John Ivison is wrong about climate ethics

Writing recently in the National Post, John Ivison was dismissive of the views of the scientist James Hansen:

So overblown is Mr. Hansen’s rhetoric that it is easily dismissed. This, after all, is the man who, for all his scientific credibility, has said climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery.

I don’t think the comparison between slavery and unrestrained climate change is unrealistic. Under slavery, the rights and welfare of one group of people (slaves) were ignored so that the wealth and privileges of another group (slave owners) could be protected. When we burn fossil fuels, we are making a similar assertion that our interests count, while those of all the people who will suffer from climate change do not.

What Ivison misunderstands is the instability of the climate system. A human being who has lived for a few decades under a largely stable (though increasingly destabilized) climate regime has no ability to intuitively comprehend how the climate system as a whole responds to forcings. We do, however, have paleoclimatic records that stretch back for hundreds of thousands of years and which reveal that the climate can be a very unstable phenomenon when subjected to such stresses.

Even under a business-as-usual scenario, in which humanity keeps burning a quantity of fossil fuels similar to what we are burning now, it is likely that the climate will warm by more than 4˚C by the end of the century. That would quite likely involve large-scale global impacts, like the progressive disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets (with accompanying sea level rise) and major changes in precipitation patterns (stressing global agriculture). If we are not to fundamentally and essentially permanently alter the climate that human beings have relied upon since the emergence of our species, we need to aggressively scale back the use of fossil fuels. Far from building new oil pipelines and coal-fired power plants, humanity should be working out the most efficient way to shut down the ones we have.

When we carry on with fossil fuels because they happen to be convenient to us, we are imposing suffering and death on our fellow human beings. By threatening substantial increases in sea level, we are threatening the existence of entire low-lying countries. Hansen isn’t wrong to say that climate change is a moral issue on par with slavery; people like Ivison are wrong to dismiss Hansen’s concerns because they can’t imagine the world changing so much.

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.

4 thoughts on “John Ivison is wrong about climate ethics”

  1. You and Your Slaves

    Yes, you’re the slave master of many energy-driven gadgets that replace human labour. But our slave society won’t last.

    By Andrew Nikiforuk, 5 May 2011,

  2. All across Asia, megacities face similar problems. A report published this week by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) looks at links between expected climate change and migration. In 2010-11 alone 42m people in Asia were displaced by “extreme” weather. Most attention tends to focus on inhabitants of low-lying islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans—the Maldives, Tuvalu and Kiribati, say—and coastal plains, notably in Bangladesh. Yet the megacities are where climate migrants are expected to move to, and they are often in the coastal areas most at risk from rising sea levels. In East Asia such cities include Guangzhou, Seoul and Nagoya. In South Asia Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is vulnerable, as are Kolkata and Chennai. Substantial parts of Mumbai, a city of around 20m people, are already below sea level.

  3. “Dr James Hansen, director of the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who first made warnings about climate change in the 1980s, writes in the NY Times that he was troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves ‘regardless of what we do.’ According to Hansen ‘Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.’ Hansen says that instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year.”

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