Geoengineering and Non-Ideal Theory

Public Affairs Quarterly 30 (1):85-104 (2016)
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The strongest arguments for the permissibility of geoengineering (also known as climate engineering) rely implicitly on non-ideal theory—roughly, the theory of justice as applied to situations of partial compliance with principles of ideal justice. In an ideally just world, such arguments acknowledge, humanity should not deploy geoengineering; but in our imperfect world, society may need to complement mitigation and adaptation with geoengineering to reduce injustices associated with anthropogenic climate change. We interpret research proponents’ arguments as an application of a particular branch of non-ideal theory known as “clinical theory.” Clinical theory aims to identify politically feasible institutions or policies that would address existing (or impending) injustice without violating certain kinds of moral permissibility constraints. We argue for three implications of clinical theory: First, conditional on falling costs and feasibility, clinical theory provides strong support for some geoengineering techniques that aim to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Second, if some kinds of carbon dioxide removal technologies are supported by clinical theory, then clinical theory further supports using those technologies to enable “overshoot” scenarios in which developing countries exceed the cumulative emissions caps that would apply in ideal circumstances. Third, because of tensions between political feasibility and moral permissibility, clinical theory provides only weak support for geoengineering techniques that aim to manage incoming solar radiation.
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