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Climate Ethics: What Can Science Tell Us?

Posted on 27 August 2011 by grypo

"This is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow that to happen, it is deeply unethical. I have such faith in our democratic system, our self-government, I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause a real sea change in the way Congress reacted to that. I thought they would be startled and they weren't."

                                                       -  Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

Before the release of "An Inconvenient Truth:  A Global Warning", (transcript) the debate of what-to-do-about-all-that-co2 mainly took place out of the public's eye.  In essence, academics did their thing and policy makers did theirs.  While there is an argument that Al Gore's position as head communicator for the climate change movement was just as divisive as it was helpful, I find it hard to argue against one thing - Al Gore showed the public why climate change mattered, and why ethics were just as important as the economics, the science, and the politics.

So getting to the title of this post:  What can science tell us about ethics? Well, directly?  Absolutely nothing.  The way in which we collectively develop a code of values is independent of way in which we attempt to determine truth, or the closest approximation to truth.  But what science can do is act as a guide, or a tool, to determine how we behave when we are faced with ethical dilemmas.

Previously, here on SkS, John Cook examined the paper, "Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations" (Sampson 2011).  In it, he described our moral hazard in the paper's main conclusions:

If those who are emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by direct global warming impacts, how shall we motivate them to change?

And further, using his logic on adaptability, to which the paper did not cover:

[I]t doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to surmise that the poor, developing countries that emit the least pollution are also those with the least amount of infrastructure to deal with climate impacts. So we are left with a double irony - the countries that contribute least to global warming are both the most impacted and the least able to adapt.

The take home graphic:

 A new paper, "Early onset of significant local warming in low latitude countries" (Mahlstein 2011) takes the idea even further.  

The most strongly affected countries emit small amounts of CO2 per capita and have therefore contributed little to the changes in climate that they are beginning to experience.

What brings the authors to this conclusion?

Here we show that due to the small temperature variability from one year to another, the earliest emergence of significant warming occurs in the summer season in low latitude countries (?25?S–25?N). We also show that a local warming signal that exceeds past variability is emerging at present, or will likely emerge in the next two decades, in many tropical countries. Further, for most countries worldwide, a mean global warming of 1 ?C is sufficient for a significant temperature change, which is less than the total warming projected for any economically plausible emission scenario.

In short, those countries who have emitted the least CO2, and contributed least to the problem, will be the first to experience temperatures outside regional past variability.  

And we're already committed to it.

The map shows the global temperature increase (?C) needed for a single location to undergo a statistically significant change in average summer seasonal surface temperature (TAS), aggregated on a country level. The black line near the colour bar denotes the committed global average warming if all atmospheric constituents were fixed at year 2000 levels. The small panels show the interannual summer-season variability during the base period (1900–29) (±2 standard deviations shaded in grey) and the multi-model mean summer surface temperature (red line) of one arbitrarily chosen grid cell within the specific country. The shading in red indicates the 5% and 95% quantiles across all model realizations.

[H]ere we have documented a key aspect of tropical vulnerability that is physically based (rather than linked to the economical issues in these countries): the size of the warming signal relative to interannual noise.

Now push the clock ahead a generation or two.  How long will it take for the climate to change enough to be outside those fully actualized persons' adapted variability?  What can we do to mitigate that change and allow the next set of humans to progress without having to spend their inhertited treasure on dealing with the previous generation's inability to find a sustainable way to produce energy?  How long before we begin to deal with these inequalities and deficits in justice?  

This will depend on how much we can learn and our individual and collective code of ethics.  

With science as our guide, we can get a look into the future.  And with our ethical code, we can decide on a course of action  We have tools at our disposal.  Will we use them?

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. If you are interested in exploring the issue of climate ethices further, you will want to peruse the postings on the Climate Ethics section of the website of the Rock Ethics Institute of the University of Pennsylvania.
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  2. As grypo demonstrates, the largest contributors to the problem are often also those who suffer least from the consequences. Even if (a big if) cost benefit analysis were to show that mitigating CO2 was not economic on a global basis, this would not be sufficient to recommend inaction because this is not a problem where we all share equally in the causes and consequences. Ultimately, climate change is a question of the disproportionate violation of certain people's rights by the disproportionate actions of others. Imagine if I were to build a fence that, by mistake, encroached a little onto my neighbor's land. I could argue that the encroachment impinges only slightly on his property value and that this marginal amount is less than the cost of me moving the fence, so the cost-benefit analysis indicates that doing nothing is the only rational course of action. I can only guess what his response might be...
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  3. I'm so glad our ancestors were not troubled by natural variations in climate and proceeded to establish civilization in spite of the environment.
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  4. 3, ClimateWatcher, That's pretty funny. Yeah. It's pretty nice that their tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyles were able to survive dramatic climate change, often by physically up and moving, when there were probably a total of 100,000 people on the planet. And it's too bad that so many less developed and less-than-technological civilizations were destroyed by repeated regional droughts that simulate but do not reach the magnitude of the climate change that we are wreaking on the entire planet. But enough civilizations survived, to get us here. I wonder how our particular civilization will do, though? With seven billion people? I guess that's not important, though. I mean, if you're going to be happy hunting, and gethering, and killing anyone else who gets in your way (assuming you're one of the lucky ones who survives), then why worry?
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  5. Speaking of the areas of the world being impacted by climate change... "The severe drought in the Horn of Africa, which has caused the death of at least 30,000 children and is affecting some 12 million people, especially in Somalia, is a direct consequence of weather phenomena associated with climate change and global warming, environmental scientists say." Source: "Global Warming Behind Somali Drought" by Julio Godoy, IPS, Aug 26, 2011 To access this in-depth article, click here
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  6. CW#3: "not troubled by natural variations in climate" Off-topic; take it to 'It's not bad'.
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  7. Though the wealthy nations may not feel the full brunt of the earliest effects of climate change, it is not as though they will not feel any. From severe drought to flooding--- if climate change impacts the food supply and prices, I think the economics of increased scarcity will unfortunately lead to resource related conflicts, and ethical considerations will take a back seat to the deeper instincts of protecting ones own resources.
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  8. What a strange way to begin this article. There's no connection between Al Gore, climate science, and morality/ethics (except in the minds of propagandists and the naive). However: Isn't it also immoral and unethical for western democracies to expand their people's current life styles by borrowing against the earnings of future generations? Western democracies are already bankrupt... economically AND morally/ethically. I repeat... the World's great democracies have no more money to sustain today's current social welfare benefits, and there's certainly no more money available to stop future manmade climate change. The Good News: Deficit spending isn't sustainable, so it will eventually stop. The Bad News: Because immorality IS sustainable, it will forever be with us. The real point of this article seems to be that morality/ethics is becoming "code speak" for forcing an imperative upon society to spend even more money it doesn't have for switching to more costly alternative fuels it doesn't want. The Bottom Line: Moral or not, no matter how righteous is the need to "save the planet", the money just isn't there.
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  9. 8, daisym, matter how righteous is the need to "save the planet", the money just isn't there.
    Except we're not talking about saving the planet, we're talking about saving millions (hundreds of millions?) of people, and the way of life we've developed, and civilization as we've defined it. At the same time, the expense is no where near what you imply, and it is less than what it will cost to ignore the problem for now and pay later. To completely ignore the problem now is to guarantee that the problem grows to unacceptably costly proportions. Your entire position is based on a series of faulty premises. You need to rethink things. The Good News: Ignoring climate change isn't sustainable, so it will eventually stop. The Bad News: If people (and societies and governments) wait until it's too late to take action, the cost may exceed what we are capable of paying, and the very things that you believe you are protecting now are exactly what you will lose.
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  10. daisym#8: "spend even more money it doesn't have for switching to more costly alternative fuels it doesn't want." I don't know about you, but the power I want has to be on. That's not an ethical concern. Its hot here in Texas (I measured 109F in my backyard today). Oddly enough, it seems to be alternatives that are keeping the power on when conventional power sources can't cope with the heat. "the money just isn't there" That's like saying the money isn't there for weather satellites and hurricane warning systems. Until there's a big enough crisis; then you'll be crying 'why didn't you warn us?'
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  11. daisym @8 makes an impassioned plea against deficit spending. I have no problem with that, by why is she fixated on monetary deficits. Money is after all just a marker for the real elements of the economy, productive work, resources and goods. A long term deficit in any of these will have long term adverse impacts in the future. So, if we rip iron out of the Earth and sell it, unless the resultant economic growth in assets compensates for the value of the Iron, we are deficit spending. Without that increase in economic assets, our descendants will be in the same position we are, but without the iron to sell. That is, they will be poorer because we have payed for our consumption with long term assets. The same problem arises with environmental issues. A farmer who raises a crop with practices that result in his fields being contaminated with salt is deficit spending. It does not matter if he makes a temporary monetary profit, his assets are eroded and his long term financial prospects are bleak. And if we, by emissions of GHG destroy acidify the oceans, destroy the great tropical rain forests, and make large areas of the Earth seasonally uninhabitable, we are deficit spending - like it or not. What puzzles me is, why does Daisym think we can't afford to tackle the real deficits based on her monetary fetish?
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  12. daisym "The Bad News: Because immorality IS sustainable, it will forever be with us." And so will intelligence, cooperation, foresight, common sense, organisation, kindness, curiosity, generosity, selfishness, foolishness ...... Just because we're not perfect doesn't mean we can't meet a challenge. Someone I know had very good advice for his employees ... "It doesn't have to be perfect. It does have to be done." Same goes for our response to the challenge of climate change. We have to do it. If we make mistakes along the way, we acknowledge it and get on with it anyway.
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  13. daisey "There's no connection between Al Gore, climate science, and morality/ethics (except in the minds of propagandists and the naive)." I don't understand your logic. Upon what "connection" would you need? Gore was the first to get people in the wider community discussing climate change as an ethics issue. Anybody can discuss the ethics of climate or the science. Could you please make your argument follow logically before accusing many people of being "propagandists"?
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  14. Badgersouth #5 If the current drought in the horn of Africa was attributable to climate change, would not any drought in the last 30 years of official human induced global warming also qualify? ENSO - La Nina cycles play large part in the drought/flood story on either side of the Pacific so also affecting world climate.
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  15. Badger at 5 I followed your link and read the article. It refers to the well documented natural phenomena of El Nino and La Nina, and then makes a reference to AGW having an effect on these cycles. However, it does not provide any background data to support that claim. Is there any available?
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  16. 15, apiratelooksat50, I noticed the same thing. I've been unable to find any papers (yet) that explicitly say that climate change will affect (increase) ENSO events. I did find the following statements attributed to Trenberth:
    “There have been changes in the El Niño-La Niña cycle since the 1970s. It’s a complex cycle but the associated droughts, flooding and other manifestations have been stronger over the last 30 to 40 years,” Trenberth told Tierramérica. Since climate change has fundamentally altered the global climate system, trapping more heat and about four percent more water vapour in the atmosphere, it is reasonable to conclude it has affected the ENSO cycle. “It would be surprising if there wasn’t an effect,” Trenberth said.
    I'll keep looking for actual scientific studies on the subject. If anyone else knows of any, it would be appreciated.
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  17. 15, apiratelooksat50, AR4 has this: 3.6.2 El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Tropical/Extratropical Interactions With this statement:
    Extremes of the hydrological cycle such as floods and droughts are common with ENSO and are apt to be enhanced with global warming (Trenberth et al., 2003). For example, the modest 2002–2003 El Niño was associated with a drought in Australia, made much worse by record-breaking heat (Nicholls, 2004; and see Section 3.8.4, Box 3.6). Thus, whether observed changes in ENSO behaviour are physically linked to global climate change is a research question of great importance.
    Also: ENSO Amplitude Change in Observation and Coupled Models [ZHANG Qiong1 (张 琼), GUAN Yue1,3 (关 月), and YANG Haijun, 2007] and: Shifts in ENSO coupling processes under global warming [Sjoukje Philip and Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, 2006]
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  18. 15, apiratelooksat50, FYI, all of those references I supplied are vague and inconclusive. My own opinion at the moment would be that while a climate-change-enhances-ENSO connection seems logical, there is as yet no substantive evidence of it.
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    [DB] Bob, Rob Painting is pretty up to speed on studies ENSO-related.  Perhaps Rob could be a resource on this.

  19. Sphaerica#16: "unable to find any papers (yet) that explicitly say that climate change will affect (increase) ENSO events." An oldie-but-a-goodie: Timmermann 1999 Increased El Nino frequency in a climate model forced by future greenhouse warming The tropical Pacific climate system is thus predicted to undergo strong changes if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase. The climatic effects will be threefold. First, the mean climate in the tropical Pacific region will change towards a state corresponding to present-day El Nino conditions. It is therefore likely that events typical of El Nino will also become more frequent. Second, a stronger interannual variability will be superimposed on the changes in the mean state, so year-to-year variations may become more extreme under enhanced greenhouse conditions. Third, the interannual variability will be more strongly skewed, with strong cold events (relative to the warmer mean state) becoming more frequent. That last one sounds like a description of the last couple of winters.
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  20. Also, Boer et al 2004. "Three streams of evidence, namely simulations with coupled models, feedback analysis in the tropical Pacific, and observation-based paleoclimate reconstructions, all support the expectation of a future mean El Nin˜o-like temperature response to the positive radiative forcing resulting from a continued increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations." However, a multi-model study van Oldenborgh et al 2005 isnt so definite, and Guilyardi 2005 concluded "There are no clear indications of an El Nino frequency change with increased GHG." This seems to be repeated in later papers. I would say this is still unsettled science unless someone has some newer evidence.
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    Moderator Response: [mc] fixed closing link tag
  21. Sphaerica@18: While this paper (ENSO-Scale Variability in the Eocene Greenhouse Recorded by Fossil Bivalves and Wood from Antarctic) doesn't seem to say anything about the intensity of ENSO, it does seem to indicate that the frequency will be unchanged by warming temperatures. Also a blurb here.
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  22. So is it safe to work on the principle that at the moment the indications are that the ENSO may be more intense but not neccessarily more frequent? Also it seems that ENSO is claimed to be the driver of intense weather events in eastern North America and Africa. Is that true? I suppose what I am getting at at what stage can we start safely matching extreme weather events to AGW?
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  23. This discussion belongs here. I have commented there.
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  24. Scadden P @ 20 & Dan Bailey (moderator comment) @ 15 - There has been a dramatic increase in ENSO severity during the last century. See Gergis & Fowler (2006) "Although extreme events are seen throughout the 478-year reconstruction, 43% of the extreme ENSO events noted since A.D. 1525 occur during the 20th century, with an obvious bias towards enhanced El Nino conditions in recent decades. Of the total number of extreme event years reconstructed, 30% of all reconstructed ENSO event years occur post-1940 alone suggesting that recent ENSO variability appears anomalous in the context of the past five centuries." The frequency and intensity of ENSO appears to be tied to the mean state of the tropical Pacific. When equatorial waters in the central and eastern Pacific are warm, frequency and intensity are increased. When cooler, activity diminishes, although there can be huge swings in intensity during these cooler periods. See Li (2011) As far as future projections are concerned, that's unsettled for now. Climate models seem split on whether we'll see an increase/decrease in ENSO activity. See Vecchi & Wittenburg (2009) and Collins (2010)
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  25. 24, Rob Painting, Thanks!
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  26. Thanks Rob for the post and link to the Li paper.
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  27. Speaking of ethics... “In the video below from Mediaite, former Vice President Al Gore suggests that people today need to “win the conversation” against skeptics of climate change in the same way people stood up to racist comments during the civil rights movement.” Source: “Al Gore On Climate Change Deniers: It's Crucial To 'Win The Conversation',“ Huffington Post, Aug 30, 2011 To access this article/video, click here.
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