Background: President Biden recently opened his Earth Day summit of forty global leaders by calling for the United States to make a fifty-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The statement raised speculation amongst politicians and environmentalists as to how exactly the administration would achieve the goal. One of the strategies being recommended by National Academies is geoengineering which has been controversial. This piece will illustrate the potential moral hazard geoengineering presents and explore whether it is worth the risk to invest resources to research this area further.
So what even is geoengineering? The Oxford Geoengineering Program defines geoengineering as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change.” There are two main types, shading the Earth from solar radiation, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and the removal of CO2 or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). SRM techniques would attempt to control climate conditions by reducing the amount of radiation absorbed by the Earth. Because SRM techniques essentially focus on climate change’s symptoms rather than its root causes, these methods involve more significant risks and uncertainties. CDR techniques would slow the increase of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and could even move concentrations in the atmosphere back toward their pre-industrial state, moving the climate gradually toward earlier conditions.
What’s a moral hazard? In the insurance industry, moral hazard refers to “the tendency for insurance against loss to reduce incentives to prevent or minimize the cost of loss.” For example, someone with car insurance may be a less cautious driver because they know they are covered in case of an accident. Researchers have found evidence of moral hazards in both insurance coverage and worker compensation. Several studies demonstrate that health insurance coverage leads to increased demand for medical care. Similarly, utilization of medical services is positively correlated with the proportion of costs covered by insurance. Workers’ compensation insurance also generates moral hazard effects. Increases in benefits are associated with increases in both the duration of claims and the reporting of accidents. Thus, it is evident that there are moral hazards that exist in today’s society, and geoengineering, which follows a similar pattern, could also be considered to be a moral hazard.
How can geoengineering be a moral hazard? According to Prof. Albert C. Lin, professor of law at the University of California, Davis, when tackling climate change, there are two primary methods, mitigation, and adaptation. Mitigation encompasses efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity or enhance GHG uptake by forests and other carbon sinks. Adaptation refers to adjustments in natural or human systems to the effects or predicted effects of climate change. Geoengineering offers a third possible approach. Many climate activists claim that geoengineering endeavors would undermine mainstream efforts such as mitigation and adaptation to combat climate change. This concern has been characterized as a problem of moral hazard. Just as a person with fire insurance will be less cautious regarding fire safety infractions — the prospect of geoengineering the Earth in response to climate change might exacerbate the very behaviors contributing to climate change. Individuals might curb voluntary efforts to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Other GHG-generating behaviors might even increase from a misguided belief that climate change no longer poses a threat. This, in conjunction with the already existing cynicism about climate change, could have catastrophic impacts on the environment. Societies might divert resources toward geoengineering schemes that ultimately prove futile or unworkable, decreasing the funds dedicated to mitigation and adaptation. Although geoengineering might ameliorate some of climate change’s most severe impacts, experts generally agree that it is no substitute for mitigation and adaptation. At best, geoengineering would offer only a partial response to climate change as most of the proposed solutions either come with a plethora of potential detrimental side effects — or only reduce a fraction of the carbon necessary to attain a healthy environment.
Should we still research geoengineering? Put simply, yes. While it is evident that geoengineering poses a serious moral hazard — it may also be our only option in a crisis situation. As opposed to writing it off as radical and overreaching, it is imperative that proper research be conducted to offset some of the harms presented and increase its efficacy. In Bill Gates’ “How to Avoid A Climate Disaster,” he outlines potential tipping points in the Earth’s climate that could be disastrous to the human race. To ensure we have a response if an event like this ever strikes, he asserts that it’s imperative to continue research to better understand general geoengineering techniques, writing, “there may come a day where we don’t have a choice. Better prepare for that day now.”