Since science and technology can be both cure and killer the ethical issues surrounding their development are complex and not always clear-cut. The miraculous technology that allows an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to protect soldiers on the ground can also simultaneously inflict unacceptable damage on civilian populations. For an engineer working in, say, the defence sector, it might seem that ethical considerations are best left unscrutinised.
For pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility, a loose alliance of scientists and engineers concerned with placing ethics at the centre of the development of technology, there is an increasing worry over how emerging technologies such as UAVs are being used. Dr Stuart Parkinson, the group’s director, puts it this way: “There is a general uncertainty over emerging technologies. They are difficult to regulate when the science is so uncertain. The potential for negative effects is therefore quite serious.
“There are also vested interests, particularly in terms of large corporations driving the agenda and development of these emerging technologies, and we are concerned about the level of control over them. Further, alternatives are perhaps not being given the due consideration they should get.”
One such alternative is renewable energy, which, the scientists point out, was mentioned in a report in the US as far back as the late 1970s as being favourable to geo-engineering.
Geo-engineering is a controversial and unproven science that has crept up the political, scientific and environmental agenda in the past three years. Both the IMechE and the Royal Society are taking it seriously as a possible method for combating climate change. Potential geo-engineering schemes fall into two camps: methods for capturing carbon emissions from the air, or plans that would help deflect some of the Sun’s energy from the Earth to cool the atmosphere.
The former might include deploying mechanical trees to capture greenhouse gases, as proposed by US physicist Klaus Lackner, or increasing the level of plankton in the oceans to make a bigger carbon sink. The latter includes Roger Angel’s plan to launch millions of reflective discs into space to create a sunshade and Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh’s plan to increase the albedo (reflectivity) of maritime clouds to reflect a larger amount of solar radiation.
Crackers? The gut reaction of some scientists is just that. Professor Joanna Haigh, an atmospheric physicist at Imperial College London, says: “My first reaction to the whole thing is to say, ‘get real’. The problem of global warming is emissions of CO2, so do something about it. Forget all these engineering games, they’re toys for the boys.”
Haigh sat on the Royal Society board that produced a report on geo-engineering, and, despite these misgivings, she argues that the scientific community would be “abnegating its responsibilities” not to consider it now.
The next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, due in 2014, will feature a section on geo-engineering. The panel had previously dismissed it. Haigh says: “It is on the agenda.”