Theological and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering

Calming the Storm

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Forrest Clingerman, Kevin J. O'Brien
Religious Ethics and Environmental Challenges
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In her 2014 presidential address to the American Academy of Religion [AAR], Laurie Zoloth challenged the ten thousand members of the AAR to “interrupt” their lives—as individuals, citizens, and scholars—in order to respond in some significant way to the pressing challenges of global climate change (“Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84.1 [2016]). Theological and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering: Calming the Storm, edited by Forrest Clingerman and Kevin J. O’Brien, offers an informative and thought-provoking resource for those who are ready to respond to Zoloth’s challenge.

Clingerman and O’Brien’s book focuses on climate engineering. While climate change is an unintended consequence of the fossil fuel economy, climate engineering (or geoengineering) is an intentional intervention to directly control attributes of the atmosphere at the planetary scale. It can take two predominant forms: carbon dioxide removal [CDR]—such as artificial trees and algae blooms—which focuses on reducing one of the causes of climate change, and solar radiation management [SRM]—such as space mirrors and particle clouds—which reduces some of the effects of climate change. These technologies are actively researched, and geoengineering is increasingly prominent in public discourse. Theologians, religious ethicists, and other religious studies scholars can play a key role in mediating reflection on scientific and technological options in light of core narratives and values that shape our understanding of climate change, and that orient ethical action. Other audiences that could benefit from this book include Christian communities that are engaged in environmental issues as well as scientists, engineers, policymakers, and others who are committed to deliberative public discourse on this topic.

Following the editors’ introduction, the collection opens with two chapters that begin to frame the issue. The first chapter reproduces a 2014 article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist that orients the reader to the importance of religion in climate engineering debates. Recognizing that such public debates will include academic as well as non-academic perspectives, the second chapter describes an effort in Germany to engage religious groups in genuine and open discussions on climate engineering.

Two major sections follow, each composed of four chapters. The first presents philosophical and theological responses to climate engineering. Dane Scott uses Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism to expose the temptation to the sin of overreach (hubris) in SRM proposals. Marit Trelstad draws on process theology to present an image of the planet as sacred and to highlight the deep interconnectivity of all life. Clingerman focuses on equivocation between distinct representations of temporality—as chronos and as kairos—in narratives of climate engineering. Stefan Skrimshire connects climate engineering to de-extinction projects in order to call into question efforts to respond to finitude and loss by attempting to decode and rewrite the book of nature.

The second major section offers perspectives from the field of religious ethics. Laura Hartman questions the mechanistic view of nature implicit in climate engineering proposals, offering instead a medical model for talking about climate engineering that draws upon the root metaphor of earth as an organism. Willis Jenkins argues that humanists can play valuable roles on interdisciplinary research teams by exposing the moral cosmologies implicit within climate engineering narratives. Sarah Fredericks argues that climate engineering requires ritual action to overcome the limits of ethical, theological, and philosophical reflection. Finally, O’Brien points to the structural—“slow”—violence characteristic of climate change, and calls for repentance prior to engaging in any geoengineering activity. Many of the chapters in this collection originated from a 2015 conference in Claremont, California, and the collection concludes with an appendix identifying points of consensus among those authors regarding religion and climate engineering.

A strength of this collection is the balance between theological and ethical perspectives, reflecting the importance of religious thought in both shaping our understanding of climate change and orienting our actions in response to it. The primary focus of many of the chapters is SRM, rather than CDR. This is understandable, given that SRM presents the greater moral hazard—insurance industry jargon for a condition that encourages dangerous activity; if one can engineer the climate, one might argue, there is less need to aggressively restructure the fossil fuel industry to reduce emissions. The book as a whole—especially its emphasis on narratives and storytelling—clearly demonstrates that climate engineering is not solely a scientific issue. The collection is illuminating and inviting; it deepens reflection on this precarious moment in history, and challenges us to be deliberative as the conversation surrounding climate engineering unfolds.

It is appropriate for the book to end by turning its readers’ attention to the important and attainable first step of repentance. Climate change presents immense challenges, and we must begin somewhere. It is too late to prevent climate change, and the social and political will to mitigate and adapt to it is inadequate. For some, geoengineering looks like an option that can buy us a little more time. However, these are not options to implement hastily in desperation. Clingerman and O’Brien’s Theological and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering will enrich and deepen interdisciplinary and public reflection on these increasingly prominent proposals.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is assistant professor of world religions at Ithaca Colege.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Forrest Clingerman is Associate Professor of philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University.

Kevin J. O’Brien is Associate Professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University.



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