by Judith Curry
The global climate change debate has gone badly wrong. Many mainstream environmentalists are arguing for the wrong actions and for the wrong reasons, and so long as they continue to do so they put all our futures in jeopardy. – Thomas Wells
My recent post Why scientists should talk to philosophers elicited a comment on twitter (that I can’t find) that recommended Lawrence Torcello as a philosopher that I should be paying attention to. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Torcello famously wrote an essay entitled Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent? More traditional (less outrageous) thinking about climate ethics is typified by this Nature essay by Stephen Gardiner.My response to most writings on climate ethics that I’ve encountered has ranged from outrage to a yawn.
Today’s cartoon sums up my problem with the traditional perspective on climate ethics:
With this context, I was very pleased to come across this essay by Thomas Wells at the blog Essays in Philosophy, Politics and Economics ,entitled Debating Climate Change: The Need for Economic Reasoning. Excerpts:
My diagnosis is a twofold ethical failure: of pragmatism and perspective (or, more eloquently, of ‘sense and sensibility’). Many environmentalists argue that climate change is fundamentally a values problem. And yet their interpretation of this has taken a narrow moralising form that systematically excludes consideration of such important ethical values as improving the lives of the 1 billion people presently living in unacceptable poverty or even protecting other aspects of the environment (such as wilderness areas). That narrowness also leads to self-defeating policy proposals founded almost entirely in the economy of nature rather than political economy. The result is a fixation on global CO2 levels alone as the problem and solution, at the cost of systematic and broad evaluation of the feasible policy space.
These foundational errors have induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in many otherwise sensible people, to the extent that to be an environmentalist these days is to fear the oncoming storm and know that all hope is lost. My recommended treatment, to reinvigorate their confidence as well as their ethics, is a dose of economic reasoning.
As well as incorporating the full range of our ethical concerns and values (sensibility) such a debate requires further facts about how our socio-economic institutions interact with the environmental mechanisms (sense). Relying on the natural scientific account alone leads us to fixate on the minutiae of greenhouse gas emissions levels and climate sensitivity, while drastically simplifying the human side.
One way of dealing with such difficult problems is to moralise them, and this seems to be the strategy currently favoured by mainstream environmentalists. Climate change is thus simplified and personalised as a simple ‘values’ choice: Are you for the planet or against it?
On this model, one’s carbon footprint is a moral crime (against the planet presumably) which one should feel guilty about and strive to reduce. As of course are other people’s carbon emissions: they deserve to be shamed or otherwise forced into submission by the righteous ones. Forging such a moral identity may strengthen solidarity within the environmentalist movement, but it certainly doesn’t build the necessary bridges for successful political action.
The moralisation approach undermines itself since it frames climate change narrowly in terms of righteousness. Inevitably deliberation about action gets bogged down in an interminable blame-game about what justice requires – who had their industrial revolution first, etc. Furthermore, the moral duties of different actors do not all point the same way: poor country governments have a clear and over-riding moral duty to help their citizens achieve the quality of life and prosperity which the West takes for granted, and which is inevitably energy (i.e. carbon) intensive. And then there is the practical economics: the world still has lots of coal, a lot of it in poor countries like India, that can produce electricity very cheaply. Not even the strongest moral rhetoric can make renewables competitive without radical technological (i.e. price) breakthroughs.
The moralisation approach contrasts with a fuller ethical thinking in which values are considered and debated explicitly and openly. Righteousness simplifies but it doesn’t try to understand. No-one emits carbon deliberately ‘for fun’, but rather we engage in activities which are more or less valuable to us – such as flying across the Atlantic to visit grandparents – which happen to emit carbon as a byproduct. To ignore the value of these human activities and see them instead as moral crimes is to do a violence to the very humanness of the lives (including those of future generations) that we are supposed to be so concerned about preserving. We need a broader ethical debate about what the consequences of climate change will be for what we humans have reason to value so that we can take really credible actions to protect them.
This is an essentially pragmatic approach – breaking the ‘end of the world’ into human-sized and human-relevant problems and solutions and ordering them by their importance, feasibility and (opportunity) costs. For example low-lying places such as Bangladesh or the Maldives are at particular risk from rising sea-levels, but piecemeal interventions like building sea walls are not only cheaper but much more likely to protect them than global carbon austerity.
The pragmatic approach does not depend on reaching an impossible global agreement on a perfect solution requiring moral or political coercion. Instead it offers feasible paths through the moral storm while respecting the existing interests and values of the human beings concerned. It is more democratic than the moralising approach because it works within our existing political institutions (no need for a ‘global government’) and offers transparent arguments for action within our present valuational framework (rather than requiring us all to assume a new and narrow set of values). It is also fairer. While the moralists’ fixation on minimising further CO2 emissions places excessive burdens on the world’s poorest, the pragmatic approach naturally pushes the greatest obligations and costs onto those (rich countries) most able to act.
At present too many environmentalists are guilty of the same moral and cognitive melt-down in the face of its complexities that they accuse their detractors of. They are wrong to see the development of human freedoms and well-being (prosperity) as a distraction or even a threat to the world. They are wrong to fixate on an abstract and impossible problem (450 CO2 ppm) and seek a perfect solution without reference to wider ethical issues, and political and practical feasibility. They are wrong to give up on the potential of democratic politics and human ingenuity and settle for Malthusian doom mongering and moralising.
I think that pondering the ethical issues surrounding climate change and proposed policies is important. However, I have found the narrow moralizing of Torcello, et al. to be not very useful in the context of the policy debate on climate change. Wells’ pragmatic approach to climate ethics makes a lot of sense to me, and it ties in well with adaptive governance and robust decision making.
The IPCC AR5 WG3 report introduced an element of ethics, as is summarized in this article in the E&E. Excerpt:
“We are trying to look at the social, economic and ethical conceptions of [things like] what is ‘dangerous’? ” said Kevin Urama, executive director of the Africa Technology Policy Studies Network in Kenya and a co-lead coordinating author of the ethics chapter.
“The ethics deals a lot with justice, fairness, distributional weights. Basically, it sets a pace for better understanding for policymakers,” Urama said.
“Really, what we’re dealing with climate change or historic responsibility is ‘What do we think is the ethical way to view someone who did something harmful, but before anyone realized it was harmful?'” said Charles Kolstad, a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research economist and co-lead coordinating author of the chapter.
The ethical framing being used by the IPCC seems tied to the blame game associated with the Warsaw Loss and Damage Mechanism, and distracts from the real problems facing the developing world.
Clearly the issues of ethics surrounding climate change and proposed policy responses have many dimensions. Avoiding oversimplifications simplistic moralisation seems a good framework for rethinking how we approach the ethics of the wicked climate problem.