Why Geoengineering is not Plan B

In Christopher J. Preston (ed.), Climate Justice and Geoengineering: Ethics and Policy in the Atmospheric Anthropocene. Rowman & Littlefield International. pp. 15-32 (2016)
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Abstract

Geoengineering – roughly “the intentional manipulation of the planetary systems at a global scale” (Keith 2000) – to combat climate change is often introduced as a “plan B”: an alternative solution in case “plan A”, reducing emissions, fails. This framing is typically deployed as part of an argument that research and development is necessary in case robust conventional mitigation is not forthcoming, or proves insufficient to prevent dangerous climate impacts. Since coming to prominence with the release of the Royal Society report in 2009 (Shepherd et al. 2009, v), the Plan B framing has proved popular with scientists, in policy circles, and in the news media (see Nerlich and Jaspal 2012; Luokkanen, Huttunen, and Hilden 2014). Though sometimes used to refer to geoengineering as a whole, it is associated particularly strongly with stratospheric sulfate injection (SSI) techniques. Consequently, these will be our focus here. We argue that the plan B framing is particularly ill-suited to the integrative assessment of options within climate policy, because it oversimplifies a complex issue in a misleading and deceptive way. For instance, it highlights extreme positions, presents SSI as an alternative independent from mainstream policies, ignores the multiplicity of options available, and neglects threats of morally indecent SSI in a context of ongoing political inertia. We are particularly concerned about the way ‘Plan B’ risks conveying an implicit hyper-optimism about SSI, and so obscures the need for ethical standards.

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Stephen M. Gardiner
University of Washington
Augustin Fragnière
University of Washington

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