I am wrapping up the much improved version of “We need to talk about this“. There is now a chapter on euthanasia, for instance, with a discussion of the Groningen Protocol.
I didn’t write this book to convince you that my views are the right ones, even though I hope you will agree with many of them. I wrote this book to encourage as many people as possible to develop their own opinions in these areas, to go beyond impassioned exclamations like “this is so wrong” or “this is very good” and to make their opinions known to their governments and academics, and to discuss these issues with their friends, relatives and colleagues. Continue reading →
The prospect of engineering the world’s climate system to tackle global warming is becoming more and more likely. This may seem like a crazy idea but I, and over 250 other scientists, policy makers and stakeholders from around the globe recently descended on Berlin to debate the promises and perils of geoengineering.
There are many touted methods of engineering the climate. Early, outlandish ideas included installing a ‘space sunshade”: a massive mirror orbiting the Earth to reflect sunlight. The ideas most in discussion now may not seem much more realistic – spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, or fertilising the oceans with iron to encourage algal growth and carbon dioxide sequestration through photosynthesis.
But the prospect of geoengineering has become a lot more real since the Paris Agreement. The 2015 Paris Agreement set out near universal, legally binding commitments to keep the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and even to aim for limiting the rise to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that meeting these targets is possible – but nearly all of their scenarios rely on the extensive deployment of some form of geoengineering by the end of the century.
How to engineer the climate
Geoengineering comes in two distinct flavours. The first is greenhouse gas removal: those ideas that would seek to remove and store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The second is solar radiation management: the ideas that would seek to reflect a level of sunlight away from the Earth.
Solar radiation management is the more controversial of the two, doing nothing to address the root cause of climate change – greenhouse gas emissions – and raising a whole load of concerns about undesirable side effects, such as changes to regional weather patterns.
And then there is the so-called “termination problem”. If we ever stopped engineering the climate in this way then global temperature would abruptly bounce back to where it would have been without it. And if we had not been reducing or removing emissions at the same time, this could be a very sharp and sudden rise indeed.
Most climate models that see the ambitions of the Paris Agreement achieved assume the use of greenhouse gas removal, particularly bio-energy coupled with carbon capture and storage technology. But, as the recent conference revealed, although research in the field is steadily gaining ground, there is also a dangerous gap between its current state of the art and the achievability of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The Paris Agreement – and its implicit dependence on greenhouse gas removal – has undoubtedly been one of the most significant developments to impact on the field of geoengineering since the last conference of its kind back in 2014. This shifted the emphasis of the conference away from the more controversial and attention-grabbing solar radiation management and towards the more mundane but policy relevant greenhouse gas removal.
But there were moments when sunlight reflecting methods still stole the show. A centrepiece of the conference was the solar radiation management experiments campfire, where David Keith and his colleagues from the Harvard University Solar Geoengineering Research Programme laid out their experimental plans. They aim to lift an instrument package to a height of 20km using a high-altitude balloon and release a small amount of reflective particles into the atmosphere.
This would not be the first geoengineering experiment. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have already begun experimenting with various ideas, several of which have attracted a great degree of public interest and controversy. A particularly notable case was one UK project, in which plans to release a small amount of water into the atmosphere at a height of 1km using a pipe tethered to a balloon were cancelled in 2013 owing to concerns over intellectual property.
Such experiments will be essential if geoengineering ideas are to ever become technically viable contributors to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. But it is the governance of experiments, not their technical credentials, that has always been and still remains the most contentious area of the geoengineering debate.
Critics warned that the Harvard experiment could be the first step on a “slippery slope” towards an undesirable deployment and therefore must be restrained. But advocates argued that the technology needs to be developed before we can know what it is that we are trying to govern.
The challenge for governance is not to back either one of these extremes, but rather to navigate a responsible path between them.
How to govern?
The key to defining a responsible way to govern geoengineering experiments is accounting for public interests and concerns. Would-be geoengineering experimenters, including those at Harvard, routinely try to account for these concerns by appealing to their experiments being of a small scale and a limited extent. But, as I argued in the conference, in public discussions on the scale and extent of geoengineering experiments their meaning has been subjective and always qualified by other concerns.
My colleagues and I have found that the public have at least four principal concerns about geoengineering experiments: their level of containment; uncertainty around what the outcomes would be; the reversibility of any impacts, and the intent behind them. A small scale experiment unfolding indoors might therefore be deemed unacceptable if it raised concerns about private interests, for example. On the other hand, a large scale experiment conducted outdoors could be deemed acceptable if it did not release materials into the open environment.
Under certain conditions the four dimensions could be aligned. The challenge for governance is to account for these – and likely other – dimensions of perceived controllability. This means that public involvement in the design of governance itself needs to be front and centre in the development of geoengineering experiments.
A whole range of two-way dialogue methods are available – focus groups, citizens juries, deliberative workshops and many others. And to those outside of formal involvement in such processes – read about geoengineering, talk about geoengineering. We need to start a society-wide conversation on how to govern such controversial technologies.
Public interests and concerns need to be drawn out well in advance of an experiment and the results used to meaningfully shape how we govern it. This will not only make the the experiment more legitimate, but also make it substantively better.
Make no mistake, experiments will be needed if we are to learn the worth of geoengineering ideas. But they must be done with public values at their core.
I ran into a discussion on Kialo, to which I quickly contributed the first paragraph below and penned what I have added below, all within about five minutes. I later edited it a bit, to make it easier to read.
I am so pleased someone started this discussion. I promote non-discrimination of embryos and fetuses. A child is not a consumer product but a human being who must be loved and encouraged to flourish. How can you love one child but not another if the latter is non-mainstream? I’ve been thinking about that and it’s made me wonder if it actually means that the parents aren’t fit to be parents. I haven’t dared say that out loud yet, but this discussion clears the road for me.
So yes, maybe parents-to-be should require vetting.
Within a few decades, we will no longer require sex to create babies, but will make our offspring in the lab, possibly on the basis of skin cells from each of the parents. We’ll probably look after our little gestating (incubating) children as if they are rare orchids that we want to bring to bloom.
(So by that time, women will no longer have a need for abortions and they won’t have to menstruate and experience PMS any longer either.)
I can imagine very well that you will require a license in the future in order to have a child. Somehow, that feels like an automatic consequence of the possibilities we will have then.
And also, indeed, why should adoptive parents be scrutinized but are natural parents free to do whatever they want?
And after all, in that distant future, anyone who wants can probably have a child (technically speaking). Even adoption may slowly become a thing of the past, that is, if we get to the point that we no longer succumb to illnesses and accidents and maybe even can choose when our lives end.
I hasten to add that at the moment, natural parents are not always free to do as they please either, of course. For example, in countries with a great deal of inequality, the state may step in on the basis of what is no more than prejudice in practice.
Nowadays, some children suffer horribly, either because of their parents or because of someone else. Sometimes before children are removed from their parents and sometimes afterward.
In practice, perhaps it won’t be an actual license but a training program that must be completed with good results. If that training is tough and long enough, that alone will already sort committed parents from parents who aren’t ready for a child.
Would they have to get a license or go through some kind of training program every time they want to have a child? Yes, I think so. Insights change.
It’s even possible that parenting will eventually become a profession.
Unfortunately, Kialo may not work very well with Linux. I was able to post my contribution, but seem unable to comment on other people’s contributions. Maybe it’s part of the learning curve, but I did see the intro video and the comment option mentioned in it simply does not seem to exist for me.
Techniques like gene editing may bring more equality, but can just as easily bring less. Now is the time to make up our minds about the future because we can’t leave this up to a handful of experts who advise the government.
Most of you will have heard about the recent CRISPR-Cas9 breakthrough. On 26 July, scientists in Oregon successfully used the technique to replace a defective piece of DNA with a regular piece of DNA. It concerned a gene with faulty DNA that normally results in heart disease.
This was only one small step, involving fertilized egg cells that were allowed to develop for no more than a few days and weren’t implanted in a womb.
But when techniques like CRISPR become routine, which “defects” are we going to edit out and which ones will we leave intact? And will this be the domain of commercial enterprises who sell their services or should this be part of everyone’s health care?
At the moment, we have the practice that fetuses are tested for certain conditions. To give you an idea of what this means in practice, in 2009, the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in the UK was 92%.
Also, embryos created with IVF are subjected to PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis), which has been around for decades. The use of IVF is rising.
Right now, the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 states that “Persons or embryos that are known to have a gene, chromosome or mitochondrion abnormality involving a significant risk that a person with the abnormality will have or develop: (a) a serious physical or mental disability, (b) a serious illness, or (c) any other serious medical condition, must not be preferred to those that are not known to have such an abnormality.”
Who decides what a serious physical or mental disability, a serious illness, or any other serious medical condition is? In practice, that’s the UK Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority. Currently, embryos with one of 400 conditions such as a genetic form of dwarfism called achondraplasia or Down’s syndrome are never used in IVF in Britain. Deselection of embryos with other conditions is awaiting approval.
Will the same eventually happen when techniques like CRISPR go mainstream?
This may all sound far off right now, but within the next few decades, human procreation is bound to change drastically. It is likely that we will eventually stop using sex to create babies. Instead, we will make all our babies “in the lab” and let the embryo develop in an artificial womb.
There is nothing wrong with that. We’ll get used to it, just like we got used to cars, trains and planes or the fact that women can attend universities now whereas they weren’t allowed to in the not too distant past.
But it will also mean that we’ll be able to do a lot more genetic tweaking. We need to start thinking about these upcoming changes now. What kind of society do we want to see develop? Do we want people to resemble each other more and behave in similar ways?
There are several reasons for not eagerly fixing too many “defects” that lead to viable human beings who live worthwhile lives, other than that groups of people are starting to demand the right not to be “edited out”.
The first is that there are currently several ongoing trends of emancipation. This includes the emancipation of persons with a wide range of conditions who we used to lock up and keep out of society. Deaf people and blind people, people with learning disabilities and so on. This emancipation is leading to accomplishments that we didn’t consider possible only a very short while ago. Particularly people with Down’s syndrome currently keep astonishing us all. Many have jobs now, and some serve as city councillor, become artists or are getting academic degrees.
A second reason is that we don’t know whether we may have a particular need for persons with various conditions such as autism spectrum disorder in the future. It is unlikely that we will continue to communicate the way we do now. Maybe we’ll end up communicating solely via images. We may well discover that those of us who now seem best suited for keeping up in society will fall behind then because they lack certain talents. We need the greatest neurodiversity possible.
A third reason is that lots of so-called impairments are nothing more but hindrances created by society. Better education and continued emancipation will see many of these hurdles disappear.
A fourth reason is that technological progress itself will come up with a wide range of solutions to accommodate everyone. Once more humans start integrating technology into their bodies – we are already seeing some of that – there soon won’t be any remaining limitations for those currently still considered impaired.