Geoengineering, risk and the anthropic principle

I’ve been mulling this one over for a few days since the Mark Lynas debate. I don’t know whether it holds water but it’s worth throwing out there as an idea.

A key point in the debate over geoengineering is that of risk. Those against say that the risk of irreparable damage is too great; those in favour point out that we’ve been doing some sort of geoengineering for centuries and never had problems. Human ingenuity is sufficient to fix problems we bequeath to the future. Similar arguments apply to issues over climate mitigation versus adaptation, and indeed over free market economics.

The question is: have we just been lucky? Lynas notes something in his book which I hadn’t come across before: the scientist who developed CFCs (the chemicals which damaged the ozone layer) could just have easily have synthesised a similar bromine-based compound, which would have been equally good for refrigeration purposes, but vastly worse for the atmosphere. Had it been used for real, it would probably have completely destroyed the ozone layer irretrievably by the 1970s, well before science had a chance to spot the problem.

In that world, I suspect geoengineering would be a lot further off the agenda than it is today. Similarly, we can play down the possibility of civilisational collapse and discount the evidence of people like Joseph Tainter because our civilisation has survived… so far.

There’s a scientific parallel to this: the Anthropic principle. This looks at the question of why certain key fundamental physical constants have values which have led to the possibility of a stable universe which can contain life, when only slight adjustments would preclude this.

Simplifying a very complex issue, one answer to this (the Strong Anthropic Principle) is that some sort of design must have happened. This is criticised on the grounds of observational bias: given that intelligent life is required to even ask the question, it can only be asked in the rare case that a suitable universe is there.

Can a similar critique be levelled at the pro-geoengineering lobby.


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