Thursday, 19 May 2016

Self defence.

I read an interesting article today. It's here:

and is written by:

Patrick Taylor Smith 150Patrick Taylor Smith, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.  He is writing a book titled “A Leap Into Darkness: Domination and the Normative Structure of International Politics,” and researches climate change and climate engineering. His papers can be found here.

I read it, disagreed with some of it, and thought it would be an interesting exercise to unpick it. I've been careful to avoid ad hominem attacks and, I hope, focussed on the ideas. My comments are in red....
Much of the discussion about the appropriateness or usefulness of geoengineering—particularly dangerous and risky geoengineering strategies [strong bias demonstrated already] like sulfate aerosol injection—has relied upon a shared assumption about who will end up deploying these new tools. That is, we’ve (mostly) assumed that fairly wealthy, high-emitting states, private actors based in those countries, or international institutions dominated by those states will be the ones to finally inject sulfates or fertilize the ocean. This is entirely reasonable [agreed]. Rich and high emitting states have the resources (or contain private agents with the resources) to engage in geoengineering research and, potentially, deployment. Powerful states will have the political wherewithal to either ignore the entreaties of global governance institutions and civil society, or to gain their assent. From a practical perspective, the rich and powerful states are those that are likely to fund the research that would be needed should risky [keeps saying risky, we'll come back to that] geoengineering strategies ever be deployed, and perhaps even if they are not.
Yet, there is something odd, from a normative perspective, about this emphasis. After all, geoengineering is presented as a solution to a problem that has been—to a great extent—created by rich and powerful, high emitting nations. There is something unsavory—or as Stephen Gardiner has put it, morally corrupting—about the idea that rich countries would geoengineer in order to allow them to retain a greater proportion of the benefits they’ve accrued from emitting in the first place [there is a lack of any discussion of alternative outcomes in this discussion - inaction is also an ethical choice and there are scenarios where not acting would be morally bankrupt - the issue here is a tacit rejection of the severity of climate change]. Of course, one can try to justify risky [again] geoengineering as a way of reducing the negative impacts of climate change on the poor, marginalized, and low-emitting. But again, this is an odd argument for those responsible for those impacts to make: “I’ve caused a terrible threat to hang over your head and I’ll remove it through a strategy that is risky [again] for you but more convenient for me.” So, the idea that rich countries could justify risky [again, and this is the serious one of course, as it strongly implies a less risky strategy is available to us] climate strategies by appealing to the protection of the people their policies endanger is problematic. [It is also true that those who want to continue to burn fossil fuels use a similar, much more repugnant version of this argument, citing the need for fossil fuels for development and therefore conventional mitigation harms the Global South].
What can we say if this nation decides to engage in an act of self-defense, protecting its territorial integrity and political autonomy from the actions of more powerful nations?
This kind of worry doesn’t apply if those victims themselves decide to geoengineer. They are simply defending themselves, or so the thought goes. Let’s consider a scenario (borrowed liberally from Oliver Morton in The Planet Remade); imagine a fairly wealthy but low emitting island nation that will suffer catastrophic flooding. Adaptation measures are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. So, what can we say if this nation—that is not responsible for climate change but nonetheless suffering from its ill effects—decides to engage in an act of self-defense, protecting its territorial integrity and political autonomy from the actions of more powerful nations? Consider an analogous case. Suppose that a nation builds a dam which it knows will destroy all of the arable land of a neighboring country. It seems pretty clear that the the flooded state can—assuming that it met all of the conditions of just war—engage in a military action to destroy the dam. In other words, risky [again!] geoengineering could very well be a response to a set of bad consequences that—under different circumstances—would justify going to war. And if something as potentially risky and dangerous as military action could be justified, then it seems hard to deny that similarly risky [again] geoengineering could be as well. [This is a very odd analogy that really requires some thought. The beauty of Oliver's book is that its analogies are so sharp. Firstly, the 'flooded country' must be upstream of the dam? Secondly, destruction of the dam has consequences (confusingly, flooding) that military action against geoengineering would not - any comparison with the termination effect is moot due to the time necessary to build up the risk, surely. I think this presupposes the naive, and roundly rejected, idea of a 'Pinatubo-like release'. This is an accidental straw man argument]
There is something appealing about this scenario. The weak and powerless get to take matters into their own hands and defend themselves from the predations and exploitation of the rich and powerful. Setting aside any contingent issues about proportionality, effectiveness, or necessity, I want to suggest that there nonetheless some problems with thinking about geoengineering this way. Consider two four or five different scenarios.
1.       Accident: I am attacked by a ninja assassin. I defend myself by firing a gun at the assassin, but I miss and the bullet goes through the wall, striking an innocent bystander.
2.       Redirection: I see that a ninja assassin is about to attack me, but I change the number on my apartment so that the assassin attacks my innocent neighbor.  
3.       Massacre: I worry, legitimately, about collateral damage so I hide, hoping someone has called the police. The assassin kills me and is seen doing so by my neighbour. The assassin then kills my neighbour. 
Also, not matter how one feels, for completeness the following scenario should be added:
4.    Murder: I shoot the ninja, missing both bystander and neighbour. I've called this murder deliberately, as it must be that there are consequences in any scenario, even were geoengineering to be deemed "successful".
Finally, this outcome has been explicitly ruled out:
      5. Change of heart: The ninja changes their mind, and everyone renounces violence.
Unfortunately, I think that's probably correct.
While fully working out the difference between the two examples would take a lot more argument than a single blog post, it seems pretty clear to me that Accident is much more easily justified or defended than Redirection. And this is not merely due to risk; after all, I know that firing a gun in an apartment complex is a dangerous thing to do and that changing my address might not actually work. The difference, or so it seems to me, is how I use the death of the innocent bystander. In one case (Redirection), the death is—in some sense—a necessary part of defending myself and in the other (Accident) it seems like a merely contingent feature of the case. In Redirect, I seem to be allying myself with the ninja assassin in order to kill my neighbor. That does not seem to be true in Accident. The conclusion we can draw is that even when there is an uncontroversial and obvious case of self-defense, you are not allowed to do just anything in order to save yourself.
And there, I think is the flaw in the logic, both in this thought experiment and the piece throughout. Not firing the gun comes with inherent risk, not just to those responsible, but also to those who are not. Geoengineering is only ever defined as risky in a context where the risks from inaction are ignored. Intervention is risky, by definition, but the trolley experiments (I agree which are a very useful too in thinking this way) do capture the risk of inaction. The above does not.
Potentially dangerous [ok, they are now potentially dangerous, which is better] geoengineering activities—like iron fertilization or sulfate aerosol injections—will [might] inflict harm on others in the course of saving our island nation. And these people will be disproportionately those who are also suffering and suffering innocently from climate change [it is absolutely true that the least responsible are the most at risk, from both geoengineering and climate change, this doesn't make, ipso facto, geoengineering risky] (note, if you redirected the ninja assassin to kill another ninja assassin that is coming to kill you, that might be okay, but that isn’t the case here). So, is dangerous [again] geoengineering more like Accident or Redirection? I leave it to the reader to make their own judgment, but I want to point out two things. First, it is interesting that the potential permissibility of dangerous geoengineering might ride on a fairly subtle distinction in moral philosophy; trolley problems are not so impractical or useless. Second, I think there is a strong case to be made that dangerous [one more] geoengineering is a redirection (see my commentary in Ethics, Policy, and the Environment for a somewhat longer case)1. The key feature of sulfate injections—for example—is the very mechanisms that make it is so effective as a potential shield also create the negative impacts. The bullet hitting the bystander in Accident plays no role in making the gun a useless tool for defending myself, but the very cooling effects that make SRM useful are also what make it dangerous; they seem very closely linked. [It is hard to imagine SRM not having deleterious effects. However, this is same trap George Monbiot fell into. Risks from SRM must be placed in a context of the effect of climate change. George compares an incorrect analogy for SRM (A) with the current climate (in this case the Sahel, B). A leads to B, which is bad. He really should have looked at post-Pinatubo Sahelian rainfall (C) against a 50 year scenario (D). The answer is not as clear cut]. 
Of course, I could be wrong about that. But the fact that dangerous [last one] geoengineering looks like a redirection of a threat against an innocent population would, if true, seriously undermine any claim that it can be used in self-defense.
I believe that the risks around geoengineering should only be discussed in the context of realistic counterfactuals. If you walked into a doctor's surgery and said 'I've got a cold' and the doctor prescribed cutting your arm off at the elbow with a pen knife without anaesthetic, you'd probably question that judgement. If you’re dying, pinned under a rock in a slot canyon in Utah, slowly dying, cutting your arm of might be the best solution. The problem I have with this piece is just this, the planet has more than just a head cold. 
I do not believe it has been adequately demonstrated SRM is more risky and dangerous than, for example, RCP8.5. In fact, I suspect that is indefensible at the current time. If anyone proves otherwise, that would be a major blow to the legitimacy of SRM geoengineering with stratospheric aerosols as an idea. Threats of military action, for example, around geoengineering are equally valid under RCP8.5, aren't they?


Monday, 2 May 2016

Been away a while

Well, it's been quite a while since I've posted on here. I'm going to write more regularly and, thanks to some encouragement from others, continue to research Climate Engineering. My first foray was pretty tough, incredibly fascinating and terrifying in equal measure and I think I had, for want of a better word, a bit of a hangover after the end of the SPICE project. I should add that I made some great friends during the project, learnt a lot and that I am incredibly proud of the work we did and the decision we made. I'm going to try to write weekly, when I can.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Day 4

Day 4 contained the beginnings of the students towards developing (and presenting) their own research and ideas. The different 'controversies' now have groups of students thinking about them and developing ideas. These will be finessed over time into short, exciting research proposals. The participants of the school also had an opportunity to present research findings in parallel sessions at the end of the day. The talks were stimulating, well presented and produced some interesting early results. Most notable for me was a study on drought in China and the influence of pre-existing pollution on MCB efforts.

I think I have got to the bottom of the issue around detection that has been kicking around the school. The idea goes like this - the climate system is noisy and slow ramps would not, for at least a decade, show any response that is outside of natural variation. The counter argument (I assumed) was to consider paleoclimates, data assimilation etc to reduce the detection lag. It turns out that the real counter argument is that it doesn't matter than you can't attribute, especially given any response is within the noise. I think this is really interesting and points to issues I have with both stances. The first relies too much on models and overhypes risk, the second (I think) shows an absence of consideration of realpolitik. It may not matter scientifically that attribution is impossible, I suspect it matters politically. I need some more time to unpick this, but that's as good a summary as I can distil at the moment.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Day 3

Well, day 3, where do we start? Alan Robock and I were up to bat to talk about outdoor experiments - I am not sure our remit was better fleshed out than that. Controversy was desirable but never really likely given our relative positions - there are things we don't agree on for sure but at our core, for different reasons maybe, are similar values. Actually,  I suspect that is true of most of the school now I think about it.

Anyway, the general consensus was that Alan focused a bit too much on model uncertainty and I focused too much on governance. Others wanted to explore likely experiments (I did approach one) and think about governance once the experiments were detailed. I think that makes sense but it does fill me with unease just to present potential outdoor experiments without some discussion of both environmental and social impact.

One really interesting question posed to me was 'imagine if you had an identical world to manipulate, what experiments would you conduct?'. I was surprised, alarmed and, actually, subsequently relieved that I struggled to answer. The question itself is not hard, 'what do you want to know from experiments?' and I eventually answered, but the construct of the question threw me. Initially I think I felt a little ashamed for not being nimble enough mentally to circumvent the absurdity at the framing but, on reflection, I think it's a function of my change of mindset and one I am comfortable with. The truth is, you cannot decouple impacts on the planet and its people from climate perturbation and, I believe, nor should you. In the end I had to construct a slightly altered framework where the system could be reset without harm (some form of time travel I suppose) where no lasting impacts were felt. The answer I gave is, I think, correct - it is impacts on things you value (water, crops, biodiversity) that need to be at the centre of any investigative effort that would cause a climatological response.

Alan and then David Keith then presented on GeoMIP5 and the hypothetical experimental suite (solicited from a meeting in Harvard) respectively.

On the walk home I wondered about an extension to the trolley problem which I think was derived directly from my unease this morning. What if the current position of the points was somehow your fault (i.e. you had set, or had instructed to be set, the points incorrectly)? Would that make one more likely to intervene in the system, switch the points and reduce, but not eliminate the death toll? (the trolley experiment is described here if you've no idea what I am talking about).


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Day 2

Back on track with my second post. Today (really today) was a new format. There were two sets of 'adversarial' discussions - David Keith and Ulrich Platt on SRM efficacy and Ted Parsons and Alexander Proelss on Governance. Both were illuminating, neither were particularly adversarial. Alexander did have to argue somewhat out of his comfort zone (a principle I am now familiar with) and I think did a very good jobBetter than me, anyway. In one comedy moment David and Uli tried to engender some difference by blindly answering the question 'what proportion of a 10M budget would you spend on investigating new particles?'...both said 10%.

I found the afternoon session an little useful and a lot less structured. I am not sure what the expected outcomes were, but it appeared a bit scattergun. I like light-touch moderation and Timo provided some excellent, stimulating ideas. Maybe the idea of preparing a research proposal is a bit ambitious given the age of the participants. Echoes of the sandpit process were obvious to me, probably not to anyone else. I suspect from that meeting any proposals would be in the Mentors' graven image, and not by their design either. The use of the word mentor troubles me now, as then, given the stated objectives. I am also not convinced labelling and separating (even by choice) the physical scientists and social scientists is a great idea either. It seems counter to the painful lessons learned over the course of SPICE.

Day 1

I feel quite privileged, and a little worried, about being asked to mentor at the 5th Geoengineering Summer School in Heidelberg. It's nice to see some old friends and some fresh new minds (I hope that geoengineering doesn't feel completely normal to the newbies and that I do not in any way normalise it). I am going to write a short post on each day (yes, I am already a day late, thanks for the prompt Anthony Jones), starting with Monday 28th July.

'Today' was a day of introductions, both in terms of people and basic knowledge. The first session was a round-the-room introduction where we were obliged to stand up and introduce ourselves when our photos appeared on screen. I thought it would be great to introduce some humour and settled on 'Hi, my name is Matt Watson and I am an alcoholic', intended as a statement that (a) I found the whole thing a little uncomfortable, (b) a wry nod that some 'geoengineers' keep themselves in the closet somewhat (or at least it is not a particularly fun thing to admit) and (c) an admission that I have found being the SPICE PI a stressful experience. Not completely convinced it was the right thing to do. It was great to see people from other than Europe and the US, with several representatives from Africa.

I found one talk, by David Morrow, particularly interesting. I cannot really quote him as we agreed Chatham House Rules but his talk was very engaging and provided a new philosophical viewpoint of people considering geoengineering, particularly around researchers opinions of the anthropocene and our relationship with nature. In general I am not sure that Chatham House Rules really help here, I agree it does allow for a certain anonymity but I suspect most folks would be happy being attributed, I know I would. It also engenders an air of secrecy which is neither appropriate nor really necessary. I worry it is becoming an habit at meetings like this.

In other news, Pat Mooney feels the heat from chemtrailers for being funded by the Ford Foundation and the CIA (not completely sure if this is true, but it will be interesting to see how ETC group respond) and calling chemtrails an urban myth. Good to see it coming back around...

Friday, 31 January 2014

A new framing

I am at a very interesting meeting (EuTRACE partner meeting - and we are discussing framing. I novel (I think) idea hit me. There are several framings, none of which are ideal. As a general discussion 'CE' is challenging because there are many different techniques that work on varying spatio-temporal scales, with variable costs, impacts and social responses. Is afforestation really appropriate to be lumped in with CE and do they have, for example, the same time moral issues. CDR/SRM is also challenging, for similar reasons (although better if you recategorize ocean fertilization separately) or, as per EuTRACE use three exemplars (I think we've decided on BECCS, SAI and OF). A 'per technique' framing is better, but as the number of techniques and technological imaginaries expands, this becomes a real challenge. My idea is to regroup the techniques by where they act - i.e. land-based, ocean-based and atmospheric. I think this makes for an interesting new framing which I hope to explore over the next few days. It would put roof-whitening with afforestation and biochar, which, instinctively, makes some sense (in terms of scale of impact, level of personal responsibility, justice and governance). I think I need to think about this a bit, but, as always, I am using the blog as brain dump/aide memoir.