Why ethics? Part II

In a previous post, I offered a justification for the inclusion of ethics in any discussion of climate policy and politics. In this post, I attempt to tease out in greater detail why we as individuals, as well as collectives, have climate-related duties. The first thing to recognise is that I doubt any philosopher would claim that ethics always trumps politics or economics or any other framing of an issue. Climate change is an exceptionally complex problem which will require the efforts and engagement of many disciplines, perspectives and voices in an ongoing discursive exchange for all of the foreseeable future.

The important contribution philosophy makes is to clarify our conceptual frameworks, challenge assumptions  and perhaps expose epistemological biases. In addition philosophy can offer a variety of theoretical perspectives on the problem from which we can select the most relevant, useful ideas or, if you prefer, those that offer the greatest emancipatory potential. Ours is rich tradition (albeit dominated by men but see this), fiercely and radically democratic in that it accepts reasonable (and often unreasonable) disagreement as one of the greatest sources of collective creativity and endeavour.

In the case of ethics, moral philosophy draws our attention to the underlying principles that we use to defend our actions and choices. It’s this last contribution that I’m particularly interested in, and in the context of climate policy, ethics speaks particularly to aspects of public policy that are generally addressed by public good or welfare economics. For all the dismissal of ethics, it’s moral concepts that we look to when we want to explain why one solution is better than another. And even if efficiency and effectiveness are the metrics of choice, these are arguably ethical principles too, in that they express a value or an ordered ranking of choice. Decisions are made every day on the grounds that they are ‘good’ whether in terms of serving the national interest, promoting welfare or alleviating injustice. Don’t tell me such decisions aren’t morally relevant!

Here’s a famous argument for a public, global ethic from Peter Singer’s classic article, Famine Affluence and Morality (Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243). In it he argues persuasively that if it is within our power to bring about a good without sacrificing too much of our own welfare, then we have a duty to do so, as he puts it:

[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it…. [This principle] requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good.

Singer argues that donating money towards famine relief is a clear moral duty in the case of the Bengal famine, which at the time threatened the lives of 9 million people. He contends that this principle takes no account of proximity or distance, and that it makes no moral difference whether the person is close by or far away, or whether I am the only person who can act to save someone, or one of millions. The argument he makes is straightforward enough, if hugely demanding, until one starts to put specific commitments into the story. Accepting that I have this duty to prevent harm, how much am I morally obliged to contribute to avoid the suffering of another (possibly distant) person? How much of a sacrifice should this be for me to meet my obligation? Assuming I have knowledge about the marginal cost of relief, but no knowledge of what others are prepared to do, immediately I am cast into a Prisoner’s Dilemma, where my duty clashes with my self-interest. Acting on these duties others can free-ride on my efforts and in effect, I am, in Bill Nordhaus’ words, ‘a chump’.

For Singer, one implication of this demanding moral obligation (above) is that the traditional distinction between duty and charity in the case of affluent individuals at least, is ‘upset’. That is certainly true. But the real issue at stake is the question of definition and measurement of ‘comparable moral importance’ and the problem of setting a minimum moral standard: how much (money, sacrifice, mitigation) is required for me to actually meet my obligation? And does it matter how, in practice, I go about fulfilling it? These are all hugely complex issues which have exercised moral philosophers for decades. My point in mentioning them here is that the description of the problem by Singer is as relevant to climate change as it is to global poverty. If we accept that we have duties to prevent harm, we have to figure out how much of a contribution is required to avoid harm; what kind of actions we ought to take to reduce our consumption. And if this kind of moralising puts you off, there is another aspect to individual action highlighted by Michael Sandel that we need to take these actions (without offsetting or leaving it to markets) in the context of pulling together in the context of civic responsibility.

I do not think the moral demand to avoid harm can be effectively exhausted by individual action. It doesn’t even make sense because the impact of our efforts would likely be negligible and the whole point of acting is to create the conditions in which harm can be avoided and restitution made. In further posts I will look at political or public morality that kicks in where collective action is required to overcome a tragedy of the commons. But the point remains, where we can act to avoid harm, we ought to act. It is feasible for most adults in the country I live in to reduce their personal emissions. We can of course wait until some central authority makes us, or for prices to rise high enough. And all of that is of course necessary. But morally speaking, we do have duties to act regardless. Uncomfortable, inconvenient truth maybe, but if we acted on it, it might actually make a difference.

Why ethics? Part I

‘There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty.’

Karl Jaspers 

I got into a discussion recently with a friend and colleague about the appropriate place (if any) of ethics in discussing climate change. From an ecological and probably neo-Marxist perspective, he argued that humans are driven to exhaust all available resources to their ‘peak’. Only  when this point has been reached will mitigation take place, but any effective response will be determined by natural limits to growth, peak production of fossil fuels (beyond which extraction no longer remains viable), and at bottom, raw self-interest. I’m sure this point of view has many followers who despair at the current state of the global environment and the relentless violence we are inflicting on non-human nature – check out the extinction symbol handle on Twitter for example.  It is almost comforting to think that there is no point making normative demands for political change since the system is basically out of control: the best we can do is plan for an uncomfortable transition after collapse.

It has taken me a while to get to grips with this, because the argument eludes so many issues. In this piece I’m not going to address the empirical point about human civilisation being out of control. I’m interested in the way the argument assumes away many equally inconvenient truths about human nature, including the discovery that altruistic or moral behaviour is consistent with theories of human evolution (see the work of Daniel C. Batson for example), and that moral reasoning is just as much a feature of our psychological make-up as our capacity to make rational (or irrational) choices.   As Aristotle famously noted, ‘man [sic] is a political animal’: since we exist as social creatures, morality is embedded much like a deep grammar into our behaviour, institutions and communication structures. So I do not accept the premise that morality is irrelevant, especially when we take a closer look at what’s actually going on with climate change or any other environmental problem.

So if we accept the idea that ethical reasoning is valid – whether psychologically or philosophically, what does it for? What purpose does it serve in debates about climate change? Well to begin with, anthropogenic climate change causes harm. In the tradition of ethics, harm has three main features: agency, foreknowledge and damage. If you think about it, that is a very demanding set of criteria. If I have the knowledge and capacity to act to avoid harm, then I ought to do so. Similarly it might be said that I have moral obligations those who might be harmed by my actions, including a duty of restitution or compensation if I cannot undo my actions.

If this sounds all too abstract, let’s just consider a concrete example, like walking around with a loaded shotgun in a way that puts others at risk. Risk is a statistical way of talking about harm. I’m harming others by putting them at risk. Often we don’t think about these issues in as if they constitute moral problems precisely because governments regulate such externalities on our behalf.  Bill Nordhaus, in a 2014 review of John Broome’s classic 2012 book on climate ethics (Journal of Economic Literature52.4 Dec 2014: 1135-1141.), asks the pertinent question of whether, once the state has intervened to regulate an externality (or risk), it ceases to be a moral problem. Instead of having a (bilateral) duty to avoid harming others, I now have a duty to obey the law.

But what if the state itself is negligent, and putting the interests of the privileged few above those of  the poor, or distant, or future people?  How is ethics even relevant, when regulatory capture and globalisation make it impossible for the weak and less powerful to bring about policies which would tackle the urgent problem of greenhouse gas emissions? Well one answer is to say that the duties we have to other humans (and arguably non-humans too) are irrespective of place and time, and that at least one of the functions of a state is to discharge those duties on our behalf. A cosmopolitan perspective is that the mere existence of national borders does not eradicate our basic duty to avoid harming other humans given that we share the same fundamental rights and interests. Another answer again comes from the field of political science and sociology:  if the state won’t do it, change the rules and the rulers;  build institutions and social movements; organise advocacy coalitions for policy change.

However, as Broome points out, even when the state is doing its bit for climate justice, individuals can still be reasonably tasked with avoiding climate harms, even if the messier problem of determining and providing public goods is left to the state. Either way, whether we approach the problem of climate change from the perspective of avoiding harm or doing good, these are fundamentally normative concepts which are not reducible to self-interest or the strategic exercise of political power. Furthermore, even if one believes that individual action is futile in the larger scheme of things, the state still needs a way of choosing between policies. And this calls values back into question. How much harm are we willing to pay for now to avoid damages in the future? What is a reasonable and fair way to distribute the remaining global carbon budget? If you’re having these kinds of conversations, you’re doing ethics.


Quantitative Evidence for Loss and Damage

This event had an interesting array of speakers with legal, modelling and country-level experience of loss and damage from climate change. Firstly the legal expert spoke about how loss and damage has been considered throughout the UNFCCC process, leading up to a specific set of paragraphs in the Paris Agreement 1/CP.21 paras 48-52. However there is no dedicated finance for loss and damage, and no basis for liability inserted as a general clause (art. 8) at the insistence of the US. However she did explain that general international law could still provide an opportunity for litigation on the basis of the no-harm rule, if obligation and causation can be proven. Impediments include the difficulty of finding a forum in which to take such a claim and finding a way to attribute specific losses to human induced climate change and the emissions of a particular state. This has not prevented some claims being taken however, including claims by parties against their own governments (e.g. Philippines, Urgenda in the Netherlands). Finally, she mentioned that the International Bar Association has designed a model statute for loss and damage, and has recommended a relaxation of the strict causality rule, to allow for sufficient/ adequate or partial causality in climate litigation. She pointed out that just because establishing legal responsibility is difficult, doesn’t mean that states do not have moral responsibilities.

The scientific expert addressed the question of how to scientifically ascertain historical responsibility. What is the measure to be used – by gas, or by country? There are many choices in the calculations (start/ end dates, indicators, components, CO2 or Kyoto GH gases, production or consumption emissions). He insisted that there is not one set of definitive answers: depending on how responsibility is calculated there is a spectrum of results possible, and it is not possible to definitively make a direct link between contributions and responsibility.

Dr Fredi Otto also pointed out that an increase in global mean temperature doesn’t by itself kill anyone. In addition, while climate change makes weather patterns change, it’s the contribution of extreme weather events that do the most damage. Much scientific research has been done on trying to model the likelihood of extreme events (e.g. Argentinian heatwave 2014) being directly caused by climate change. However even where attribution can be scientifically established, it’s still a probabilistic assessment and there is a difficulty even defining what an ‘extreme event’ is. She did say that such assessments would be useful for recognising harm and making a case of climate justice. The methodology can also be used in a forward-looking manner to ascertain the risk of extreme events and where those risks might be.

Finally the representative from Bangladesh spoke of the measures taken by the Bangladeshi government to set up a fund for loss and damage. While the government claims it can successfully evacuate 2 million people in the event of a cyclone it cannot do anything to protect livestock and property. It has established a trust fund and set aside $100m p.a., 2/3 of which is spent on adaptation projects, and the final 1/3 is in a trust for ‘emergencies’. Interestingly he said that it was not clear yet what would trigger the use of the emergency fund, and while disasters could be planned for in terms of immediate responses, loss and damage over the longer term were more complicated.  He pointed out that the Bangladeshi government is not planning to sue any other country to raise finance but sees solidarity as more important than compensation.

UNEP Emissions Gap report 2016


What is the role of the Emission Gap reports? The impressive UNEP representative Dr. Jacqueline McGlade pointed out that if nothing else, these reports constistuted a ‘warning instrument’ to the global community. She recommended that nation states make use of Paris Agreement to create momentum to increase ambition. While the facilitative dialogue planned for 2018 and global stocktake in 2023 will focus attention once again, if the global community is to meet at the very least its minimum target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees, emissions must peak by 2020. Most of the scenarios in the report do assume use of Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). As countries delay action to reduce emissions, inevitably more BECCS will be needed.

However a couple of interventions at this session highlighted deficiencies in the UNEP methodology:

  1. The UNEP approach assumes 100% compliance but in the absence of an accountability mechanism (and the election of Trump in the US) there is no way of ensuring that countries will deliver.
  2. Assumes that tropical deforestation rates will not increase.
  3. No mention of tipping points in the climate system which might be hit under current emissions scenarios.
  4. INDCs are silent post-2030.

UNEP’s responses to these questions were very interesting too. They don’t assess the likelihood of compliance, and admit that their assessment of the likelihood of the INDCs not breaching 2 degrees is probabilistic. They also assume that once on a low-emission pathway that a country will stay on that path. But that doesn’t take account of the lock-in effect of existing fossil infrastructure.

Is a global transition to 100% renewable energy realistic?


Is taking the world to 100% renewable energy feasible? Apparently so. Greenpeace International has developed a new methodology for describing the conditions under which the world’s energy systems can be transformed. They used the same basic modelling data as the International Energy Agency and developed a number of national, regional and global scenarios describing a pathway to 100% renewable energy. Interestingly it’s not just the electricity or power generation sector they’re talking about  – it’s the whole energy system including transportation and heating, two notoriously difficult sectors to decarbonise because of the lock-in effects of both behaviour and infrastructure. How did they do it? Well first of all they set out the 7 methodological steps in the transition logic:

  1. Define national (emission ceiling) limits
  2. Define RE resource limits
  3. Identify drivers for demand
  4. Macroeconomic data
  5. Timelines and targets
  6. Infrastructure required
  7. Policies required

The process might be described as backcasting – setting a time-bound goal or target for a certain date, and then defining the policies and measures that are needed to achieve the targets by that date. Traditionally energy policy has been set using ‘predict and provide’ models relying on fossil fuels to meet rising demand. Even with renewable energies added to the power generation system under a baseload ‘plus extras’ model, the energy system has not had to change much.  However, Greenpeace point out that to get from 80% to 100% renewables is a much more ambitious goal than getting from 25% to 80%, requiring system change including the total electrification of the energy system, Demand-Side Management (DSM) and system storage. Interestingly, their models show that both investment and system costs decline markedly over time, and if countries pursue this pathway, in 50 years they can reach 100% without stranded assets.

How can nation states go about this? Well the role of the IEA is to help countries plan their energy systems, and the Greenpeace and World Future Council representatives pointed out that countries need to ask the IEA for help in re-designing their energy systems and RE pathways. To date, no country has approached the IEA for assistance in going 100% renewable, and the IEA representative at this side event seemed distinctly sceptical about whether it was even possible. Sweden has a plan for reaching 100% decarbonisation of its power generation sector by 2040 and plans to be net-carbon free on the whole by 2045. The Swedish representative acknowledged the need for societal mobilisation, cross-party parliamentary consensus on this objective and a strong emphasis on innovation to support high-energy consuming industrial sectors.

Sadhbh O Neill UNFCCC COP22 Marrakech, 14th November