Academic journal article Environmental Values

How Much Risk Ought We to Take? Exploring the Possibilities of Risk-Sensitive Consequentialism in the Context of Climate Engineering

Academic journal article Environmental Values

How Much Risk Ought We to Take? Exploring the Possibilities of Risk-Sensitive Consequentialism in the Context of Climate Engineering

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

When it comes to assessing the deontic status of acts and policies in the context of risk and uncertainty, moral theories are often at a loss. In this paper we hope to show that employing a multi-dimensional consequentialist framework provides ethical guidance for decision-making in complex situations. The paper starts by briefly rehearsing consequentialist responses to the issue of risk, as well as their shortcomings. We then go on to present our own proposal based on three dimensions: wellbeing, fairness and probability. In the last section we apply our approach to a comparison of different climate policy options, including stratospheric solar-radiation management.

KEYWORDS

Climate engineering, consequentialism, risk, fairness, climate policy

INTRODUCTION

As more and more time elapses without radical mitigation efforts on a global level, discussions intensify on the ethical, technological and political viability of planetary-scale climate engineering (CE) deployment. Within these debates on CE, it is striking to observe that very little is said about the merits of employing a consequentialist framework for assessing the ethical and moral status of different CE proposals. In fact, it seems as if consequentialism either is only used within climate economics, that is in the form of rather standard cases of cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis, or is criticised for being ill-equipped to deal with situations in which the consequences of our actions are laden with risks and uncertainties (Norcross, 1990; Lenman, 2000). While it is true that factors such as risk and uncertainty present a major challenge for correctly assessing the deontic status of actions, it is highly questionable whether consequentialism as such should be dismissed on these grounds, especially since outside of practical philosophy consequentialist reasoning plays an important role.

In this paper we set out to explore the possibility of a risk-sensitive multi-dimensional consequentialism, which is able to provide ethical guidance for our decision-making in complex situations such as rapid climate change. While there exist certain irreducible issues when it comes to assessing the deontic status of acts and policies in the context of uncertainty, we hope to show that employing a multi-dimensional consequentialist framework offers very plausible and situation-sensitive answers.

The paper starts by briefly rehearsing consequentialist responses to the issue of risk. We focus on so-called 'expected wellbeing approaches' and Martin Peterson's (2012; 2013) argument for a multi-dimensional consequentialist framework, which seems particularly suitable for dealing with complex decision-making situations and cases of risk. As we will argue, while traditional expected wellbeing consequentialism is too mono-dimensional, Peterson's account--despite its initial appeal--has some problematic features of its own. We then go on to present our own proposal which argues that consequentialists should: i) be value-pluralist and multi-dimensional in their axiology; ii) avoid probability-domination; iii) define guardrails and thresholds for permissible outcomes; and iv) focus on the overall satisfaction of a range of relevant thresholds (including probability) within a satisficing consequentialist framework. In the last section of the paper, we will apply our theory to a hypothetical decision on (not) employing stratospheric solar-radiation management (S-SRM), and briefly sketch the prospects and limits of our consequentialist framework.

I. CONSEQUENTIALISM AND RISK

In its simplest form consequentialism can be characterised as the doctrine that the deontic status of an act (including omissions, sets of acts and courses of action) depends only on consequences. While there exist many different forms of consequentialism with regard to the class of actions which fall under the doctrine and the range of right- and wrong-making properties, the key aspect for consequentialists dealing with risk and uncertainty lies in defining the kind of consequences on the basis of which the deontic status of an act is judged. …

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