Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

But the warnings from scientists about the dangers of a warmer world (and the inadequacy of existing climate policies) have become shriller by the year. And as a result, the voices whispering that geoengineering could one day become a reality have grown harder to ignore.

As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions.

One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”

In general, people who are wealthier have bigger carbon footprints. Our findings suggest that people with bigger carbon footprints may treat geoengineering as an excuse to avoid personal behavioural changes. People in the study who held pro-environmental values didn’t see themselves as susceptible to the moral hazard, but feared that other people – and especially politicians – would take their eye off the ball if geoengineering was on the horizon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change sceptics were not particularly worried that geoengineering would distract attention from other climate policies. After all, if someone doesn’t support policies to tackle climate change in the first place, then the moral hazard of geoengineering is really not a hazard at all.

Previous research has suggested, though, that geoengineering could be more appealing to sceptics than existing climate policies (as it doesn’t involve regulating industries or government intervention in people’s daily lives) or that it could even galvanise support for climate change among this group.

But our findings did not back this. Learning about geoengineering from the information provided in our study didn’t alter levels of concern about climate change among sceptical participants.

This is the first time that any systematic evidence has been produced on how this key aspect of the geoengineering debate will shape the public discourse as it moves into the mainstream. What seems clear is that people with different values (and views on climate change) will respond to the logic of the moral hazard argument in very different ways.

For those deeply worried by society’s inadequate response to climate change, and doubtful of politicians’ commitment to the issue, the moral hazard of geoengineering confirms their worst fears.

But for people with an inconveniently large carbon footprint – or those who had no intention of reducing it in the first place – the prospect of geoengineering could be less a of a moral hazard and more of a ‘moral license’ to continue with business as usual.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian.