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So far, several geoengineering options have been proposed to counter the effects of global warming. Anders Sandberg, an ethicist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, recently considered a ‘safer’ route: although (admittedly) not entirely serious about the idea, he thinks that human engineering poses less danger than altering our planet through radical geoengineering options. In LiveScience Sandberg proposes some interesting examples of human engineering measures that people could voluntarily adopt to counter the effects of climate change.  Now, while there is obviously no harm in considering more options to mitigate climate change and in fact I admire the originality of some of their ideas, as a student of climate change, I also think that it is necessary to explore and consider whether some of these ideas that they propose are actually practical.

Sandberg considers things like inducing intolerance to red meat (since livestock farming and feeding accounts for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emission),  selecting smaller embryos (since smaller humans would reduce the amount of energy we each need to consume) and also hormone therapy  (which could make us more altruistic, empathetic and  sensitive to the suffering of animals and other people caused by climate change).

Like the authors themselves, I am skeptical that any of the green modifications proposed by Sandberg will ever take effect. In order to make a significant difference – for example to GHG emissions reduction,  a  large proportion of the global population would need to volunteer or be willing to participate in one (or more) of these human engineering ideas. Even if a few hundred people agree to volunteer and undergo medical treatment to induce intolerance to red meat, for example, I doubt that this could translate to any large reduction in GHG emissions. And since there are a large number of people who do not believe in climate change or are skeptical about it (despite anthropogenic activities and greenhouse gas generation being formally recognized as influencing climate change at the World Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992) I doubt that there would ever be enough people who would be will be thrilled by the idea of, or be willing to participate in, green human enhancement.  In the unlikely event that there were enough people, is human engineering really the ‘safer’ option? Treating people with hormones could create other serious health implications and side-effects (save to mention the financial costs of administering the drug to a large number of people). Furthermore, if legislation made human engineering compulsory, and not a voluntary option (meaning that there could potentially be enough people enrolled to make a considerable difference to the environment) it goes without warrant that the human rights, ethics committees as well as several religious communities would  be strongly opposed to any such measures.

Sandberg also suggests that geoengineering options are ‘problematic’; but some, such as biochar and afforestation are reasonably affordable, moderately effective (see Figure 1 IGBP) and, in my view, safer than some of the human engineering ideas they propose. Sandberg goes on to question “How would one test geoengineering?” if there is only one Earth – but some of the impacts can and have been modeled, and thus the potential impacts can be better understood (e.g. afforestation and space reflectors).

The authors also propose another human engineering idea which is related to a much more noteworthy point.  They suggest reducing birthrates by making people smarter. Although I am still against their idea of human engineering to make people smarter, I do think that this idea in particular raises another valid and somewhat obvious point. -High population numbers trigger high demand for goods and services and thus high production rates, increased industrialization and thus high emissions levels. Thus, by curbing natural population growth rates, to reduce consumption and thereby emissions, we could implement – with relative ease (e.g. massive family planning campaigns, increased access to contraceptives, and legislating number of children per household etc) a realistic strategy to mitigate the effects of global warming.

To be clear – I recognize that Sandberg is merely suggesting we consider human engineering as a way of tackling climate change and I also recognize that Sandberg’s article is still to be published in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment – and this may offer some more insight into their ideas.   My argument is simply that human engineering will not be anything more than an idea and/ or an unlikely reality in the distant future. If we are considering options, perhaps we should rather focus on geoengineering ideas, which -although controversial – offer more potential and more immediate effects, on a large enough scale, to mitigate the effects of climate change; it is the lesser – more effective- of the two evils being considered. And, if geoengineering is also too controversial and does not deliver, then perhaps what we can do is to focus on curbing natural population growth rates and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

6 Responses to “Medicine for the planet… or ourselves?”

  1. Laura Hodgkinson

    I have to agree with the fact that geo-engineering is not at the moment curbing any global warming issues, i have heard theories about the implementation of cat eyes into human eyes, and again the fact that “smaller humans would reduce the amount of energy we each need to consume”. which one can argue is true, but is a target essentially unattainable, especially in light of the other problems that face the world currently. Economic crisis, global poverty and the like are always going to see far more serious that “human engineering”, thank goodness. however i think there is a lot to be said for the curbing of the population, although not without its setbacks, i.e. China’s restriction of children resulted in what can only be described as an ‘en mass slaughter’ of unwanted daughter, as Chinese families hold a lot of value in the role of the ‘first born son’.

    Therefore i think it is a topic of interest but obviously one that needs a good deal of refinement, on the same note however, as Chris said at least people are acknowledging global warming as real and attempting to think out the box as much as they can.

  2. SaKhia

    can’t help with 2, but:1. Average global tameerpture. The acidity of the oceans. The number and/or intensity of tropical storms. The number/frequency of record high tameerptures. The depth of the ocean. Probably other things I’m not thinking of right now.3. Because there’s already a lot of warming “in the pipeline”. For example, the oceans will eventually release some or all of the excess CO2 they have absorbed, which will lead to more warming. Unless we not only stop emitting new fossil CO2, but actually remove some of the CO2 we have already emitted, the Earth will continue warming until it reaches a new equilibrium.Edit:I don’t know the numbers on the deaths, and didn’t feel like bothering to look up the best current estimates.To my knowledge, the timeframe for significant removal of CO2 from the carbon cycle is something on the order of a thousand years. I think the timeframe for reaching equilibrium warming from existing carbon in the carbon cycle is on the order of 100 years. Eventually, the excess CO2 will be removed, but it will take a *long* time. Before it’s removed, it will finish causing the warming that has already started.Son of edit:Even if I have the exact timescales wrong, the concept still applies. I’m reasonably certain that the climate reaching equilibrium warming is on a faster timescale than excess CO2 leaving the atmosphere. Even if we entirely ceased net CO2 emissions today, which would require fairly drastic measures (either entirely ceasing fossil fuel use, or fairly massive carbon sequestration projects) the Earth would continue to warm until it reached “full” warming for the CO2 already in the system.

  3. cwallington

    This is either clever people trying to be eccentric, or eccentric people trying to be clever. Unless we get to the state of a planet and social system where such crisis is ripe and all normal rights are stripped from the average person and decisions are made by a few (much like the Hunger Games), these human geo-engineering ideas would never, work I agree Myra and others. In fact it is either a waste of researchers money or something that serves people with a warning of what extremes are being considered to curb climate change.

    Secondly I think this research and ideas generation either stems from a desire to candy coat real lifestyle changes that need to be made to create ‘escape routes’, in giving the responsibility away to a scientific process; or it stems from an understanding of the seriousness of the issue and a panicked response?
    There are difficult questions that need to be asked and difficult decisions that need to be made on the individual level but a level that is linked to the bigger picture. Not only is it think globally act locally, but also think globally and act individually. This is where many people choke. For example: How many people in the climate research community within UCT practice low to zero levels of meat consumption?

  4. cbrodrick

    I concur that ‘human engineering’ cannot be taken seriously and is largely an inappropiate and ineffective manner in which to combat climate change. That said, at least people are acknowelging that climate change is real and are beginning to think out of the box as to what we can do to slow down the process. Now the challenge is to get people to forget about the futile ideas and channel their energy into options that are less controversial, easier to implement and have a greater impact on the climate.

  5. Stefaan

    More seriously, I think the point about population growth is a very relevant one, although measures intended to resolve such problems seem frought with controversy – especially family size restrictions, which seem to have contributed to excessive male:female ratios in certain populations. How we deal with this challenge – and the seemingly unavoidable associated aging problems – may well have a critical impact on our ability to adapt to climate change.

  6. Stefaan

    “…selecting smaller embryos (since smaller humans would reduce the amount of energy we each need to consume)” – so if I ever had any hope of having decendents (which I luckily I haven’t – for a large part due to reasons Myra points out surrounding the effects of population growth on climate change), I should forget about those quite quickly – assuming that a tall person will have tall descendants, which is perhaps not entirely safe.

    Also, such measures (choosing shorter people) might further advantage the Chinese over, for example, the Dutch (reportedly the tallest nation on Earth).

    (not a serious comment)