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Ethics and Social Implications of the Environment

desert landscape

Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and more all raise many ethical, philosophical and social questions. What does justice demand in the face of climate change? What do we value in biodiversity? How can we better achieve environmental justice?

New technology and knowledge allow novel possibilities for dealing with some of these problems, from geoengineering the climate to using genetic engineering in conservation. The Institute for Practical Ethics is committed to supporting work tackling these problems. Examples include talks by Andrew Light on climate policy (PDF) and Emma Marris on the future of conservation.

Additionally, affiliated researchers are also actively pursuing work in these areas, including postdoctoral scholar Daniel Callies’ book “Climate Engineering: A Normative Perspective.”

Related Research Publications

“Intentionally Eradicating a Species” by Daniel Callies and Yasha Rohwer in Environmental Ethics (forthcoming).

"On the Horns of a Dilemma: Let the Northern White Rhino Vanish or Intervene?" by Craig Callender in Ethics, Policy & Environment (2021).

Two females, Nadine and Fatu, are the sole surviving Northern White Rhinos (NWR). The subspecies is functionally extinct. Hope for NWR now lies in emerging reproductive and genetic technologies, which could potentially produce NWR from induced pluripotent stem cells. What is the rationale for this project? This question raises almost every philosophical issue facing conservation science today. I argue that NWR recovery is hard to justify via many traditional paths (e.g., historical fidelity, ecosystem health, biodiversity), but if we shift focus to white rhinos in general or even mammals then clear benefits emerge.

"Assessing Climate Policies: Catastrophe Avoidance & the Right to Sustainable Development" by Daniel Callies and Darrel Moellendorf in Politics, Philosophy & Economics (volume 20, issue 2)

With the significant disconnect between the collective aim of limiting warming to well below 2°C and the current means proposed to achieve such an aim, the goal of this paper is to offer a moral assessment of prominent alternatives to current international climate policy.

“When Extinction Is Warranted: Invasive Species, Suppression-Drives and the Worst-Case Scenario” by Ann Thresher in Ethics, Policy & Environment (November 2020)

Most current techniques to deal with invasive species are ineffective or have highly damaging side effects. To this end suppression-drives based on clustered regularly inter-spaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR/Cas9) have been touted as a potential silver bullet for the problem, allowing for a highly focused, humane and cost-effective means of removing a target species from an environment. Suppression-drives come with serious risks, however, such that the precautionary principle seems to warrant us not deploying this technology. The focus of this paper is on one such risk – the danger of a suppression-drive escaping containment and wiping out the target species globally.

“The Slippery Slope Argument against Geoengineering Research” by Daniel Callies in Journal of Applied Philosophy (Volume 36, Issue 4).

With the lack of progress there has been so far on climate change, some have begun researching the potential of geoengineering to allay future climatic harms. However, others contend that such research should be abandoned. One of the most‐cited reasons as to why research into geoengineering should be abandoned is the idea that such research sits at the top of slippery slope. The Slippery Slope Argument warns that even mere research into geoengineering will create institutional momentum, ultimately leading to the deployment of a technology that is untested and perhaps morally objectionable. This article clearly lays out the Slippery Slope Argument against geoengineering research and analyses its premises. I claim that both the empirical premise – that research will inevitably lead to deployment – and the normative premise – that we have decisive moral reasons to avoid deployment – are questionable. The main conclusion of the article is that while we should be cognizant of the potential for research to lead to undesirable deployment scenarios, engaging in research need not necessarily lead inexorably to deployment. While insufficient to ground a moratorium on research, the Slippery Slope Argument points to the need for regulation and oversight in order to prevent undesirable deployment.

“Climate Engineering: A Normative Perspective” by Daniel Callies, published by Lexington Books (2019).

“Climate Engineering: A Normative Perspective” takes as its subject a prospective policy response to the urgent problem of climate change, one previously considered taboo. Climate engineering, the “deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment in order to counteract anthropogenic climate change,” encapsulates a wide array of technological proposals. Daniel Edward Callies here focuses on one proposal currently being researched — stratospheric aerosol injection — which would spray aerosol particles into the upper atmosphere to thus reflect a small portion of incoming sunlight and slightly cool the globe.

“Islands as Laboratories: Indigenous Knowledge and Gene Drives in the Pacific” by Riley Taitingfong in Human Biology (Volume 91, Issue 3).

This article argues that the genetic engineering technology known as gene drive must be evaluated in the context of the historic and ongoing impacts of settler colonialism and military experimentation on indigenous lands and peoples. After defining gene drive and previewing some of the key ethical issues related to its use, the author compares the language used to justify Cold War-era nuclear testing in the Pacific with contemporary scholarship framing islands as ideal test sites for gene drive-modified organisms. In both cases, perceptions of islands as remote and isolated are mobilized to warrant their treatment as sites of experimentation for emerging technologies. Though gene drive may offer valuable interventions into issues affecting island communities (e.g., vector-borne disease and invasive species management), proposals to conduct the first open trials of gene drive on islands are complicit in a long history of injustice that has treated islands (and their residents) as dispensable to the risks and unintended consequences associated with experimentation. This article contends that ethical gene drive research cannot be achieved without the inclusion of indigenous peoples as key stakeholders and provides three recommendations to guide community engagement involving indigenous communities: centering indigenous self-determination, replacing the deficit model of engagement with a truly participatory model, and integrating indigenous knowledge and values in the research and decision-making processes related to gene drive.

“Institutional Legitimacy and Geoengineering Governance” by Daniel Callies in Ethics, Policy & Environment (Volume 21, issue 3).

There is general agreement amongst those involved in the normative discussion about geoengineering that if we are to move forward with significant research, development, and certainly any future deployment, legitimate governance is a must. However, while we agree that the abstract concept of legitimacy ought to guide geoengineering governance, agreement surrounding the appropriate conception of legitimacy has yet to emerge. Relying upon Allen Buchanan’s metacoordination view of institutional legitimacy, this paper puts forward a conception of legitimacy appropriate for geoengineering governance, outlining five normative criteria an institution ought to fulfill if it is to justifiably coordinate our action around geoengineering.

“Solar Geoengineering and Democracy” by Joshua Horton, Jesse Reynolds, Holly Jean Buck and Daniel Callies in Global Environmental Politics (Volume 18, number 3).

Some scientists suggest that it might be possible to reflect a portion of incoming sunlight back into space to reduce climate change and its impacts. Others argue that such solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering is inherently incompatible with democracy. In this article, we reject this incompatibility argument. First, we counter-argue that technologies such as SRM lack innate political characteristics and predetermined social effects, and that democracy need not be deliberative to serve as a standard for governance. We then rebut each of the argument’s core claims, countering that (1) democratic institutions are sufficiently resilient to manage SRM, (2) opting out of governance decisions is not a fundamental democratic right, (3) SRM may not require an undue degree of technocracy, and (4) its implementation may not concentrate power and promote authoritarianism. Although we reject the incompatibility argument, we do not argue that SRM is necessarily, or even likely to be, democratic in practice.

“The Potential for Climate Engineering with Stratospheric Sulfate Aerosol Injections to Reduce Climate Injustice” by Toby Svoboda, Peter Irvine, Daniel Callies and Masa Sugiyama in the Journal of Global Ethics (Volume 14, issue 3).

Climate engineering with stratospheric sulfate aerosol injections (SSAI) has the potential to reduce risks of injustice related to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Relying on evidence from modeling studies, this paper makes the case that SSAI could have the potential to reduce many of the key physical risks of climate change identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such risks carry potential injustice because they are often imposed on low-emitters who do not benefit from climate change. Because SSAI has the potential to reduce those risks, it thereby has the potential to reduce the injustice associated with anthropogenic emissions. While acknowledging important caveats, including uncertainty in modeling studies and the potential for SSAI to carry its own risks of injustice, the paper argues that there is a strong case for continued research into SSAI, especially if attention is paid to how it might be used to reduce emissions-driven injustice.

Top photo cropped from the original: Photo ID 71022. 01/01/1983. Lompoul, Senegal. UN Photo/John Isaac. and