Climate Continuation

As a continuation of the last post, I am going to paste my final essay in my Environmental Ethics class below:

Energy and Climate Change
​The last portion of the course has been devoted to understanding climate change and its possible ethical consequences. The reason that climate change is worth thinking about is not only because it presents difficult questions in the face of potential disaster, but also because climate change is happening and affects everyone. It would be a mere exercise to ponder about a hypothetical attack of space alien Kenny G lookalikes, which doesn’t seem very likely given current understanding, but in thinking about climate change, one ponders one’s own probable future and the future that will be given to the next generation. The questions of climate change are as important to philosophy as any intellectual exercise that sets one’s mind against possible ethical questions, but unlike any purely academic discussion, the problems posed by climate change and how humans collectively address these problems will affect everyone in a significant way. In his video entitled “Climate Change: Recalculated,” engineer Saul Griffith mentions some of the likely impact scenarios associated with a global raise in temperature of two degrees Celsius. Using well-crafted climate models, scientists are able to determine the likely effects of various levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Griffith highlights some of the results as follows: At 1.5 degrees Celsius above the global temperature in 1990, 10% of all species in 1990 will go extinct; at 2.0 degrees Celsius, it is possible to disrupt the ocean’s thermohaline cycle, effectively changing the ocean currents and thus drastically changing global climate, as well as over 100 million refugees from flooding and other disasters; at 2.5 degrees, there are 15-40% of species extinct; and at 3.0 degrees above 1990 temperature there are 1-4 billion people facing water shortages and 20-50% of species extinct. The models also take into account the levels of atmospheric carbon that would result in a given temperature rise. According to Griffith’s data, there is a 30% chance that atmospheric carbon of 450 parts per million will result in global temperature rise of 2 or fewer degrees Celsius above 1990 levels, and so he argues that society should collectively aim for 450 ppm and hope the damage is only as bad as a 2 degree rise. The Koch brothers funded a study by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group—led by well-known climate skeptic Richard Muller—that confirmed earlier climate studies that show a 0.9 degree Celsius increase in global temperature in the last 50 years. Given the lag time of global climate mechanisms and the fact that atmospheric carbon is up to 390 ppm and rising at over 2 ppm/year as of November 2011 as measured on Mt. Mauna Loa, a rise in global temperature of 2 degrees between 1990 and 2050 seems like a very possible scenario. However, in order to analyze the ethics of climate change, one must first understand the extent to which people affect climate.

​Ice core data reliable as far back as 800,000 years ago available from the NOAA shows atmospheric carbon bounded below by about 180 ppm and bounded above by about 300 ppm, whereas in the span of just 160 years atmospheric carbon has soared from about 280 ppm to 390, which is more than 30% higher than any time in at least 800,000 years and growing at 2 ppm/year. The human species has been around for approximately 250,000 years, and not even the staunchest skeptic could deny that doubling the average amount of atmospheric carbon in the entire history of the human species (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. In fact, Physics can speak to the effect of such emissions on the climate. 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 greenhouse gas) 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. While the basic principles of the greenhouse gas effect are well known, the climate is a complex and sensitive system for which the sensitivities and complexities are not as well known. However, various climate models like the ones Griffith mentioned have been able to faithfully match past data and predict recent climate changes, and so the statement that “global climate change is happening and the greenhouse gas effect is centrally responsible” is highly likely to be true. The only remaining dot to connect is that human activity the central factor in greenhouse gas emissions, which is undeniably true.

​With this background information, it is now possible to analyze the philosophical points surrounding the issue of global climate change. Given the relevant information, it is still possible to be skeptical of impact scenarios. For instance, as Griffith mentioned in the Q&A section of his lecture, it is possible that there are unknown negative feedbacks in the climate system that will act against the sort of “doomsday” scenarios mentioned in the first paragraph. Given the inherent uncertainty in climate science, does it make sense to make rash decisions? The first part of the answer is a note about the way that science works. The fruit of the hard work that scientists do in order to understand the mechanisms of the natural world is the current best understanding of these mechanisms with a measure of relative uncertainty in measurement (relative meaning relative to the validity of experimental methods, but that is not at issue in the climate debate as far as I am aware). When informing oneself in order to make ethical decisions, it is better as a rule of thumb to use the best current understanding that science offers rather than baseless speculation. In the case of climate change, there is even enough evidence to at least have to take the idea that greenhouse gases are causing climate change seriously. Even given the uncertainties, there is enough information for any layman to do a rough expected value analysis to decide whether taking action is appropriate or not. There is a book on this point called “What’s the Worst that could Happen?” by Greg Craven. The oversimplified 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 that 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). Exploring the various outcomes armed with all the relevant background information invariably leads to the conclusion that the risk that global climate change will result significant species loss, flood refugees, draught, famine, and war weighted by the informed high probability from climate science that climate change is happening and caused by humans is too great to not act. One often buys car insurance with much less certainty about the probability that he or she will get in a car accident than the certainty afforded by modern climate science, so it seems well within reason to go to great lengths to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even despite the uncertainties. To reinforce this decision, all the many efforts to combat catastrophic global climate change will result in less pollution, technological innovation and hence employment, cleaner air, healthier ecosystems, and less reliance on oil generally (and foreign oil in particular). The last result is especially poignant since humans have passed peak oil production while at the same time increasing oil usage. So even the staunchest skeptics of global climate change must come to the conclusion that acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions is better than “business as usual” for many reasons, only one of which being the risk of global climate instability.

​None of the discussion thus far has even hinted at a particular system of ethics, and that is because any ethical perspective that holds, for instance, that choosing widespread draught, famine, and war is unacceptable or that healthier ecosystems and less pollution is desirable will respond exactly the same way to the threat of global climate instability. Because the decisions about how to act with respect to climate change are the same almost regardless of ethical position, it is important that one appeal to the ethical position that will most effectively motivate people. This idea falls nicely in line with the Kareiva reading about conservation. The most motivating ethical perspective with respect to climate issues is probably more along the lines of Gould’s prudential anthropocentric ethics, as people are probably more responsive to the idea that a 3 degree Celsius increase in global temperature from 1990 levels will result in water shortages for 1-4 billion people than the idea that carbon changes the acidity of the ocean resulting is the degradation of coral reef ecosystems, for instance. I should mention that I lean more towards Gould’s prudential environmental concern since I think that it is ultimately sentient creatures who deserve moral consideration, and one should care for the environment so that sentient creatures may live dignified lives, free of oppression.

​Because of the grave ethical nature of climate change and its effect on my generation, I feel that it is important to do what I can to spread awareness and call others to action. The call to action not only involves climate change, but also food awareness and resource concerns for a growing population. I see these as the most significant issues of the next generation. Thinking about these issues has influenced my decision about what sort of life to pursue. Instead of going on to do graduate work in Mathematics, I have decided to pursue graduate studies in Mathematics Education. As a teacher, I hope to bring awareness to these issues as best I can, while also serving to prepare the future engineers, chemists, physicists, and biologists who will ultimately save humanity from itself. As a last observation, I would like to note that it seems that in several areas of ethical concern, economic progress is antithetical to human well-being. For instance, countries that see growing populations or rampant consumerism are rewarded economically (at least in the short term), whereas human population growth leads to a strain on resources and rampant consumerism results in degradation of the environment and wasteful use of resources. Capitalism itself lends towards socioeconomic inequality, which in turn is associated with violent crime and a number of other social ills. 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.

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2 thoughts on “Climate Continuation

  1. YAY! This is great! I think this is the best paper of yours that I have ever read!!

    I like when you call capitalism obsolete!

    I really like: “When informing oneself in order to make ethical decisions, it is better as a rule of thumb to use the best current understanding that science offers rather than baseless speculation. ” It is great because it is secretly snarky and sarcastic.

    What a wonderful argument, and a well crafted narrative.

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