Starting work on my Final in Environmental Ethics

Believe it or not, but I’m working on my final right now.  My final is to write an essay about energy and climate change, drawing on some of the ethical perspectives that we have read about throughout the semester.  That’s a pretty vague topic, so I’m hoping to focus my discussion here, starting with a link:

Saul Griffith: Climate Change Recalculated

Saul Griffith is an engineer and businessman who heads a renewable energy company.  In this video, Griffith talks about a playbook that humans should adopt if we would like 450 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere in the next 40 years.

First, let’s go over some background.  The greenhouse gas effect is a well-established phenomenon in which light from the sun warms the surface of the earth, which then emits a blackbody spectrum peaking in the infrared. Visible light from the sun is energetic enough to get through the atmosphere unhindered, but the infrared  heat reemitted by the earth is partially absorbed by the atmosphere — with some gases absorbing more than others.  Gases like CO2 (the most common) and CH4 (methane) have spectral signatures that are prone to absorbing and reemitting infrared light, often back towards the earth.  So, in essence, these gases box in the infrared heat more effectively than other gases in the atmosphere.  As far as evidence, there is reliable climate data available to about 10,000 years ago. For instance, ice cores from Greenland show the composition of the atmosphere, which tells us how CO2 is related to global temperature. Temperature can be measured by looking at rations of isotopes of oxygen; The higher the temperature, the higher the ratio of heavy oxygen to light oxygen (energetic, light oxygen escapes the pull of earth’s gravity easier than heavy isotopes).  In the ice cores, we can see that high temperatures are correlated to CO2 levels, which validates the theory of how the greenhouse gas mechanism works.  It should also be noted that ice core data of CO2 goes as far back as 450,000 as we can see from

We are currently at 392 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere as measured on Mt. Manaloa in Hawaii, which is the highest level in 450,000 years. In addition, carbon levels in the atmosphere are curently rising at slightly over 2 ppm/yr.  The human species has been around for approximately 250,000 years, and it is unlikely that even the staunchest skeptic could deny that doubling the preindustrial average of atmospheric carbon (as we are set to do within the next 40 years even if we are vigilant in reforming climate policy immediately) would have some significant effect on the climate.

Speaking of skeptics, a study funded by the Koch brothers by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group confirmed earlier climate studies that show a 0.9 degree Celsius increase in global temperature in the last 50 years.  The evidence strongly shows that the earth is warming, and that warming is probably the result of greenhouse gas effects.


Next, as a matter of philosophy, there are ways in guiding one’s actions even in uncertainty.  While is is probable that humans play a significant role in climate change, one might argue that any modest amount of uncertainty should prevent us from taking rash action.  This argument is faulty, since it doesn’t properly weight the risks with the costs.  There is a book on this point called “What’s the Worst that could Happen?” by Greg Craven. There is also a series of videos that you can watch at   The simplistic version of the argument goes like this: Suppose we have a proposition GW:=”Global Warming is caused by people” which can be true or false, and there are two actions we can take in response–namely, fight global warming or do nothing about it.  There are four possible outcomes which I will state as ordered pairs: (GW is true, we do nothing), (GW is false, we do nothing), (GW is true, we fight), (GW is false, we fight).  If you are pessimistic about the worst outcome of one action, you must also be pessimistic about the worst outcome of both actions. Suppose we have (GW is false, we do nothing).  Well, then we had nothing to worry about and everything is fine! We have the status quo. We still have nuclear tensions, racism, etc. etc. but the climate is fine.  Now, suppose we have (GW is false, we fight).  Oh that sucks. We wasted tons of money trying to avert a crisis that never happened. We have a worldwide recession, lower quality of life, but we have cleaner air, sustainable energy, and efficient transportation. Now, suppose (GW is true, we fight).  This one’s ok.  Our economics aren’t great, just as in the previous case, but at least we kept the next case from happening.  Finally, (GW is true, we do nothing) with a fairly optimistic perspective.  Carbon ppm are well above 600 in 2050, we have mass flooding with hundreds of millions of people displaced. We have over 15% of species extinct in that period, leaving the ecosystem more fragile than ever.  We have droughts that cause famine and thus war all over the world. We have massive global depression due to the proliferation of weather-related catastrophes. This is definitely not good.  We can only choose whether we act or not, so we can choose our worst case scenarios.  The worst case scenario if we act  is to endure the cost of taking action.  The worst case scenario if we don’t act is total environmental,political, and economic destruction.  The decision is easy.

Of course, we are assuming that the probability of GW being true is the same as it being false, which is invalid on its own.  As I mentioned, the earth has warmed .9 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years, and it is highly likely that this is due to the drastic increase in the share of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere produced by human activity.  The decision whether to act is much easier than the decision to get car insurance, so why aren’t we acting while we choose to get car insurance all the time?  I think the answer is money.  Policy makers are too short-sighted to see that coal and petroleum are short-term moneymakers in the face of global climate destabilization. As long oil companies are making money hand over fist, policy will not change.  However, I challenge the premise that taking action will result in economic woes.  In WW2, the US rose to the industrial challenge of increasing utilization capacity, and in doing so, rose out of the Great Depression. If the world chooses to meet the challenge of climate change with the same vigor with which it faced WW2, it’s possible to use the renewable energy paradigm to balance standard of living (that is, balance the cost from lowering energy usage vs. the benefit of living in a world with clean air, strong ecosystems, better food, efficient technologies, and better technologies).  I also think it’s important to note that economics comes in direct conflict with many of the large problems we face today. Capitalism lends itself towards discrepancy between classes, which in turn lends itself to increased violent crime and consumerism.  Economics is also antithetical to wise action pertaining to world populations and energy consumption. Growing populations with consumerist cultures are rewarded economically, while there are only finite resources available. Wise action with respect to resource use is to have zero population growth with modest consumption and an emphasis on energy research. I might suggest that a system of economics such as Capitalism is obsolete in a world with problems such as population growth and climate change. I would suggest a system that rewards temperance, conservation, and forethought rather than rampant consumerism, population growth, and environmental degradation.  I do not know what such a system might look like, but I do hope that people can work together to solve the problems we all face.  I’ll stop rambling now. I think I have a good starting point for my essay.


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