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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. 251
    George Morrison says:

    #236, 239
    The paper and supporting materials is available at
    This is the actual paper:
    Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions: Global economy more carbon intensive, not less
    “A new analysis shows that carbon intensity in the world economy is increasing. While emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) are accelerating worldwide, we are gaining fewer economic benefits from each tonne of fossil fuel burned. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows that CO2 emissions increased by 1.1 % per year through the 1990s but the rate of increase jumped to 3 % per year in the 2000s.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2007.

    Decent synopsis here:
    Quote: The Global Carbon Project study held two surprises for everyone involved, Field says. “The first was how big the change in emissions rates is between the 1990s and after 2000.” The other: “The number on carbon intensity of the world economy is going up.”

  2. 252
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Barton Paul Levenson 219> Well, all we AGW types want to see it end, since we’re all complete racists and haters of the poor.

    While of course those are not the motives, the wrong policies, even if well-intended, can have the same effect as if those were the motives.

    BPL> …we can have cheap non-GHG energy now if we make the decision as a society to switch over to it.

    Why does society need to make a decision? If you can generate non-GHG electricity for the price using coal, I will buy as much as you are willing to sell.

  3. 253
    ray ladbury says:

    Re 252.
    Steve Reynolds said, “Why does society need to make a decision? If you can generate non-GHG electricity for the price using coal, I will buy as much as you are willing to sell.”

    Or rather YOU will pay the down payment and leave the real cost to your children and grandchildren.

  4. 254
    ray ladbury says:

    Robert Madison, do you really think people here are advocating totalitarian government? I’ve been coming here for a couple of years, and have read no such advocacy. Totalitarian government usually arises when people are faced with a crisis they feel is out of control. The best way to avoid such crises getting out of control is to take control of them early. You did not dispute that the climate is changing or that humans are causing it. So I will assume that you at least understand that the science behind that is rock solid.
    The question then becomes what we do about it. How do we as free people take control of the situation so that draconian measures are not needed down the road? What makes one immoral is not disagreement, but rather seeing a great threat and doing nothing about it.

  5. 255
    Hank Roberts says:

    >the price using coal
    Including the externalized costs? You’ll pay for the carbon offsets?

    Good offer, if that’s what you mean.

  6. 256
    Fergus Brown says:

    #233. 245. 247: bjc: ‘baboons’ referred specifically to a number of the inhabitants of Climate Audit, of which SMcI is not one. Many sceptics are not baboons. Some are trolls. Some are ordinary decent people trying to get the facts right.
    Ignore Jim; he speaks for himself; I have yet to communicate with a climate scientist or a well-recognised ‘sceptic’ who wasn’t at least civil, and generally concerned to express his or her opinion persuasively.

    Commenters, however, are a less restrained bunch. If you’d rather take the dialogue over to the cave, click on my name and post a comment, if you like. If you want to play on RC, you’ll have to get used to the quirks on some of the denizens of this particular patch of jungle. just don’t take it personally; I don’t.


  7. 257
    ray ladbury says:

    Re 248: Rod, Those of us who do peer reviews don’t do it because we think it’s fun. The reason why I stress peer review is because I think it is important. The process of peer review usually involves 3 independent reviewers for each article, most of whome have at least some expertise in the area. Some reviewers set a very high threshold, while some set the bar much lower.
    To me, peer review is a threshold. It means that I think that what I have reviewed is sufficiently interesting and credible that I think it is worthy of my colleagues’ time. It also represents an opportunity to work with authors to make what they are saying more correct and more interesting. It is by no means a guarantee that the article is correct. Ultimately, that is decided by the evidence and by scientific consensus. I have heard lawyers have similar standards–the first of which is the straight-face test–if they can’t get the argument out without cracking a smile, they probably don’t want to try it in front of a jury.

  8. 258
    Jim Eager says:

    Re: 247 bjc: “With an atitude like that you want me to trust climate scientists like you? Talk about hubris.”

    Don’t go assuming that I’m a climate scientist. I’m just an educated observer who is fascinated by the science of climate change and want to learn more.

    “Is there a particular assertion by a non-scientist with which you take issue?”

    There are many, and I learn a great deal by reading and observing how those who know far more about the subject than I do deal with those issues.

  9. 259
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Re 240: rice production can increase because of selection and use of varieties with a shorter cycle, increased use of fertilizers and irrigation, diverting always more water fron rivers. To my knowledge, the first factor has been the most influent in the increase you mentioned. The bulk of rice is mostly produced in tropical Asia,where the growing season lasts pretty much all year and is thereby irrelevant. It is, however, dependent on rain patterns and glacial melt.

  10. 260
    Steve Reynolds says:

    “A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science shows that CO2 emissions increased by 1.1 % per year through the 1990s but the rate of increase jumped to 3 % per year in the 2000s.”

    If emission growth rates have nearly tripled, then carbon sinks must have as well, since CO2 ppm seems unaffected:

  11. 261
    Rod B says:

    re 257, Ray: I pretty much agree with all you say in this post. I’m not trying to denigrate the peer review process; I’m merely trying to instill a bit of precision when it is used for justification. Too often the backers unthinkingly slip their description into the panacean idol mode, which peer review isn’t.