On Doctoring the Planet

Our planet is heating up in a hurry! Call in the Earth doctors! Let’s fix the planet!

Now that we’ve pushed Earth systems out of the comfort zone, Earth and environmental scientists are increasingly being called on to address the big questions that affect all of us, like “How can we keep the planet habitable for humans?”. While the simple answer might be that we should just stop burning fossil fuels, stop consuming so much and shrink our populations, we’ve clearly made little headway on this, for fairly obvious reasons (let’s hope Copenhagen turns the tide on fossil fuels at least).

So why not counter global warming by directly altering the planet? Without changing what we human individuals do, the planet could be cooled by injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. And that is only one from a long list of massive technological fixes that might solve global warming by reengineering the planet. Regardless of whether it is a good idea to change Earth systems intentionally (I’m a skeptic!), changing the planet is really nothing new for us- we long ago reengineered most of the biosphere to produce food. Indeed, Earth systems are already so altered that we now live in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch characterized by direct human alteration of Earth systems.

However, there is one thing that is relatively new about massive human alteration of Earth systems: Earth and environmental scientists may now become actively involved in this, with the future of humanity in the balance.

“Doctoring the planet” is not our regular work. Our usual scientific questions, like “how do Earth systems work?” and “how have humans changed Earth systems?” are one thing; getting involved in intentionally altering earth systems is an altogether different matter. Even without such involvement, Earth and environmental science are no longer just regular academic disciplines, as the global and political implications of our work and even our words are now very much in the public eye. This was made painfully clear recently when climate change deniers hacked into the archives of CRU, selectively quoted some private scientific communications, and attempted to gain new political ground with the claim that scientists had “cooked the data” in support of the human role in changing climate (closer inspection reveals no foul play, merely poor choice of words).

In discussing this new role, Duke Earth scientist Peter Haff and I came to believe that our scientific disciplines, decision makers, and the public would benefit from a more formal code of ethics that recognizes our new societal responsibilities in the Anthropocene.

Today, we published our thoughts on this, including our proposal for a voluntary “Oath for Earth and Environmental Scientists”, in EOS, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union (< link> sorry- AGU members only) <download pdf>.

Here is a version of the oath, slightly revised, that we propose would be administered to our students (and ourselves), upon conferring the Ph.D. in Earth or environmental science.

I vow to always:

  • Advise against any intervention into the functioning of earth systems that I believe might harm humanity, the biosphere, atmosphere or other earth systems upon which our well being depends.
  • Make clear to the public that scientific understanding of Earth systems is limited and that this makes all alterations of Earth systems inherently risky.
  • Describe, to the best of my knowledge and that of my discipline, the specific risks incurred by any intentional alteration of an Earth system, including the risks to humans, other organisms, and the systems that support life on Earth.
  • Ensure that whatever advice I give, I give for the benefit of humanity, remaining free of intentional distortion or personal bias.

By formally recognizing our responsibilities as Earth and environmental scientists in the Anthropocene, we hope to serve as better guides toward more successful stewardship of our planet.

More links and references

UMBC Talking Heads TV post (by Kavan Peterson)