PhD spotlight: Elliott Woodhouse's Ethics of Climate Engineering

In the first in our series of PhD spotlight blogs, LC3M philosophy student Elliott Woodhouse, shares insights from his thesis on the environmental ethics of climate engineering.

Elliott Woodhouse

In the first in our series of PhD spotlight blogs, LC3M philosophy student, Elliott Woodhouse, shares insights from his thesis on the environmental ethics of climate engineering:

‘Messing with Nature’ and the Environmental Ethics of Climate Engineering

Much has been written about the potential ethical concerns raised by climate engineering technologies (both Greenhouse Gas Removal and Solar Radiation Management). Often these concerns relate to issues of justice. For instance, we might be concerned about the distribution of risks and responsibilities, how decisions about implementation are made, or how deployment might exacerbate or mediate existing inequalities. However, there is also a different set of ethical worries, which we might call environmental ethics concerns, that question how techniques to intentionally alter the functioning of the planet’s core biogeochemical systems might be reconciled with any potential duties or obligations that are owed to the natural world itself.

It might seem easy to dismiss these kinds of worries as fringe issues, or products of particularly overzealous philosophical thinking. After all, many ethicists are not convinced that there even are duties owed to non-human nature. Nonetheless, I think engaging with these kinds of questions can help us to interpret some of the findings of LC3M’s social-science team. In particular, they might help us understand the recurring finding that publics are concerned that climate engineering technologies would ‘mess with’ or ‘tamper with’ nature.[1] One way we might interpret this perception is as an expression of a lay environmental ethics. The reason for this recurrent result could be that it represents a widespread belief that technologies which intentional alter the functioning of the climate go beyond the legitimate remit of human control, or perhaps conflict with a perceived duty to preserve some parts of the natural world free from human influence. After all, to ‘mess with’ is not a value neutral statement – it clearly refers to an illegitimate change.

Moreover, if we think that a major barrier to implementation of climate engineering technologies, including enhanced weathering, is going to be social licence, then it becomes incumbent on us to take seriously these environmental ethics worries. One method for doing this might be to understand what moral barriers there might be to climate engineering so that we can better design carbon capture projects or to alleviate them. We might also want to engage with ethics because we want to do the right thing! If there are good reasons to think that climate engineering is a violation of certain moral obligations, we ought not to do it!

Literature review

So, what has environmental philosophy said about climate engineering and its potential to mess with nature? In his review of the field, Christopher Preston argued that many of the canonical theories of environmental ethics presumed against climate engineering.[2] If they could accept it, he thought, it was only as lesser evil compared to letting climate change continue unabated. Moreover, there is evidently a lot of face value support for Preston’s judgement. Putting aside for the moment questions over whether these are plausible theories, it is clear that on the whole environmental ethicists have been very sceptical of the morality of large-scale environmental modification or management. Preston cites in support: Paul Taylor’s ‘Duty of Non-Interference’, Tom Regan’s ‘Preservation Principle’, Richard Sylvan’s rejection of policies of ‘Complete Interference’, and Aldo Leopold’s demand for a ‘gentler criteria’ for environmental modifications, rather than current trends he saw as like ‘remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel’.[3]

Elliott's findings

However, my key research finding is that the picture is a lot less obvious that Preston makes out.  A closer reading reveals that for many of the core perspectives in environmental ethics there are at least some avenues whereby climate engineering could be a legitimate intervention. Taylor for instance argues that his ‘principle of non-interference’ is over-ruled by a duty of ‘restitutive justice’ – to make right past wrongdoing. Interventions in nature, while usually impermissible, may be legitimate if they are the way to make up for past ecological destruction. We might think if climate engineering is the best way to secure biodiversity, or protect ecosystems from climate change, then Taylor might be open to it as a legitimate intervention.[4] A similar story can be told for Regan, who argues that the ‘preservation principle’ should not prevent interventions where they are necessary to ‘preserve or enhance what was inherently valuable about nature’. If you think that whatever is valuable about nature is threatened by climate change, then geoengineering interventions might be legitimated as the best way to preserve this.[5] Leopold’s cautioning against ‘remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel’ might also be interpreted as a call for precision and care in environmental interventions – not as a strong prohibition against them at all times.[6] I believe that similar stories to these can be told for many of core positions Preston uses to support his case.

We need to be cautious about what we take away from these findings. The wrong thing would be to conclude that we now have a moral carte blanche and all forms of climate engineering are equally morally legitimate. All that my research shows is that at least some hypothetical forms of climate engineering could meet common environmental ethics criteria for legitimacy, under certain circumstances. What this does not tell is whether these permissible forms are useful forms either. It might be that the legitimate forms of climate engineering are insufficient robust to keep warming well below 2oC (or whatever else it is climate engineering is deployed for). What we should instead conclude is that, if you are someone concerned with the environmental ethics of climate engineering, or simply have a sense that it ‘messes with nature’, you don’t necessarily need to reject these technologies out of hand. Knowing that many core environmental ethics perspectives do not totally rule out these technologies can give you space to take a ‘seat at the table’, to participate in conversations about governance and technology design without compromising your core ethical beliefs. The task now is to work to distil these ethical lessons into policy guidelines for the eventual deployment and governance of these technologies, to help ensure that climate engineering interventions satisfy our obligations towards the natural worlds.


[1] See for instance: Corner, A. J., Parkhill, K., Pidgeon, N. F. and Vaughan, N. E. (2013) Messing with Nature? Exploring Public Perceptions of Geoengineering in the UK. Global Environmental Change. Vol. 23 Is. 5. pp. 938-947.

  Cox, E., Spence, E., Pidgeon, N., (2022) Deliberating Enhanced Weathering: Public Frames, Iconic Ecosystems, and the Governance of Carbon Removal at Scale. Public Understanding of Science. Vol. 31. Is. 8. pp. 960-977.

  Wolske, K.S., Raimi, K.T., Campbell-Arvai, V. et al. (2019) Public Support for Carbon Dioxide Removal Strategies: The Role of Tampering with Nature Perceptions. Climatic Change. Vol. 152. pp.345–361.

  Preston, C., (2011) Rethinking the Unthinkable? Environmental Ethics and the Presumptive Argument Against Geoengineering. Environmental Values. Vol. 20. Is. 4. pp. 457-479.

[2] Preston, C., (2011) Rethinking the Unthinkable? Environmental Ethics and the Presumptive Argument Against Geoengineering. Environmental Values. Vol. 20. Is. 4. pp. 457-479.

[3] Preston, C., (2011) Rethinking the Unthinkable? Environmental Ethics and the Presumptive Argument Against Geoengineering. Environmental Values. Vol. 20. Is. 4. pp. 462-463. Note that this is not an exhaustive list.

[4] Taylor, P., (1986) Respect for Nature. A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, University Press. p. 171.

[5] Regan T., (1981) The Nature and Possibility of an Environmental Ethic. Vol. 3. Is. 4. p. 31.

[6] Leopold, (1949) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford, University Press. p. 226.