Who May Geoengineer: Self-defense, Civil Disobedience, and Revolution (Part Two) – Patrick Taylor Smith

First time here?  Read our "what is climate engineering" page.
Part One of the three part series can be read here.

Two quick notes before we proceed. First, by ‘dangerous/risky geoengineering strategies,’ I am merely referring to those strategies that bring with them a substantial risk of negative climate change impacts. This is not meant to pre-judge whether those risks are worse than climate change impacts under plausible emission scenarios and is not meant to claim that all geoengineering strategies are dangerous or risky. Second, the paper is proceeding upon the basic normative idea that one cannot violate people’s rights in order to generate better social consequences and is then exploring whether risky geoengineering is consistent with or violates individual rights. In other words, “business as usual will be worse” is not good enough, on this view, to justify actions to intentionally violate people’s basic rights.  Anyway, moving on…

In Part One, we discussed whether those nations at a substantial risk of severe climate change impacts had a claim—based on the right to self-defense—to deploy dangerous geoengineering strategies. We concluded that they did not because it is not permissible to redirect dangerous threats onto innocent third parties in order to save yourself.

Yet, there are times when it is permissible to act unilaterally to impose costs on others. Some, perhaps sensing the moral difficulties associated with the riskier kinds of geoengineering, have argued that the deployment of those strategies should be understood as acts of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience, on this view, is a public, conscientious action—contrary to law—designed to bring attention to and exert pressure towards the rectification of serious injustice. They suggest that geoengineering might shock the conscience of the world and generate a set of deliberations that will ultimately lead to a more satisfactory policy outcome. So, the idea is not that risky geoengineering is itself a particularly good idea—it represents an egregious flouting of well-justified norms—but that it can be justified as an extraordinary response to a long history of injustice and failure. The parallels with the civil rights movement—which deliberately violated the law in order to motivate changes to the apartheid-like, Jim Crow regime in the American South—are obvious. Moreover, civil disobedience usually achieves its objective by imposing some social or economic cost on the larger society as a whole in order to pressure elites to make changes (see Stephan and Chenoweth), and these costs often affect those who are innocent—or at least, those who are not particularly guilty—of the injustice being protested. Again, this is true of geoengineering, which risks inflicting costs on those innocent of having caused climate change.

The key difference between ‘geoengineering as self-defense’ and ‘geoengineering as civil disobedience’ is what does the justificatory work. In the former, geoengineering’s ability to block or reduce severe climate change impacts is the essential feature of its moral justification. In the latter, however, geoengineering is justified because its knock-on effects will come to benefit everyone. So, the civil rights movement can, for example, call for a bus boycott in Montgomery or a sit-in in Nashville—knowing this will harm the economic livelihoods of particular African-Americans—because the political consequences of their civil disobedience will redound to the benefit of all victims of the injustice. Similarly, one might argue that geoengineering as civil disobedience can avoid the objections to self-defense because it purports to benefit all victims of climate change.

Yet, we cannot go around hurting other people and claim we are justified simply because it might be the case that those costs will redound to their benefit. Both the act and the agent of civil disobedience must meet certain criteria. First, it seems plausible that the civil disobedient must reasonably believe that there is a sufficient possibility of success and that belief must be true. If you are going to hurt someone with the hope of generating some justifying political benefit, you cannot simply be lucky that everything works out okay; there must be some non-trivial connection between what you believe will happen and what does happen. Second, the civil disobeyers will need to satisfy certain ‘good faith’ criteria: they must be conscientious (acting for moral reasons) and political (aiming for the reform of institutions that will benefit the oppressed class) as well as willing to operate in public. Third, civil disobedience is non-violent, which distinguishes it from violent revolution. Finally, and most controversially, it is usually understood that civil disobedience requires a willingness to accept punishment even if that punishment is unjustified.

Yet, we cannot go around hurting other people and claim we are justified simply because it might be the case that those costs will redound to their benefit.

This last element is worth discussing in greater detail. Acceptance of punishment—according to civil disobedience theorists like John Rawls, Kimberly Brownlee, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—is required in order to respect the relationship of equality between citizens in the face of law-breaking. The idea is something like this. The civil disobeyer is engaging in a kind of political communication and making a moral demand on the polity. The nature of the demand is deliberative: the civil disobeyer wants to awaken the community to an injustice and pressure them take actions to remedy it. Yet, this kind of communication requires that you treat the people you are communicating with and the institutions of political deliberation with some respect. By accepting punishment, the civil disobeyer expresses the idea that they respect (or even love, in the case of MLK) their shared political institutions and their fellow citizens while demanding that an egregious injustice be rectified. It accomplishes the difficult task of violating the law while respecting it, which is precisely the special virtue of civil disobedience according to MLK and others.

Is it likely that geoengineering by a victim, low-emitting state will meet these requirements? Two criteria are fairly straightforward even if it might be difficult for us to know whether they are satisfied. First, there is no reason—in principle—to think that state actors cannot satisfy the ‘good faith’ requirements even though, epistemically, it will be sometimes difficult to determine state actor motivations. Second, if geoengineering has too low a likelihood of generating the relevant political effects, then it will not be justified. As a political philosopher, I leave to others the analysis of the relevant causal mechanisms.

The other two criteria are more interesting. First, it is not obvious that the geoengineering state would be willing to accept punishment as a matter of fact. But more importantly, it is unclear that the geoengineering state could even accept punishment if it wanted to. The international legal order, except in quite extraordinary circumstances, simply lacks the capacity to engage in the kind of democratically authorized punishment for law-breaking that seem to be a basic predication of civil disobedience; the adjudicative and legislative institutions are—with few, extraordinary exceptions—simply lacking. What’s more, the basic values that make the acceptance of punishment an attractive requirement do not obtain: there is no meaningful global, democratic polity or set of deliberative institutions that the geoengineering state would be respecting with their willingness to accept punishment. In fact, norms about climate change are so inchoate that it is not even especially clear what international norm or law would be violated by, say, sulfate albedo modification. So, it just isn’t that clear how helpful or productive a civil disobedience lens would be.

Now, let’s consider nonviolence. The reason that civil disobedience is often associated with non-violence is because, I would submit, that is difficult to argue that you are respecting someone as an equal deliberator when you are directly harming them. The essential claim is that civil disobedience normally does not violate what we might call the legitimate entitlements held by fellow citizens. When civil rights activists sit at a ‘whites only’ lunch counter, they are violating the legal entitlements of the restaurant owner (or at least, they were doing so at the time) and likely hurting the owner’s business. Yet, the restaurant owner does not have the right—not really—to either the custom or to discriminatory lunch counters; the law that grants him that entitlement is unjust. So, civil disobedience usually needs to overcome the wrongness of acting against the rule of law and, perhaps, disrespecting shared deliberative mechanisms, but civil disobedience does not normally need to overcome the wrongness of violating the specific rights of the particular people upon whom it imposes costs.

Yet, this is not true of geoengineering. As I said in Part One, the negative side effects of risky geoengineering will likely fall on the most vulnerable and least responsible individuals. Now, it is, of course, often difficult to distinguish between just and unjust entitlements. Yet, the rights potentially affected by risky geoengineering are uncontroversial and important: rights to adequate drinking water, food, health, and even life. To put it more simply, civil disobedience does not look all that attractive when it kills people and geoengineering will likely do that. So, unlike paradigmatic cases of civil disobedience (e.g., the lunch counter sit-ins or Gandhi’s Salt March), the ‘civil disobedience’ of geoengineering will violate the legitimate entitlements of particular people and likely won’t disrespect international legal norms or international rule of law.

So, I think we are forced to conclude that civil disobedience is not an especially productive framework for justifying geoengineering. First, the international order simply is not robust enough to make possible the kind of deliberation that civil disobedience depends upon. Second, like ‘geoengineering as self-defense,’ ‘geoengineering as civil disobedience’ does not take sufficiently seriously the rights violations likely generated by the most dangerous geoengineering strategies.

Any attempt to justify geoengineering will need to grapple seriously with the fact that it will violate the vital and core interests of many people. I believe I have such an account, which I will share in Part Three.

Patrick Taylor Smith 125Patrick Taylor Smith, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.  He is writing a book titled “A Leap Into Darkness: Domination and the Normative Structure of International Politics,” and researches climate change and climate engineering. His papers can be found here.


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.

  • Brian Citro

    Great piece Patrick. Quick comment on the relationship between the elites whose legal entitlements are violated through acts of civil disobedience (i.e., the owners of segregated restaurants in the lunch counter sit-ins example) and the group meant to benefit from the acts, even though they suffer some costs as a result (i.e., the African-Americans participating in the bus boycott). In the case of geoengineering, it seems wealthy nations that have contributed most to climate change would be the former and vulnerable groups in poorer countries that disproportionately suffer negative impacts of climate change would be the latter. If so, then just as African-Americans were willing to suffer some harm to their economic livelihood during the bus boycott in order to gain civil rights in the long term, couldn’t vulnerable groups experiencing the negative impacts of climate change voluntarily agree to suffer rights violations resulting from an act of geoengineering civil disobedience in order to spur action that benefit themselves and everyone else in the long term? This makes sense to me if the goal of the geoengineering civil disobedience is not necessary to continue doing geoengineering, which might involve continued rights violations of vulnerable groups, but to spur other mitigation and adaption measures that do not violate rights. If this is true, then I don’t think the concern you identify in the following sentence is a problem: “civil disobedience does not normally need to overcome the wrongness of violating the specific rights of the particular people upon whom it imposes cost.” However, what might be at issue here is the conceptual distinction and difference in normative weight between rights violations and other kinds of costs.

    All this, of course, is separate from the – I think correct – point you made regarding the insufficiently developed international order that would be disrespected through an act of geoengineering civil disobedience and the inability of the actor to accept punishment because of this inchoate system.

  • Patrick Smith


    That’s interesting. I think you are certainly on to something when it comes to normal acts of civil disobedience. The only problem with applying it to the case of of geoengineering is that SAIs will violate rights that we normally think are inalienable. Normally, I would think that we cannot waive our basic rights through consent.

    • Brian Citro

      Right, so it comes down to something about the normative distinction between certain rights violations – i.e., violations of rights that are non-derogable – and other kinds of costs, like economic harm resulting from boycotting buses for some time. But we usually talk about rights from which States can never derogate, not the trickier question of which rights even the right holder cannot waive. There seems to be general consensus one cannot consent to slavery or torture, and it’d be hard to conceive of a waivable right to life, but I wonder about the other rights likely to be implicated by geoengineering deployment, including social and economic rights.