Climate change and responsible global citizenship

2007-05-30

in Canada, Daily updates, Politics, The environment

Old Library, Wadham College, Oxford

During my second-to-last high table dinner in Wadham tonight, I got into a long conversation about Canada and climate change. The man with whom I was speaking asserted that (a) Canada would benefit directly from moderate warming and (b) Canada would benefit from activities that encourage global warming, such as the exploitation of the tar sands. Neither of these claims is unassailable on a factual basis, but the normative implications are more interesting to consider at the moment.

Let’s say that both claims are true. Should Canada act to combat climate change? To me, it seems the answer is an unambiguous yes. If I live uphill from a farm and have the opportunity to benefit from cutting down all the trees on my land, the fact that erosion will harm my downhill neighbour is not external from the consideration of what ought to be done. Depending on your conception of ethics, it may or may not be ethically appropriate for my neighbour to pay me not to cut down the trees. Regardless, the ethically optimal solution is generally to avoid impoverishing one’s neighbours to enrich oneself. This is especially true when you are much richer than those likely to be most immediately and significantly harmed. Being a mugger may be a personally advantageous course of action, but we have obligations to others that preclude it from being an acceptable choice for a member of society. Among a society of nations, there is likewise an obligation to behave with consideration for others, even if it diminishes one’s own prospects. Of course, such noble sentiments are hard to embed in policy.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 31, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Exxon’s Up Came Oil is an amusing corporate song. I found it on this MeFi post.

. November 6, 2007 at 1:28 pm

The tar sands are dirty. To produce a single barrel of tar sands oil requires three to five times the amount of water. Wastewater is collected in giant “tailing ponds” visible from space and so toxic that birds are kept away using air cannons.

Old growth forests are ripped from the ground and discarded to make way for giant earthmovers to dig up the landscape, an important habitat to wildlife. If all of the proposed leases for tar sands development are granted, the tar sands will encompass an area the size of Florida.

It also takes two to five times more energy to produce a barrel of oil from the tar sands than any other type of oil production. Energy production from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases. The tar sands, if current plans proceed, are expected to emit 140 million tonnes of greenhouse gases – or double the annual emissions of all the cars and trucks in the country today.

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