Friday, January 06, 2012

The difficulties of climate ethics: space

Human societies have faced many threats throughout history: wars, epidemics, natural disasters, mass migrations, famines, revolutions and more. Very few of these threats were truly global in scope. Climate change is one of them (along with the ongoing potential for nuclear holocaust, pandemics and the climatic effects of the very largest volcanic eruptions). Climate damage embraces not simply human society, but the entire biosphere, since our actions are altering the basic chemistry of atmosphere and oceans.

Not only are the consequences global, but the causes are also widely distributed, making the coordination of responses complex. Unilateral actions by a single society considered in isolation are unlikely to have a significant direct impact on the danger represented by rising global average temperatures and the associated disruptions this brings. Responsibility for changing atmospheric chemistry is unevenly distributed, with some nations possessing a much larger per capita carbon footprint than others. And the persistence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and active carbon cycle (much of it for thousands or even tens of thousands of years) means that historical emissions further complicate the picture.

The necessity of international cooperation to address a serious threat is nothing particularly novel, though the mixing of atmospheric gases means that mitigation efforts by some subset of the globe brings no added climatic benefits to those bearing the costs of such action. Thus, the threat of freeloading is high. Every country hopes that other countries will do the heavy lifting.
This is the second in a series briefly outlining some of the distinctive features of climate change that makes ethical reflection upon our predicament more difficult. The first post can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Well put! A truly just solution would imply calculating historical emissions, and applying them to the guilty parties. It's mind-bendingly complex from that perspective. However, what we need to do isn't that hard to imagine. The main culprit is burning coal for electricity, and we have alternatives to that. Then there's burning gas and oil for transport, and there are electric transport and clever city planning solutions for eventually shutting down oil. So while purist ethical considerations might attempt to measure past blame, there appear to be reasonable policy recommendations as we move forward.

1. Ban the construction of any new coal fired power stations
2. Hyper-accelerate the commercialisation of Gen4 reactors that burn nuclear waste, and deploy Gen3.5 reactors in the meantime.
3. Rezone urban planning towards New Urbanism with walkability and public transport providing the majority of movement.

Deploying clean nuclear power has immediate health benefits on any population currently choking to death under King Coal's poisonous regime. Today's Gen3.5 reactors are exponentially safer than Fukishima's old Gen2 reactors, and let's remember that Fukishima was not a nuclear 'accident' but a verocious natural disaster. Nevertheless, it could have been prevented with better planning.

Lastly, unilateral action is technically possible, if not desirable. If a super-power like America or the EU or, eventually, China decided global warming was hurting badly enough, there is of course one emergency option available. The Sulphur Gun. It isn't my recommended solution to climate change, but it seems cheap enough that any one super-power could afford to do it. Alone, if necessary.