Climate change and sacrifice


in Politics, The environment

As Tristan rightly identifies, climate change is really depressing stuff. Largely, this is because of how an understanding of the consequences of emitting greenhouse gasses makes us re-evaluate things previously believed to be excellent: from world travel and the space program to road trips and tasty steaks. Many things that one might previously have aspired to do now require either indifference to the suffering of others or intentional ignorance to carry out.

It’s not that it’s manifestly impossible to do these things in a low-carbon way, it’s just that doing so is too difficult and expensive for the huge majority of people to do at this time. Continent-crossing electric bullet trains powered by renewable energy would be great, but they are not available to those trying to cross North America today.

Given the total capacity of the planet to absorb greenhouse gases, it may be fundamentally impossible for the number of people alive today to ever do these kinds of things sustainably. As such, responding seriously to the threat of climate change requires pretty significant personal sacrifices and, to a considerable extent, a reduced expectation of how much energy-intensive stuff we can aspire to do in the course of our lives. Building a low-carbon society is a way of taking back the freedoms lent to us by hydrocarbon energy, but it definitely remains to be seen whether equivalent per-capita potential will be created by such means during the lifetime of anyone alive today.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan February 16, 2008 at 4:16 pm

I absolutely agree we need to do all this. And I absolute agree that its a moral demand we do all this, that its actually right in the full blown sense.

However, I’ve just been trying to point out, in my various posts and arguments, that this moral demand cannot take the form: There is a moral demand to personally reduce your emissions on your own account. Simply because, if people actually did it, it would make transition to a low carbon economy impossible. This is an empirical claim which I might be wrong about, but which needs to be argued for and refuted on empirical grounds. If its true, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t reduce your own emissions and set a good example because in reality there is no danger that everyone would actually stop buying garbage, building new homes etc… However, we need to recognize that we can only reduce our emissions and set a good example for others precisely because others aren’t doing the same. It follows that there is no universal moral obligation to reduce your individual emissions by your own accord.

There may be, however, a moral obligation to, as someone who is in the possession of the requisite understanding, and who believes there is a moral imperative to “save the world” from climate change, to reduce their own emissions and encourage others to do the same. This isn’t contradictory because it applies only to a small minority, and would encourage that minority to grow at a reasonable rate.

It might also be a moral obligation to lobby the state to make laws, perhaps even a law which made it punishable by fines to exceed a determinate limit of emissions per person.

These moral obligations produce no such contradictions because if everyone did them, it would be good for everyone. (Including those not yet born yet).

So you see, I am not against the notion there being moral obligations concerning climate change, only that whenever we draft a moral obligation, we need to check to make sure we’re ok with what happens when everyone to whom the obligation applies, follows the obligation. Otherwise we aren’t drafting moral obligations but polemic claims, which merely appear to be moral obligations for reasons of persuadability.

Milan February 19, 2008 at 3:44 pm

This post of Tristan’s addresses similar issues:

Moral Universalizability and Climate Change: a Restatement

. February 25, 2008 at 10:21 am

W. Somerset Maugham

“Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.”

. February 26, 2008 at 9:52 am

“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

E. B. White

Quotes February 26, 2008 at 4:05 pm

“If kindness and comfort are, as I suspect, the results of an energy surplus, then, as the supply contracts, we could be expected to start fighting once again like cats in a sack.”

—George Monbiot

Quotes February 26, 2008 at 4:06 pm

“My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel.”

—Saudi saying

. July 10, 2008 at 3:10 pm

A strong case can be made that nations who exceed their fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emissions violate the human rights of others. How a “fair share” is determined is an ethical question beyond the scope of this post but a matter that will be the subject of future posts. Yet, without doubt some large emitting nations are beyond their fair share of global emissions no matter what distributive justice theory is used to determine any nation’s fair share. This can be concluded with high degrees of confidence because global emissions need to be reduced by large amounts ( between 60 and 90 percent) to prevent catastrophic warming and some nations are emitting much higher levels of emissions than other both on a per capita and total tons of emissions basis.

According to human rights theory, if climate change caused harm violates human rights, all governments have duties take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their jurisdictions to that nation’s fair share of global emissions. Further, according to human rights theory, all persons whose rights are violated by climate change may demand protection from those nations who are exceeding their fair share of global emissions for as long as greenhouse gas emissions interfere with basic human rights.

If climate change can trigger human rights responsibilities, the duty to reduce national emissions to any nation’s fair share of global emission is not diminished because of justifications that have sometimes been used by some nations for not reducing their emissions such as cost-benefit analysis or the fact that not all nations have agreed to reduce their emissions.

For this reason, if climate change damages interfere with human rights, the international; debate about national responsibility should be limited to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, understanding climate change as triggering human rights violations should transform the subject of future international climate change negotiations even if no existing human rights tribunal has jurisdiction to provide a remedy for climate change caused damages. This is so because very strong moral claims can be made that climate change interferes with human right enjoyment even if existing human rights regimes prove to not be viable remedies for climate change because of legal initiations of these regimes.

. June 18, 2009 at 11:22 pm

“It appears to me that much of the rigid opposition to environmental concerns in the First World nowadays involves values acquired early in life and never again reexamined: ‘the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with,’ to quote Barbara Tuchman.

It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival. At what point do we as individuals prefer to die than to compromise and live? Millions of people in modern times have indeed faced the decision whether, to save their own life, they would be willing to betray friends of relatives, acquiesce in a vile dictatorship, live as virtual slaves, or flee their country. Nations and societies sometimes have to make similar decisions collectively.

All such decisions involve gambles, because one often can’t be certain that clinging to core values will be fatal, or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival…

Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change.”

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. p. 433 (paperback)

Milan October 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I cooked up a basic graph of the bind we are in, given today’s technologies. If we set up the right incentives, it should eventually be possible to do a lot more personally enjoyable things in an environmentally acceptable way. For now, those who really want to avoid causing harm to defenceless members of future generations have few alternatives to the hair shirt approach.

Note: The examples in the graph correspond to one set of preferences. Obviously, the rankings will vary depending on the person. Someone who lives to motorcycle, for instance, might list being able to do so towards the top-right of this chart.

A Medieval Peasant October 27, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Hey! We didn’t have it so bad! Sure, there was the feudal system, short lifespans, and the Black Death – but we also got to watch witch trials, bair baiting, and the burning of heretics at the stake. Such simple pleasures…

Milan October 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

There’s the minor fact that the average person living in poverty in Canada today will probably live a longer and healthier life than the average medieval monarch.

Also, it would have been more accurate to put ‘ice age cavewoman’ at the extreme top right of my sacrifice chart: all the famine and disease the cavemen got, plus childbirth without painkillers or antibiotics.

Milan October 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Also, I am pretty sure that today’s government won’t let you revive the traditions of bear-baiting and burning at the stake, even if you do adopt a lifestyle that is medieval in its comforts.

. November 16, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Even though we’re believers, not skeptics, our denial is far more insidious and subtle. So subtle, in fact, that we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re not in denial at all. Quite the opposite. Why, the thought is too absurd even to contemplate.

But it’s true.

We’re deniers every time we say “80 percent by 2050,” or even “80 percent by 2020”; every time we refer to tipping points in the future tense; every time we advocate substituting “clean” energy for “dirty” energy; every time we buy a squiggly light bulb or a hybrid vehicle; every time we advocate for cap-and-trade, or even a carbon tax; every time we countenance the mention of loopy geoengineering schemes; every time we invoke the future of our children and grandchildren and ignore the widespread suffering from global climate disruption today.

Every time we say these things and more, we’re promoting denial of dire climate reality, the reality that’s spinning out of our grasp so fast that we conduct our frenetic climate “solutions” efforts in a kind of stupor, obsessing with parts-per-million statistics, keeping desperately busy to ward off our own utter collapse borne of despair.

The reality we’re denying? We’re denying that we’ve put so much carbon into the atmosphere already that positive feedback loops are well on their way to amplification hell. We’re denying that time lags between carbon emissions and their effects are frighteningly relevant, and that the disastrous effects we’re seeing now are from emissions of 30 years ago. We’re denying that non-linear responses of physical systems cannot be calculated and therefore are perilously ignored. We’re denying that our consumption and waste have far exceeded planetary capacity, possibly irreparably so.

We’re denying reality because we’re not talking about it; we’re invoking fantasies and free lunches instead.

Why do we act like this? Because just like the skeptics, we are inordinately fond of our cushy lives. Because we don’t want to give up our privileged, well-stocked existences any more than the skeptics do (and enter the realms of unthinkable thoughts, to wit, go back to the jungles? the caves? the starving, thirsting millions—or is that billions?—never, never, never, not us). Because in our heart of hearts, we want the skeptics to be right. We are brothers and sisters. And so we join them.

But our denial is much, much worse, because we are the ones presumably advocating for action on global climate disruption. And when we fall short, who’s left to do the job?

. February 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Police and firefighters are well aware of this tendency for crowds to gather and taunt, and this is why they tape off potential suicide scenes and get the crowd out of shouting distance. The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

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