Non-ideal theory and climate engineering – David Morrow & Toby Svoboda

Even Disney casts Robin Hood as a hero, despite the fact that Robin spends much of his time robbing people and committing treason. This isn’t just because Prince John is a jerk. It’s because Prince John’s England is so deeply unjust that we condone certain actions there that we would normally condemn, like certain kinds of robbery and treason. Political philosophers would say that we condone Robin’s actions because he is acting in “non-ideal circumstances,” meaning circumstances in which at least some people are unwilling to do what justice requires of them. Such circumstances justify some actions that would be unacceptable in ideal circumstances. Other actions, however, remain beyond the pale. For instance, Robin would hardly seem the hero if he scaled the castle walls at night and murdered Prince John in his sleep.

Which actions do non-ideal circumstances justify? As we understand it, non-ideal theory allows actions that are (1) effective at reducing injustice, (2) politically feasible, and (3) morally permissible, given the less-than-ideal circumstances, even if they would not be permissible in ideal circumstances. We understand that third criterion as allowing acts of protection or punishment that create injustices, as long as those injustices are proportionate to the injustice being alleviated and better than the alternatives in terms of the ratio of injustice done to injustice averted. Robin Hood’s robberies would, we suggest, satisfy all three criteria, whereas murdering Prince John would violate the third criterion, since it would be both disproportionate and inferior to various alternatives.

In a recent paper in Public Affairs Quarterly, we defend this approach to non-ideal theory and use it to investigate a common argument for taking climate engineering seriously. That argument, in a nutshell, is that we ought to consider deploying some kinds of climate engineering because they could help manage climate risk, and that by doing so, they could reduce the great injustices created by society’s collective unwillingness or inability to do what justice demands in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Because this argument (implicitly) appeals to non-ideal theory, critics miss the point when they retort that it would be better to deal with climate change through mitigation and adaptation. To our knowledge, all of the climate engineering researchers who advance this argument agree that mitigation and adaptation provide (or could have provided) the best response to climate change, but they believe that humanity is not implementing these measures nearly as quickly as justice demands.

On the other hand, appealing to non-ideal circumstances doesn’t provide carte blanche to alleviate injustice by any means whatsoever. Assessing this argument, then, requires asking whether there are forms of solar radiation management (SRM) or carbon dioxide removal (CDR) that can satisfy all three of the criteria we outlined above.

In our paper, we raise doubts that SRM could satisfy all three criteria at once. It seems plausible that SRM might someday be politically feasible. And it seems plausible that, if it were designed with the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable at heart, a temporary, moderate, and responsive deployment of SRM might be able to prevent more injustice than it causes. But we are skeptical that a morally permissible deployment would also be politically feasible; we fear that the rich and powerful would arrange for any SRM deployment to cater to their own interests, which may well diverge from the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable. In short, insofar as SRM would create winners and losers, we suspect that the winners from any politically feasible deployment would be the rich and powerful and the losers would be those who are already suffering the greatest climate injustice. Further research might prove us wrong here, but for the time being, we are pessimistic that SRM would satisfy the demands of non-ideal theory.

On the other hand, appealing to non-ideal circumstances doesn’t provide carte blanche to alleviate injustice by any means whatsoever.

We are more optimistic that some form of CDR could satisfy all three criteria, though we are agnostic about just which form(s) make the cut. The main obstacles here are costs, which threaten the political feasibility of deployment, and in some cases, the unjust side effects of large-scale deployment (e.g., the harmful social effects of converting huge tracts of land to growing crops for biofuels, as with bio-energy with carbon capture and storage [BECCS]). If there are forms of CDR whose costs and side effects prove acceptable on non-ideal theory, then those forms of CDR would be useful tools in the fight for climate justice.

In fact, we argue, non-ideal theory might even justify using CDR to “overshoot” the atmospheric concentration targets for carbon dioxide, as proposed in many of the more optimistic scenarios considered by the IPCC. “Overshooting wisely,” as we call it, would involve exceeding whatever target the global community (implicitly) adopts for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and then using morally appropriate forms of CDR to bring concentrations back down to the target level in a reasonable timeframe. Provided that the excess carbon emissions came from activities that accelerated the decline of global poverty (e.g., by enabling more of the global poor to electrify their homes and businesses more quickly), such overshooting could help reduce the injustices associated with global poverty without unjustly burdening future generations. In an ideal world, of course, this would not be necessary: Rich countries would simply finance clean development at the same pace. But since such funding does not seem to be forthcoming, non-ideal theory seems to support overshooting wisely, if it turns out to be possible.

Overall, taking a closer look at the non-ideal-theoretic reasons for climate engineering weakens the argument for SRM but strengthens the argument for CDR—especially if it were used in ways that prevent climate policy from making it harder for the global poor to lift themselves out of poverty.

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Dr. David Morrow’s research focuses on climate justice and the ethics of climate engineering. His current research project on climate justice addresses issues of equity in mitigation policy, such as how to fairly divide the emissions budget within and between generations.



s200_toby.svoboda 125Dr. Toby Svoboda is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy at Fairfield University. His research focuses on environmental ethics, Kant, and climate change.



The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other guest post. Our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on climate engineering.