OpenMind kicked off a new conference series — ‘Talking about the Future’ — with an analysis of the current state of the climate emergency threatening the planet. The events, organized in collaboration with Spain’s newspapers ‘La Voz de Galicia,’ ‘El Diario Vasco,’ and ‘El Periódico’ took place November 12, 13, and 14 in La Coruña, San Sebastian, and Barcelona. Matthew Liao, Director of the Center for Bioethics and philosophy professor at New York University was on hand to talk at the conference.
If in order to combat climate change we can either change the environment itself (geoengineering) or ourselves, and if there are massive risks associated with changing the environment, why don’t we seriously consider the possibility of changing ourselves? This is the question Professor Matthew Liao posed to participants in the seminar ‘Bioscience: Climate Emergency’ to stress that we cannot discard any potential solution to the climate crisis facing us.
The adoption of urgent measures to fight climate change and its effects is one of the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 global challenges instituted by the UN in 2015, which aims to protect the planet and ensure prosperity for the world’s population. The goal of the symposium was to create a forum of debate about how to confront this enormous challenge.
Less harmful humans for the planet
According to Matthew Liao, the key to our species’ survival may be human engineering — also known as the ‘biohacking’ — and a series of controversial measures that, at least in theory, could be implemented with technologies that already exist today. One of these measures would be to use pharmaceuticals to induce human intolerance to meat in order to discourage its consumption, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gases produced by intensive livestock farming. Another example would be the use of a hormonal treatment for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, used by fertility clinics to identify embryos with genetically transmitted diseases and in this case to identify and select children who will be small in stature: a human’s footprint on the world is directly tied to his or her size.
Professor Liao is no stranger to the concerns raised by these proposals. “I’m a philosopher; my job is to think about unusual topics such as these,” he said. “Thinking outside the box sometimes leads to new, very useful solutions. It is an opportunity to explore, and perhaps there are new opportunities that may arise from this reflection.” By way of conclusion, the professor stressed the need to support the scientific community and rely on research to find new ways to combat climate change.
Geoengineering versus human engineering
Along with the events taking place over the course of the week, a symposium was held at the Biology Department at the University of Barcelona on November 14. In addition to Matthew Liao, Jofre Carnicer, professor of ecology at the University of Barcelona and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and Ricard Solé, research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) at the University Pompeu Fabre participated in a discussion about the measures that should be immediately adopted in order to stop the advance of climate change.
Professor Solé’s proposal served as a counterpoint to Liao’s ideas; the professor at the University Pompeu Fabre champions the large-scale adoption of geoengineering. Specifically, he spoke about the potential of synthetic biology for the terraforming of the biosphere, a growing research field, which aims to respond to the rapid deterioration suffered by the planet in recent decades.