You Say “Solution,” I Say “Pollution”
Ocean Fertilization is a Fishy Solution to a Whale of a Problem
Whatever it was that inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s older brother, Bernard, to shoot rockets filled with silver iodide into cumulus clouds in order to compel rainfall over thirsty farmland, it was likely nowhere near as menacing as the threat of anthropogenic climate change. Vonnegut’s research was probably motivated by considerably more mundane concerns—a simple fascination with the inner-workings of weather systems, the promise of extraordinary profit, or a megalomaniacal orientation toward domination of the universe. I doubt the latter, but it’s hard to dismiss it as a possibility.
The young Bernard could little have imagined that his early experiments in cloud seeding were laying the groundwork for a far more ambitious project to affect not just the weather, but to radically reshape the earth’s climate. Earlier this summer scientists and policymakers gathered at a National Academy of Sciences meeting to discuss a suite of options and technical solutions to the climate problem. One of those options was ocean fertilization, a geoengineering technology aimed at grabbing the climate reins from their feckless trajectory and steering atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations back down to historical levels.
There are many compelling scientific arguments both for and against geoengineering via ocean fertilization, which is probably why it was discussed in earnest at the National Academy of Sciences. But even if our best science indicates that ocean fertilization will succeed, there are clear ethical reasons to rule it out, as it can never meet with the scrutiny that most of us take to be emblematic of justified, right action.
Enticing though this gamble may be, focusing strictly on risk to the oceans and the planet is shortsighted.
The proposal, first advanced in the 1980s by Woods Hole oceanographer John Martin, is to dump several tankers of iron filings into the sea in order to manufacture a mid-ocean algae bloom. Researchers project that such an algae bloom might then suck carbon out of the atmosphere, much like a ShamWow® sucks soda from the moldy underbelly of your basement carpet. All of this sounds mighty enticing when you consider the unpleasant climatological upheaval that is slowly unfolding and that will fundamentally change the world in which our children live. On the other hand, given the complexity of ocean ecosystems and humanity’s reasonably embarrassing failure rate with ambitious engineering projects—the Panama Canal mosquito eradication project, the Everglades restoration project, the Project Stormfury attempt to weaken tropical cyclones by seeding them with silver iodide, to name just a few such failures—there’s plenty of reason to worry that tinkering with nature in this way may be ill-advised.
Rainmakers like Vonnegut were mere redistributive Robin Hoods, stealing rain from the rich and giving it to the poor. But the latter-day heirs to such research propose no simple redistributive deckchair shuffling. They aim to fix one mess not by straightforwardly cleaning it up, but by introducing another mess. In doing so, they threaten either to sink or to save our ship. Fertilizing the oceans runs a real risk that the citizens of this planet could fall victim to the same fate that eventually nailed the old lady who swallowed a fly: we could get caught up in an endless chain of curatives, repairing one problem only to introduce another. But that’s only if we blow it. If we get the science right, we could break the chain. We might have at our fingertips a relatively cheap way of reversing the atmospheric concentrations of carbon that the past hundred years of industrialized recklessness have left hanging over our heads.
Enticing though this gamble may be, focusing strictly on risk to the oceans and the planet is shortsighted. In a recent paper that I co-authored with my colleague Lisa Dilling, we pointed out that most of the arguments against ocean fertilization only paint half the picture: by focusing so strongly on risk, they underemphasize the extent to which rights and respect are in play. Their shortcomings stem from their openness to the possibility that getting the science right means that the technology is a “go.”
Sure, risk is a major concern with these technologies. We should all be worried about the implications of our actions, about the risks of destroying, or at least dramatically altering, the oceans and the climate. If ocean fertilization will create a scenario in which the oceans become uninhabitable to most fish and wildlife, this is clearly an unacceptable outcome and we ought not to proceed. But the science is unclear on this outcome, and there is strong evidence to suggest that we can fertilize the oceans without making a mess of things.
We argued instead that even if ocean fertilization were to yield a far more palatable outcome—say, perhaps, by producing enough algae to generate a banner fish harvest, thereby not only reversing climate change, but also feeding the world’s hungry—there are still strong ethical reasons not to use it as a method for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
Consider, for starters, how slippery the term “pollution” is. It depends on your perspective whether it should be considered pollution at all. To most farmers, for instance, increased organic compounds are a gift from the gods, dramatically improving crop growth and foliage. Too many of these compounds however, and uh-oh, the crops die. In one case they’re essential; in the other, they’re a pollutant. The reason for this terminological slipperiness is that pollution is typically framed in terms of harms and benefits, making its categorization entirely contingent upon whether the affected party will be made better or worse off. Carbon dioxide is the same way: essential to plant life, but when enormous concentrations of it invade the atmosphere, it has the undesired effects that we are witnessing now.
Problem is, we don’t really know how welcome these harms and/or benefits will be. One farmer may need more of one compound for some future undisclosed project; another may need less. It is presumptuous and morally suspect to make assumptions about the extent to which those harms and benefits are really what is good or right for them. Moreover, it is flat wrong to assume that just because a particular action may confer overall benefits, that therefore that action is ethically permissible.
Consider: If I wake from knee surgery to a smiling surgeon who enthusiastically informs me that—“While you were asleep, we went ahead and added a pacemaker to your heart, just to be on the safe side”—I might have great reason to feel that I have been wronged, even if the pacemaker is 100 percent safe, and even if I am physically better off. Or consider this: If I return from vacation to learn that my neighbors—college students—have repaired the walls and furniture in my house, perhaps after they and 100 friends of theirs have had a raucous party during which my property was damaged, I may again feel wronged. Perhaps my neighbors have made me better off than I was before, maybe even by making improvements to my property. One would think I’d be grateful for such free labor. But there is a strong sense in which I would feel that they have heaped one wrong on top of another.
What makes an action right is not just whether that action makes the world better, but also whether those affected can agree to having their world made better by others. If my house was trashed due to this party, perhaps there are other remedies that I would like to explore that would be more appropriate for me, my family, and my property. If my neighbors take the initiative to repair my belongings without consulting me, they usurp my control over these possibilities, and in doing so, disrespect me and violate my right to do otherwise. They suddenly bear the responsibility for having changed something in my house that may have been reversible in another, more palatable way.
Just so with many geoengineering technologies: even though ocean fertilization might in fact make the world better, we need to ensure that the people who will be affected by these improvements could all agree to them. If, say, this giant algae bloom generates enough food to spark wonderfully delicious and nutritious new fisheries, that may be very good for the world, insofar as it may yield extraordinary benefits; but there are still strong rights- and respect-related ethical objections to aquaforming our oceans in this way.
What it would take for ocean fertilization to be justified, it seems to me, is that all affected parties, including non-human populations of animals and plants, could or would assent to allowing such a thing. This is a pretty tall order in the case of ocean fertilization, since the number of affected beings, human and non-, just about fills the set of all existing living things. We’re talking about engineering the climate, after all. We’re not just removing rain from one bucket and putting it in another.
It is my view that such a requirement is inordinately steep—so steep as to make such technical fixes ethically impermissible, particularly when there are other options available to us. Far better, for instance, would be to reduce our emissions, to find non-polluting energy sources, and/or to remove carbon and other greenhouse gasses through reversible means, like air capture or other secure sequestration methods. These projects have a much lower threshold of justification. The smaller the scale of a project, the fewer number of affected parties, and therefore, the fewer channels through which the project stands to trample the rights of those affected.
Perhaps you object. Maybe you think that we’ve already altered the climate such that many humans and non-humans will be affected by climate change against their wills. Most of those affected couldn’t or wouldn’t (or at least, didn’t) assent to the current changes that we’re experiencing now. Maybe because of this, we should be less concerned about what future generations can assent to and instead just focus on digging ourselves out of this hole. This is all compelling. But the way in which humans have altered the climate has been willy-nilly. It hasn’t been deliberate. Billions of people have acted independently, according to their own interests, to force the climate away from stability. Anthropogenic climate change is a colossal tragedy of the commons, a major failure of governance. We can’t point the finger at any one individual, or even at any very large group of individuals, and say that they’ve done something impermissible or disrespectful.
By contrast, geoengineering is very deliberate. For us to move forward with a technology that will orchestrate and steer our climate away from this tragedy, to a—fingers crossed—better outcome, is not simply for us to act on our planet, but to react—to react to the negative impacts of an uncoordinated and chaotic multitude. It is to accept the tragic transformation of the climate and to patch it over with a collective curative. It is to inject climate change with our collective culpability. Whatever happens after that point, after we have dramatically altered the flora, fauna, and chemical composition of our oceans, we will collectively be to blame.
If we move forward with projects to geoengineer the climate away from the mistakes of our predecessors, then the engineers of such a mammoth project will have to accept responsibility for the outcome. They (we) as a collective will be to blame. They (we) as a collective will have to own up to it. They (we) as a collective will really have to apologize to our children if we trash the earth for good. I think that’s unacceptable. We need to do something about climate change, yes; but we need to do something that only reverses what we’ve done, not that puts us on an uncharted climate path, forever lashing our collective responsibility to a policy that cannot possibly meet with the agreement, hypothetical or actual, of the billions that it will affect.
Benjamin Hale is assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, resident faculty at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, and affiliated faculty at the Center for Values and Social Policy.
Comments on this article