What is geoengineering?

Scary, exciting, mad, amazing, never, or why not now? These are some of the initial reactions which people have to the idea of geoengineering. Geoengineering has the potential to leave a deep mark on the 21st century. This is the first in a series of blogs in which I will explore geoengineering and ethical issues associated with it. In this post I will try to give you a sense of what geoengineering is.

 Geoengineering is the idea that technology can be used to control the climate. How? This seems a natural question to ask, how could we control the climate? How could we control this intangible background condition of life? The answer is quite simple, crudely put our climate is the product of sunlight (solar radiation as a source of heat), passing through the stratosphere, and the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which determine how much sunlight is trapped. Therefore we can geoengineer by altering the amount of sunlight that passes through the stratosphere or altering the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Ok, that may well make sense in theory, but is it actually possible? We can hardly stop the sun from shining; can we really reduce the amount of sunlight that passes through the stratosphere? Or can we remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere? If this sounds like an idea that belongs in the realm of science fiction… you have a point, insofar as the idea of the climate being controlled exists in seminal science fiction stories such as Doctor Who and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. In a further blog, I will provide a fuller account of the history of the idea of geoengineering which is not only futuristic but exists in the pages of history as well.

Despite sounding like something from science-fiction, geoengineering does not require a time-lord esque level of technology. Think of removing greenhouses gases from the atmosphere; this already happens naturally when plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to photosynthesise. There is a set of geoengineering response which propose using or enhancing this natural process on a scale to alter the earth climate. Alternatively, we can consider more science fiction like carbon capture technologies, where we have an image of a black box that absorbs carbon.

Let’s consider the other variable in the climate equation, solar radiation; how can we prevent it from reaching the earth’s surface? It might seem that answers to this question will be science-fiction-like and many are, but there are natural ways of doing this. Simply put, light coloured surfaces reflect sunlight. So simply painting our house white would reflect sunlight, as do clouds. These inspire a set of proposals that try to increase how reflective the earth’s surface is to counter climate change. Now we reach the science fiction examples, there a set of proposals that consider how to stop sunlight passing the stratosphere. For example, we could put mirrors in space to reflect sunlight prior to it reaching the stratosphere. Or we could increase the reflective properties of the stratosphere by increasing the quantity of sulphur in the stratosphere.

So there are loads of different ways in which geoengineering could happen. Your reaction to the idea of geoengineering may be strong; it is a thought and emotion-provoking proposal. Often people have a response of concern about humans seeking to engineer the climate when we frequently fail to handle much simpler problems. In a few of the following blog posts, I shall present some different reasons for being interested in geoengineering, ranging from the fear of untrustworthy politicians having control over geoengineering to geoengineering being an insurance policy against a climate emergency. Once we have this clear idea of why we might be interested in geoengineering (and the bad reason for being interested in it), we can start to explore the maze of tough and interesting questions that relate to geoengineering.

This is just meant to provide a sense of what geoengineering is, this should not be understood as a comprehensive account of geoengineering science, for further information on the science of geoengineering I recommend reading:

An overview of the Earth system science of solar geoengineering: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wcc.423

Royal Society report on Geoenigneereign (2009). Geoengineering the Climate. Relevant chapters 1-3: https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2009/8693.pdf

Welcome to the Think Piece section!

This part of the website is dedicated to longer pieces of writing about climate change, with the intention of being thought-provoking. If there are topics you would like to be explored in this section do email: joshua.wells@climateethics.co.uk , enjoy!

Climate Giving: Altruism and Connectedness

By Tom Lee, Dr Matthew Robson, and Dr Joshua Wells.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats we face in the 21st century. The past 30 years is littered with failed attempts of people, states and institutions trying to act on climate change. If we are going to successfully respond to climate change, then many of us will have a part to play. This blog considers the question of why people give their money, time and effort to combating climate change, and which of these strategies should be used to get people to give more. 

Why do we give?

Giving to others often means we must sacrifice what we, ourselves, have. Many of us are willing to give our time, effort and money for the benefit of others. Giving blood, helping neighbours with their shopping and taking risks to rescue strangers are all examples of such behaviour. Central to our giving behaviour are two key elements: our degree of altruism and how connected we are to those we are giving to.

Altruism, simply put, is a regard for others: for their own sake. A complete lack of altruism leads to egoism, or selfishness, whilst an overabundance leads to selflessness. It is a general concept, applying to others in general, not to specific individuals. 

When we give it is, however, often to specific individuals. Our relationship to those individuals is important in determining how much we give. To our close family and friends, we are often willing to give more than to complete strangers. How connected we feel to those individuals often determines how much priority we give to them, in relation to others and ourselves. 

These two elements are distinct, but interconnected, and affect our giving in different ways. A greater degree of altruism increases our giving to all, regardless of how connected we feel to those we are giving too. Whilst an increased connectedness to particular individuals can increase how much we give to them specifically. Practically speaking, these two approaches might be complementary; together increasing giving more than either could do alone. 

We will explore how changes to these elements could increase giving, focusing on climate change. There are many forms that climate related giving could take, such as taking actions to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint. Giving can also occur in the monetary sense of donating to charities which support those who are affected by climate change. One could also give their time to help address the injustices of climate change, for example by campaigning on climate change. The possibilities for climate giving are numerous, yet subject to the same considerations of connectedness and altruism. We will now proceed by considering whether it is more morally desirable to increase climate giving strategies by focusing on altruism or connectedness. 

A case for altruism

Why might we prefer to enhance our altruism rather than increase our social connectedness? Here we’ll consider altruism in virtue ethical terms (admirable character traits like honesty, kindness etc.) and consider it broadly synonymous with ‘benevolence’. Benevolence responds to the needs of others with the appropriate sentiment i.e., feeling, in doing that. It is a reliable disposition to identify those in need and be moved to respond to those needs.   

Climate action is demanding; so are climate activists. Add the newer ‘moral’ flavour to climate action and it’s hardly surprising that many are overwhelmed by the demands of morality that appear to leave little room for living. But, as Christine Swanton says, virtues allow us to “…respond well to the demands of the world”. Why might benevolence be less demanding and, thus, more appealing?

First, an excessive tending to the well-being of others shows a lack of self-respect and -love. Many carers experience this, becoming utterly absorbed in their work and losing all track of their own wellbeing. Benevolence is one virtue among others, self-respect and -love are important too; the carers should care more about themselves. Second, benevolence hardly forbids indulgence: an appropriate amount is essential for a good life. What virtues do is point towards salience and call attention to slips into vice: excessive indulgence or apathy in this case. They can set the ground for debate.

For climate ethics, we can ask how well we are practicing benevolence. We needn’t appeal to duty nor subject ourselves to monkish lives. We can simply appeal to ourselves and others to be better by some approximately shared understanding of the features of benevolence and its excesses. We probably have good reason to think we are more self-obsessed than ever. However, if we are right to admire benevolence (let’s assume so), then we should want to be more benevolent full-stop and not just for climate change.

The basis of standing (the relation between you and others) is important to acting well for many virtues, especially benevolence. Consider how the importance of the right sort of feeling varies depending on the relation with the ‘other(s)’: we should feel more caring and empathetic when assisting our close friends rather than some stranger or a cause like Comic Relief; begrudgingly assisting a friend is wrong in a way which it isn’t to begrudgingly search for coins to placate some annoying dressed-up students imploring you to ‘dig deep’. We should care more about family and friends over strangers. They are special to us and our relationship demands more than impartiality admits. It is not defective to be kinder to friends than to strangers, quite the contrary, and this is where some caution about increasing connectedness comes in.

Special bonds are essential to a good life and, if one eliminates ‘distance’ between ‘us’ and ‘other’, then we lose this essential part of life. Good parents should care more for their children than for someone else’s, for example. Nobody here is seriously suggesting total(itarian) impartiality. Yet, calls to significantly decrease social distance are hardly uncommon and, in their various guises, are met with much resistance often manifested in xenophobia or jingoism. However, these ugly manifestations might hide some important truths which might trouble the social connectedness case.

The first is psychological resistance to denying that essential partialism of relationships, the second is that greater social connectedness is not necessary: benevolent people are disposed to give their time, effort, and money to those in need. One might give more (and more gladly!) to those one is closer to, but benevolence demands that the needs of those others are acknowledged too. Being wholly selfish, our social connectedness obviously wouldn’t matter; but, if I am altruistic, I will be more broadly giving. Benevolence directs us to how we ought to respond to the needs of others of varying standing while, importantly, not denying the validity of that variation in standing.

The case for altruism can well admit that our bonds with others are undernourished—perhaps we are inappropriately distanced from the ‘global poor’ or non-human animals (there are reasons to think that is the case at least in a limited sense)—but fostering altruism is more important and desirable. However, perhaps this view fails to appreciate another way in which we can stand in relation to others. This other way could well be central to climate ethics and, thus, favour a social connectedness approach. 

A case for connectedness

The connectedness approach requires you to consider your relationship with individuals. You use that relationship to determine whether you should give to them and, if so, how much. This initially paints a pretty bleak picture for the prospects of climate-related giving; I have not met many of the people who will first experience the more extreme impacts of climate change. Given that I have not met them, I cannot name them, I have not been to their countries, I am aware of their existence in the same way I am aware that there are other galaxies which I have not seen; my relationship to them appears to be as non-existent as a relationship can be between two individuals. The set of people who are most vulnerable to climate change are the set of people who are so far away that the connectedness approach would be too demanding to apply.  

If it were true that I did not have a connection to those who are vulnerable to climate change, the above would be true. Yet this is not the case. Each of our carbon emissions has contributed to the threat of climate change; the nation and society with which I feel connected are one of the biggest emitters in the world; I engage with and implicitly support through my actions industries that have harmful carbon footprints . I do stand in relation to those who will suffer impacts from climate change, for my life and activities have played a part in the climate change story.

The connectedness approach explains that a degree of our giving can be accounted for by how connected we feel to others. In the case of climate change, it seems that we fail to appreciate the way in which we are connected to others. Yet this is no reason to abandon the connectedness approach, instead, it highlights the importance of successfully raising awareness of the connections which exist between us and those who stand to first experience the impacts of climate change. We need to make it clear how we are truly connected to those who will experience the impacts of climate change first. 

One of the concerns with the argument from altruism is that altruistic giving is an act of benevolence; it is an act of charity. Suppose people understand their giving in the case of climate change in this way. In that case, they seem to miss something fundamental about the nature of climate ethics. They have a duty to help others who face climate change harms, which is a stronger duty than that of charity or benevolence. Acts of charity do not require a connection at all. Yet, the fact we are connected to those who suffer from climate change means that it is a mistake to think of giving to them as acts of charity. It is the difference between, thinking you do someone a favour by driving them to the hospital after accidentally breaking their leg, as opposed to driving them to the hospital because it is your duty to do so after accidentally breaking their leg. It would be a mistake to think that it is an act of charity to drive someone to hospital after breaking their leg, just as it is a mistake to think it is an act of charity to help those who will suffer from climate change.


There are plenty of reasons to see both increasing altruism and connectedness as morally desirable strategies for encouraging climate giving, and giving in general. Yet, there is also a clear and obvious sense in which either of these strategies succeeding is desirable; we have good pragmatic reasons to avert climate disasters. The challenge before us is to determine how much weight we should give to the moral questions posed by the means and how much we can afford to when facing the preeminent catastrophic threat of the 21st century.

Altruism and connectedness are explored as ways of understanding giving behaviour, in general, in Matthew Robson’s recent publication: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jabot.2020.12.029

Who should pay for climate change? The Beneficiary Pays Principle

In the last blog, we considered the question of who should pay for the cost of responding to climate change? We evaluated the polluter pays principle as a possible answer to this question. Despite the intuitive appeal of the polluter pays principles, it seemed concerning in two ways. Firstly many polluters are now dead. To capture the emission by dead people, we need to hold a different type of agent responsible for climate change harms, such as states. Secondly, it seemed willing to hold agents accountable for their emissions even when they were ignorant of the impact they have.

In this post, we shall consider a different answer to the question of who should pay for the cost of tackling climate change? Those who have benefitted from these emissions, known as the beneficiary pays principle. This means those who benefit from acts/policy, which requires the use of emissions should pay. Note the difference between this and the polluters pays principle. The beneficiary pays principle has no interest in whether you emit or how much you have emitted. It is merely interested in whether you have benefited from emissions, be they your emissions others.

This principle offers answers to some of the concerns with the polluter pays principle. If those of us alive today benefit from a sufficient quantity of emissions, then we have no need to concern ourselves with trying to get dead people to pay part of the bill. This is an appealing advantage over the polluters pay principle. While the polluter pays principle invites us to seek dead polluters, we may not need to seek deceased beneficiaries.

Does the beneficiary pays principle hold ignorant actors to account? Yes, if you have benefited from emissions, you have a share of the bill to pay. Your share of the bill is not contingent upon any knowledge. But if the beneficiary pays principle holds ignorant agents to account does that mean it is no better than the polluter pays principle? Not necessarily, whilst both of them are willing to hold ignorant actors responsible for the bill, they do diverge when we consider who these actors may be. The polluter pays principle will hold an actor responsible if they pollute, and the beneficiary pays principle holds an actor responsible if they benefit from emissions. The question becomes, are we more comfortable with giving the bill to a set of these actors even if there is some ignorance?

One may think that to enjoy benefits, one should be prepared to pay the costs associated with those benefits. One concern is that the beneficiary pays principle invites counter-intuitive answers to who should pay the bill. For example, it is possible that a state or individual has benefitted significantly from emission but lost the wealth they gained from this benefit. For example, a state may have carbon-intensive history fuelled by coal, yet be subject to poor economic management. The state in question has historically benefited from carbon emissions. Yet, the benefits from carbon have already been squandered. Should this state pay the bill for all the emissions they benefitted from? We may hold the view that it is odd to ask a state or individual to pay a bill if they lack the wealth to do so.

To summaries, the beneficiary pays principle proposes that those who benefit from emissions should bear the bill of climate action. This is based on a simple idea: if you are happy to receive the benefits from an action, you should be willing to bear the costs associated with it. As we have seen, this can invite some puzzling conclusions, such as asking those who have benefited but lack the wealth to pay part of the climate bill. Moreover, the principle is willing to hold ignorant actors responsible for the bill of climate action. While neither of these concerns is necessarily fatal to the principle, they invite us to pause before embracing it.

Who should pay for the cost of responding to climate change? The Polluter Pays Principle

By Joshua Wells

Who should pay to mitigate climate change? This answer to this question may seem obvious. Surely it is the high emitting developed nations of the world. There are many reasons why the highest emitting developed countries should pay. We’re going to explore one prominent reason, the polluter pays principle.

The polluter pays principle is simply the idea that those agents who pollute should pay to address climate change. This idea appeals to common sense morality, the intuition we hold that if you break something, you have a responsibility to fix it. A set of agents are responsible for the problem of climate change. Therefore that set of agents has a duty to bear the burden of addressing climate change. This makes sense, right?

Yes, well at least it does at first glance, but if we look more closely at the above understanding of the polluter pays principle, we can see difficulties emerge. Greenhouse gas emissions rapidly grow when the industrial revolution starts. Suppose this is the appropriate point to say that humanity starts contributing to climate change. In that case, we face the problem that many of the polluters are now dead. We simply cannot capture all significant polluters because these polluting activities occurring decades and centuries ago.

Ah ok, but we can respond to this surely? The above objection considers individual agents to be the appropriate unit of concern. But we could adopt a different unit of agency, such as the state level of agency. If we think of the bill being paid by a state such as the UK, then it doesn’t matter that individual agents in the UK have emitted and died, because the UK itself exists in a recognisable form for centuries. Despite this not being true of all states, I am going to put further questions of state agency to one-side.

Does that mean we have we pinned the tail on the polluters? Not yet, states can observe that many of those emissions were innocent. Innocent in the sense that they had no idea of their harmful impact. Innocent in the sense that it would be unreasonable for most of this time to expect states to have knowledge of the effects of their emissions. And this innocence matters. When holding an agent responsible for an action, if they have no idea and cannot be reasonably expected to know the result of their action, we see this action differently.

Ok, but! States are not innocent anymore and haven’t been innocent for a long time. It is not plausible for states to claim to be unaware of the impacts form there emissions since 1990. If we consider post-1990 emissions, then the polluters pay principle has a much easier time of holding states responsible for the bill of addressing climate change. But this alone is unsatisfactory, for we do not have a clear understanding of why states are paying for the harm of their pre-1990 emissions. Remember the reasons why we are thinking about this principle is that we want to make sense of why certain states should pay to address climate change? It looks like the polluters pays principle won’t do this… unless we are happy to hold an agent responsible for innocent actions.

This is just a light sketch of the Polluter Pays principle and concerns with it. And there are further question to explore, perhaps it does make sense to hold agents responsible for innocent actions, as long as we do slip from responsibility to punishment. Henry Shue, in this context, argues that holding an innocent agent responsible is permissible, the mistake would be to think that their responsibility invites retribution.

In next week’s post, we will consider the beneficiary pays principle as an alternative account of who should pay for responses to climate change.

There is an extensive literature on the polluter pays principle, if you wish to know more about it I suggest Global Environment and International Inequality by Henry Shue as a good starting point.

What’s the point of being ambitious? Isn’t it too late?

In light of the last blog on Biden and the Paris Agreement which highlighted the importance of how ambitious Biden is on climate change, a friend asked me, is it too late? Are we too late to tackle climate change? This is a really important and somewhat confusing question, a lot seems to hang on it. If we are really too late then why would we concern ourselves with climate change policy? In answering my friend’s question, my mind moved between yes, no, maybe, it depends at an unpleasant speed. I shall try to make sense of this question and say why we are late, but not too late.

The answer to this question seems to hinge on how too late is understood. We could understand too late to mean, are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes, we are already witnessing harms from climate change, such as increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, we cannot prevent these weather events.  

Well, what is the point of mitigation efforts if we are already experiencing harms from climate change? The severity of these harms are affected by our mitigation efforts. We do not mitigate to prevent all harms from climate change, we know we are too late for that, but we can still reduce the severity of and prevent some harms via mitigation and adaptation activities. This is why international agreements on climate change set targets of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees. This is to prevent the devastating impacts of a world in which there are more than 2 degrees of warming, such as sea level rising and removing countries from the map of the world.

 When trying to make sense of why we should be performing mitigation efforts despite the fact that harms from climate change will still occur, one is reminded of this Sirius Black quote, just substitute the threat of evil wizard (Voldemort) for climate change, “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard that ever existed [climate change]?” said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. “Only innocent lives, Peter!” Innocent lives, protecting them is exactly what we stand to gain from mitigation efforts.

It is an unfortunate fact that whilst we continue to emit carbon, we are committing the future to more significant harms. Whilst we are not too late to prevent some of these, each year we keep emitting we commit the future to greater harms. So whilst there is a set of harms which is not too late to prevent, this set of preventable harms gets smaller and smaller as time and emissions go on. Whilst we may not be too late to avoid these harms, action now is essential in order to do so. 

Are we too late to prevent harms from climate change? Yes. Does this mean we should not do anything about climate change? No. Our actions now in regards to climate change will be informative of the severity and extent of these harms. Protecting innocent lives; we owe it to those who will be subject to these harms to do what we can to minimise the impact of climate change. This is why ambitious climate change policy matters.

Biden for Paris! What does a Biden presidency mean for the Paris Agreement?

Joe Biden may become the president-elect of the United States of America tomorrow. The US is the country with the highest historic emissions, the second-highest carbon emissions in the world right now, and a country whose withdrawal from the Paris Agreement happens tomorrow. The Paris agreement being the global agreement to address climate change. Biden wants the US to re-join this agreement. If he becomes president, what does this mean for prospects of addressing climate change?

The first question to ask is, can Biden bring the US back into the Paris Agreement? Yes, all he needs to do is write a letter to the United Nations General Secretary, and the US are back in the agreement in 30 days. If Biden wins the election he will become president on January the 20th, if he were to sign and send this letter promptly, the US could be back in the agreement by late February.

Joining Paris is easy, the much more interesting question is how ambitious Biden will be? Each country sets its own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris agreement, which states how much it will cut its carbon emissions by. By setting the NDC for the US Biden will be indicating what he thinks he can achieve domestically on climate change, and what role he wants the US to play in tackling climate change.

If he sets an ambitious target this would indicate that he wants the US to play a lead role in tackling climate change and in the Paris Agreement, an unambitious target would imply that he just wants the US to have a seat at the table. There is still something valuable about the US having a seat at the table, climate change is a global problem and requires a global response. By re-joining Biden is righting the wrong which is the world’s largest historic emitter not cooperating with other countries to address the problem of climate change. Although others have tried to right that wrong some US cities and universities have taken independent action to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement.

If Biden wins, the US will re-join the Paris Agreement, yet this is not the end, we need to see how ambitious Biden and America want to be. The best-case scenario is one where the US does try to achieve leadership in Paris via ambition and meaningful action, resulting in a well-spirited race with other countries to reduce their carbon emissions. A bad scenario is that the US joins, is not ambitious and undermines confidence in the agreement by failing to achieve its unambitious target. A worse scenario is likely if Biden does not become president, the harm of Trump getting a second term for climate change policy is hopefully a prospect which we will not need to consider.