Geoengineering’s Thermostat Dilemma

Recommended essay

Albert Lin —law professor at UC Davis — “uses the thermostat metaphor to explore some of the more prominent policy and legal questions at stake” when evaluating application of geoengineering to ameliorate climate change.

While I might be more optimistic than he in the use cases of geoengineering (and recently so; my 2 years younger self would be surprised!), I appreciate the thermostat metaphor in discussing the pros / cons for such an endeavor.

Geoengineering’s Thermostat Dilemma

Author: Albert Lin, Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law

From: Law of the Future Series №1 (2012)



To be sure, the thermostat metaphor is overly simplistic. Similar to the term “global warming”, the metaphor focuses too narrowly on average temperature rise. Climate change poses a grave threat not only because of hotter temperatures, but also because of rising oceans, more powerful storms, more frequent droughts, and other expected climate effects. The thermostat metaphor potentially trivialises climate change in suggesting that the problem is merely a matter of comfort. Furthermore, the analogy both overstates the degree of control that humans have over the Earth’s complex climate systems and understates the technical difficulties of implementation. Geoengineering proposals involve various risks and uncertainties that we are only beginning to explore. These risks and uncertainties are magnified by the incomplete climate models on which we rely. In addition, adverse effects of geoengineering are likely to vary from one region to another, suggesting that no climate setting will be without objection. Finally, the thermostat analogy gives short shrift to the effects of climate change on other living things. The comparison encourages a utilitarian, anthropocentric mindset that obscures ethical consideration of other species and the environment. Ultimately, the thermostat metaphor represents a potentially dangerous framing of climate issues that could foster complacency and undermine more realistic and important responses to climate change. Notwithstanding its serious shortcomings, the thermostat metaphor does capture a dilemma that looms over the geoengineering debate: who should decide whether and how geoengineering is implemented?
The role of future generations
Like the long-term storage of nuclear waste, the termination problem raises serious questions of intergenerational equity. Namely, what duties do we owe to future generations, and to what extent may we constrain their freedom of action? If intergenerational equity requires that each generation pass on the planet in no worse condition than received or that future generations have equivalent options for flourishing, it is not clear whether SRM would meet those requirements.
Conversely, geoengineering might help us meet our obligations to future generations if it were to protect them from even worse climate consequences. It is critical to ensure, however, that geoengineering not become a self-serving excuse for present inaction.
Giving an explicit voice to future generations does not guarantee a fair weighing of their concerns, but can prevent them from being completely ignored.