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.