Princeton University Logo    User Account

You are here

Geoengineering as a Response to Climate Change: An Urgent Problem Meets a Bad Concept

Dale JamiesonCo-sponsored by the Center for Human Values and the Siebel Energy Grand Challenges

Speaker: Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy, Affiliated Professor of Law, Environmental Studies Program, New York University

Location: McCormick Hall 101
Date/Time: November 16, 2010, 4:30-6 p.m.

Discussant: Melissa Lane, Professor of Politics. Acting Director, Program in Political Philosophy. Director, Program in Values and Public Life


Discussions of the problem of climate change are plagued by both unclarity and disagreement about what the problem actually is and what counts as possible solutions. For the past several decades participants in the debate have demanded conformity to a particular language that contributes to obscuring the issues (one that (for example) uses 'mitigate' to mean what 'abate' normally means in discussions of environmental pollution). In the nearly two decades since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, little has been done to mitigate emissions. Since the induction is so depressing, it is not surprising that increasing attention is being given to various strategies that might help to compensate for this failure. Many of these strategies are clumped together under the rubric, 'geoengineering'. Since geoengineering is often regarded as a distinct class of responses to climate change, a search is currently underway for the special policies and norms that apply to it.

In this talk, Jamieson argues for reforming the language of the climate change discussion. From this perspective, various geoengineering approaches can be seen as proposals that their advocates are forwarding in the hope that they will be adopted as part of the portfolio of responses. Such proposals should be evaluated on their own individual merits in the same way that various mitigation and adaptation proposals are evaluated, and in relation to them. We have an ample supply of general principles and norms that we can bring to bear on such evaluations, and there is no reason to believe that distinct principles or norms should apply to any of these weedy categories. While not every agrees about the force of each such principles or how it may apply in particular cases, these principles and norms provide a framework for structuring the discussion. Geoengineering may not be the solution to climate change, but the rise of interest in this topic may provide an opportunity for better conceptualizing the problem we face and evaluating proposed solutions.


Formerly Dale Jamieson was Henry R. Luce Professor in Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carleton College, and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he was the only faculty member to have won both the Dean's award for research in the social sciences and the Chancellor's award for research in the humanities. He has held visiting appointments at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State University, and Monash and the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. He is also past president of the International Society for Environmental Ethics.

Dr. Jamieson is the author of Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2008), and Morality's Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (Oxford, 2002). He is also the editor or co-editor of eight books, most recently Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford, 2010), with Steve Gardiner, Simon Caney, and Henry Shue. He has published more than one hundred articles and book chapters.

He is currently a Principal Investigator on a National Science Foundation Project on “Assessing Assessments: A Historical and Philosophical Study of Scientific Assessments for Environmental Policy in the Late 20th Century”, with Michael Oppenheimer (Princeton) and Naomi Oreskes (UCSD). He is also writing a book on the moral and political challenges of climate change, a topic on which he has worked for more than 25 years.