Should Quakers Support Climate Engineering?

Ethical Decision-Making in Risk Environments

The rise of complex technologies has thrown ethical decision making for a loop. The risk factor implicit in the implementation of many technologies often makes clear-cut ethical decision-making impossible. This situation is well illustrated in the way nuclear power has become an ethically contested energy technology among Friends (see "A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power" by Karen Street, FJ Oct. 2008; letters in the Forum in subsequent issues; an additional article by Karen Street, "The Nuclear Energy Debate among Friends: Another Round," FJ July 2009; and more letters following that article). But the risk assessment factors surrounding nuclear power may pale compared to the technological interventions now under consideration for dealing with global warming. Geo-engineering climate stability is on the drawing board. These technologies cast a long shadow over Friends’ ethical response to climate change and human adaptation.

Friends are strongly disposed to ethical decision-making that yields clear outcomes. Quakers have difficulty with ethical decision-making in risk assessment environments. It is hard for Quakers to accept a process of discernment in which no outcome is likely to attain a high degree of ethical clarity. But when high-risk technologies become embedded in culture and economy, as they currently have, situations of ethically contested decision-making are created that cannot be clarified.

The risk factors implicit in many complex technologies elude rational assessment, and the catastrophic potential of the failure of complex technologies is literally incalculable. For example, insurance companies won’t touch nuclear power. Not even Quaker discernment at its highest level of divine guidance can overcome this reality of our society as it is now constituted (see World Risk Society by Ulrich Beck). Yet we must act for the common good as best we can.

Climate Disruption and Climate Wars

Climate disruption and climate wars have crossed the doorstep of civilization and are changing human habitation. The advance of climate disruption is moving much faster than climate science previously forecast. The Pentagon has now put climate disruption on its priority list of security issues.

The mid-latitude regions of Earth are the most densely populated and agriculturally productive. The heat convection currents that rise from the equatorial zone and move out, both north and south, are now pushing beyond the already adjacent desert regions and into the mid-latitude zones. These densely populated and highly productive regions are on track to become increasingly desert-like.

Bioproductivity collapse, mass migrations, and catastrophic environmental conflict are foreseen. This kind of information puts U.S. military planners on climate-change alert. We can be pretty sure they will be ready to repel unwanted refugee invasions and to bring critical resources under military command and control.

If this scenario unfolds, it seems likely that conflict, violence, and war will increase at various levels. Human rights will be increasingly ignored. Draconian military measures for the protection of habitable territory will be the domination- and-triage strategy of the wealthy regions. Sabotaging systems of privilege and persistent territorial challenge will likely be the survival-driven response of climate change refugees and their expeditionary forces.

Claims on the shrinking habitable land base will move from settled to hugely contested. Property will be up for grabs. Jurisdiction will be decided by force. The level of conflict, violence, protracted war, and ecological devastation likely in such a circumstance is mind-boggling. The logic of the evidence now unfolding leads directly to this scenario. If you don’t believe it, ask the Pentagon (see Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer).

There was a period when it seemed obvious to many folks that free-market world trade and the spread of democracy would greatly diminish international conflict and the likelihood of war. Generally speaking, countries engaged in flourishing trade and countries with democratic political systems do not go to war with each other. Many people believed that the growing worldwide consumer economy would end poverty, and people would support governments that aligned themselves with the forces of economic growth and wealth creation.

But now climate change, habitat disruption, bioproductivity collapse, resource wars, social breakdown, and refugee movements are increasing worldwide, compromising and threatening to undo the real benefits of globalization. Why are things going wrong?

Ecological economists and Earth system scientists have been warning for decades that unlimited economic growth cannot be globalized without unbalancing the human-Earth relationship and unhinging Earth’s homeostatic climate control system. Ecosystem limitations mean there is such a thing as "overdevelopment." This is not to say that economic growth is not needed in regions of poverty in order to create decent living conditions, but simply that overdevelopment in regions of wealth is now overshooting ecosystem carrying capacity. Ecosystem and societal degradation, such as we are now witnessing, is the result.

Is it any wonder that many of us now wake up in the morning, shake our heads, and say to ourselves: "Wait a minute, this can’t be happening—can it? This is not the human prospect we had in mind." But the evidence is clear; it’s happening!

It seems likely that top-brass military planners are having the same headshaking experience. They have long thought their job, in some larger sense, was to keep the peace and make the world safe for capitalism and democracy. And now they must switch worldviews and start planning for climate disruption, massive upheavals of populations at home and around the world, the end of easy access to low-cost petroleum, and the increasing emergence of war-prone situations.

A Quaker Response?

In this situation, what are Quakers, in collective response, planning for? What role might Friends play in facing and coping with this entirely unprecedented circumstance?

One answer might be that Quakers have no particular role; that we are in the soup along with everyone else; that we are being washed along in a wave of evolutionary history gone wrong (from a human point of view); and that we are powerless to alter it. The best we can do, this view might argue, is plan well for hunkering down in our communities, meetings, and homes and see what happens. This is at least something, and— it is true—a lot can be done at this level.

However, this is not what Quakers did in response to a previous time of great crisis: the Great Depression. In 1934 Friends General Conference had a Social Economics Committee, which in turn had an Industrial Relations Section that prepared and presented a comprehensive "Statement on Economic Objectives" to the annual Gathering at Cape May, New Jersey. Quakers participated significantly in the design and implementation of the New Deal.

Likewise, during the buildup to the Second World War Quakers mounted a concerted intervention in an attempt to find alternatives to the pending slaughter. When that effort met a closed door at the White House, they switched to mitigation on behalf of Jews trying to escape from Germany (see Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker). While it is true that Friends failed to influence Franklin D. Roosevelt’s march to war, they did faithfully try. What should Friends do now in response to the portending climate wars? How might the Quaker wheel of collective response address this ominous prospect?

Clearly, there are among Friends many professionals and practitioners in the various fields of natural and social science, and in religion and ethics, who could help create forums of consultation and circles of discernment on the trajectories of change before us and offer to public discourse some measure of ethical and strategic guidance on how to think and act for the common good. Friends Committee on National Legislation already plays this role on a certain number of issues, as do both the American and Canadian Friends Service Committees. Quaker Earthcare Witness has persistently addressed both personal and corporate response to the climate change issue. Quaker Institute for the Future has recently published the first in a new series of pamphlets that is the result of a three-session "circle of discernment" (Fueling Our Future: A Dialogue About Technology, Ethics, Public Policy, and Remedial Action, edited by Judy Lumb). And now, Friends World Committee for Consultation is mounting a world wide Quaker discernment project on global change. These are examples of what has given Quakerism its resilience, its unusual evolutionary potential, its clear focus on the task of "mending the world" (William Penn). Perhaps the corporate strength of many yearly meetings will now also pick up the ethical challenge of climate disruption.

Climate Engineering and the Peace Testimony

The ethical challenge of climate disruption is, of course, directly related to public policy on energy technologies. But with respect to the Quaker Peace Testimony, the challenge goes a giant step further. For example, what should Quakers make of the engineering proposals now on the drawing boards for injecting massive amounts of a sulfur compound into the upper atmosphere in order to deflect solar heat, to slow down and temporarily stop global warming?

If successful, this geo-engineering approach to climate stabilization could forestall the desertification and sea level rise that is now on track to trigger massive population upheaval and precipitous declines in food production and fresh water availability. In the nature of the case, this geo-engineering approach cannot be tested in advance and would have to be deployed as a full-scale experiment, with risks that cannot be known. But even if moderately successful in the short run, such a move could avert these calamities, and the kind of conflict, violence, and wars that otherwise can be foreseen.

Personally, every neuron in my brain slams on the brakes at the idea of engineering the climate. It is not too much to say that I am repelled by the prospect. However, I am forced to admit the logic of the Peace Testimony can be strongly employed in favor of this kind of action. The peace dividend factor is huge if this kind of intervention works. Those who know its chemistry judge it likely benign. But no one really knows. A large risk factor remains at the center of ethical decision-making on such intervention.

Not only is the deployment of climate engineering technology an ethically contested issue, but the question of whether its deployment should be a policy decision in which the public participates is also an issue. Should the decision be left entirely to the scientific and security experts? How should decisions on such monumental and fateful options be made?

Given the knowledge that exists within the Religious Society of Friends about science, technology, ethics, and decision-making, shouldn’t a concerted, collective effort be mounted by Quakers on all aspects of climate change and its relationship to war and peace in general— and, for example, to climate engineering in particular? Here is a quick glance at two questions that emerge from the climate engineering case:

  • Would this technology be deployed, in part, to allow the continued use of coal for as long as possible, or to provide a window for the rapid and virtually complete phase-out of fossil fuels and the maximum development of non-carbon-based energy sources in as short a time as possible?
  • Would the development and deployment of this technology become a new profit center for corporate and investment wealth, or would it be handled in a public trust framework as a public service for the common good?

It is instructive to think, by comparison, of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb in a relatively short time. The speed and efficiency of the Manhattan Project did not depend on financial incentive and profit-making enterprise. Presumably, engineering climate stability could also be developed and deployed within a public trust framework.

The prospect of keeping the lights on largely by continuing to burn coal has caused some Quakers to rethink nuclear power. Friends who advocate for nuclear power expansion see it as a stopgap technology that will get us through the bottleneck until the full development of a largely solar economy emerges sometime later in the century. The same logic could be applied to geo-engineering climate stability as a strategy for getting through the bottleneck at much lower cost and with much greater effectiveness. For example, engineering climate stability, if it proves successful and benign, could eliminate the need for the further development of nuclear power and thus sidestep the toxicity factor, the waste storage and reprocessing danger, and the risk of weapons proliferation that will, otherwise, accompany its continuation.

Nothing I have expressed here should be construed as support for climate engineering. The discernment is yet to be done. But with the panic now unfolding over climate disruption and the threat of climate wars, this technology is on the security agenda. It seems to me, living up to the Quaker heritage means engagement with this confluence of environment and war. This will be a tough assignment for discernment. The ethics will be conflicted, the risk assessment will be beyond clarification, the decision-making arena will call for the best process possible.

It seems reasonable that Quakers, equipped with the ethics of the Peace Testimony, a deep sense of equity and justice, and a history of decision-making for the common good should be drawn collectively into the middle of these moral and strategic considerations. Both religious and civic responsibilities are at stake.


Keith Helmuth, a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting in Canada, is one of the founders of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is the secretary of its Board.