RealClimate logo


A bit of philosophy

Filed under: — eric @ 16 May 2007

Eric Steig and Gavin Schmidt

The two of us participated last week in an interesting meeting at the University of Washington on Ethics and Climate Change. Other scientists in attendance included Dennis Hartmann, who gave an overview of the current state of the science, and sometime RealClimate contributor Cecilia Bitz. Organized by Associate Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner, the conference was dedicated to the particular ethical and moral issues raised by the spectre of anthropogenic climate change. Since we aren’t philosophers by training, and since it would probably stray too far from RealClimate’s focus on science, we won’t comment in great detail. However, we thought it worth making our readers aware that there is a very interesting and growing literature on the subject. Based on their remarks at the conference, we heartily recommend checking out the papers and commentaries written by the various philosphers, scientists, and political theorists who attended. You can get abstracts of their talks on the conference web page. Below, we simply wish to note several issues raised at the conference that we found particularly interesting.

Stephen Gardiner presented an articulate argument on the moral ramifications of geoengineering (in particular the proposal by Paul Crutzen to add sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to increase the planetary albedo) about we have expressed some doubts previously, chiefly on scientific grounds). Among the cogent statements made by Gardiner was that while one may argue that research on geoengineering acts as a kind of insurance policy,

… there are many such policies; and there is a real concern that the narrow one of “Geoengineering Research Only” gains prominence among them only because it is the one that seems most congenial to us, the present generation.

If you are interesting in reading more, you can get the entire text of Stephen’s paper, here.

Another very interesting talk was that by Jeff Kiehl, a climate modeler at NCAR, who raised a series of ethical issues regarding how climate models are constructed and the ethical decisions that climate modelers face in conveying model results to the public. This talk prompted a lively discussion about the role of peer review, with the conclusion that the system probably works pretty well. It is imperfect, but it does act as a reasonable first filter to catch most egregious misuses of science.

Steve Schneider and one of us (Gavin) discussed the roles of public scientists and of scientists reaching out to the public and some of the pitfalls to be avoided there (see Steve’s site or this post for the kind of thing we were talking about).

Henry Shue, an Oxford philosopher well known for his work on such issues as the moral implications of torture and pre-emptive war, made the argument that the moral implications of not dealing with climate change should be thought of not only in terms of harm, but in terms of potential harm. Unfortunately for those of us that would like to keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, Shue argues that uncertainty — the possibility that harm caused to future generations from anthropogenic climate change will be relatively small — does not get us out of our moral obligation to change our behavior. That is, one need only recognize that business as usual will increase the risk of significant harm – a point that almost nobody debates – for it to be clear that business as usual may be unethical.

Paul Baer, whose influential book “Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming” (with co-author Tom Athanasiou) discussed ethical issues in how one should allocate global warming permits across the world, discussed some interesting new twists to their work. The principal objection to the idea that everyone has the right to emit an equal portion of GHGs, is that today’s mean value is below that of China’s per capita emissions, and thus a straightforward cap and trade at that level is politically impossible. The new twist in his work relates to the need to balance the current emission problem with the right of poor countries to develop that “should not be impeded by the requirement to reduce GHG emissions, and that the presumably steep burden of mitigation costs must be shared on the basis of responsibility and capacity”. This of course, shifts more of the burden onto the developed countries who have already benefited from their use of fossil fuels. It will be interesting to see how that is received at the climate negotiations.

Finally, there was one idea that was raised that we take issue with, and which we think worth commenting on because it comes up frequently. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the Easterbrook Fallacy, after Gregg Easterbrook, the author of the book A Moment on the Earth: The coming age of environmental optimism. In that book, Easterbrook makes the repeated claim that environmentalists are off the mark in their warnings to society, because things are actually getting better. For example, he notes that the Clean Air Act has substantially improved air quality in the United States, and somehow turns this into an argument that we needn’t be concerned about clean air. He completely ignores the obvious fact the Clean Air Act exists only due to such concerns being expressed by scientists and other that Easterbrook dismisses as “pessimists”.* In a similar vein, one of the commentators at the conference made the argument that it was an open question whether we had any moral obligation towards future generations for our impact on the climate, since that impact could in principle be averted (for example through carbon dioxide removal via ocean iron fertilization). This is equivalent to saying that we will not have to address the issue of climate change if we address it, an argument that has no bearing whatsoever on whether we have a moral obligation. We were a bit surprised to hear it from a philosopher since it is a tautology (usually anathema to philosophers).


*Note that Easterbrook now says that the science is in and he takes “global warming” seriously. That doesn’t change the logical fallacy in his earlier arguments.


261 Responses to “A bit of philosophy”

  1. 1
    Eli Rabett says:

    Remember the tripe thown at the Stern Report for overvaluing future generations?

  2. 2
    Hank Roberts says:

    You mean the “what did future generations ever do for us” argument?
    The “time is a two-way street, if they really needed our help they’d come back and tell us” argument?
    The “diety of your choice hates the future and wants you to prevent it” argument?
    The tripe bucket is rather full.

  3. 3
    tarmo says:

    As I understand, Dead Heat advocates dividing emissions per capita. That may be fair towards individuals and countries, but in my opinion it ain’t fair towards sustainability of ecosystems. I would prefer to divide emissions per unit territory (sq.km), or divide emissions based on the relative amount of local biomass (e.g. the mass of the local “live ecosystem”). In that way, we would have a regulative system with better built in equilibrium properties. Any thoughts on that?

  4. 4
  5. 5
    Valuethinker says:

    Chapter 8 of Sir John Houghton’s textbook

    http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521817625

    http://www.amazon.com/Global-Warming-Complete-John-Houghton/dp/0521528747

    (new edition due in November)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_T._Houghton

    is a good summary of the ethical issues involved in GW.

  6. 6
    Valuethinker says:

    Chapter 8 of Sir John Houghton’s textbook

    http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521817625

    http://www.amazon.com/Global-Warming-Complete-John-Houghton/dp/0521528747

    (new edition due in November)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_T._Houghton

    is a good summary of the ethical issues involved in GW. Sir John is, besides being former Chief Meteorologist of the UK and a personal adviser to Her Majesty on global warming, an evangelical Christian. This is a *much* less common type of belief in the UK than it is in the United States and certainly does not increase one’s public credibility.

    So his moral and ethical perspective on global warming is quite interesting (and the textbook chapter is not simply a recantation of Judeo-Christian faith).

    http://www.creationcare.org/resources/climate/houghton.php

    “People often say to me that I am wasting my time talking about Global Warming. ‘The world’ they say ‘will never agree to take the necessary action.’
    I reply that I am optimistic for three reasons. First, I have experienced the commitment of the world scientific community (including scientists from many different nations, backgrounds and cultures) in painstakingly and honestly working together to understand the problems and assessing what needs to be done.

    Secondly, I believe the necessary technology is available for achieving satisfactory solutions.

    My third reason is that I believe God is committed to his creation. He demonstrated this most eloquently by sending his son Jesus to be part of creation and by giving to us the responsibility of being good stewards of creation. What is more I believe that we do not do this on our own but in partnership with him – a partnership that is presented so beautifully in the early chapters of Genesis where we read that God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the day.”

    by Valuethinker

  7. 7
    C. W. Dingman says:

    Did anyone at the conference bring up the issue of population control? As our burgeoning population over the last couple of centuries is clearly as much a factor in causing our present unhappy state as is our fossil fuel technology.
    C. W. Dingman

  8. 8
    George Ortega says:

    Along the lines of the Easterbrook Fallacy should be included “Republican Party Denialism” and the immorality of their circulating misinformation on global warming in order to promote a self serving agenda. The U.S. Congress should hold such actions not just as immoral, but as criminal and a threat to national security. One issue here is the right of non-professionals to practice climatology. We do not allow individuals to practice medicine or law without a license for obvious reasons; how much more imperative is it to prevent politicians from disseminating to the public biased and unprofessional judgements on a global warming.

    We should also criminalize efforts of the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public regarding the dangers of global warming. We don’t allow cigarette manufacturers to say that cigarettes pose no health risks, and we should not allow oil companies to advertise and promote their product as harmless. An interesting thread regarding the criminalization of such global warming mitigation obstructionism can be found here; http://www.climateprediction.net/board/viewtopic.php?t=6711&sid=c20e78ee89f21ec710e86b2cc9863161

    On another line, it seems that the defining global warming moral issue for the next several decades will have to do with who bears the greatest brunt for financing mitigation efforts. It would seem reasonable that the countries,industries and individuals who contributed and benefited most from greenhouse gas emissions should be made to pay. Since they will fight tooth and nail to shirk that responsibility the moral responsibility to see that that happens will fall on the world’s public.

  9. 9
    Onno Klinkenberg says:

    I do not fully understand the analogy you seem to suggest between the Easterbrook stance and the argument that there is no certainty about the existence of a moral obligation towards future generations.
    The former might be considered to be a tautology, the latter however seems to be a perfectly reasonable argument.

    When we consider the existence of a moral obligation to act (e.g. reduce GHG emissions), two parts are relevant.
    -Unacceptable damages when no action is undertaken
    -The impossibility to let anyone else act.
    This commentator is simple pointing out (and quite rightly I suppose) that future generations, when confronted with a high level of GHG, can reduce this concentrations in their own time. That might mean that there is no moral obligation for our generation to act.

    I think the reason our generations should act is not a moral obligation, but an efficiency question. Would future generations be happier with a richer yet more polluted world or with a poorer yet cleaner world? According to reports like for example the Stern report, it should be doubted that future generations can solve this problem at lower cost than ours; therefore, we should do it. However, that is not a decision based on moral, but on efficiency.

  10. 10
    Timothy Chase says:

    RE: Easterbrook

    I have seen one of his more recent articles. He was a skeptic, but now he is convinced that climate change will happen, and while some places will benefit (Siberia, for example, and it has been noted that Greenland will soon be able to grow more of their own food – as a slightly higher temperature extends the growing season considerably), this will be only in the short-run. Moreover, even in the short-run, I believe he would accept the fact that there will be considerably more costs than benefits.

    In any case, better late than never.

    I myself am a bit of a late-comer. In the late 1990s, I still thought that the effects of global warming probably wouldn’t be that severe. Besides, recognizing the problem meant that I would have to do some serious thinking about my own worldview. But the simple fact that the possibility of it was a question of physics and not philosophy was more than enough for me to begin the re-evaluation – even if it meant taking a hard look at myself.

    A little more self-revealing than I would like, but in this case the benefits probably outway the costs, at first once you get beyond the individual level, then at the the individual level itself.

  11. 11
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re: Questions of Ethics

    The fact that there are serious differences of opinion with regard to how carbon emission caps are to be “equitably” applied is itself rather problematic. Some might argue that higher caps be placed upon those who are already relying up an economy of high carbon emissions – otherwise their economies may be damaged. The ethical view behind this may be would be that everyone should able to stay in the same place – or as close to it as possible.

    Alternatively, someone might argue for this sort of approach for increasingly practical reasons, which nevertheless they might also regard as moral – in some sort of higher sense. If the more advanced economies are damaged, they could argue that this will seriously hurt the less advanced countries simply as a result of economic interdependence and the dominance of advanced economies in the world economy. Thus as a matter of the common interest of humanity, we shouldn’t impose too great a burden upon the advanced economies. Others might argue that if we attempt to impose too great a burden, the more advanced economies are less likely to agree to it, Therefore once again, it is not in the common interest of humanity to attempt this.

    However, one can clearly argue that a higher burden can be imposed upon the more advanced economies – as this will affect their citizens to a lesser degree – given both the resources and technologies they have available as well as the greater flexibility of their more advanced economies. One might also argue that as a matter of fairness, the poorer countries deserve the chance to catch-up, or that the more advanced countries somehow owe something to the poorer countries given the carbon emissions they are already responsible for.

    Now as a matter simple pragmatics, I would argue that the wide range of “ethical views” which people may argue from are not empirically testable, and therefore it will be much more difficult to reach a consensus when taking this sort of an approach – at least in the case of carbon emissions caps.

    *

    Alternatively, at a more basic level, many will argue that they shouldn’t have to act until everyone else agrees to act. But at least in the case of investment in new technologies, if the more advanced economies take the initiative, then they can make these technologies available to the developing countries and see a return on their investment sooner rather than later. I believe the good majority of people in the United States could be swayed that then government should invest heavily in such technologies, then permit anyone, here or abroad, to develop the technology once the research has been done. No patents, no royalties.

    Alternatively, somewhat less public funds might be required if the participating companies had either royalty rights or exclusive rights. Some segments of the population would find this more amenable, the development could very well take place at a higher pace, and as there would be a profit in selling the products of such investment, they would be more inclined to distribute it or even have it produced at in those parts of the world which have depressed wages.

    Each of these approaches may be problematic to some, but no doubt some will be able to convince themselves that any given approach is the ethical one. Humans are funny that way. However, we should also keep in mind that reaching a consensus which many will not be entirely happy with but which would be acceptable to a broader part of the population seems more likely than carbon emissions caps.

    *

    In any case, if the time in which to act is short, we should be willing to accept approaches which are more likely to be acceptable to a broader section of the population in a shorter amount of time. Or so it would seem.

    Finally, I should not that I am not advocating any one approach. I simply mean to illustrate some of the causal principles which are likely to come into play.

  12. 12
    Doug Heiken says:

    This post seem to presuppose the concept of “intergenerational equity.”

    “Three principles form the basis of intergenerational equity. First, each generation should be required to conserve the diversity of the natural and cultural resource base, so that it does not unduly restrict the options available to future generations in solving their problems and satisfying their own values, and should also be entitled to diversity comparable to that enjoyed by previous generations. This principle is called “conservation of options.” Second, each generation should be required to maintain the quality of the planet so that it is passed on in no worse condition than that in which it was received, and should also be entitled to planetary quality comparable to that enjoyed by previous generations. This is the principle of “conservation of quality.” Third, each generation should provide its members with equitable rights of access to the legacy of past generations and should conserve this access for future generations. This is the principle of ‘conservation of access.'” Edith Brown Weiss, Intergenerational equity: a legal framework for global environmental change. Chapter 12 in Edith Brown Weiss, editor. 1992. Environmental change and international law: New challenges and dimensions. United Nations University Press. http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu25ee/uu25ee0y.htm

    We must reject formulations of intergeneration equity that fail to recognize the existence of scarcity, technological limits, irreversible environmental change, and the second law of thermodynamics. Examples of these unethical approaches include the “opulence model” …
    “… in which the present generation consumes all that it wants today and generates as much wealth as it can, either because there is no certainty that future generations will exist or because maximizing consumption today is the best way to maximize wealth for future generations. This model overlooks the long-term degradations of the planet that may be generated, such as irreversible losses of species diversity … A variant of the opulence model is the technology model, in which we do not need to be concerned about the environment for future generations, because technological innovation will enable us to introduce infinite resource substitution. While technology will undoubtedly enable us to develop some substitutes for certain resources and to use resources more efficiently, it is by no means assured that it will suffice or will make the robustness of the planet irrelevant.”
    Id.

    The technology model might provide a plausible explanation for how some wood might be replaced in the marketplace, because as prices rise, alternative technologies take part of the market share, but for ‘ecosystem services’ that are not traded in the marketplace, the technology model cannot explain how we will replace the ecological services of keystone species such as large conifers, salmon, beavers, woodpeckers, and fungi.

    I think we have an ethical obligation to not only maintain options for future generations, but even try to restore options that may already have been eliminated.

  13. 13
    Paul Dietz says:

    One could argue that even if it costs future generations more to solve the problem, this may still be morally acceptable, since future generations are likely to be wealthier (due to the general advance of technology). Imposing a cost on the current generation to reduce the cost to the future would be a transfer of wealth from the relatively poorer to the more wealthy.

  14. 14
    Figen Mekik says:

    I find this discussion about intergenerational equity a little odd. Wouldn’t the best “moral” and efficient stance be “first, do no harm”? Assuming future generations could or should clean our mess is like saying “I’m sorry I crashed into your Porsche; but since you can afford such an expensive car, you can probably afford to get it fixed.” There’s a saying in Turkish that asks “doesn’t the thief take any blame?” Ok that didn’t translate very well; it means you can blame yourself for not locking your door, or society for making people so poor they have to steal and all that, but what about the thief, does he get no blame for stealing? Anyway, it disturbs me that some think future generations should clean up the mess we could prevent and fix today.

  15. 15
    tamino says:

    I’m fond of a native American saying. “We do not inherit the world from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

  16. 16
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re: Intergenerational Equity

    If we do not act in the present, I would argue that the consequences will be so severe in the future that they will actually have less resources in which to deal with those consequences than we have at present. Moreover, less would be required today.

    However, others may argue (incorrectly, I believe) that if we spend too much to address climate change in the present (unlikely, in my view), then as a the economy will grow more slowly and deprive future generations of the means with which to address the consequences of climate change. This would make more sense if climate change were to have relatively limited effects. I (and the wide consensus within the scientific community) regard this last part as very unlikely.

  17. 17
    cat black says:

    #9 [no moral obligation] If the question were merely one of having or not having elevated CO2 levels in the future, that would be something they (future generations) could “deal with” just as the current generation needed to “deal with” increasing levels of toxins in water and air from earlier industrial activitiy.

    But it is becoming increasingly clear that CO2 pollution, while not toxic, does have the potential to render the planet unsuitable for advanced civilization. We may not be talking about actuarial tables of morbidity and mortality any more, but of the total breakdown of 600 to 6,000 years of human advancement (depending on how hard we fall).

    So maybe the question ought not to be “can’t we just let them clean it up?” but rather “Is this *our* civilization to exploit to its eventual ruin for individual short-term profit, or are we just stewards of this gift from the past?”

    You may have noticed that that same argument applies to natural resources like trees and rivers, which as history has shown most certainly fell into the “immediate gain, future loss” side of the equation. So our moral fiber has already been tested and found weak. Frankly I don’t see how AGW will turn out any differently, but I’d like to be proven wrong.

    cb

  18. 18
    Ed Arnold-Berkovits says:

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It doesn’t matter what the discount rate is.

  19. 19
    tinna says:

    Re: some places will benefit like Siberia and Greenland (#10)

    I don’t understand how these areas are benefiting. Houses are collapsing and roads are breaking up in Siberia because of thawing permafrost. In Greenland and Siberia, people are adapted to cold winters and depend on frozen ground and rivers for hunting and transportation. I wonder if the Inuit people think of it as a benefit to have to change from being hunters to be farmers.

  20. 20
    Timothy Chase says:

    Re Tina (#19):

    I did say temporarily. Longer growing seasons. But you are right: even the short term costs may outway the benefits for them or at the very least some of them.

  21. 21
    Keith Rogstad says:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if carbon-nuetral forms of energy became cheaper than fossil fuels. Then it would not be necessary to “impose” solutions or “criminalize” those who do not agree with the Real Climate elite.

  22. 22
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Imposing a cost on the current generation to reduce the cost to
    > the future would be a transfer of wealth from the relatively
    > poorer to the more wealthy.

    When you’re faced with a choice between a hypothetical situation and a real one, choose the real one — Joan Baez

  23. 23
    Timothy Chase says:

    Keith Rogstad (#21) wrote:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if carbon-nuetral forms of energy became cheaper than fossil fuels. Then it would not be necessary to “impose” solutions or “criminalize” those who do not agree with the Real Climate elite.

    Leaving aside the “elite” comment, it is quite likely that carbon-neutral forms of energy will become cheaper with some investment in the present simply as the result of economies of scale and competition to develop better products once these economies of scale are relatively common.

  24. 24
    Nick Gotts says:

    RE #3 [As I understand, Dead Heat advocates dividing emissions per capita. That may be fair towards individuals and countries, but in my opinion it ain’t fair towards sustainability of ecosystems. I would prefer to divide emissions per unit territory (sq.km), or divide emissions based on the relative amount of local biomass (e.g. the mass of the local “live ecosystem”). In that way, we would have a regulative system with better built in equilibrium properties. Any thoughts on that?]

    I’m not sure understand your logic. Is it that basing emissions on populations would encourage population growth? I don’t think it would, since that wouldn’t get a country increased emissions per capita, but if you base emission rights on biomass, you might encourage a monoculture of whatever plant maximises that! Basing it on territory would presumably create a huge migration of emission-producing industries to Canada and Russia – and how would that help? In practice, any international agreement will not be based on a single criterion, but movement in the direction of equal shares per individual is the only reasonable starting point. This is a matter that requires global coordination, and to get that requires a serious effort to address global inequalities – including inequalities in decision-making weight.

  25. 25
    Dan says:

    re: 21. Learning about the science is gaining knowledge. Ad homs are a sign of ignorance of the topic and not willing to learn or understand.

  26. 26
    Dan Krashin says:

    I think it’s worth noting that this kind of intergenerational argument is found nowhere else in policy-making. Nobody thinks Churchill was a dope because he fought the Nazi’s in 1939, instead of leaving them for us fight them in 1999, by which time the UK’s GDP would have nearly quadrupled!

    Blithely assuming that our kids and grandkids will be able to fix global warming out of pocket change ignores a host of scary possibilities, not least the existence and wide distribution of weapons of mass destruction and global terror networks.

  27. 27
    Fergus Brown says:

    It is interesting to observe the difference between this discussion and one which a group of philosophers might have on the subject. Too much of the above is about cost and responsibility. There are more fundamental questions to ask. Why do we perceive warming in the future to be ‘bad’? Is this a function of a reduction of wealth, a hindrance to ‘progress’ or development, or of risk to life and livelihood?

    Is it possible to operate sufficiently effectively within a ‘shallow’ ecological framework, which accepts the economic systems and markets as they are and seeks to adjust the details, or do we need to take a ‘deep’ ecological approach, which posits a fundamental conflict between capital/developmental/market-based society and the nature of the changes needed to prevent a deeply undesirable future?

    As I have mentioned on this blog before, we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.

    The only way you can get out of this is to establish that we don’t know whether or not climate change projections are reliable enough to posit future harm. What future generations choose to do is irrelevant to our moral obligation. The only other out, it to argue that we have no collective responsibility to others, even if they might be innocent victims, and our lifestyles are the source cause of their suffering.

    I’d also point you to the ‘Ethics and Climate Initiative’, which I know little about, but seems to have its heart in the right place.

  28. 28
    MDC says:

    Re: #8 – I think I’m misunderstanding your position… it SOUNDS like you are saying that political decisions on how to deal with GW should not be in the hands of the public or untrained politicians, that there is or should be some sort of certification process before opinions can be expressed, and that, if I’m reading this right, the IPCC, a United Nations body, have ultimate say on what can and cannot be said vis a vis global warming (I pulled that last part from the link you provided).

    Perhaps you were being ironic, and I’m just too dense to pick up on the “modest proposal” aspects of your ‘solutions.’

  29. 29
    oxnardprof says:

    Response #8, in part: “One issue here is the right of non-professionals to practice climatology. We do not allow individuals to practice medicine or law without a license for obvious reasons; how much more imperative is it to prevent politicians from disseminating to the public biased and unprofessional judgements on a global warming.”

    This implies that discussing global warming, or promoting (or, I guess, rejecting) policy to control global warming should be criminal unless one is a climatologist. Unfortunately, politics and science don’t mix all that well, and there have been numerous examples of this (for example: asbestos, lead and tobacco.)

    I welcome the discussion here because it helps a non-climatologist understand the issues, to be better able to discuss and teach them.

    I would like to see more discussion relative to what changes we need to address the problem. For example, what carbon foot print is ‘acceptable’. What method of calculating it is best (I have been to many on-line calculators, and many of them are not well constructed as instructional tools.)

    I rarely comment here, so I will close with a word of thanks for all the posters and commentors.

  30. 30
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Re: 16> Comment by Timothy Chase: “However, others may argue (incorrectly, I believe) that if we spend too much to address climate change in the present (unlikely, in my view), then as a the economy will grow more slowly and deprive future generations of the means with which to address the consequences of climate change. This would make more sense if climate change were to have relatively limited effects. I (and the wide consensus within the scientific community) regard this last part as very unlikely.”

    I do not think there is any consensus that says that. Even the IPCC has doubts about cost/benefit of mitigation at any CO2 level:

    “Limited and early analytical results from integrated analyses of the costs and benefits of mitigation indicate that these are broadly comparable in magnitude, but do not as yet permit an unambiguous determination of an emissions pathway or stabilization level where benefits exceed costs [3.5].” (from SPM3)

  31. 31
    J.C.H says:

    From George Will to Dumbo I hear this refrain that areas like Siberia and Greenland are going to benefit from a warmer climate, which makes some sense, but I’ve yet to see an agriculture expert make the same claims.

    Is it really as a simple as replacing Iowa corn with Alberta corn?

  32. 32
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    The ethics of acting in disregard toward future generations seems related to the amount of time necessary to act effectively. No one would argue that it would be ethical to release the handbrake on a car and push it toward a cliff disregarding the person sitting in the backseat. “Well, if you wanted to get out, you’d have moved faster.” If the effective time to prevent a disastrous outcome is longer than a future generation would have, it would be immoral to not act sooner. The nature of Global Warming — it’s relentless, tiny increments — is unique in human experience. The humongous inertia of the climate system not only prevents us from seeing it clearly, but counter-acting that movement once a disaster is upon us would require more time than the future would have to avoid its consequences.

  33. 33
    Paul M says:

    My world view is that everyone should become an agent of change to turn things around. However, there are grave challenges ahead of us such as climate change and mutual nuclear destruction. I’m glad there are websites like this one that I can write things like this, it comforts me a little. For some reason, I cannot reconcile the nuclear weapons countries have and the uncertainty of this climate change quandry. History, anthropology, and psychology are no help either. Decidedly, this whole thing rests on science and for the solution.

  34. 34
    Keith Rogstad says:

    I apologize for the “ad hom”. Although I did not intend that “elite” be taken as a slur. It seems to me that this particular thread has taken a turn far from a discussion of “the science”. If CO2AGW is anywhere near the worst case, then in fact carbon-nuetral energy(whether wind, solar, or nuclear)is “cheaper”. The costs of burning fossil fuels are just not being recognized.

  35. 35
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Re 21: carbon neutral forms of energy already are cheaper and have been for a while, if you consider ALL the costs of other forms of energy (i.e. the costs of all consequences of their use in the long term). The facts that these costs are not transmitted all the way to consumers is an artifact and essentially a market failure.

  36. 36
    Zeke Hausfather says:

    The tidbit that China per-capita emissions are now higher than the world average is new to me, and puts quite a kink in the popular per-capita distribution argument.

    Effectively, this means that any politically acceptable agreement (if one is even possible at this point) will require reductions from China either capping or reducing their current level of emissions. The per-capita argument never gained much traction simply because it put a higher burden on developed countries than they would be willing go bear. Going “beyond per-capita” in a system that allows China to further expand emissions while requiring additional reductions from developed countries (say, based on historical contributions to current GHG concentrations) would be even less palatable than current per-capita proposals.

    This puts us at quite an impasse. But the current trend seems to be to ignore eventual stabilization trajectories and simply agree on some initial step, so perhaps we can brush these inconvenient facts under the rug for the time being.

  37. 37
    rod franco says:

    of course we have a responsibility towards future generations. tamino has it right, “We do not inherit the world from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

    but aren’t many of our problems hard coded into the consumer societies we have created, people are indoctrinated to believe they MUST have the latest model of whatever and have huge wardrobes full of barely warn clothes and then throw them all away as soon as some minuscule alteration is announced in a media fanfare or some over paid untalented celebrity gets one.
    If that wasn’t enough, the REAL cost of these products is never what “The Market” says it is, as the true environmental cost is NEVER addressed.
    Eg. the shirts,dresses, T-shirts etc made from cotton irrigated with water for the Aral sea did not include the cost of restoring the lake and retuning its unique species from the dead.
    Same thing, the cost of a barrel of oil does not include the full cost to deal with the total environmental damage it causes.

  38. 38
    catman306 says:

    Perhaps the moral and economic problem of correcting global climate change is being viewed through a faulty lens. Perhaps the central tenet of economics, that wealth can be created, is just a fallacy that’s gained popularity with repetition , wishful thinking. Maybe wealth ‘created’ today comes at the expense of both today’s environment and that of the future.

    I guess that’s just a rewording of the quote from the American Indians mentioned above.

    Has anyone proved that wealth can be created when all the effects are viewed across scores of generations?

  39. 39
    Edward Greisch says:

    Philosophy is the process of muddying the water to make it appear deep. Take a philosophy course if you want to learn to write well. If you want to know the truth about morals and ethics, go to a library and look up Sociobiology or sciobio. Sociobiology is a new branch of Science but there are already hundreds of books on it. One of the classics is “The Genetics of Altruism” by Lumsden and Wilson. The origin of the Universe is also solidly in the jurisdiction of the branch of Physics and Astronomy called Cosmology. We know from Quantum Mechanics that the Universe was required to create itself. We know a great deal about how the universe created itself. We know a great deal about how we got this particular universe and not one of the many other universes. Science has taken over ALL of the jurisdictions formerly reserved for religion and philosophy. In another century or 2, we should be able to create universes. Philosophy and religion are obsolete.
    To create universes, we first have to survive that long. To survive that long, we have to not exterminate ourselves, obviously. To not exterminate ourselves, we have to keep the oceans cool enough to not emit enough hydrogen sulfide to kill us. It would help to keep the climate suitable for the agricultural system that we already have. It would help to avoid generating reasons for wars.
    When you speak of economics, you should identify WHOSE economics. Are you talking about the bank account of the person who owns the coal mine or about the bank account of the person who owns the windmill factory or the bank account of the person who pays an electric bill? Electricity would be cheaper if we used only nuclear power and nuclear power plants were not required to be safer than coal-fired power plants. Third world countries have no need to go through the same long path to technology that we did. New technology is already available and we should sell it to them. Third world countries have no excuse and first world countries have no debt to them.
    Did you know that enough URANIUM goes up the smokestack of a coal-fired power plant to Fully fuel a nuclear power plant with the same output? See: http://www.ornl.gov/ORNLReview/rev26-34/text/coalmain.html
    If breeding of thorium into uranium and using plutonium as fuel are allowed, enough uranium and thorium go up the smokestack of one coal-fired power plant to fully fuel 500 nuclear power plants of the same size. And that isn’t all that goes up the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. Arsenic and lead are also among the 73 elements in coal smoke, and the quantities are worthy of commercial production. Did you know that you get 100 times as much radiation from a coal-fired power plant as from a nuclear power plant?
    Have you ever heard of background radiation? The natural background radiation that has been there since the beginning of time is 1000 times what you get from a nuclear power plant or 10 times what you get from a coal-fired power plant. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Background_radiation
    or http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/publications/2000_1.html
    By the way, the Chernobyl accident put as much radiation into the environment as an equally-sized coal-fired power plant does in 7 years and 5 months. The Chernobyl reactor was an extremely obsolete design that hasn’t been built in this country since 1944.
    Recommendation: Nuclear power is the safest kind and it just got safer. See the December 2005 issue of Scientific American article on a new type of nuclear reactor that consumes the nuclear “waste” as fuel. Convert all coal-fired power plants to nuclear ASAP.
    Why a Nuclear Power plant CAN NOT Explode like a Nuclear Bomb:
    Bombs are completely different from reactors. There is nothing similar about them except that they both need fissile materials. But they need DIFFERENT fissile materials and they use them very differently.
    A nuclear bomb “compresses” pure or nearly pure fissile material into a small space. There is no other material in the volume containing the nuclear explosive. The fissile material is either the uranium isotope 235 or plutonium. If it is uranium, it is at least 90% uranium 235 and 10% or less uranium 238. There is no isotope separation problem if the fissile material is plutonium. These fissile materials are metals and very difficult to compress. Because they are difficult to compress, a high explosive [high speed explosive] is required to compress them. Pieces of the fissile material have to slam into each other hard for the nuclear reactions to take place.
    A nuclear reactor, such as the ones used for power generation, does not have any pure fissile material. The fuel may be 2% to 8% uranium 235 mixed with uranium 238. A mixture of 2% or 8% uranium 235 mixed with uranium 238 cannot be made to explode no matter how hard you try. A small amount of plutonium mixed in with the uranium can not change this. Reactor fuel still cannot be made to explode like a nuclear bomb no matter how hard you try. There has never been a nuclear explosion in a reactor and there never will be. [Uranium and plutonium are flammable, but a fire isn’t an explosion.] The fuel is further diluted by being divided and sealed into many small steel capsules. The fuel is further diluted by the need for coolant to flow around the capsules and through the core so that heat can be transported to a place where heat energy can be converted to electrical energy. A reactor does not contain any high speed [or any other speed] chemical explosive as a bomb must have. A reactor does not have any explosive materials at all.
    As is obvious from the above descriptions, there is no possible way that a reactor could ever explode like a nuclear bomb. Reactors and bombs are very different. Reactors and bombs are really not even related to each other.
    In the 1950s that there was discussion of the fact that we have been in an interglacial warm period for as long as interglacial warm periods have lasted for the last 3 million years. [The Milankovitch cycles [changes in the earth’s orbit, spin, etc.] have driven these cycles.] We humans put an end to the possibility of a return to the ice age by burning fossil fuels. That is why the climate is not getting colder now. We overdid it. Reference: Scientific American article “Impact from the Deep”, October 2006 pages 65 to 71. If business continues as usual, we will go extinct in 200 years because hydrogen sulfide will bubble out of the oceans and kill us.
    Yes, this kind of extinction has happened before, and Nature-caused global warming was the cause of hydrogen sulfide bubbling out of the oceans. Not going extinct requires that we get control of the climate. “Who did it” doesn’t matter. Adaptation is 99.99% death and extinction. When people say: “We will adapt”, what they are really saying is: “We will willingly die and go extinct.”
    The above information is a powerful persuader. If you tell every American, it will eliminate the ignorance-based paranoia about nuclear power. Of course, there will still be people who want to get rich or earn a living mining coal. For the miners, I have a suggestion: See http://www.liftport.com. As soon as the space elevator [like a vertical railroad] is built, it will be profitable to mine near-earth asteroids and maybe the moon.

  40. 40
    cat black says:

    #38 [wealth] This notion has haunted me for a long while. Listening to economists talk about the creation of wealth out of nothing more than expectations drains the blood right out of my head. And then to “discount” the future as if it were a computer model and not real people with real lives and aspirations… breathtaking! For a really interesting (if not in fact scathing) review of this vexing notion one could do worse than read “The Long Emergency” concerning the run up to peak oil, the spread of suburbia, the death of small merchants and farmers, and what the author calls the “hallucinated economy” of gain from nothing drawn from future accounts. Talk about robbing the future; some day storytellers will add a ring to Hell reserved just for speculators and economic theorists.

  41. 41
    tarmo says:

    RE #24 [I’m not sure understand your logic. Is it that basing emissions on populations would encourage population growth? I don’t think it would, since that wouldn’t get a country increased emissions per capita, but if you base emission rights on biomass, you might encourage a monoculture of whatever plant maximises that! Basing it on territory would presumably create a huge migration of emission-producing industries to Canada and Russia – and how would that help?]

    My thinking was that basing emissions on population would not regulate population density. Population requires natural resources, which are part of its ecological footprint – water, food, timber, etc. Dense population requires a larger footprint when compared to less dense population living in a territory of the same size and same amount of biomass. Each territory can sustain an ecological footprint of a certain size. The excess footprint has to be traded in from other regions. If emission caps are based on population, then the trade will not be based on the actual sustainable footprints of different regions. And that would be a mistake in the emissions cap mechanism in my opinion.

    The size of biomass would be even better indicator for ecological footprint than the size of territory in my opinion. One could compare Greenland and India for example – both are roughly the same size, but India has much more biomass, therefore it can sustain a larger population. As a remark, one could also include the biomass from the economic sea territory (usually extends 4-12 nautical miles from the coastline).

    The equilibrium property should arise from the notion that if the population increases, it usually does it at the expense of biomass size.

    As for the risks of cultivating monoculture, I had an impression that a stable ecosystem is biggest when it is as diverse as possible, so a monoculture ecosystem would not be both biomass intensive and sustainable. I may be wrong.

    In my opinion we should research both the “ideal” metrics for sustainable ecosystems and the metrics for moving from the current situation to the desired ideal future.

  42. 42
    Timothy Chase says:

    catman306 (#38) wrote:

    Has anyone proved that wealth can be created when all the effects are viewed across scores of generations?

    Consider this: before there was any life on earth, there was nothing of value to anyone and there was no one in relation to which something could be of value.

    Nevertheless, once life came on the seen, sunlight became a value. Carbon (in various forms) became a value. However, oxygen was poisonous. It was only later, when life developed the ability to use oxygen that it became a value. Life expanded and transformed the world through a natural economy.

    Values are values in relation to someone, and in this sense, wealth is created when a either use for something which had no use or a better use for something which already had a use is discovered.

    At one point, the world was only able to support a human population of 100,000. Today, assuming we can develop the right technology, it will be able to support a population of 7,000,000,000 or 11,000,000,000. Then when we teraform a new planet, that will be able support life.

    Yes, wealth is created.

  43. 43
    Elizabeth says:

    So many issues, so little typing skill.

    First. Climate change isn’t just something that will happen to our grandchildren. Climate change is happening now. The impacts are happening now. Arctic infrastructure (e.g., people’s homes) is being destroyed by rising sea level and melting permafrost. The mountain pine beetle has devastated the forests of British Columbia and have crossed into Alberta with nothing to stop them ’til they reach the Atlantic and run out of trees. Disease carrying insects like the malaria mosquito are expanding their ranges. The list goes on and one without even mentioning less certain effects like increasing hurricane strength and Australian drought. We don’t need to speculate about future effects such as war, plague, refugees, and terrorism. Unless you plan on dying anytime soon, the cost of climate change is something every one of us will have to deal with in our lifetime.

    Second. As Lynne V. always reminds us, we (in the energy profligate U.S.) can cut emissions significantly AND save money just through energy efficiency – stuff already done in Europe and Japan. Sure, we’ll need to do more but why are we dragging our feet (and trying to block other nation’s efforts) when we can make rapid progress so easily?

    Third. I recognize that energy efficiency often does cost more up front (even though it’s cheaper in the long run) and that we do need to do more than just energy efficiency and many of those things will cost more than what we pay now for energy. But, even so, how can anyone in the industrialized world – especially the U.S. – whine about paying a little (or even a lot) more to mitigate GHGs. Like, gee, how can we poor Americans be expected to stop building coal fired power plants to generate cheap energy for decades to come when those rich Chinese people have so much coal and they’re going to use it and they should stop first. (yes, that’s sarcasm) And, yes, I do know that there are many people – especially in the U. S. – who are financially on the edge. But those are the very people who will be most affected by climate change (e.g., people who will die in heat waves because they can’t afford air conditioning; people without cars to escape hurricanes; people who don’t have health care to help them manage their asthma which will be exacerbated by urban pollution and higher pollen counts brought on by CO2 “enrichment” and global warming) – so don’t use “poor” people as an excuse to not spend money on mitigation.

    And last, but not least in my little tirade – let’s be very clear about who “wins” and who “loses”. There are no winners except possibly in the very short term. Besides the arguments already presented, the effects of climate change on natural ecosystems is already devastating. We’re not talking about some esoteric love of nature (although that is a valid value). Ecosystems provide essential services that economists rarely place a value on in their analyses. Once those services are disrupted, though, the costs become apparent. For example, one third of human food comes from plants pollinated by wild pollinators. The value of wild pollinators in the U. S. alone is estimated at 4 to 6 billion dollars per year. Also, don’t forget that we’re not talking about moving from a current stable climate to some future stable climate – it’s changing climate from now until …when? Certainly well past 2100. Think about all the engineering (dam flows, sewer systems, bridges, levees) based on current climate. Not only will all those existing systems be improperly engineered for the future climate but no one even knows what the target climate will be or what the new equations will be that will tell us how to operate our infrastructure.

    So, get real. The costs are occurring now and growing. The longer we wait to reduce GHGs the worse it will get.

    OK, I feel better now.

  44. 44
    catman306 says:

    Maybe the economists should have been using the word ‘concentrate’ instead of ‘create’ at every instance. Then much of what they say is plausible and maybe provable.

  45. 45
    Jim Manzi says:

    Where to begin.

    As indicated at the start of this thread, we are venturing pretty far outside the realm of climate science. I’ll take a couple of examples of what I think are unexamined premises embedded in many of the comments.

    1. That geo-engineering is inherently a bad thing. In the presentation by Gardiner that is cited at the start, he has this to say about Crutzen’s proposal:

    “In summary, Crutzen’s argument is that geoengineering, though arguably an evil in itself might turn out to be a lesser evil than the likely alternative; hence, he thinks, we should prepare just in case we are compelled to endorse that evil.”

    Gardiner apparently never considers the idea that maybe it’s not an “evil” at all. If such an approach could work, why would it be an evil? Why would it be a bad thing if we could avoid having to restructure the whole economy, thereby condemning billions of people to an unnecessarily long climb out of poverty? If a global warming problem emerges and IF we could engineer our way out of it, why shouldn’t we?

    I can’t think of any valid reason why any practical person who is concerned about climate change would not want to at least research the feasibility of such an approach (Crutzen’s proposal). It sure seems like Professor Gardiner feels that some knowledge is just too dangerous for us because it will sap our political will to make other changes that he wants.

    2. That the only measure of how much better off future generations will be is the state of the natural environment. The UN IPCC estimates that most of the (currently) developing world could be about as wealthy in 2100 as the developed world is today. Sacrificing economic growth is not an abstraction; it is the difference between miserable, backbreaking poverty (or death) and longer, interesting lives for billions of people.

    Imagine that you are the person who will be at the median income level in India in a century. Yes, you would sure not like it if the world were in the middle of an ecological disaster because a lot of people in Dallas in 2007 refused to pay an extra $1 for a gallon of gas. You would also not like it if you’re income were half of what it otherwise would be, so that instead of living in a nice house, studying calculus and working for a software firm, you lived in a shack on an unpaved street and got your water from a well every morning.

    In fact, there is a sophisticated body of analysis around the question of the trade-off between cooler-and-poorer vs. warmer-and-richer future worlds, and if you use the UN IPCC scenarios as rough guides to the future, the trade-offs are not obvious. There is another body of sophisticated analysis on the various ways to discount (or if to discount) the welfare of future generations vs. ourselves. None of this seems to be addressed in these posts.

  46. 46
    Steve Reynolds says:

    27:Fergus Brown> …we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.

    But what if actions to prevent harm cause greater harm (even with good intentions)?

  47. 47
    AlBreingan says:

    RE #3 [As I understand, Dead Heat advocates dividing emissions per capita. That may be fair towards individuals and countries, but in my opinion it ain’t fair towards sustainability of ecosystems. I would prefer to divide emissions per unit territory (sq.km), or divide emissions based on the relative amount of local biomass (e.g. the mass of the local “live ecosystem”). In that way, we would have a regulative system with better built in equilibrium properties. Any thoughts on that?]
    I don’t feel that either extreme works. A per capita system ignores the basic problem that there are too many humans, and some effort must be put into reducing the numbers (hopefully humanely). The territory system is equally flawed as pointed out in #24. Industrial countries should use per capita quotas but using the smallest of the population as at 1990 (the Kyoto base year for emissions) and now (date of agreement). Developing countries should use a per capita system but based on the population as at the date of agreement plus an increment for unavoidable population growth. Their per capita quota could be set as a sliding scale n% above the average of the industrial emissions, assuming they try to use best practice with a decent amount of latitude. So this proposal is basically using the population as a one-off input. Once the agreement is signed it is effectively a national cap with no further allowance for population growth.

  48. 48

    [[We should also criminalize efforts of the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public regarding the dangers of global warming. ]]

    That would violate the First Amendment, I think.

  49. 49

    [[ If you want to know the truth about morals and ethics, go to a library and look up Sociobiology or sciobio.]]

    Or, for an even more relevant way to handle it, hit yourself repeatedly in the head with a wooden mallet.

  50. 50
    Fergus Brown says:

    46: Steve Reynolds; then you end with an argument for consequentialism; the virtue in an action being determined by the consequence, rather than the intention. but consequentialism isn’t the only show in town. There is more than one way to define a ‘moral’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ action or decision. Most climate (and policy) arguments revolve around a broadly pragmatic, humanist, utilitarian view of what constitutes ‘right’, or ‘good’, that is to say, that the sum of happiness/pain is an appropriate metric to determine the moral status of a decision. There is also the additional suggestion of ‘enlightened’ self-interest; that what is good for the planet/climate is good for all of us. If we persist in measuring what is good for us in terms of what makes us wealthier, or sustains our current lifestyle, then the economics of action to prevent serious climate change can never be fully justified, Stern or not, until such time as it is self-evident that inaction is more costly than action. By which time…

    Even before we start arguing about the economic implications of action/inaction, I would contend that we need to consider the human (social) implications. In this type of argument, we must place value on human life, collectively and individually. If you wish to take it further, you can also place value on ecosystems and species, habitats and regional environments. The simple principles of equity, justice, and equality demand that we place no more intrinsic value on one life than on any other. This, however, comes at a price; the compromising of the principle of liberty.

    Though there is so much more to say, I’d better stop here.


Switch to our mobile site