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Ethics of mitigation, adaptation and geoengineering
Henk ten Have
Published online: 5 January 2012
Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
There are currently three ways of attempting to tackle
climate change. The two conventional approaches are
mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is here understood as
involving efforts to cut emissions of global greenhouse
gases. In contrast, adaptation entails measures to minimize
the harmful effects of climate change. Next to these two
traditional approaches, a new method of dealing with cli-
mate change has now entered the limelight, albeit still in an
embryonic stage of technological development: geoengi-
neering. The signatories of the Kyoto Protocol—adopted in
1997 and entered into force in 2005—have agreed to sig-
niﬁcantly reduce anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse
gases. As yet, however, few countries have completely met
their mitigation targets. As a result, there is growing con-
cern that current mitigation efforts might not be adequate
in order to prevent perilous climate change levels.
Unquestionably, actions aimed at reducing the vulnerabil-
ity to dangerous climate change effects, are going to be
indispensable in order to lessen the most detrimental
impacts. However, these adaptation measures are likely to
be very expensive. Against this backdrop, geoengineering
has been advanced as a deliberate and possibly cost-
effective scheme of large-scale management of the plane-
tary climate. All three approaches currently on hand trigger
their own distinct set of ethical issues.
It is increasingly becoming apparent that mitigation
attempts might not be really successful anytime soon. So
far, many rich countries seem to be unwilling or are unable
to carry through radical measures to hold back greenhouse
gas emissions. Surely some of them fear mitigation might
negatively affect economic growth and material welfare.
As a result, many people, especially in the poorest coun-
tries in the world, have experienced and will increasingly
encounter adverse climate change effects on health, both in
terms of morbidity and mortality (Patz et al. 2005 and
McMichael et al. 2006). Kicking the can down the road in
relation to mitigation, however, also means that future
generations will have to bear the brunt of climate change.
This triggers intricate questions of intergenerational justice.
Finally, there is increasing concern about biodiversity
disruption and loss, which might be caused by climate
change as well (Dawson 2011). In short, our lack of success
to curb greenhouse gas emissions seems to be compro-
mising the right to life, liberty and security of person (Art.
3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948), espe-
cially in poorer countries. Our current behaviour also
seems incongruous with our responsibility of ensuring that
the needs and interests of future generations be fully
safeguarded (Art. 1, Declaration on the Responsibilities of
the Present Generations towards Future Generations 1997).
At last, it might turn out to be hard to reconcile with our
obligations with regard to biodiversity conservation (Art. 8
& 9, Convention on Biological Diversity 1992).
At ﬁrst sight the distribution of the burdens and beneﬁts of
anthropogenic climate change seems to be unfair. The
poorest countries, having contributed least to the problem
of global warming, are affected most severely by its
adverse effects. To many this appears to be a signiﬁcant
B. Gordijn (&) H. ten Have
Med Health Care and Philos (2012) 15:1–2
global injustice. As a result there is a broad agreement that
richer countries, having mostly contributed to global
warming, have an obligation to support poorer nations in
their adaptation measures. The precise extent to which
richer countries can be held historically responsible and
accountable for current climate impacts, however, is not
easy to determine. Against this backdrop, intricate debates
are currently emerging about the fairness of distribution of
costs and beneﬁts of prevention and adaptation measures,
the responsibility for compensation for residual damages,
and procedural questions about fair participation in the
related decision processes (Grasso 2010).
Against the backdrop of our seeming inability to effectively
address the problem of global warming by political means,
think tanks, NGOs and policymakers alike are more and
more seriously debating ‘geoengineering’, the deliberate
large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate (see for
example ETC Group 2010; UK House of Commons 2010;
GAO 2011; Umweltbundesamt 2011). ‘Geoengineering’ is a
term for a variety of divergent technologies that are in most
cases still technologically immature. At present, there are
two dominant geoengineering approaches on hand: Carbon
Dioxide Removal and Solar Radiation Management. The
ﬁrst approach endeavors to reduce the concentration of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, e.g. by enhancing the
biological or chemical sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The second method seeks to reﬂect solar radiation, for
example, by injecting aerosols into clouds or by introducing
large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere,
thereby restricting the amount of radiation absorbed by
the Earth’s surface and thus lowering the global mean
Proponents of further development and possible future
deployment of geoengineering claim it might be the only
way to avoid climate catastrophe, if we continue to be
unable to signiﬁcantly cut down greenhouse gas emissions
through bold policy initiatives. However, even if we were
able to achieve success in mitigation in the short term, we
might already have passed certain tipping points. In this
situation, greenhouse gas emissions alone might not sufﬁce
to reverse the change. Thus we might still need geoengi-
neering interventions to prevent disaster. Finally, geoen-
gineering might provide us with much needed extra time
in order to launch effective mitigation and adaptation
Opponents argue that geoengineering might lead to
conﬂicts, a fatal arms race or even the destabilization of the
Earth’s climate. In addition, the ‘technological ﬁx’ does not
address the root cause of anthropogenic global warming
and could subvert any further political mitigation efforts
(‘moral hazard’). Whilst possibly providing an effective
approach to reducing adverse effects of global warming,
geoengineering might thus open up a Pandora’s Box of
new undesirable quandaries.
Global warming and the different approaches of dealing
with it—mitigation, adaptation and geoengineering—prompt
intricate ethical questions to do with global and intergenera-
tional justice and health. Europe has demonstrated climate
policy leadership with regard to mitigation and adaptation. It
will now have to develop a stance toward geoengineering as
well, as will every other country in the world. Because of its
conﬂict potential and dual use character an internationally
coordinated approach seems particularly imperative in
relation to geoengineering. This approach will have to be
informed by solid ethical analysis of the underlying questions.
Against this backdrop, the editors invite more contributions
dealing with issues at the interface of climate change policy,
justice and health. The very ﬁrst paper of the current issue is an
excellent start of a much needed debate (Lacey 2012).
Dawson, T.P. 2011. Beyond predictions: Biodiversity conservation in
a changing climate. Science 332(53): 52–58.
ETC. Group. 2010. Retooling the planet: Climate chaos in the
geoengineering age. Swedish Society for nature conservation.
GAO. 2011. Climate engineering: Technical status, future directions
and potential responses. Report from the Center for Science,
Technology and Engineering, United States Government
Accountability Ofﬁce. GAO-11-71.
Grasso, M. 2010. An ethical approach to climate adaptation ﬁnance.
Global Environmental Change 20(1): 74–81.
Lacey, J. 2012. Climate change and Norman Daniels’ theory of just
health: An essay on basic needs. Medicine, Health Care and
Philosophy (this issue).
McMichael, A.J., R.E. Woodruff, and S. Hales. 2006. Climate change
and human health: Present and future risks. Lancet 367:
Patz, J.A., D. Campbell-Lendrum, T. Holloway, and J.A. Foley. 2005.
Impact of regional climate change on human health. Nature 436:
UK House of Commons. 2010. Science and Technology Committee.
The Regulation of Geoengineering. HC 221, Fifth Report of
Umweltsbundesamt. 2011. Geo-engineering: Wirksamer Klimaschutz
ßenwahn? [Geoengineering: Effective climate protec-
tion or megalomania? Report by the German Federal Environ-
US House of Representatives. 2010. Committee on Science and
Technology. Engineering the climate: research needs and
strategies for international coordination. One hundred eleventh
congress, Second session, October 2010.
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