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Gareth Cook

Inconvenient truth

The long debate over climate change has ignored an entire class of potential solutions


PEOPLE HAVE offered many suggestions for dealing with climate change. There have been international political agreements, and attempts at market-based solutions. Some have suggested the problem lies closer to home, that recycling and driving a hybrid are ways to help.

And then there is one you probably have not heard yet: Make the next generation of children shorter so they consume less.

This is one of the options discussed in a new academic paper which has set off a storm of criticism. In “Human Engineering and Climate Change,’’ a group of three scholars considers ways of using science to alter the human body in order to divert the Earth from its march to slow boil - to drought, coastal flooding, extreme weather, and all the rest. A good number of the possibilities they put forward are indeed horrific, and the whole conversation surrounding it has a dystopian, totalitarian feel.

An interview with one of the authors on The Atlantic’s website inspired one commenter to call him “more dangerous than the Hitlerian eugenicists.’’


Yet the paper, which many of the most vitriolic critics do not appear to have read, deserves a far more serious hearing. What makes it so repulsive - linking broad environmental changes to intimate biological decisions - is precisely what makes it so valuable. It brings a moral weight, and makes ethical connections, that the debate over climate change desperately needs.

“It is not always the environment that should change to fit us,’’ says Anders Sandberg, a coauthor and research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

First, let’s be clear about what the authors do not have in mind. They are not arguing that any of the techniques they discuss - which range from pharmacologically boosting empathy to a patch that makes meat less appealing - are things that any government could ever ethically impose on its citizens. They are not even arguing that any of the ideas are ready for prime time, only that they deserve consideration - that the long debate over climate change has ignored an entire class of potential solutions.


Sandberg, and his colleagues S. Matthew Liao at New York University and Rebecca Roache at Oxford, make a completely logical point about height. In general, the taller people are, the larger they are, and, thus, the more they will consume. And this, multiplied by the size of the population, and the weight of modern capitalism on the ecosphere, has a tremendous impact. If people were shorter, as they were 100 years ago, there would be fewer greenhouse gases and less climate change.

They go on to point out that there are ways to limit people’s height, such as hormone therapy. It is hard to imagine that any parent would actually contemplate such a thing; it is odious. Yet the same reasoning could be applied to weight. A heavier population will also have a larger carbon footprint. Fighting obesity is part of the fight against global warming. And there is no denying the broader point: Our bodies, our most inviolable space, are part of the equation of climate change.

“The point is more to understand our ethics and the environment than actually making the kids of the future into green dwarves,’’ says Sandberg.

Sandberg and his coauthors veer into exceedingly strange places - is anyone who’s not a science fiction character going to take pharmaceuticals to make themselves more supportive of environmental change? - and it’s clear why they’ve been hit with so much criticism. Bill McKibben tweeted that they offer the “worst climate change solutions of all time.’’ Reaction from the warming denialist crowd has been even harsher.


Yet there is something compelling about, for instance, their discussion of meat consumption. A United Nations report found that the world’s livestock has a larger greenhouse gas impact than all its transportation infrastructure. There are people who would like to stop eating meat, but find it hard to resist the temptation. If someone could design a patch to help them quit and enjoy the health benefits, the way a patch helps people quit cigarettes, is that really objectionable?

Climate change is a moral problem. Many of the costs, in lives lost or economies damaged, lie in the future. But they are nonetheless real, human costs. Potential solutions must be judged in this context.

Last week, spring arrived in a blaze of heat. Cities throughout the Midwest posted record highs. In Boston, the temperature on Thursday pushed above 70 for the sixth time this month.

Of course, nobody can say that the spate of warm weather is specifically due to the greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere. But it seems that Mother Nature is delivering the same message as the authors of the controversial climate change paper: It’s time to take a look in the mirror.


Gareth Cook can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.