Friday, December 30, 2011

The difficulties of climate ethics: time

"[There is] a pronounced temporal dispersion of causes and effects. In the case of climate change, this is caused mainly by the long atmospheric lifetime of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and by the fact that some of the basic physical systems influenced by the greenhouse effect (such as oceans) are subject to profound inertia, so that changes play out over centuries and even millennia. This is important because it suggests that whereas fossil fuel emissions have immediate and tangible benefits for present people, many of the most serious costs are likely to be substantially deferred to future generations."

- Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm:
The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 123.

This time lag is critical to grasping climate change (and, to a greater or lesser extent, many other ecological issues). Many people don't realise that the changes we are already experiencing (Arctic summer sea ice volume down by over 70%, shifts in timing of the seasons, more frequent heatwaves and intense precipitation events in some regions, poleward shift of ecosystems, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and so on) are not the result of present greenhouse gas concentrations. We are merely reaping the start of the harvest of seeds sown decades ago. It will be decades more before the effects of today's levels begin to be visible, and centuries or even millennia before their full impact is known.

This temporal lag means that climate change occupies an intermediate position amongst future threats, too close to be safely ignored and too distant to avoid being perpetually trumped by the myopic focus on today's problem caused by the media and political cycle. Dangerous climate change is far more immediate than say, the heat death of the universe or even the death of our Sun (or the preceding gradual increase in solar radiation that will likely destroy all life on earth well before either of these), and yet not immediate enough to enter the horizon of political decision-making. That this is so can be seen in the frequent attempts to find proximate hooks of one disaster or another on which to hang the climate threat. Yet these are doomed to be of only ambiguous use since any single disaster always has multiple causes and climate change is about a shift in statistical distributions, rather than being the sole unambiguous "cause" of any given event. In this intermediate position, climate change is uncomfortably dangerous enough to be of real concern and yet always comfortably far enough away to ignore for one more day, lowering the chance that will anticipate with prudence such (slightly) distant futures.

Individually, we are frequently poor at responding to such delayed feedback. The causes of obesity, heart disease, lung disease, alcoholism and all kinds of other long term health problems are increasingly well-known and connected to various behaviours that are often deemed quite pleasant in the short term. Yet, despite the long term ill-effects frequently being catastrophic for our health, we continue to indulge.

And that is just for problems where the effects are on my own life a few decades in the future. But when we turn to issues where the worst effects are felt by others, separated from me by time, space, social distance and even species, then my ability to refrain from indulging in short-term pleasures becomes even more difficult.

And when we turn from individual responses to collective responses, yet another layer of complexity is added and the potential to pass the buck becomes even higher. And when these collective responses are required not only at communal, social and national levels, but also critically amongst all nations of any economic size, then the barriers can appear insurmountable. More on these issues in the days ahead as I begin this series looking at some of the reasons why climate change is a particularly knotty ethical issue.
As one illustration of the temporal lag, a new publication from NASA claims that, based on paleoclimate records, each degree Celsius of global temperature rise will, in the long run, be associated with something like a twenty metre sea level rise. For those who don't understand why it matters whether we rise two or three or four degrees, here is one example to clarify our thoughts. This is not saying that such rises will be immediate, but that we are committing our descendants to a very, very different world.


Anonymous said...

"my ability to restrain from indulging"

I think you mean "refrain".

Byron, to what extent do you think that the claim, 'Oh, but that problem will be soluble by new technologies by then,' an allowable ethical manoeuvre?

Alan Wood

byron smith said...

Typo corrected.

In answer to your question, about minus twenty extent. On the one hand, I think it is irresponsible to create a serious mess and leave it to be solved by those who had not part in creating it (future generations) by assuming that an as yet inoperable option has become available by then.

In practice, this is not a solvable problem. It is a predicament that has better and worse responses, but there is no clear path that takes us back to a place of climate innocence. Even if we cracked fusion power tomorrow, this would still be a major headache. Happy to go into details of numbers to back up that claim (though cracking fusion tomorrow would undoubtedly make it a slightly smaller headache and could make the difference between our civilisation being able to continue in some recognisable form or not).

And in practice, we are also too late for such wishful thinking. If we had seriously addressed this issue when we first had a clear idea of it being a serious problem (by the start of the 80s that was pretty clear, and very much so by the end of the 80s) then we could have kept it at a more manageable size. Now, we are too late to have a good outcome possible. Now our choices are bad or catastrophic.

Having said that, it is theoretically possible that some new technology of basically endless energy might be discovered (let's go back to the hypothetical example of fusion) that would enable us to run some kind of carbon capture and storage directly out of the atmosphere (BTW we have such technology already. They are called trees) on a massive, massive scale (sufficient to remove the roughly two trillion tonnes of CO2 humans have added to the active carbon cycle - and so this means that trees will be insufficient, because carbon in wood is a temporary and limited sink). Even so, the application of such a technology on the scale required would likely takes decades at best, during which time the damage we are presently doing would become more manifest, including in ways that will be irreversible (such as extinctions) or which will not be reversed simply/quickly by the lowering of CO2 concentrations (there is a lot of inertia in the climate system). Furthermore, it is quite likely that any such "solution" would end up being many times more expensive that avoiding the extra emissions in the first place with the technologies already available (and with changes in our assumptions about our energy use).

So the bottom line is that waiting on a technological saviour is like jumping off a cliff and hoping that a helicopter will somehow manage to catch you. Or perhaps it is more like smoking five packs a day at home in front of your kids and telling them that they will have cured cancer by the time any of you get sick. It is possible that such a statement turns out to be true, but it is a deeply irresponsible attitude to hold.

byron smith said...

Milan has a good summary of the intergeneration issue at the heart of climate ethics.