Climate change continues to be a problem with no easy answer. Climate talks seem to be at a standstill, and more radical large-scale solutions, such as altering the Earth's atmosphere through geoengineering, are likely to cause more problems than they solve.

But what if instead of altering the Earth, we alter humanity? That's an idea proposed by philosopher S. Matthew Liao of New York University in a recent paper published in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment. In the paper, Liao suggests bioengineering humans so that we use fewer resources and take better care of the environment.

Some of Liao's ideas are sure to stir up controversy. For instance, he suggests that people could be given pills or patches that make them nauseous whenever they eat meat, effectively turning them into vegetarians. Pharmaceuticals could also be used to enhance people's feelings of empathy and altruism, because those attitudes tend to foster concern about the environment.

Liao also proposes genetically engineering future humans to be smaller in stature, to make them more energy-efficient. Another wild idea recommends genetically engineering superhumans with cat eyes, so that less lighting is needed to see at night. That's right: cat eyes!

He discusses each of these ideas and more in a recent interview with The Atlantic.

Liao is careful to note that all of these proposals are merely meant to introduce the idea of human engineering as one possible solution to climate change. The paper is not meant to advocate for any proposed solutions in particular. As a philosopher in bioethics, he understands and acknowledges that many of these ideas carry serious ethical concerns, and he is quick to emphasize the voluntary nature of all of his proposed modifications.

"One of the ideas that motivated us to write this paper [was] the idea that [because] we caused anthropogenic climate change ... perhaps we ought to bear some of the costs required to address it," Liao told The Atlantic. "But having said that, we also want to make this attractive to people — we don't want this to be a zero sum game where it's just a cost that we have to bear. Many of the solutions we propose might actually be quite desirable to people, particularly the meat patch."

Liao went on to say that at least one pharmaceutical company representative has expressed interest in the idea of a pill or patch for meat-intolerance. It could be offered as a choice to meat-eaters who want to become vegetarian but have difficulty overcoming their taste and desire for meat.

Furthermore, Liao believes an analogy can be drawn between anti-depressants and other mood-altering pharmaceuticals, and the idea of developing drugs that enhance our feelings of empathy and sympathy about the environment. Provided that the person taking the pill desires the personality change, would choosing to take a pill that makes you friendlier to the environment be all that much different than choosing to take pills that help you overcome depression?

He also defended the proposal to genetically engineer future generations to have smaller, more energy-efficient statures.

"It's been suggested that, given the seriousness of climate change, we ought to adopt something like China's one child policy," explained Liao. "Human engineering could give families the choice between two medium-sized children, or three small-sized children. From our perspective that would be more liberty enhancing than a policy that says "you can only have one or two children."

In the end, the details of Liao's proposals merely make for good philosophical exercise. But his larger point is deadly serious: there's an urgent need for real climate change solutions, and the sooner the better. Solutions as radical as human engineering won't be necessary if we get serious about saving the planet now.

The question therefore lingers: How serious are we really? And are radical proposals like Liao's really the kinds of solutions we want to be left with?

MNN homepage photo: Trifonov_Evgeniy/iStockphoto

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Should we bioengineer superhumans that can better combat climate change?
Philosopher suggests that bioengineering people to be herbivores with small statures and cat-like eyes could help to save the planet.