Practical Philosophy Seminar: Clare Heyward, "Intent, Nature and the Moral Significance of Climate Change Geoengineering"

Without certain technological innovations, including some technologies frequently regarded as examples of “geoengineering” remaining under the 2°C threshold of “dangerous climate change” is all but impossible. As such, there is increasing interest in the development of certain geoengineering technologies, but also awareness that the development of such technologies is a source of potential moral concern.   One such concern is whether a geoengineering technology is a step too far in “interfering in nature”.  Indeed, some early definitions of “geoengineering” included the idea that a geoengineering intervention was by definition “unnatural” (Schelling 1996).  By contrast, the first piece on the ethics of geoengineering technologies argued that such technologies were permissible insofar as they are exercised in ways that do not transgress the idea of “learning to live with nature” (Jamieson 1996).  A preference for technologies perceived as being more “natural” than others has been expressed in focus group research (NERC 2010), which is arguably an example of the perennial appeal of “the natural” as a rhetorical resource (Rayner and Heyward 2013).

These moral concerns are usually expressed in terms of moral permissibility: that intentional large-scale interventions in natural systems is generally impermissible and that any given geoengineering technology is an example of such an intervention.  However, proponents of such views are sometimes charged with maintaining an implausible divide between humankind and nature, or face a counterargument that due to current circumstances, such interventions are permissible, regardless of whether they are examples of living in accordance with nature (e.g. Preston 2015).              

However, following Thomas Scanlon (2008), questions of permissibility do not exhaust the category of moral questions.  There are also questions of significance, which concern relationships.  Questions of permissibility may interact with questions of significance. In this paper, I use Scanlon’s distinction to explain why many scientists who research into certain geoengineering technologies profess a certain “reluctance” or “ambivalence” about doing so.  More generally, these attitudes are behind concerns about the oncoming of the “Anthropocene”.   


Clare Heyward is professor of philosophy at the University of Tromsø, and has published extensively on the ethics of climate change and climate justice. She is the co-editor of Climate Justice in a Non-ideal World (OUP 2016).

Published Mar. 4, 2019 12:05 PM - Last modified June 26, 2019 10:09 AM