Playing God with Earth’s thermostat

In an attempt to propel the discussion from “is it or isn’t it happening” to “what should we do about it”, I want to bring up the topic of geo-engineering. This is essentially large-scale manipulation of Earth’s climate by us. It comes in many flavours from capturing CO2 for storage deep beneath the sea to developing antacids for our oceans.

But there’s one solution that I want to talk about here because it’s cheap, fast and easy. It involves sending an aeroplane up into the stratosphere where it would spray sulphate particles about as a means to increase Earth’s albedo, reflect the sun and keep us cool. Rather like wearing a white hat on a sunny day.

This is essentially what happens when volcanoes erupt. They send sulphur soaring into the atmosphere and in the case of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, decreased Earth’s temperature by 1°C for over a  year. This volcano-inspired geo-engineering solution is therefore just temporary, but fast-acting.

There are some downsides though. These sulphate particles may further damage the ozone layer and cause acid rain. There is also the possibility that they will disrupt rainfall patterns in the tropics and subtropics, putting the crops of billions of people at risk.

This solution and its problems leads to some interesting ethical questions. Like the whole climate change problem, the benefits of acting or not-acting are different depending on where you live and in what time you live. Doing nothing about climate change – business as usual – benefits people living today but will negatively affect people of the future. Taking action to combat climate change will be a cost for people living today but a benefit for the people of the future.

Suppose one country would benefit from spraying sulphate particles – Australia – while another country would not benefit at all and possibly suffer through ozone depletion – New Zealand. Whose interests take preference here? If Australia chose to send a plane up into the atmosphere for the purposes of sulphate injection, would New Zealand have a legitimate cause for grievance? No-one can really stop Australia from doing this if they decide it is in their best interest.

But is this problem very different from the question of whether to take action on climate change where say, no action means New Zealand benefits but Australia suffers. In one case we are doing something active – spraying sulphates – while in the other, we are doing nothing – business as usual.

What I’m trying to ask here is whether the ethical question is more difficult when there is some non-passive action involved. Is Australia any more at fault for doing something active in the first scenario than New Zealand is for doing nothing in the second?

Anyway, that’s about all I’ve got for now. Sorry if none of this makes sense. We’re heading off and away for a short holiday to a secret location which I’m not going to disclose. But I will be sure to post photos of this place when we get there.

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