Upon cursory consideration of the question posed by the title, my first thought was I am venturing into a realm of uncertainty and “what ifs” that can only lead to something akin to the feeling Alice must have had as she cascaded down the hole to find not only that she could not get out but that she could not discern the way. Further thought and accounting of the provided readings and others revealed what I found to be a sort of broad outline of a door that may with time develop to a cohesive opening to the path of human response to climate change.
The Ethics of Climate Changeby John Broom asserts that “some people-chiefly the better-off among the current generation-will have to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases to save future generations…” This is part of the conflicting interests that demand ethical questions involved in climate change response. Broom also states that “those who benefit from something should not impose its cost on others who do not” and most people recognize that you should not do something for your own benefit if it harms others. The issue is then to understand the sometimes complex, domino effect manner in which your actions can harm others. The other and perhaps even more difficult issue is the qualifier “most”. An example of this stems from a conversation with a coleague whom I loosely paraphrase as stating, I do not believe in ethics, as my philosophy is live and let live, so we should not be telling anyone how to go about living their lives. John Ehrenfeld may see this as a symptom of “hyper-individualism” which he describes in Sustainability By Design. Lester Brown in a May 2009 Scientific American article points out that when a government can’t provide security or basic services the breakdown of society in these countries overflows and has consequences to other areas such as spreading disease, weapons, and violence. This should appeal to the self preservation side of anyone. The irony of “freedom” is that it can lead to the absence of it.
Broom also raises the issue of economics and prioritarianism/utilitarianism as they relate to the value and stratification of distributing goods. How this relates to climate change is not made clear by Broom but I theorize that the ethical decision can be equated to the degree of responsibility countries have in curbing emissions based on their relative wealth. Prioritarianism seems the logical answer in terms of handling climate change but Broom states he believes it is mistaken and we should be taking the utilitarian approach, though he does not explain why citing lack of space. The authors’ background as an economist seems to lead him to shape these moral issues in terms of monetary value, to the exclusion of true quality of life factors.
The temporal considerations of moral decisions are given some thought and Broom acknowledges that this is not an easy dilemma. Should the life of a child now be worth more than the life of a child 100 years from now? This is a difficult question and I guess that Broom is trying to say that we can make decisions to mitigate climate change now that may decrease the quality of life for some now but increase quality for their ancestors. I understand the importance of keeping in mind temporal scale when making decisions, though I disagree that when it comes to climate change we really have to make big negative trade offs to make humans lives better in the future and I feel there are different ways of looking at the social aspects of how we can mitigate climate change, which I will touch upon later.
A Sunshade for Planet Earth by Robert Kunzig describes some geo-engineering schemes that have been proposed and discusses the merits of attempting such schemes. A very telling observation is made by Kunzig in the first paragraph when he points out how scientists were worried about carbon dioxide in 1965 and considered a reflective geo-engineering scheme without mentioning reducing emissions. This is the attitude that has had to change for us to be even near the point of action. There are two main types of schemes to stop the Earth from warming, one focuses on limiting insolation, the other on increasing the ability for heat to escape. Shooting sulfur into the stratosphere is a form of the former while sea mist into the troposphere, is of the latter. Harvard geo-physicist Daniel Schrag makes perhaps the best argument for geo-engineering by posing the question, what do you do if you are President of the U.S. and the Greenland ice sheet starts collapsing tomorrow? Knowing what we do about the potential for positive feedbacks, while this may not be likely, it is not near being out of the realm of possibility.
Keeping Carbon in Check is a suggestion for a broad tool to be used for mitigating climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. I find the approach simultaneously useful, misguided, and incomplete. The wedge system seems a reasonable way to quantify and visualize a vast and complex problem, though I speculate that it would be more logical to have the wedges arranged in sectors such as residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and transportation. The different techniques of lowering carbon emissions described within these frameworks would be more conducive to making realistic plans of action. The approach is on target in that different countries and regions contribute varying amounts of emissions within the wedges and have varying capabilities of reduction from these wedges including the recognition that developing countries may need to increase emissions which would be offset by OECD countries.
Mitigating and adapting to a warming world will not be easy and we must consider the moral implications of actions and policies that are tools for mitigation and adaptation. As Brown points out failed states threaten everyone and in today’s world, policies even seemingly on small scales can have global effects. These effects can contribute to the collapse of states, so there truly may be no such thing as “live and let live”. Mitigation and adaptation can at times be one in the same, for example if people were forced to move away from coastal areas (adaptation) it may reduce the amount of sulfuric acid falling directly into the oceans (mitigation). A plan similar to that proposed in Keeping Carbon in Check would be a giant step toward mitigation, not only of climate change but the other issues involved with fossil fuels. In order to facilitate and expedite such a plan we need to be thinking on a different plane than the stale offerings of utilitarianism vs. prioritarianism expounded by Broom, which are old ideas with new wrapping. A new paradigm such as proposed by Ehrenfeld in Sustainability by Design will be needed for real solutions to be implemented because policies need the support of people to be enacted in most industrialized nations and a shift in individual as well as group behavior is necessary for the cooperation needed for an acceptable warming response.
Areas of research which I believe to be helpful in understanding as well as changing behaviors and values include those in the realm of sustainable consumption which address the pathologies of humans that have lead to an unsustainable human way of living. One example of such a study is Environmental Concern and Anti-Consumerism in the self concept: Do They Share the Same Basis? This study centered on drawing qualitative and quantitative data from participants in a voluntary simplicity course. The conclusion is that there are many people who adopt voluntary simplicity (slower, lighter footprint type lifestyles) that have a “clear environment -related basis” but more recent growth in involvement is fueled more by “inwardly oriented reasons” that arise from a sort of crisis of self identity brought upon by overconsumption. The author notes that this crisis oriented change may not lead to sustainability as it often depends on a sort of crash after first over-consuming. Further work needs to be done to both understand consumption and self identity and how we can use this to prevent the over-consumption in the beginning. This prevention is mitigation through decreased emissions and adaptation to a world that can not handle current levels of consumption.
One such way of preventing over-consumption or mis-consumption that has been explored is the use of social marketing to “advertise” anti-consumption. A relevant discussion of this idea is included in Social marketing: A pathway to consumption reduction? In reference to an anti-smoking marketing campaign the authors hypothesize that the general idea of getting the message out that companies are not marketing their products to meet people’s needs but to make already rich companies and shareholders richer could be applied to “reverse the over-consumption epidemic within industrialized economies.”
A plan such as Socolow and Pacala’s wedge approach should be implemented for mitigation. Geo-engineering could be used as a last resort, but the sheer amount of money involved is an issue. In order to “keep carbon in check” a massive re-education effort needs to be formed and acted upon to address the root of the climate change problem, (as well as most environmental problems) which is over-consumption. As climate changes we will have to role with the punches so to speak, as I do not believe all changes can be predicted before they happen. The idea should be to mitigate enough so that the punches are mere jabs rather than devastating right hooks.
Broome, John. “The Ethics of Climate Change.” Scientific American June 2008: 97-102.
Brown, Lester R. “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization.” Scientific American May 2009: 50-57.
Socolow, Robert and Stephen Pacala. “A Plan to Keep Carbon in Check.” Scientific American September 2006: 50-57.
Ehrenfeld, John R. Sustainability by Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.
Kunzig, William. “A Sunshade for the Planet Earth.” Scientific American 2008.
Peattie, Ken and Sue Peattie. “Social marketing: A pathway to consumption reduction?” Journal of Business Research (2009): 260-268.
Zavestocki, Stephen. “Environmental Concern and Anti-consumerism in the Self-Concept: Do They Share the Same Basis.” Exploring Sustainable Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences, Volume 1. Ed. Maurie Cohen and Joseph Murphy. Oxford: Elsevier Science Ltd., 2001. 173-189.