by Judith Curry
Do we have the resources (from, say, economics or ethics) to answer these sorts of questions?
The NYTimes Opinionator has published a very interesting interview What can we do about climate change?
The interviewer is Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of“Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960.”
The interviewee is Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. He is the author of “Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future.”
Excerpts from the interview:
G.G.: So it seems that climate science can tell us that we should expect big problems but can’t say much about just what they will be or how best to respond to them. So how can we formulate a sensible plan of action?
D.J.: Prudence implies that we should follow “no regrets” policies — those that are likely to make sense whatever the future holds. For example, it makes sense to move people and critical infrastructure away from vulnerable areas.
G.G.: Mightn’t the costs of giving up coal and of using alternative fuels (maybe nuclear) be greater than the costs of continuing to use coal? Is it possible to be reasonably certain about the effects of such a major change?
D.J. The environmental and health costs of coal are so overwhelming that it’s not difficult to make the case for its elimination. The problem is distributional. Some people, including many poor people, gain short-term advantages from using coal. But distributional concerns are involved in all social policy decisions. The right response to these concerns is compensation, not inaction.
G.G.: Apart from scientific questions about future climate change and the effectiveness of various ways of dealing with them, there remain questions about whether the sacrifices required would be greater than the evils they prevented. Here we need judgments not only about the scientific facts but also about what we should value (and how much). Do we have the resources (from, say, economics or ethics) to answer these sorts of questions?
D.J.: We have the resources for answering some of these questions but not others. Some decisions are more complicated and outrun our usual systems of decision making. For example, should we hold people responsible for climate change because of their ordinary but preventable emissions, such as those entailed by driving the kids to school in an S.U.V.? I think common-sense morality is at a loss when faced by questions like that, even when you supply a lot of detail about climate change.
How should we currently value damages to people who will live 500 years in the future? How should we value anthropogenic changes to the biosphere over that period of time? These questions outrun the resources of economics to make sensible evaluations.
G.G.: Do you have suggestions for coming to terms with such questions?
D.J.: I think we need to think ambitiously about what a morality would be like that was adequate to the problems we face in a high-population, densely interconnected world undergoing radical climate change. At the same time philosophers don’t invent moralities that people then go out and adopt. We need to figure out how people can act from within their existing moral psychologies in a way that is both more environmentally friendly and will help to give them meaning in a world that is so different from the one in which most of our values were created. I’ve tried to develop an account of the “green virtues” as a first effort in this direction.
G.G.: What are some of these “green virtues”?
D.J.: The ones I discuss in my book, “Reason in a Dark Time,” are cooperativeness, mindfulness, simplicity, temperance and respect for nature. They will not solve the problem of climate change on their own but they will help us to live with meaning and grace in the world that we are creating.
G.G.: What’s your view of the new movement toward international agreements aimed at CO2 reduction?
D.J.: International agreements matter but their importance is exaggerated. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 most northern environmentalists thought the solution to climate change would be an international agreement that would bind countries and force them to behave. But we don’t live in a world in which such authority exists either external to nations or in their superegos. Most action on climate change will take place within regions, within countries, within communities, and in the hearts and minds of individuals. Once there has been enough change at these levels then effective agreements can be made. In a way the point is simple. When it comes to fundamental change law tends to follow politics and morality rather than leading them.
Both Gutting and Jamieson accept the IPCC conclusions, and even seem to think that ‘dangerous’ climate change is already happening. So starting from that particular premise (with which I know many people here will disagree), Gutting and Jamieson bring some refreshing realism to debate on how we should think about climate change and what we should do about it.
Michael Oppenheimer tweets: Some grim common sense #ClimateChange from philosopher Dale Jamieson. ‘Grim common sense’ is a good description – unfortunately, common sense seems very much absent in most aspects of this debate.
Some things that Jameson said that I like or find insightful:
- Prudence implies that we should follow “no regrets” policies
- The right response to these concerns is compensation, not inaction.
- I think common-sense morality is at a loss when faced by questions like that, even when you supply a lot of detail about climate change.
- These questions outrun the resources of economics to make sensible evaluations.
- We need to figure out how people can act from within their existing moral psychologies in a way that is both more environmentally friendly and will help to give them meaning.
- help us to live with meaning and grace in the world that we are creating.
I think this interview raises some fundamental issues, and reinforces my sense that philosophers (well some of them anyways) have important contributions to make to the climate change debate.