This is your adjustment time

Virtually all moral systems incorporate some notion similar to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle – the idea that a person’s freedom to act can be legitimately restricted, when the actions of that person cause harm to others.

It is now beyond question that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, and that climate change is harmful to people all over the world. Also, there is a strong case that subjecting future generations to the risk of catastrophic or runaway climate change is morally unacceptable. Moral philosopher Henry Shue equates doing so to forcing someone to play Russian Roulette; even if they don’t end up getting shot, you have still imposed a risk on them in an immoral manner.

As a consequence of what we know about climate change, and what ethical theories tell us about freedom and harm, it seems safe to say that people no longer have an unlimited right to burn fossil fuels. As I mention in a comment on BuryCoal, however, there is a further wrinkle that deserves consideration:

One moral case that does have a bit of traction is based on ignorance and historical trends. Places with abundant coal – for instance – invested heavily in coal-based infrastructure before they were aware of the existence and threatening character of climate change. A strong case can be made for them to be given time to adjust, now that everybody knows that burning those fuels is deeply harmful. That being said, the world’s current legal regimes strongly defend the rights of resource owners to dig up and sell these fuels as they wish. There is little danger of them being immediately ordered to stop. As such, adjustment time is being provided based on the sheer length of time it is taking for the legal and political systems to take climate change into account.

To me, it now seems fair to tell the world’s fossil fuel users and extractors that their adjustment time has started. They should consider themselves on notice, when it comes to future restrictions on their right to extract and use fossil fuels.

If they are smart, they will be using this time to develop alternatives. That way, investments in appropriate infrastructure can be done efficiently and gradually, rather than in a time of crisis. When our legal and political systems finally catch up to the reality of climate change, they will no longer have much of a legitimate claim for transition time. That is especially true when it comes to some of the grossly inappropriate infrastructure that is being built now, such as coal-fired power plants and unconventional oil and gas projects.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

29 thoughts on “This is your adjustment time”

  1. I know of no moral system, other than utilitarianism, which adopts something like the “Harm principle”. Certainly Kant has no such principle, nor Aristotle – and ethics based no duty (Kant) or virtue (Aristotle) are the two main alternatives to consequentialist ethics.

  2. Do Kant and Aristotle think there is a morally relevant difference between a personal choice that causes harm to others and a personal choice that does not?

    As discussed before: “I don’t think there is a credible moral theory that grants people freedom to do whatever they like, regardless of whether it harms others.”

  3. Aristotle doesn’t exactly have a notion of “Freedom” – it’s a pretty new idea. I’m not going to get into his theory here, but I have a paper on it if you’re interested.

    Kant has a notion of “freedom” – but freedom is acting according to duty. So, for Kant, if you aren’t acting according to duty, you’re acting freely. So, it doesn’t make sense to say you could freely act in a way that is immoral.

    In order to have a “harm principle”, you have to think freedom is something generally good, and that freedom is acting on inclinations. So, you have to think that we should act on our inclinations, except in some circumstance. Kant thinks that in every case it is wrong to act on inclinations. And Aristotle thinks it is right to mold one’s inclinations according to reason – and one’s “inclinations” become sort of like clarifying ways of seeing a situation which enables you to find the right action (which you literally “read off” the scene). Neither of these ways of thinking about morality enable anything like the “harm principle” to be articulated.

  4. Probably there are few things you could say of “every moral theory”, since the same words in the different theories literally mean different things. So, even if you could “say” the same thing, that same saying would “say” something different!

  5. Would it be fair to say that every serious moral theorist would recognize that the ethical situation associated with burning fossil fuels changed, once how harmful they really are became widely understood?

  6. Absolutely. But for what becomes the right action depends on your situation. There might be literally no person to whom the right action of “stop burning fossil fuels” becomes dutiful simply upon the learning that burning them is harmful – because everyone is under many, sometimes conflicting duties, at the same time. It might be the case that even CEOs of major corporations are not duty bound to immediately stop burning fossil fuels, but instead use their clout to push for regulations and reforms. Especially if simply stopping the burning of fossil fuels would get them fired.

  7. The point of this post is to say (a) there is some validity to the defence of ignorance (b) it is reasonable to grant some transition time to people who have invested heavily in high-carbon infrastructure (c) now they know, and the clock to change to less harmful technologies is ticking. If they ignore the moral obligation to do so, they cannot rightly complain later when they are forced to do so more quickly and at higher cost.

  8. (a) Climate denial campaigns can not be defended by ignorance – the people paying for and carrying out these campaigns know full well they are lies, and know the rational consequences of their actions is the eradication of the human species. This is not a crime to easily be forgiven.

    (b) The “transition time” has been consistently opposed by the current forces which hold power, evidence Canada’s “climate prosperity campaign”.

    (c) They’ve know for, probably, 20 years. The question this raises is what legitimacy does the state have when it protects climate criminals? Should RBC be protected against attack? Or do its actions place it outside the protection of the state law?

  9. Thatcher saw climate threat

    Mike Steketee, National Affairs Editor From: The Australian March 05, 2009 12:00AM

    “Margaret Thatcher’s interest in global warming dates back to earlier in her prime ministership. Unlike most politicians, she had some professional acquaintance with the area, graduating in chemistry from Oxford University and working for a period as a research scientist.

    In 1988, she said in a speech to the Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, that three changes in atmospheric chemistry — greenhouse gases, the ozone hole and acid rain — warranted government action.

    She did more than talk about climate change: she set up the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, now with a worldwide reputation for its work. She committed to bringing carbon dioxide emissions back to 1990 levels by 2005. She provided funding for reafforestation in Britain and overseas.

    The fact that, two decades later, we are a long way short of a comprehensive international agreement to limit greenhouse gases and are debating in Australia whether now is the right time to act speaks volumes about the political commitment to long-term reform.”

  10. The key elements of climate science have certainly been known for a long time. Back in 1979, the JASON group reached the same basic conclusions as the IPCC:

    Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it’s expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that’s smack in the middle of today’s predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true – last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.

    Under the chairmanship of Jule Charney, a National Academy of Sciences study produced a comparable estimate for climate sensitivity. See: National Academy of Sciences, Climate Research Board (1979). Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment (Jule Charney, Chair). Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

  11. In any event, the key point here is that anyone who argues now that the period of adjustment time has not yet begun cannot really make a strong case.

    The same goes for people in 5-10 years, when they claim then that they should be given adjustment time starting at that moment. It would be immoral to allow firms to pretend that their emissions between 2010 and 2015 or 2020 can be justified on the basis of ignorance about climate change.

    Actually, I would say that the latest possible date for which anybody can plausibly claim to have been ignorant about the effects of climate change is 2007, with the release of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. Quite probably, the Third Assessment Report in 2001 is a fairer guidepost, and a case can be made for even earlier dates.

  12. I don’t think the point of certainty is the correct guidepost. Rather, one should properly weigh the risk and the costs. I think the Kyoto period or earlier can be identified with the point at which the risks associated with business as usual exceeded the risks of mitigation.

    My point about RBC remains – although I do not advocate insurrection, we should begin to see the state’s protection of climate criminals as the same as the state’s protection of other criminals. I am in no way in favour of “taking justice into one’s own hands” – but at the same time, the state is obliged to stop crimes and to put criminals in jail, or else communities will find their own ways of dealing with un prosecuted criminals.

    If the state continues to protect climate criminals, and push on towards the destruction of the human species, it will at some point have to protect itself from a populous’ interest more and more out of synch with elite interest. This is a good reason to fear and anticipate the slow descent into fascism, and it is a good reason to try to anticipate what civil war might look like in a modern industrial society.

  13. It doesn’t seem necessary to start talking about civil war.

    We can anticipate that firms are going to use the ‘adjustment time’ argument, when Canada’s government finally gets serious about climate change. I think the above is a convincing counter-argument. Hopefully, it can be used to convince the public and policy-makers that polluters should be held to account, even if doing so will be difficult for them.

  14. We definitely need to look more closely into other cases to learn whether arguments make a difference to governments. My inclination is to believe arguments can be useful to mobilize popular support, but not to convince governments to change course. I will try to consult some relevant scholars on this question.

  15. You cannot rely on business lobby power to take into account it’s own long term interest. The discount rate produced by the corporate system of quarterly reports and two year CEO terms doesn’t allow it.

  16. Utility firms make multi-decade investments all the time. Anybody building a coal power plant needs to consider what the economic and regulatory environment will look like in 25 or even 50 years.

    These are the same firms that need to make the largest investments in moving to zero-carbon forms of energy.

  17. Editorial: Develop plans for life after coal

    CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Too often, discussion of the future of coal, and of coal miners in West Virginia, takes a predictable and useless direction: You’re either for coal or against it. If you have concerns about pollution or safety, you don’t care about jobs.

    Of course, it’s the furthest thing from the truth, but seizing on false choices and exaggerating them offers a distraction. It plays on people’s natural worries about their livelihood, their families and their communities. But fearful people tend not to make the best decisions. It is difficult to think too far ahead if you are afraid for the next month, or quarter.

    Long-term thinking is exactly what West Virginians need.

    In a recent commentary, Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, proposes the state create a Future Fund, or a permanent mineral trust fund fed by severance taxes on the state’s mineral wealth.

  18. New oil sands project approved for northern Alberta

    EDMONTON — The province is pushing ahead with more oil development. The Grizzly Oil Sands’ May River oil sands project has been approved.

    The project will be located northwest of Conklin, between Fort McMurray and Lac La Biche, and produce about 12,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

    The proposal is to use a steam-assisted gravity drainage technology, which the government says reduces the environmental impact.

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