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December 8, 2009

Earth Scientists Need a "Hippocratic" Code of Ethics

BALTIMORE – Earth and environmental scientists should adopt a voluntary “Hippocratic” code of ethics regarding geoengineering to counter global warming or other intentional alterations of Earth systems, UMBC Geography Prof. Erle Ellis argues in a paper published in the weekly journal Eos Dec. 8, 2009.

Ellis and co-author Prof. Peter Haff of Duke University argue that Earth and environmental scientists increasingly are being asked how to intentionally alter earth systems to ensure the planet remains habitable for humans. These range from industrial sequestration of carbon to massive technological alterations of Earth systems, such as injecting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to counter global warming.

Such interventions far exceed traditional scientific disciplines focused on understanding how Earth’s systems work, the paper argues, and thrust scientists to the center of highly politicized debates over global warming and climate change.

"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," Ellis wrote in his blog, Human Landscapes. "This was made painfully clear recently when climate change deniers hacked into the archives of the Climate Research Unit, selectively quotes 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."

Ellis and Haff propose that Earth and environmental scientists adopt a voluntary code of ethics that recognizes the social responsibilities of informing and advising the public on major issues such as the science of climate change. The proposal would recommend that students, upon earning a Ph.D. in Earth or environmental science, vow to:

  • Advise against any intervention into the functioning of earth systems that might harm humanity, the biosphere, atmosphere or other earth systems.

  • 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.

Posted by kavan at December 8, 2009 11:50 AM