeding as usual and hoping for the best—which is sometimes called “loss and damage” or, more candidly, “suffering.”

Geoengineering—a diverse collection of extreme-sounding, planet-sized proposals for stopping or reversing climate change—is often presented as a disruptive (or simply destructive) alternative to these well-worn paradigms. But we need to look carefully at the various ways in which geoengineering might relate, for better or worse, to mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Otherwise, we risk getting distracted by the novelty of the ideas involved and missing some deeper complexities and controversies.

Many geoengineering proposals involve poorly understood (or entirely theoretical) technologies intended to modify incredibly complex atmospheric, chemical, and biological dynamics. Determining the safety and efficacy of these technologies without just trying them out will be complicated, maybe even impossible. But imagine for the sake of argument that a particular geoengineering technology had somehow been indisputably proven “safe,” with no chance of unwanted physical side effects such as sudden droughts or floods, biodiversity collapse, ozone depletion, or excessive cooling. There might still be reasons why we shouldn’t seriously consider deploying or developing the technology. For example, certain geoengineering approaches could be fundamentally incompatible with democratic political processes, impossible to effectively govern or administrate, destined to create conflict between countries that might prefer different climates, or too tempting as an old-fashioned weapon of war. Or perhaps use of the technology would transgress a profound ethical boundary between humans and the Earth by bringing the entire planet under active management (rather than just subjecting it to reckless passive influence).

But even if all of these problems could be effectively and fairly resolved, what if geoengineering has a fundamentally antagonistic relationship with mitigation and adaptation? This concern is often (loosely) called the “moral hazard” problem, after the insurance industry’s observation that people sometimes drive more recklessly if their cars have safety features. If politicians or their constituents inaccurately—but conveniently—believe that geoengineering could solve, will solve, or has solved climate change, why would they make any efforts to transition to renewable energy or help protect vulnerable people from climate effects? Will hope in an uncertain, far-off, deeply imperfect “solution” let humans off the hook at the time—now—when they most need to be on it?

Obviously, scientists, journalists, and others have been discussing geoengineering for quite a while, and it hasn’t caused mitigation and adaptation to stop in their tracks. Some commentators suggest that geoengineering is a sufficiently scary prospect that merely mentioning it will increase public commitment to traditional climate solutions: “Don’t make us have to use the sulfates.” Then again, moral hazard concerns have not been helped by wildly overenthusiastic popular coverage of geoengineering (for example, the frankly ignorant treatment that it received in SuperFreakonomics). And moral hazard can be actively encouraged as well. The fossil fuel industry, say, might double down on geoengineering since it could, in principle, offer the industry a few more years with its existing business models.

It’s best to think of moral hazard as a potentially serious social side effect of geoengineering—more complicated, but not necessarily less risky, than the physical side effects that people are worried about. But sometimes it’s right to take risks, especially in extreme situations, and climate change, even with effective mitigation and adaptation, poses some big risks of its own. This point particularly relates to one set of geoengineering proposals—those known as solar radiation management, or SRM. Emissions reduction, although absolutely necessary, turns out to be a relatively slow way to bring the planet’s temperature back down. (Some short-lived pollutants, such as black carbon, also contribute to global warming, and their removal could reduce temperatures quickly, but not necessarily by that much.) Adaptation—particularly ecosystem adaptation—takes significant time as well. Traditionally, only suffering happens fast.

Certain SRM technologies occupy a special place in the geoengineering conversation because they may be able to reduce global temperatures fairly quickly, albeit with suspected and possibly unsuspected side effects. In theory, the quick-acting nature of some SRM might be the only way to avoid an ecosystem-changing event like a catastrophic ice melt. This suggests the possibility of a relationship with healthy boundaries; mitigation and adaptation would continue on their own and SRM would be considered only in case of emergency, when no other approach we know of has a chance to work fast enough.

However, some recent commentary has cast shade on this proposal. Climate scientists point out that it is far from clear when a tipping point is about to be crossed; political theorists note that emergencies are often used to justify hasty and ill-advised choices and undemocratic decision-making; and international relations scholars anticipate great disagreement among countries about what an emergency sufficient to justify geoengineering would look like. Besides, the whole point of moral hazard is that people don’t make objectively correct decisions when it comes to safety and risk. Even the feeling that emergency situations are covered by geoengineering could be enough to derail mitigation and adaptation.

As the emergencies-only viewpoint draws fire, another, sunnier position is getting more public attention. It views geoengineering less as Pandora’s box and more as an extra toolbox. Some of the tools may be inappropriate, ineffective, or too dangerous to use, but proponents of this view take a self-consciously “rational” and often highly economic approach to the problem of integrating geoengineering, mitigation, and adaptation. As regards moral hazard, for example, a distractedly driven car with seat belts and airbags can be safer than a safely driven car without them (at least for the driver). And even if geoengineering made the world less safe, on the whole, at least it might be cheap, and a significant enough cost savings could justify, to an economist, an equivalent amount of additional risk.

Whether this viewpoint is promising or alarming depends, in large part, on whether economic ways of thinking such as cost-benefit analysis are useful in the face of problems this intricate. The need to rationally assign a price to everything may encourage irrationally simplified thinking. For example, even if moral hazard isn’t created by informal discussions like this one, it could manifest unpredictably, once geoengineering had been deployed and therefore normalized. (Physics is filled with phenomena that change at a fundamental level when they become stronger or more widespread, and these phase changes or “scale effects” exist in human society as well.) An effect like this could throw a carefully constructed, well-intentioned, 50-year deployment proposal permanently off the rails in Year Five. The long-term planning, management, and commitment necessary to follow an effective strategy combining geoengineering, mitigation, and adaptation may be beyond the ability of our social systems. And just as with the fear that large-scale SRM will cause crippling drought, it’s not obvious how to find out whether this is true without trying it. But the costs of a failed experiment of this magnitude could be overwhelming.

Ultimately, it’s important to ask whether separating geoengineering from mitigation and adaptation is even useful. The 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change defines mitigation, in part, as “protecting and enhancing … greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs,” which sounds a lot like many carbon dioxide removal proposals, and recent emissions scenarios—basically blueprints for keeping global temperatures within certain limits—actually depend upon negative emissions in the future. It’s difficult to imagine how to achieve negative emissions without some amount of something that is often labeled geoengineering. Likewise, the definition of adaptation in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report is “[a]djustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects”—and putting sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight seems like a pretty clear (if potentially drastic) adjustment of a natural system.

As the global climate change conversation heads into middle age, geoengineering proposals are likely to become more specific and differentiated. Perhaps this emerging familiarity will save us from both dismissing the field as a whole and from seeing it as a glittering new landscape filled with exciting solutions. Climate change of the speed and magnitude that we may experience in the coming century is entirely new territory, at least for human beings, and of the vast range of responses that have been proposed, only suffering is truly familiar.

This article is part of the geoengineering installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through May 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on geoengineering:

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.