Geoengineering and Non-Ideal Theory
by David Morrow and Toby Svoboda
Some acts are beyond the pale: they ought never to be done, except perhaps
in the most dire emergencies. Other acts are wrong in a less stringent sense:
they would never be done in an ideal world, but might be permissible in nonideal
circumstances. Deliberate, large-scale modifications of earth systems to
counteract or reduce the effects of climate change, known as geoengineering or
climate engineering, arguably belong to one of these two types—but which one?
Philosophers have argued that geoengineering faces diverse ethical challenges.
Yet, advocates of geoengineering research insist that geoengineering might someday
be "necessary." One way to construe the research advocates' argument is as
a warning that we might need geoengineering to cope with a climate emergency
so momentous that ordinary moral constraints do not apply; even if geoengineering
truly is "beyond the pale," this argument goes, we may need it to prevent the
heavens from falling, as it were. A second way to construe the argument is as an
implicit appeal to what political philosophers call "non-ideal theory," which is
that part of the theory of justice that tells us what we ought to do in non-ideal circumstances.
On this version of the argument, less-than-dire circumstances might
permit or even require society to deploy geoengineering, even if no one would
deploy it in an ideal world. These two arguments have very different implications
for the ethics of geoengineering and geoengineering research.