In the fight to keep Earth from rapidly warming, humanity is relying on three primary methods: market solutions like carbon taxes and emissions trading; behavioral solutions like convincing people to drive electric cars and eat less meat; and geoengineering solutions, which involve manipulating the environment. One proposed example involves dumping limestone into the sea to combat ocean acidity and increase carbon sequestration.
There’s a fourth method that has rarely, if ever, been discussed: engineering humans to become more effective at mitigating and adapting to climate change. In a new paper, professors from Oxford and New York University explore some of the ways that humans could be engineered.
This would involve giving people a drug to make them want to do things for the common good. The paper explains: "There is evidence that higher empathy levels correlate with stronger environmental behaviors and attitudes. Increasing altruism and empathy could also help increase people’s willingness to assist those who suffer from climate change. While altruism and empathy have large cultural components, there is evidence that they also have biological underpinnings." Needless to say, there are ethical problems with changing the way people feel, though it could be argued that we already do this all the time with drugs that make people less depressed and anxious.
The researchers point out that in the U.S., women with lower cognitive ability are more likely to have children before age 18. If a drug existed to enhance cognition, maybe people would have fewer kids, and in turn there would be less of a burden on the environment in the future.
Smaller people need less food, less clothing (in terms of materials required for each item), and generally have a lighter ecological impact than larger people. Why not shrink humanity, then? The researchers speculate that we could use genetic engineering or hormone treatments to make sure the next generation is smaller than us. This is perhaps unfair to the future generation—assuming that not everyone gets the "smallness treatment," there will be a tiny group of a humans and a larger group of humans who might be blamed unfairly for contributing to worsening climate change (or who might be huge bullies). The kids, of course, get no say in whether they are chosen to be one of the small people.
Livestock farming accounts for over half of the planet’s greenhouse emissions. Much like people who want to quit smoking use nicotine patches, people who want to lessen their climate impact by consuming less meat could use meat patches that make animals taste disgusting.
These are all climate mitigation techniques. Adaptation would require a different set of enhancements for humans. Anders Sandberg, one of the authors of the paper, tells Co.Exist in an email: "Thinking about possible strains on humans, temperature tolerance is an obvious enhancement that might be good. But I think water management may be the big thing. Climate change is likely to cause a lot of water stress in many places, making improved ability to economize water a very useful change. However, the big human need for water is for agriculture rather than drinking, so adapting crops to be low-irrigation might be more important."
None of the professors involved in the paper are climate scientists—two are philosophers and one is a computation neuroscientist focusing on the societal and ethical issues of human enhancement and new technology. And they are not actively promoting the ideas they explore, despite what the many commenters on a recent Atlantic interview with one of the study authors seem to think.
The authors realize the troubling implications of their work. What if the government forced everyone to wear meat patches, take empathy pills, or have smaller children? It’s possible that certain big corporations and governments who don’t want to deal with conventional forms of climate change mitigation might foist these more dramatic measures on the public if they became widely available.
"No doubt governments might want to incentivize people, just like they do today on a lot of climate-related matters. However, I suspect the threshold for Western governments to actually incentivize biological modifications is very high. If nothing else, the reactions to our paper shows that this idea is not very anchored in our current culture," writes Sandberg. "A totalitarian state would have much more efficient—and nastier—ways of achieving green ends."
In any case, by the time human engineering technologies are ready, it might be too late to even think about climate change mitigation. "If one wants fast results, we need to change things downstream rather than upstream. Geoengineering like spreading aerosols have near-instant climate effects. Changing people’s minds, biology, or consumption habits is slower, and even if they changed it would take a long while before those changes percolated into the climate," Sandberg admits.
If we have the time, resources, and desire to work on human engineering, maybe we should focus on solutions with more widespread appeal—and a better safety profile—instead.