Accidental Terraforming

post by Sable · 2023-04-26T06:49:04.392Z · LW · GW · 16 comments

This is a link post for


  The Moral Framing of Climate Change
    An Innocent Earth
    A Guilty Populace
    Why A Moral Framing?
    The Effects of a Moral Framing
  The Reframe: Accidental Terraforming
    Why Accidental?
    Removing Morality From The Discussion
    Benefits of the Reframe

On the subject of climate change - specifically anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change - much ink has been spilled. Or keys typed, I suppose, since the internet doesn’t actually use ink.

Regardless, the Great War over acknowledging the existence of Climate Change seems to be over; enough evidence has been gathered to show that humans have had an effect on the planet’s climate. The new battlefield seems to be over how we respond to this information. Do we switch to entirely renewable energy? What forms of energy count as “renewable” (does Nuclear count)? And perhaps most contentiously, will the laws and procedures once passed in the name of stopping climate change instead hinder our response to it?

It seems to me that the issue is further confounded by the moralistic valence we associate with Climate Change, and that the discourse could be improved by removing that valence.

Thus we should, like a good therapist might suggest, reframe the issue.

The Moral Framing of Climate Change

While an in-depth discussion of the way Climate Change is portrayed in the media and by those who make the cause central to their identity is worth its own post, for now we simply observe that the language, imagery, and symbolism of the environmental movement frames Climate Change as a sin committed by humanity upon an innocent earth.

An Innocent Earth

In Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, widely credited with launching the environmental movement, she talks about nature as something innocent and unambiguously good:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature - the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

This language is common in environmentalist circles. Greenpeace describes the Canadian boreal forest as:

…an ancient and living forest that is a global treasure shaped by natural forces and stewarded by Indigenous Peoples. It serves as an important and stunning refuge for some of the world’s most iconic wildlife — like the wolverine, lynx, caribou and billions of migratory birds.

Whether or not the boreal forest is a global treasure is a value judgement, and different people value different things. When we speak of the earth and nature as beautiful wonders whose majesty can only be lessened by human intervention, we are making a value judgement to place that which is human-created beneath that which is not human-created, or “natural”.

A Guilty Populace

When we speak or write about how humans have affected the planet, the language used is often accusatory and criminal.

The phrase “rape” is used to describe mining and topsoil erosion, a word perhaps more evocative of heinous wrong done to an innocent than any other.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth explicitly frames the issue this way:

“Global warming, along with the cutting and burning of forests and other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid. This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc: it is us.”

Humanity is guilty, the environmentalist movement states, of terrible crimes against the beauty of nature, and so we must pay the price for those crimes.

Why A Moral Framing?

Why does the environmentalist movement frame the issue morally?

I have little in the way of facts or studies to support me here, so my suggestions and suspicions should be taken as just that: suggestions and suspicions.

First, I suggest that the moral framing is a natural fit with the subject matter. I was recently exposed the idea of moral dyad theory, which argues that humans group entities into one of two categories: those with agency who can’t suffer, and those who can suffer but have no agency, or villains and victims.

Environmentalism effortlessly fits into the moral dyad - after all, “nature” is capable of dying (and individual bits of nature can suffer) but is not considered agentic, whereas humans are considered agentic, but the entities inflicting these harms upon nature are often governments and corporations, which can’t suffer.

Second, I suspect that a moral framing is the best way to motivate voters to focus on an issue, as opposed to any of the other issues they could be concerned with. If a moral framing were not an effective way to obtain votes, I highly doubt politicians would still use it.

The Effects of a Moral Framing

By framing the issue as a sin committed by humanity upon an innocent earth, environmentalists seize the moral high ground of every argument they step into. Humanity is guilty of a grievous harm, and therefore we must make amends. Any and all reparations are justified by the magnitude of the damage and the heinousness of the crime.

As a political strategy, it has been quite effective.

What it does not do, however, is present a workable solution to both protecting the earth going forward as well as supporting the maximum amount of human flourishing possible. Nor does it have positive effects on those growing up being told they are guilty of ruining the planet.

I suggest that a new way of thinking about the issue is necessary.

The Reframe: Accidental Terraforming

Terraforming is the deliberate modification of a planet or other stellar body to make it more habitable for humans.

Accidental terraforming is what happens when humans have an effect on a planet or stellar body without meaning to.

Why Accidental?

I have little evidence to support - but find it hard to think otherwise - that the people behind the process of industrialization that led to the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions that are credited with climate change had any idea their work would have a global effect.

Remember, the industrial revolution began around 1760, long before the 20th century when climatology became a science. At the time, the furnaces of industrialization required massive amounts of coal, which meant massive amounts of wood had to be cut down and processed to feed the fires of progress.

Did the industrialists understand that they were having an effect on local ecology? Probably. Did they understand the effect their efforts would have on the climate? Almost certainly not.

In fact, because climate change has only recently (within the last few decades) had enough data underscoring it to become accepted fact, no one could have been trying to change the climate on purpose.

And yet the climate has been changed - hence accidental terraforming.

Removing Morality From The Discussion

“Terraforming” itself has little moral valence; it isn’t good or bad, especially because it largely exists within the domain of science fiction. This is good - we want to remove the moral framing of climate change.

“Accidental” terraforming emphasizes the fact that climate change was not anyone’s goal. It is an accident, a byproduct of a process human civilization underwent that lifted us out of subsistence living and poverty, that allowed us to escape the Malthusian trap.

Climate Change is evil, a sin committed by villainous humans upon an innocent earth. It must be answered the way that all sin is answered, with blood and restitution, with scapegoats and shame and penitence.

Accidental Terraforming is neutral, an effect that human civilization has had upon the planet of our birth. It isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it does require careful thought and inquiry to determine if this is the course we want to set.

Benefits of the Reframe

First, by removing morality from the discussion, I believe that segments of the population that are resistant to current Climate Change rhetoric can be more easily convinced of the science.

When the facts and data about the earth’s climate are conflated with blame and guilt and sin, a natural resistance to the latter becomes a resistance to the former. No one likes being blamed for something they didn’t do, and no individual alive today is responsible for the earth’s changing climate.

By changing the messaging and removing the blame, accidental terraforming can become another uncontroversial fact of life, like the germ theory of disease or the nature of electricity.

Second, framing the earth’s changing climate as accidental terraforming highlights the idea that terraforming the planet is something we probably wanted to do anyway. The earth has not always been habitable for human life in the past, and it won’t always be habitable for human life in the future - if humanity wants this planet to be our home, we were going to have to start tinkering with the climate eventually.

Going even farther, we are currently in an interglacial period, meaning that the earth was in and will likely once more be in an ice age without human intervention. If we want to continue with our way of life, that seems to be worth interfering with.

Third, accidental terraforming suggests what I believe is the correct solution to what we now call climate change: that humanity should take control of our planet’s climate. While the specific details go far beyond me, humanity has always defined itself by the way that we shape our environment to match our own needs. Terraforming the planet is the logical conclusion to that tendency, the equivalent of air conditioning or central heating but on a global scale.


Reframing Climate Change as Accidental Terraforming removes the moral valence of the issue, clarifying what the problem is (how habitable the earth is for humanity) and what we should do about it (carefully gain control over our planet’s climate).

It deprives the issue of the controversy that, while politically advantageous, is poisonous to reasonable discourse and prophylactic to any actual solutions.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by noggin-scratcher · 2023-04-26T09:48:10.715Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have citations to hand, but my impression from what I've read before is that the total amount of carbon emitted by early industry is relatively minor, and that the exponentially increasing curve of emissions puts the bulk of the total occurring relatively recently.

Which would put significant culpability on recent oil/gas/coal use, by people and companies that had the scientific understanding to "know better" if they were inclined to. But that in many cases they instead deliberately downplayed and ignored and spread misinformation, so as to continue extracting and selling lucrative fuel products.

Calling it an accident feels like it diffuses responsibility away from some genuine bad actors. Which seems to me to be a factual error, regardless of whether it's a good communications or persuasion strategy.

Replies from: Sable
comment by Sable · 2023-04-27T16:00:24.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that separating out true causal responsibility (blame) from the most effective/persuasive messaging is a useful thing to do. I think, as a general rule, that blame is not a useful thing to do at a societal level; it seems effective in personal and intimate settings because responsibility in those contexts can be clear-cut and unambiguous. Broader applications just seem to make people angry with each other, without actually accomplishing any substantive change.

the exponentially increasing curve of emissions puts the bulk of the total occurring relatively recently.

I hadn't really thought that through, and it seems obviously correct when you mention it. I'd bring up, however, that:

  1. I have trouble believing that anyone was genuinely trying to ruin the planet, mustache-twirling villain style.
  2. The process of industrialization started before anyone currently alive was born, and it's that process, of which people/companies are a part, that is "responsible" for climate change, insofar as any singular cause can be ascertained. There are absolutely people/corporations that have enriched themselves at the planet/humanity's expense, but they're part of a system too, and if they hadn't done it, others would have.
comment by AnthonyC · 2023-04-30T21:17:29.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if the moral framing is also part of how other moral considerations get dragged into discussions of paths and solutions. Not just "Are developing countries justified in using fossil fuels to develop?" but a whole set of things like "does this particular innovator have enough diversity among its employees?" "are the investors sufficiently blameless in their own lives and other investments?" "have any of the people involved said things I find objectionable?" and so on. Because people do, in fact, use these kinds of objections to oppose solutions that would, in fact, be useful in reducing GHG emissions or taking GHGs out of the atmosphere.

comment by Brendan Long (korin43) · 2023-04-26T18:01:16.143Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Accidental Terraforming is neutral, an effect that human civilization has had upon the planet of our birth. It isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it does require careful thought and inquiry to determine if this is the course we want to set.

I don't think this is neutral though. I agree that the Earth's feelings about the matter are irrelevant, but terraforming means making a planet more like Earth / more habitable for humans, but climate change is making the planet less like the Earth we're used to and plausibly less habitable for humans. Something like Venusforming makes it more clear that it's pushing the climate in a direction we may not want to go.

Replies from: JBlack, Sable
comment by JBlack · 2023-04-28T02:18:27.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One term I've seen, first in a game as an option to do to enemy planets but later in discussions of climate change, was "deterraforming".

comment by Sable · 2023-04-27T16:03:50.099Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's actually arguable. Without going deep into the citations (although I could upon request), I'll note that climate change currently has more of an effect at the lower temperatures than higher ones - freezing becomes cold, while hot doesn't get much hotter.

Because more people die from cold weather than warm weather, it's unclear that the effects of climate change have been net negative.

Additionally, more carbon dioxide in the air means greater crop yields, which is again net positive for humanity.

Which isn't to say that Climate Change is good, and I recognize that I'm using the word "terraforming" loosely. I do believe, however, that controlling the earth's climate was always going to be necessary in the end, if only because of the inevitability of another ice age.

Replies from: gilch, dr_s
comment by gilch · 2023-04-28T15:35:55.030Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there are other bottlenecks to crop yield before CO2 becomes much of a factor. There have been experiments with adding CO2 to greenhouses to see how it affects crops. More CO2 tends to make plants more fibrous and tough. Not better for eating. Selective breeding could perhaps mitigate this, but not for free. Consider that this could start affecting most of our crops at once.

Humans are a tropical species. We couldn't survive a moderately cold night in the temperate zones without technological assistance (shelter, clothing, fire, etc.) so maybe there is something to the argument that a warmer planet is more habitable, but it has negative effects too.

A warmer world would have more frequent, more violent storms. It's just more energy in the system. We're already seeing this beginning to happen.

Even granting that cold weather kills more, that may not remain the case in a warmer world. We can deal with cold using even fairly primitive technology (clothing, fire). In a cold snap people can bundle up and burn things. In a heat wave, on the other hand, once the wet bulb temperature exceeds human tolerance, everybody dies. You can defend against this with air conditioning, but that's much higher tech, and prone to failures, especially in poorer areas where this is likely to come up first.

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-04-28T15:55:16.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A warmer world would probably be better for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For an agricultural, industrialised civilization that can protect itself from cold just fine but is vulnerable to unpredictability and extreme events hitting its infrastructure, not so much.

comment by dr_s · 2023-04-28T15:53:51.130Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Because more people die from cold weather than warm weather, it's unclear that the effects of climate change have been net negative.

The biggest problem of climate change is intensified extreme events and the effect it has on agriculture, not direct deaths from heatstroke. That said, things might change anyway if we ever experience a true Wet Bulb Event. That might flip the scales very quickly. I'm worried for the Indian Subcontinent and the Arabic Peninsula, as they seem the most on track for experiencing that soon.

comment by dr_s · 2023-04-28T15:51:18.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nitpick with the term: you can't say "terraforming" when the object of it is... Terra. Earth. Terraforming is about turning a planet into something Earth-like. Global warming is more like a (luckily very limited!) case of accidental Venus-forming, if anything.

Replies from: Sable
comment by Sable · 2023-05-07T17:36:29.819Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I accept my ticket from the pedantry police with dignity.

Replies from: dr_s
comment by dr_s · 2023-05-07T22:17:45.765Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would argue that this is actually a matter of substance and not form but all in all that probably would qualify me as not only the pedantry police, but the pedantry SWATs.

comment by Bezzi · 2023-04-30T20:09:26.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have little evidence to support - but find it hard to think otherwise - that the people behind the process of industrialization that led to the deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions that are credited with climate change had any idea their work would have a global effect.


Bit of evidence against your point: it seems that Exxon accurately predicted climate change more than 50 years ago.

(I remember this because it was cited in an xkcd, but I am unable to find the strip).

Replies from: Sable
comment by Sable · 2023-05-07T17:30:26.165Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fifty years ago was hardly the start of industrialization; by the 1970s, the effects of industrialization upon the world were knowable, if not widely known. I'm more referring to the decisions and processes that began in the 18th and 19th century when I say that those people had no idea they could change the course of the planet's climate.

comment by ErickBall · 2023-04-30T19:36:55.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see your point about guilt/blame, but I'm just not sure the term we use to describe the phenomenon is the problem. We've already switched terms once (from "global warming" to "climate change") to sound more neutral, and I would argue that "climate change" is about the most neutral description possible--it doesn't imply that the change is good or bad, or suggest a cause. "Accidental terraforming", on the other hand, combined two terms with opposite valence, perhaps in the intent that they will cancel out? Terraforming is supposed to describe a desirable (for humans) change to the environment, while an accident is usually bad.

But the controversy, blame, and anger don't arise from the moniker, they are a natural consequence of trying to change behavior. In fact, people now like to say "anthropogenic climate change" precisely because they intend to put the blame explicitly on polluting industry. How can we take control of our effects on the climate if we don't first acknowledge them, and then add a moral valence? Without a "should", there is no impetus to action. Telling people they should do something different (and costly) will upset them, yes, but then you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Replies from: Sable
comment by Sable · 2023-05-07T17:35:44.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How can we take control of our effects on the climate if we don't first acknowledge them, and then add a moral valence?

Assigning blame doesn't fix anything; it divides people and helps bad actors accrue political power.

I would argue that "climate change" is about the most neutral description possible--it doesn't imply that the change is good or bad, or suggest a cause.

It certainly was neutral at some point, but I don't think anyone hears "climate change" and thinks of the climate getting better for humans, at least nowadays. "Accidental Terraforming" at least suggests that we ought to be doing this on purpose, instead of unintentionally.