Posted by: JohnnyRook | July 15, 2008

Book Review: Right and Wrong in a Warming World

In the introduction to The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, James Garvey, Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (given that title you might expect him to be a white-haired old duffer, but in his photo he appears quite young, perhaps around 30] explains his motivation for writing it:

Science can give us a grip on the facts, but we need more than that if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more which is needed involves values. Climatologists can tell us what is happening to the planet and why it is happening, they can even say with some confidence what will happen in the years to come. What we do about all of this, though, depends on what we think is right, what we value, what matters to us. You can not find that sort of stuff in an ice core. You have to think your way through it.

This book is a start on those sorts of thoughts. It is not exhaustive or comprehensive, not the last word but a few first words. It is an introduction, in plain language, to the ethics of climate change, to where the moral weight falls on our changing planet and how that weight ought to translate into action. It has something to do with the conviction that our societies and our lives have to change, and the role of value in the changes ahead.

Garvey Ethics of Climate Change

It is common to think of Climaticide as being a scientific problem, which is true as far as it goes. Science can tell us what Climaticide is, whether it is actually happening, what is causing it, what some of the consequences of it may be, and how effective different measures might be in stopping it. However, it can not tell us how we ought to react, what we ought to do, or whether we ought to do anything. These are moral questions, which most people find more ineffable than scientific ones and therefore harder to answer.

Garvey’s goal is to help us answer these moral questions by giving us a framework within which we can think about them. In this he succeeds rather well. Writing in a simple, straightforward style, in six chapters he guides us through the basics of climate science, concepts of right and wrong, the nature of responsibility, the arguments for doing nothing, the arguments for doing something, and the relationship between individual responsibility and collective action.

One does not need to be a philosophy major to follow his arguments or understand his conclusions. He is very light handed with his conclusions, in any case. The reader is led in Socratic fashion to a possible conclusion, which is never really insisted upon but rather suggested. Because Garvey believes moral beliefs must and can be justified, he is an agreeable teacher, free of dogmatism, arguments from authority, or relativist subjectivity. He poses problems, proposes solutions, gives his reasons and then draws conclusions.

In Chapter 1, he gives us a short overview of the science of climate change arguing that climate change is real, that there is a scientific consensus about its reality and the fact that it is caused by human beings. He goes on to explain the basic workings of climate models and finishes up by taking a look at the likely consequences of unchecked Climaticide.

In the second chapter, he discusses the importance of giving reasons and why it is necessary to justify moral beliefs. To those who argue that it is impossible to justify moral positions, he says:

It might be that the best response to this thinking is to say that maybe it’s right, maybe morality is a complicated social glue, which exists to help us get along together as best we can. Maybe it showed up first of all as rules set down by those in charge or even as the inbuilt rules of primate social behavior or, steady yourself, our genes. But even if some or all of this is true — and I’ve got a strong suspicion that it isn’t — even if it’s the right story to tell about the origin or original function of morality, there’s still plenty of room for moral philosophy.

In asking for a reasoned justification for our moral beliefs, we are recognizing a human fact, that is to say, a fact about our humanity. Wherever morality came from, whatever its first function or even its present function, its dictates have a kind of force on us only when we make them our own, when we live by and sometimes for them — only, in other words, when we accept reasons for them. If we don’t manage reasons for our moral beliefs, then moral beliefs really are something shallow like social glue or the mere remnants of some simian hierarchy. When we do manage reasons, we do something more, something human, which really deserves the name “morality”.

Chapter 3 is about responsibility. Here the author discusses historical conceptions of justice and introduces the idea of the tragedy of the commons. The most interesting part of this section has to do with how responsibility is affected by spatial and temporal considerations. In other words, in what way are my moral judgments and willingness to act upon them influenced by the fact that the people who end up suffering the consequences of my decisions may live far away in other lands or a distant future I will not live to see? This, of course, is a key question for anyone trying to decide how they will behave in a world threatened by catastrophic human-induced climate change.

The possibility of doing nothing in response to the threat of Climaticide is the subject of chapter 4. The focus here is on the idea of uncertainty. Many climate change denialists argue that because we are not certain about every detail of climate change, we should, at least for the time being, wait before deciding what, if any, course of action to take. This of course has been the standard line of the Bush administration.

Garvey demonstrates clearly and convincingly that uncertainty, far from being a reason not to act, is a compelling reason to act if the likely consequences of doing nothing will be to invite disaster. He writes:

As we’ve just seen, there’s plenty of certainty [about Climate Change] where it counts. Further, the sort of uncertainty seems to warrant action, not inaction. The level of possible danger, too, seems more than high enough to act on. If it’s true that the demand for action ought to be in proportion to the level of danger, then thoughts about the sharp end of some projections should be enough to lead to action. It is also true that our decisions are pressing. The planet is already changing, and it will continue to change before we manage to dispose of every niggling uncertainty. It’s clear that will have to act long before we see some of the effects of climate change if we hope to avoid them — it takes awhile to implement societal changes, and it takes awhile for those changes to make a difference to our world. Probably we cannot wait until the worst of it is breathing down our necks. Finally continuing on the present course puts innocent people at risk. We already know that the fact that some of those people are far away and that others have not been born shouldn’t make a moral difference to us.

In Chapter 5, Garvey discusses the standards required for taking action. He identifies four criteria of what he calls “moral adequacy”. They are:

1. historical responsibilities
2. present capacities
3. sustainability
4. procedural fairness

In other words, any action to be taken must take into account who is historically responsible for Climaticide (which nations have put the most greenhouse gases into the air) as well as who is doing what now, the capacities of different countries to limit emissions, how sustainable the solutions are, and whether they will be administered in a way that is fair to all the parties involved.

Dr. James Hansen

Credit: Dr. James Hansen

As the image above shows, historically, the United States is responsible for over a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions over the last 250 years. Another 48% is the responsibility of Europe collectively, with Russia, Germany and the UK the biggest individual offenders. The worst polluters are those countries which industrialized first and thus have reaped the greatest economic benefits from being able to pollute the commons that is the sky. These countries, at least according to the first two criteria, have a moral responsibility to act: they caused most of the problem and have the resources to do something about it.

In the book’s final chapter, Garvey takes on one of the key issues surrounding climate change: the relationship between individual and collective action. He takes a look at moral consistency:

As we have seen, for example, the US is under a great deal of moral pressure to take action, but it has actually done very little if anything to mitigate its emissions or help its own poor or those elsewhere adapt to climate change. Part of the recent response to America’s various failures in his connection consists in moral outrage.

…the moral outrage directed towards America has to do with the relation between America’s carbon output and its obligation to take action. The USA, with less than 5% of the planet’s population, is responsible for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions by country each year: 24% of global emissions, or 5,872 million metric tons.

He then considers 10 arguments for inaction and concludes that many of them are nothing more than “brute expressions of psychological defense mechanisms”. Finally, there is a very interesting discussion of the significance of individual action and civil disobedience in which Garvey argues that we ought to look at our personal efforts not as atomized, disconnected and insignificant events, but rather as collective action spread out over an entire lifetime.

He,tries to end on a note of optimism:

…world leaders have done nothing morally adequate about climate change in the 20 years since the first warnings of the IPPC and others. There’s a case for the conclusion that what some politicians have done is more than adequate — maybe clear wrongs have been committed, something on a par with deception for financial or political gain, at the cost of countless lives. We’ve done nothing much about our individual lives either, despite the changing attitudes, even though we have seen climate change in the papers and on our televisions, maybe even in our backyards. It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. We’ve had petitions, climate camps and marches, concerts raising awareness, even some laws are changing. Individual people in individual states and cities have taken impressive action. It’s just nothing near enough.

Despite this, despite myself, I’m hopeful. I am not at all sure that our governments or corporations will do the right thing, but I sometimes surprise myself with the thought that maybe the rest of us will, the worldwide majority now in favor of action on climate change. I have an old friend who I forgive for occasionally sporting a shirt which says “Eat the Rich” in large bold letters. When I go on a little too much about this or that moral failing on the part of those who ought to do better, he reminds me that the bad guys always fall in the end. We’ve never had permanent tyranny or perpetual injustice, even though it can seem that way for a time. Human beings eventually do the right thing. He’s right of course. But it would be very good, wouldn’t it, if we could get a move on this time?

This may strike you as a little hollow. I confess it does me. But don’t let that keep you from reading The Ethics of Climate Change. If you have a brain and a conscience it will make you think and probably spur you to action or even greater action. And whatever the odds against us, Garvey is right that our success or failure in this struggle will depend both on science and on philosophy, specifically on the moral choices we make and how quickly we decide to act upon them.

[Crossposted at Daily Kos]


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