Philosophy and climate change (The Philosophers' Corner-Sydney-Australia)
Hi, I’m Caitlin Calder-‐Potts, Project Coordinator for Green Cross Australia. Green Cross Australia is a member of the international Green Cross network funded by Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 90s to address the humanitarian consequences of climate change. At Green Cross Australia, our focus is on helping people adapt to the effects of our changing climate. This includes empowering communities to respond to severe weather events, understanding what the future impacts of climate change will be and environmental education. This evenings talk will be on the philosophy of climate change-‐ and more specifically, what philosophy can contribute to the current debate. I think the major contribution of philosophy to this debate can be around clarifying the ethical issues we face. The debate around climate change has become almost depressingly childish with mud slinging from all sides. Like asylum seekers, the issue of climate change and action to mitigate climate change has become politically charged. I believe this has detracted public attention from the very real and challenging issues we must address and consider. Obviously there are no simple answers; climate change is a complicated, real and urgent issue. However, we cannot hope to progress from the current national and international stalemate without reasoned and considered attention. I will consider a broad but not exhaustive list of ethical issues. These include, the question of how we should, as an international community, address the impacts of climate change-‐ both now and in the future. The extent of our obligations to take action to reduce our emissions in order to limit global warming to the “allowable” 2 degree rise. How best to understand the collective action necessary to address climate change. And finally, the argument from skepticism and some thoughts on why after nearly 3 decades of warnings from science we still face significant skepticism as to the causes of climate change. WHO SHOULD BEAR RESPONSIBILITY If we accept that global warming is causing climate change and it is human activities that are causing it, we must find ways of dealing with its implications. The traditional allocation of responsibility in similar situations is to allocate responsibility according to the party that has caused the damage. For example, if I were to break a window whether by accident of on purpose, failing any other mitigating circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect that I should be responsible for replacing it. Overwhelmingly, we must acknowledge that climate change has been caused by industrialized countries. Since industrialization the levels of carbon in the atmosphere have increased. CSIRO reports that, “CO2 concentration has ranged between 172 and 300 ppm for the past 800 000 years. In 2008, CO2 concentration has risen to a much higher 383 ppm. Global CO2 concentration has risen 37 per cent since the Industrial Revolution”. This 37 degree rise has caused the atmosphere to heat contributing to global sea level rise, a rise in temperature, an upset in climate patterns including increase in severe weather events like cyclones, floods and droughts. It would seem reasonable that because industrialized countries have contributed most significantly to climate change, they should be responsible for its effects. However, the effects of climate change do not adhere to this logic and are being felt around the world. In a
cruel twist, the actions of the global North are being felt most deeply in the South. Low lying coastal areas are experiencing severe flooding due to increased ocean water levels and sub Sahara Africa is, and will continue to, suffer from prolonged droughts. Of course effects are also being felt in the developed world as well. The ethical challenge inherent in this is how to allocate responsibility when effects are being felt collectively. One way to address this is for countries with the highest emissions record to be obligated to cover the economic cost of climate change. For example, governments in Australia and New Zealand have discussed the feasibility of accepting populations from Tuvalu into their own countries in the coming decades when sea level rise will make Tuvalu uninhabitable. Unlike the broken window example I cited before, understanding the effects of climate change is not as simple as identifying who threw the ball that broke the window. Emissions are not released with ‘names’ on them. However, we are able to determine where the emissions have come from. Countries that have contributed the most, should be obligated to take greater responsibility in responding to climate change. I think that this is a relatively simple ethical argument-‐ of course, some developed countries may argue that they were unaware of the extent of the effects of releasing emissions. They might also argue that the economic benefits of their own development have flowed on to other countries contributing to the overall good. I find these arguments overwhelmingly unpersuasive. The risks of climate change have been asserted by scientists for decades-‐ and largely ignored. I’m sure most of you here tonight are familiar with the precautionary principle. This principle argues that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. The precautionary principle has been overwhelmingly ignored in favour for unlimited emissions by the richest countries in the world. I think this is the first of many examples where philosophy can play a role in clarifying the debate around climate change. There is a strong argument that can be made by ethics that the developed world is both subject to the ‘you break it you buy it rule’ and also guilty of deliberately sacrificing the well being of developing nations and future generations in the name of progress. However, there is little national or international discourse around this argument. Economic sacrifices and the impacts of reducing emissions are discussed with little energy devoted to understanding and responding to our moral obligations. I realize that this argument may sound naïve. But it is important. Aboloishing slavery had significant economic consequences. As too, did raising minimum working standards for the developing world. But as a global community, we considered the moral arguments and decided that economic sacrifices or adjustments were necessary. The same should apply to climate change.
Of course dealing with the effects of climate change is only one side of the coin, we must also take action to reduce future implications by limiting our emissions today. The question of how best to do this is also an ethical one. Peter Singer compares the allowable world emissions that would limit global warming to a 2 degree rise to a pie that must be divided equally globally. In this example, Singer advocates an approach that would see ‘the pie’ equally divided amongst the nations of the world based on a per capita division. This would allow countries with smaller populations to sell their emissions to countries with higher populations and ensure that no one is allowed to emit more than their share. This approach relies on the interests of nation states being set aside for the interests of the international community as a whole. Certainly, as we have seen over the past decades, a hard pill to swallow. So what can philosophy or ethics contribute to this discussion? COSMOPOLITANISM I think what is at the core of this response is whether we should adopt a cosmopolitan approach to dealing with the challenges of climate change or should maintain a nationalistic approach-‐ or, as I believe, some combination of the two. Cosmopolitanism asserts that all humanity belongs to a single community based on shared morality. While there are traces of this approach in the ancient Greek philosophers, it emerged with force post enlightenment. I will quote Kleingeld and Brown in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at length: “The historical context of the philosophical resurgence of cosmopolitanism during the Enlightenment is made up of many factors: The increasing rise of capitalism and world-‐wide trade and its theoretical reflections; the reality of ever expanding empires whose reach extended across the globe; the voyages around the world and the anthropological so-‐called ‘discoveries’ facilitated through these; the renewed interest in Hellenistic philosophy; and the emergence of a notion of human rights and a philosophical focus on human reason. Many intellectuals of the time regarded their membership in the transnational ‘republic of letters’ as more significant than their membership in the particular political states they found themselves in, all the more so because their relationship with their government was often strained because of censorship issues. This prepared them to think in terms other than those of states and peoples and adopt a cosmopolitan perspective. Under the influence of the American Revolution, and especially during the first years of the French Revolution, cosmopolitanism received its strongest impulse. The 1789 declaration of ‘human’ rights had grown out of cosmopolitan modes of thinking and reinforced them in turn.” This approach has been enshrined in numerous United Nations charters including: • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948, along with related covenants; • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992; • The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992; • The Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development, 1992; • The UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibili-‐ ties of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations, 1997; • The Kyoto Protocol, 1997; • The Earth Charter, 2000, as recognized by the UNESCO General Conference; • The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, 2002; • The Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (UDBHR), 2005.
Cosmopolitanism has been seen as necessary when addressing issues such a trade, human rights, slavery, the rights of women and minorities and environmental issues. Cosmopolitanism asks us to put aside differences in culture, religion, race and proximity, in order to promote the global good. I’m sure most of you are familiar with Peter Singer’s ‘the life you can save’ argument. This argument asserts that failing to act when you are able to do so with relatively minimal consequences to prevent the suffering of others is wrong whether or not the suffering occurs next to you or thousands of kilometers away. I believe that this argument, while in theory morally justifiable, fails to take into account factors that motivate us to act morally. Indeed if a child was drowning beside me and I could save their life with minimal harm to myself, it would be morally wrong for me not to do so. Singer argues that the same logic is at play when considering the suffering of many far away from me. That is, where I can stop or minimize the suffering of those who are far away from me with minimal consequences to myself, I should. The problem with this line of argument is that we are motivated to act not solely by abstract moral arguments, but by what we see in front of us. In addition, we are not simply international brothers and sisters; we are living within cultures, societies and families with connections and relationships that motivate us to act. Whether or not it is morally justifiable, we are more motivated to act to help those close to us who we are connected to rather than those who are far away. Governments adopt this approach and indeed we expect them to. We expect the Australian government to put the interests of Australians above the interests of Indonesians or Banglasdeshis or Americans. This expectation is at the very centre of democracy-‐ we elect people to represent our interests. However, national interests will certainly be trumped by the effects of climate change. As often stated, Australia’s economy will be worth very little if we are living in a country devastated by severe weather events, with sea level rise threatening our homes and droughts destroying our ability to feed ourselves. Therefore, our approach must be both cosmopolitan and nationalistic. While we are a land ‘girt by sea’ we do not exist in a bubble. It is in Australia’s, and indeed every nations, interest to act globally on climate change for national interests-‐ as well as out of a moral responsibility. Philosophy can make this point and indeed should. Action on climate change is not about sacrificing national interests now, but promoting them for the future. I I think it useful from here to examine another common explanation of why the global community has failed to act on climate change. The philosophical chestnut of the Prisoners Dilemma or Game Theory. This argument is often employed when dealing with situations that require the behavior change of many individuals that will have mass implications. At its core, game theory illuminates the challenges inherent in motivating the actions of many individuals in order to promote the greatest good.
For example, we all want clean air and to achieve that we need less cars on the road. Equally, we all want to travel comfortably which for many involves driving a car to work. Game Theory illuminates the conflict of our 2 competing interests (to have clean air and also to drive in our own cars to work). In order to motivate us to take individual actions that would have benefits for the collective, our motivations and interests must be influenced. For example, public transport can be made more appealing with more bus lanes, cheaper fares or more comfortable and reliable buses. Or driving our car can be made more difficult with limited parking or more expensive tolls or fuel. To put this into the context of climate change-‐ we all want a stable climate with no global warming and the associated effects. We also all want to be able to consume energy and live at the standard to which we have become accustomed. At the same time, we all accept that we need the earth and a hospitable climate in order to live. Alone, our individual actions may not have significant consequences, but when all 7 billion of us act in our own interests we see significant impact. By using Game Theory, the challenge is to alter conditions so that our behavior contributes to both the common good as well as our own. In Australia, we have seen a tax-‐ or price, employed to motivate us to use less energy by increasing its cost. We have also used education to make saving energy an individual preference and value that we are inclined to take for the sake of our own ethical beliefs. However, as critics of the carbon tax often point out, it is not just Australia that faces a prisoners dilemma but the international community as a whole. It is in every nations long term interest to reduce emissions, but without the actions of the rest of the international community their individual interests may suffer. There are also competing priorities and values at play. Developing countries do not only value the environment or preventing or minimizing climate change. They also value industrialization that will lift their people out of poverty. They value the instrumental economic worth of their land and resources. The challenge at a global level, is to direct motivations in order to promote reduced emissions. This in essence, is what the numerous treaties and conventions since Rio in 1990s have been trying to achieve. A framework where all nations can be motivated to act for the good of the global community, while not sacrificing their own national interests. However, unfortunately, while there is some hope that the international community will rally around this cause and implement an effective framework. I think it is worth examining why so far we have failed. This brings me back to my comments previously on cosmopolitanism and I would like to play a brief video from Tim Soutphommasane. From 4.55-‐ 6.00 http://www.themonthly.com.au/ethics-‐climate-‐change-‐peter-‐singer-‐tim-‐soutphommasane-‐p2-‐2586 Tim goes on to emphasise the great potential of sustainable, green industries and also the benefits of being an early market leader in sustainable technologies. What is so effective about Tim’s argument is that he is able to apply a philosophical concept practically and to
use the knowledge we have gained from philosophy to the practical concerns of global warming and climate change. It is this practical approach that helped women get the vote-‐ not just because equality was a moral issues, but also because of the economic benefit of women in the workforce and their role during WW1. It is arguments like Tim’s that highlight to me the every day practicality and applicability of a discipline such as philosophy as reframing an argument and illuminating corners of reason that were previously unexamined. I would now like to discuss another important ethical aspect of the climate change debate. Skepticism as to whether or not climate change is caused by human action. Research conducted by CSIRO in 2011 on attitudes to climate change within Australia revealed some interesting findings. This included that roughly half of Australians accept that the climate is changing but attribute this change to natural variations-‐ as opposed to human action. I think one of the things that this research reveals is that climate science is inherently complicated and we cannot expect those without training in the field to understand the intricacies of climate projection models and the relationship between these and natural variations. However, what we can expect people to understand is the reality of climate change. We can all relate to higher water levels and the impacts to our coasts, severe weather events, droughts, floods, cyclones. And this is an argument that has largely connected. There is broad consensus within the Australian public that the climate is changing – the divergence appears when respondents are asked whether or not that change is caused by human activity or natural variations. However, if half the population does not accept that humans are causing climate change, there is little chance of effective action being taken to address it. Two of the major complications in understanding climate science are the 30 year lag within the system and the fact that climate change plays out against a backdrop of natural climatic variations. These 2 points – neither easy to explain-‐ have formed the basis for the argument from climate change skeptics. I think what is at the core of both these arguments, is that science, and in particular climate science, is inherently complex and complicated. Indeed such is the growth of fields of scientific study that even scientists in neighboring fields may struggle to understand each other. George Monbiot quoted Arthur C Clarke in a 2010 piece for the Guardian with the claim that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Monbiot continues “the detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing, to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence.” But medical science is also a mystery to most people. The notion of poisoning ones body in order to treat an illness such as cancer seems completely irrational yet most cancer patients are relatively comfortable in accepting doctors advice. In preparing for this evening I have tried to understand what the differences are between trusting medical science and trusting climate science and can only come up with time. Has
the ubiquity of medical science and its history within human society assured it the status of trust worthy? I think one part of the problem is that some scientists have tarnished the reputation of many by making claims that were later shown to be false. These include the infamous tales of Tabaco company employed scientists in the late 60s asserting there was no link between smoking and cancer the Climategate “controversy” of 2009-‐ fuelled by right wing media and politics. Robert Mann’s recent essay in The Monthly, enriched by the earlier work of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt chronicles the rise of skepticism with regard to human induced climate change. Mann references the famous leaked memo from tobacco company Brown & Williamson stating that Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact [linking smoking with disease] that exists in the mind of the general public. Mann asserts that there has been a similarly economically motivated effort from the fossil fuel industry to convince the public that doubt existed amongst climate scientists regarding the causes of climate change. In his excellent essay, he goes so far as to chronicle the testimonial of some prominent anthropogenic climate change deniers and their personal interests in giving such testimonial. I think we must also consider why climate scepticism has become the domain of right wing politics. CSIRO research found that those who voted for Labor or the Green were more likely to agree with the statement that climate change was caused by human action than those who voted Liberal or National. One explanation of this is of course that the right wing of politics traditionally values economic growth above most else. Another value held dear, is individual freedom and minimal government intervention. Both values that have been framed as at odds with climate change action. However, I do not agree that economic growth, individual freedom and minimal government intervention is at odds with mitigating climate change. Indeed there is great potential for economic growth from actions to address climate change. The World Bank reports that developing countries such as Brazil and China have made significant economic gains from the development of sustainable energy solutions. However, the World Bank cautions that investment in these industries must be tempered with policy incentives. Following the impacts of the global financial crisis and world wide bailouts, I think we must accept that some government intervention is required in markets. More so, when considering the environment which has and will have global implications in our generations and the next. The factors I have just mentioned, an inability to understand the complex science around human induced climate change, as well as the significant vested interests from the fossil fuel industries and their efforts to establish widespread public doubt have caused the state of affairs we now face today.
Interestingly, CSIRO research revealed that most Australians predicted that a higher than accurate number of people believed that their views were wide spread. That is, anthropogenic climate change believers felt that a majority of people agreed with them with similar results from those who accepted that climate change was human induced. The role of media in this debate is certainly considerable but I will leave that discussion for another time. A pertinent question is what to do in the future. We need both widespread acceptance that human activities are causing climate change and also an approach to deal with it that is both global and national. It is certainly not the role of philosophy to determine this approach, but what philosophy certainly can contribute is an opportunity to clarify what the scope of this argument is. In Australia and to a greater extent in America, the debate around climate change has been dominated by fear mongering and political trade offs. This has contributed to the state of affairs we see today where the basic facts of climate change are contested and any effort to address or mitigate climate change is seen as an economic death nail. Following the Rio summit this part June Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in the New Yorker that “it may seem impossible to imagine that an advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing”. I hope that while we adapt to the effects of climate change in the 21st century, we will also see a turn in the national, international and general public consensus around climate change action. Philosophy can and should lift the tone of this discussion. Just as in the Enlightenment philosophy helped frame a new world order-‐ so I hope that it can address the challenge of climate change. The issue is complex and I hope that I have covered some of the major tenants. We must explore the obligations of the west to address damage that has already occurred, and we must understand the shape of our global responsibilities in limiting emissions in the future. We must also understand what motivates climate scepticism if we are to-‐ and we must-‐ address the doubts of sceptics within Australia’s society and around the world. Thank you.