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GM vs Climate Change
Andrew Lewis considers the ethics of using GM to help prevent global warming.
There seems little serious doubt among climate scientists that a key factor in global warming is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that there is a need to very quickly reduce these levels very substantially. Reforestation is one proposed contribution. What if, to speed up the reduction in CO2 levels, it was decided to implement a ‘Tree Solution’? Here GM (genetic modification) technology would be used to develop trees which were optimised genetically to convert large amounts of carbon dioxide into oxygen using the minimum of other natural resources. The genetic modification of suitable trees could mean a big increase in the amount of CO2 they convert to O2 for the same amount of sunlight; a reduction in the conversion of O2 to CO2 during the night-time; an acceleration of the maturation of the trees; an extension of the peak conversion lifecycle of the trees, to optimise return on investment; faster decay when the plants die, and the introduction of anti-pest enzymes to minimize the overheads and maintenance costs of large-scale reforestation. What might moral philosophy have to say about this? In a nutshell, do existing objections to genetic modification on moral grounds hold good when applied to an imaginary macro project such as using GM to minimize threats to human civilization from climate change?
What are the objections to genetic modification of crops in general? A sceptic might point out that GM ’s impact on our ecosystem is unpredictable and potentially destructive. The morality of employing the technology is further clouded by the perception that the risk-taking would only be for profit – itself a political and moral issue. An argument along these lines might be that the potential benefits are to a relatively small number of shareholders and executives, but the associated risks are taken by everyone, and that this is unfair. One counter-argument here would be that potential savings in production costs will filter to the consumer, and that hardier, high-yield GM crops will also make food available cheaply in poorer nations.
Another argument against GM is on religious grounds, holding that such tampering with nature shows disrespect for God ’s Creation, or for the natural order. There are similarities to the controversy over cloning.
There could also be political objections; what if we don’t want the kind of economic or social developments that GM technology would tend to bring about? Lifestyle criticisms could be levelled, mainly from a romantic, idealistic position, such as is taken by Marx in The German Ideology or by New Age adherents.
Rewards and Risks
So why do we need GM techniques, and who might benefit from them? Three groups to consider are: scientists, people in general, and all living organisms. GM scientists benefit from the pursuit of GM technology through having interesting work, gaining peer recognition and earning relatively high salaries and bonuses, sometimes including share options. Humans in general may benefit (so the biochemical industry assures us) from the development of a host of tailored organisms and crops, which will help defeat dreadful diseases, ensure cheap and plentiful food and fill the bellies of a hungry world. So the risks will be borne by everyone, but so will the rewards.
Some might further argue that the key stakeholders for human endeavour include all the living beings on the Earth, not just humanity and our favoured pets: thus we should always consider the rest of nature in the planning and implementation of our lifestyles. This view can lead to two quite different perspectives, which do appear somewhat similar. In the first this inclusiveness is simply seen as mutually beneficial and therefore ultimately in our own interest. The other perspective would truly believe in the equality of the species. This equality would be akin to the intrinsic worth that Kant gives humans, or the equivalence between humans seen in Mill ’s ethics, and thus these other species would be liable to the same moral treatment. They too become stakeholders in the climate change situation. While they may not benefit from cheap food or medicine, they might certainly benefit from a stabilisation of the climate by GM trees – or suffer from changes to their ecosystem if GM goes wrong.
Kant and Mill
What can ethics tell us about whether or not to use GM biotechnology? Some systems of ethics talk about duties we should perform; others urge us to act so as to ensure the best consequences. The best-known example of duty-based ethics is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. In short, Kant says we should ‘treat each person as an end in themselves, and not merely as a means to an end’. The proposed genetic modification of trees to reduce CO2 levels aims to bring a benefit to all people, which would be treating them as ends-in-themselves. Therefore Kant might see it as a duty to implement this technology, provided we took as much care as possible to ensure that it was safe. If we made a mistake and global catastrophe ensued, Kant would at least hold us morally blameless, for our intentions were pure. Generally, if Kant was asked “If I were presented with a method of doing global good, should I do so?” I think he would reply “Yes – it would be your duty.” Of course, if we granted equal consideration to trees as our fellow-inhabitants of the planet, in accordance with the stakeholder view above, then things would become more complicated. The modified trees are plainly being used as means to our ends. However, Kant himself would have laughed at the notion that we should worry about our duties towards trees.
The most famous ethical system to focus on the consequences of our actions is the utilitarian ethics of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to utilitarianism, we should act so as to bring about ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Stabilising the climate via the use of genetically modified trees would benefit a very large number of people. It might possibly harm a smaller number – say, farmers whose land was compulsorily purchased for the reforestation programmes – but the net effect on people’s wellbeing would certainly be hugely positive, provided nothing went drastically wrong.
Many of the situations of ethical choice discussed by utilitarians concern potential winners and potential losers. This one is slightly different in that if all goes well, we ’ll nearly all be winners (to a greater or lesser degree) and if things go wrong, most of us could lose. So let’s look at the risks. There are many differing possible malfunctions in GM research: design error, production error, test results error, unforeseen environmental catastrophe. These areas are already subject to very careful monitoring by pharmaceutical companies and regulators. The biggest worries seem to involve unexpected mutations, or seeds from modified crops escaping into the wild and having a disasterous impact on the ecosystem.
Unfortunately, while the nature of the risks involved in GM technology can be recognized, assigning a mathematical probability to them is much more difficult. This makes it difficult to perform any sort of utilitarian-like calculus of potential goods versus potential evils. Cost-benefit analysis based on monetary evaluation may yet prove incapable of producing a truly credible risk assessment of pursuing GM technology. Nonetheless, some estimates of the risks will need to be developed to enable non-specialist decision-makers to have a confident understanding of the issues.
Trees Are Green
The key element so far seems to be that of risk assessment. Do the potential benefits of genetically modifying trees to boost our efforts to maintain our habitat outweigh the risks of doing so? And is it an all-or-nothing situation? At what point would the impact of GM become so beneficial that even religious objections could be overturned? At some point on the continuum the benefits will outweigh the risks to a reasonable person – especially in the face of an unfolding catastrophe, such as climate change may be. High risk of this would call for the most effective preventative and containment measures.
The problem of a technology with big potential benefits and serious risks has faced humanity before, in the form of nuclear power. When we evaluate the risks and benefits of using GM to combat climate change, there at first seems to be an absolute threshold of fear, the equivalent of fear of the ‘China Syndrome’ meltdown in nuclear power generation. The threshold may be linked to the scale of benefit potentially derived from the GM endeavour: as they rise in scale, the potential benefits may make previous untenable risks bearable, to some upper limit. On the contrary, if our evaluation of the risks and benefits shows only marginal benefits for high risks, one could then persuasively argue that research and testing must be delayed until either the risk became minimal, or the benefits relatively huge, making the risk bearable. One can see parallel discussions in domains such as Artificial Intelligence and pharmaceutical R & D.
As an additional complexity, ‘benefit’ may not be the best word to use when we’re talking about avoiding an outcome, as with the effort spent over the millenium bug. Such ‘benefits’ are only a form of insurance against a negative outcome of events.
We have not looked at the moral issues of emission or industrial pollution. The focus has been on the morality of deploying GM technology in urgent response to a massive potential upheaval, climate change. This matches a known threat to civilization against a vaguely plausible solution with an unknown degree of risk attached. The discussion has touched on the different approaches and conclusions of differing moral traditions: those of a calculus (or cost-benefit) based perspective like utilitarianism, and those focusing on the moral validity of the strategy itself, such as Kant’s duty-based morality. Generally, the impact of a common threat may put a strain on contemporary political decision-making paradigms. Either way, moral philosophy would seem to say that we need to view policy and economic activity in a new global perspective.
Our basic conclusion is that some form of utilitarian calculus is most likely to provide a suitable tool for assessing both GM appropriateness and impact. Utilitarianism would advocate using GM when that use is focused, carefully controlled, and has a potential benefit which is massive in comparison with the potential risks. In essence, the threat from climate change could potentially be so severe that it makes sense to employ a solution which itself has some dangers attached, and utilitarianism could help us to make that judgement.
© Andrew J. Lewis 2008
Andy Lewis is a mature postgraduate student of MSc Conservation Management at Writtle College.