Moving beyond facts and figures - Climate Change Ethics

7/02/2015 , 0 Comments

Turning the Tide on Climate Change. Credit: LucAleria (CC-BY-3.0)

Thinking about climate change from an ethical perspective

Imagine the following situation. A drug addict is told by his/her doctor that the addiction has taken a heavy toll on the body, so badly that any further drug intake could lead to death. When the addict gets home he/she sees the drugs still at the table. The addict sits down and stares at the drugs. In his/her mind thoughts are swirling, like “the doctor probably exaggerated, a little fix can't be so bad” and “one has to be an optimist, if I become worse the doctors will probably find a solution” . The person is in a conflict between the short term pleasure felt by taking the drugs and the long term goal to survive.

The planet's upper- and middle class people have developed this kind of addiction problem, however, the addiction in question is to fossil fuels. Short term economic benefits are preferred over long term well-being and survival. Despite scientists warning us of the consequences of our behaviour. Famous NASA physicist James Hansen describe the consequences clearly. If we burn all the fossil fuels left in the ground it will result in runaway temperature increases that with all likelihood will lead to all the ice on Earth melting which would raise sea levels by 75 meters. If we also burn all the tar sand and shale oil left we can be certain that Earth will turn as uninhabitable as the planet Venus (Hansen, 2010).

Options out of this situation seems to be four. The first is that Hansen and other scientists have misjudged the situation. The second is that large parts of the mentioned fossil fuels will not be used as it turns out we need more energy to extract them than they contain (i.e. no net energy gain). The third is that renewable fuels will become so economical that much of the fossil fuel will be left in the ground. To lean on any of these options is to hope for luck. The fourth option, instead, builds on the precautionary principle which states that we shouldn't take substantial risks today that might create great hardship for future generations. The question then becomes: do we have workable strategies to realise such a goal? To have a shot at containing global warming within the safe operating space we will need a carefully prepared analysis of the character of the problem.

Are we focusing on the right things?

A second analysis to think about is if our society is focusing on the right questions. Jared Diamond shows in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005) how vulnerable human societies are, and how they risk collapsing if people don't challenge old beliefs. Despite our society’s enormous richness, our main focus is always on increasing economic growth. Economic growth is still believed to be the solution to all our societal problems, like unemployment. But societies that focus on economic growth will not solve the climate crisis. First of, the focus is wrong since the global warming problem is more important than the unemployment problem. However, most politicians will say that there is no conflict of interest, that we can solve both problems at once through “green investments”. But this does not give equal weight to the welfare of future generations since it relies on economic growth, or so called “green growth”. To solve the unemployment problem we probably need to think about different solutions, like sharing the jobs that already exist, that challenges old beliefs and doesn't rely on economic growth, while keeping focus on the climate problem. Focus is thus necessary to solve difficult problems.

Are some solutions part of the problem?

The last analysis is about how certain suggested solutions might actually be part of the problem. A classic example of failure to solve a problem is “doing more of the same” and expecting a different result. Paradoxically, if the strategy is to do more of the same that we already know doesn’t work we need to think about trying to do the opposite of that strategy. However, some solutions whereby doing more of the same is the strategy could work, as for example in the case of raising fines for committing environmental crimes. But if a supposed solution doesn’t work it could be that it is of the wrong type. This risk is high in the case of global warming. Currently we are headed in the wrong direction since greenhouse gases are increasing and not decreasing. It’s easy to think that the solution is to do more of the same, e.g. spread awareness about the problem, with the implicit assumption that if one does it enough our development trajectory will change. However, such a solution assumes that we are capable of handling the problem with the survival instincts inherited from our evolution

Limitations of the human mind

Most research shows that our survival instincts are not good at handling large slow-moving threats. Basically, our survival instincts have not evolved to solve problems as complex as global warming. Humans have only evolved to solve threats that arise in our close proximity, triggers fear and motivates fast action. In short, threats that can be handled by fight or flight. If the threat is caused by human activity it should be clear who is responsible so that we know whom we should fight. It should also be a problem that has happened before so that we know from experience how to handle it. And the people with power to solve the problem should be granted short term benefits if they manage to complete the task. None of these criteria is true for global warming. Thus, humans ordinary psychological response is not part of the solution but part of the problem. Instead of trying to spread awareness we need to focus on solutions which circumvents the human tendency to be steered by short term benefits. Our moral side, our tendency to have opinions about what is right and wrong, allow for other solution. A global ethic that includes all people on Earth and considerations for future generations could help us move forward.

The Future

If the drug addict realised that the only way to survive was to stop taking the drug it wouldn’t be without the transient hardships of withdrawal. In a similar way, society doesn’t know what to do to emerge from either economic crisis or climate crisis. Instead of talking about doing more of the same, i.e. more economic growth and raising awareness, we should focus on new ways to handle our economy, that needs to be tested, as it will involve both benefits and disadvantages. We cannot escape change that might be perceived by some as worsening conditions. Those who look for solutions that only contain benefits will be looking in vain. The big challenge is thus to create a new society that is steered by a global ethic instead of the belief in never ending economic growth.


Out of the ashes into the fire

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