July 7, 2022

The bioethics of saving the planet

Helps solve geo-engineering problems

Mount PinatuboIf ever you were sceptical
about the relevance of the bioethical principles of autonomy, beneficence and justice,
here is some news for you. By applying them to proposals for geoengineering
climate change, a group of scientists may have saved the planet. Eli Kintisch, author of Hack
the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare — for Averting Climate
Catastrophe, reports in Slate that
scientists from 14 countries met in March in California at the renowned
Asilomar retreat center to discuss the ground
rules for research
into cloud-brightening, giant algae blooms, artificial Pinatubos and other
massive-scale interventions to cool the planet.

The ethicists at the meeting suggested that the famous Belmont
principles should be used as a framework for discussing the risks and benefits
of all this new research.

Take autonomy, and its corollary, informed consent. Would it be
possible to get countries to consent to experiments which could possibly devastate
their economies? Perhaps not.

Then beneficence, which states that doctors should balance the risks of
a clinical trial against the benefit to participants. But calculating the risks
of planet-hacking is almost impossible.

How about justice? Would it be possible for scientists to ensure that
the experiments would be administered fairly? “If representatives from just a
small set of countries were appointed as doctors to the planet, then the less
powerful nations might end up as the world’s guinea pigs,” reflects Kintisch.

On balance, then, geoengineering seems like a very dubious idea for the
human participants. According to Slate, the Asilomar conference also brainstormed
other principles like moral hazard, minimumization and primum non nocere, and still
the ambitious proposals fell short.

Nonetheless, Kintisch hints that there might be a work-around to provide
a moral foundation for geoengineering. The problem might just be too narrow a
focus on human beings. If the earth itself is regarded as the “patient”, the problem
looks a bit less complicated. “The climate crisis may force us to act despite
myriad ethical challenges, for our benefit and for the planet’s,” says Kintisch.
~ Slate, Apr 22

Michael Cook