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Climate Change and Justice

Are Our Strategies to Combat Climate Change Fundamentally Mistaken?

Monday, January 7, 2013  by tday


In the 20 years since world leaders set a CO2 baseline for climate negotiations in Rio de Janiero, carbon (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere have accelerated, from 2 ppm annually to 3 ppm as a result of an unprecedented economic expansion in China and other developing countries that has been largely fueled by coal.  Absent some change, limiting atmospheric carbon to 400-450 ppm, the concentration roughly associated with a 2°C rise in global temperature will be infeasible and the result could be catastrophic.

 In The Carbon Crunch: How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong and How to Fix It (Yale 2012), Dieter Helm, a distinguished energy economist, takes the threat of catastrophic climate change seriously, but also recognizes how confusion about science and computer modeling has resulted in mistaken public expectations of predictive certainty, as well as growing doubts. Like others, Helm argues that climate change policy must be informed by ethical considerations. Helm maintains, however, that those considerations must be grounded in resource allocation, demand and supply, and must be mediated through actual rather than ideal behavior.

The heart of the climate change problem, Helm contends, is “economic illiteracy,” failure to consider incentives realistically. Kyoto, Helm observes, is very well modeled by the “Prisoners’ Dilemma” model in game theory: while both parties in the game, prisoners being interviewed separately, would be better off by not cooperating, each individually has an incentive to get a better result by agreeing to cooperate and then pursuing self-interest.  The best outcome for both prisoners would be to cooperate, but cooperation requires trust which is the dilemma.

As in the Prisoners’ Dilemma, getting agreement in Kyoto has been thwarted by countries’ self-interests and incentives to “free ride” on commitments made by others. One crucial difference, Helm observes, is that the climate negotiation incentives are even more challenging because the damage is in the future and is inflicted on future generations. Because of these dynamics, climate change is “not an obvious candidate for a globally binding agreement.” Confronting climate change risk requires a different approach, one that realistically allocates responsibility for continuing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere.

 It is also necessary not to confound short-term measures and long-term goals. The mainstream doubts about the costs and efficacy of existing wind, solar, nuclear, and biofuels technologies as means to mitigate climate change are valid and should not be confused with skepticism about the human role in climate change. Existing wind, solar and biofuels technologies cannot meet energy demand because the land and water resources any deployment in scale would require are simply not available on the planet. While those technologies will evolve with further development, the technologies in their current state of development are not a solution.  Similarly, improved energy efficiency may have the perverse, but economically predictable effect of increasing consumption.

 The reductions in carbon emissions experienced in the developed world are most significantly attributable to its deindustrialization, to the shift of polluting industries to China, India and other countries in the developing world, rather than to deployments of solar and wind energy or increased energy efficiency. If carbon consumption per capita is measured, consumption of products with embedded carbon has actually increased in the developed world. Further, with economic development and continuing population increases in the rest of the world, global demand for energy will rise in the rest of the world as well.

 Resolving the issues posed by global economic development involves rights and entitlements as well as causality. As a matter of entitlement, the new, marginal emissions of carbon into the atmosphere are the emissions that can be affected by policy. Helm maintains that these marginal emissions, their causes, and who is responsible should be the focus.

 Kyoto, Helm maintains, got this wrong. While its focus on emissions sources, power stations, transport systems, and factories might seem intuitively good, the Kyoto approach fails to direct attention to those ultimately consuming the products. “If carbon emissions embedded in goods and services are priced (regardless of where they are produced), then those who are responsible for consuming more carbon will pay more. … Carbon pricing therefore affects both the demand for carbon embedded in goods and services and the relative economic attractiveness of different ways of generating the energy used in producing them.”

 Pricing carbon and imposing the cost on consumers is best achieved, Helm maintains, through a tax on carbon consumption, rather than through the cap and trade strategy currently getting more attention. In a market with perfect information, imposition of a tax and the currently favored cap and trade strategy for reducing carbon emissions would be equivalent. Information, however, is not perfect.

In addition, carbon emissions are not inherently toxic, a circumstance that would justify a strict permitting system. Within limits, how much carbon is emitted over the short term is less important than not exceeding critical global warming thresholds decades from now. The problem of climate change must be managed over decades with effective alternative energy technologies developing over a longer terms as well.

Emissions caps, in contrast, would be administered through pollution permits issued to existing polluters that could then be traded or offset.  The permitting scheme would need to be adjusted every few years with corresponding opportunities for industry lobbying and accompanying uncertainty, both disincentives to longer term investments in R&D.  By contrast, a tax on carbon could be set for a longer term, would not require periodic issuance of permits, could reflect global carbon emissions concerns, and could be applied by a country equally to goods produced within and outside national borders -- with reciprocal tax credits available for imports of goods from countries that also impose a carbon consumption tax.

An additional factor favoring a carbon tax, Helm maintains, is the recent discovery of large reserves of natural gas which represent a viable alternative to coal. An intermediate-term shift from coal and oil to natural gas would in itself result in a reduction of carbon emissions, something that renewables have not achieved to date. Natural gas reserves, as currently estimated, are sufficient to meet energy demand during the term over which alternatives could develop with stable market incentives for investments in R&D.

Helm is not a radical libertarian. While he believes that market forces are the best means for addressing the uncertainties in setting climate change policy, he also sees a role for site-specific regulation of natural gas extraction. As with other mining activities, how natural gas is extracted must be regulated to control methane emissions, to protect groundwater, and to protect against other environmental harms.

At a time when climate change has stirred public doubts and apprehensions about costs, Helm has written a morally significant book. A contention that climate change policy must ultimately be grounded in ethics, in ethics of stewardship and fairness is common enough. What makes Helm’s book morally significant is that he analyzes these moral arguments carefully and argues for an assignment of responsibility grounded in economic facts, by focusing not simply on who caused emissions in the past, but also on who is causing emissions now. 

As Helm observes, we can do something only about new atmospheric emissions of carbon. In demonstrating how an ethical resolution of the challenge of climate change can be grounded in human nature and prevailing circumstances, Helm identifies effective means to reduce emissions that do not depend on international agreement which has proven so elusive. 

In building his case for a tax on carbon consumption, Helm points a way between the horns of the Kyoto dilemma. If taken seriously by policy makers, Helm’s analysis can change the international dialogue and can within nations shift focus toward effective means for reducing global carbon emissions that are within their control and consistent with international norms.


For additional discussion, see the following article by Dieter Helm on carbon consumption tax mechanics:
Forget the Kyoto Accord and Tax Carbon Consumption: Yale Environment 360


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Faith & Values: Advocating for God's creation

Thursday, October 11, 2012  by tday

By Craig Anderson

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 6, 2012.

Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was published. In many ways, it helped to spawn the modern environmental movement, challenging the unregulated use of DDT as a "modern" pesticide.

The inspiration for "Silent Spring" was a wooded bird sanctuary with a freshwater pond situated in the middle of a coastal point in southeastern Massachusetts.

My wife and I visited this sacred ground during a morning walk this past August. It was a lovely summer morning in the quiet of the woods, christened by light rain. The property, albeit a beautiful private sanctuary, in many ways is nothing special.

What is special about "Silent Spring" is the courage of two women, each with a great love for the natural world and a willingness to advocate for the preservation of creation. One wrote angry letters to the Boston newspapers chronicling the scores of birds killed in her woods by the aerial spraying of DDT. The other was her friend, a writer and a marine biologist whom she cajoled into writing a seminal book.

During college, I was inspired by writings of the American Transcendentalists, by the advent of Earth Day, by books like "Silent Spring," and by the emerging environmental movement. I learned how to rock climb and how to navigate whitewater. My time in the wild was far more meaningful than time spent in church. In turn, I drifted away from the tradition (Episcopal) I was raised in.  ...  MORE



Craig Anderson is a psychologist and the director of counseling services at Randolph-Macon College. He is an active member of the Church of the Holy Comforter and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. He can be reached at canderson@rmc.edu.

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Ian S. Markham, Dilemmas and the future: the environment, animals, and plants

Wednesday, June 6, 2012  by tday

With the author’s permission, we are posting a survey of ethical issues posed by concern for the future of the environment  that appeared as a chapter in Ian S. Markham, Do Morals Matter?: A Guide to Contemporary Religious Ethics (Blackwell 2007).

Dean Markham’s text furnishes a concise, well documented survey of ethical paradigms for considering the future of the planet, its human population, and other species: (i) a human-centered ethic concerned with human survival that subordinates other concerns, extinctions of species considered acceptable so long as the extinctions do not affect human survival; (ii) an animal-centered ethic that considers environmental impacts on both humanity and other animals as morally relevant concerns as we are “called” to share the planet with other species and not abuse our power; (iii) a life-centered ethics that considers the health of the entire biosphere as the predominant moral concern, a view sometimes characterized as “deep ecology” because of its concern with the intrinsic value of all life; and (iv) a concern for human duty to protect inanimate nature. Within these contexts, Dean Markham explores the ethical issues of animal rights, protection of the biosphere, and protection of the physical landscape. 

Text:  Dilemmas and the future: the environment, animals, and plants

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Moral Challenges in the Anthropocene

Tuesday, June 5, 2012  by tday

The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me,
she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’
Genesis 3:12

Paul Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery of the causes of the ozone holes at the Earth’s poles, has proposed that the planet is entering a new geologic epoch. He dates entry into this new epoch from the 18th Century industrial revolution because the scale and character of human activity since then has transformed the global environment.

Crutzen contends the new epoch should be called the Anthropocene, because the environmental effects of human activity have no geological precedent. A video illustrating Crutzen’s contentions may be found here.

 The British Geological Society considered Crutzen’s proposal at a recent conference.  A number of the participating scientists concluded that 10,000,000 years from now the global effects of human influence will be apparent as a distinct stratigraphic layer on the Earth’s surface. Human intervention since the Industrial Revolution has pushed the Earth’s systems well beyond the range of variability in the record since the last Ice Age.

The 6,000 years of our recorded history furnish no precedents for contemplating human impacts on a global scale. The societal and environmental collapses in the historic record have been localized, e.g., the rapid decline of the Indus River Civilization as a result of deforestation and desertification around 1900 B.C.E.; the collapse of ancient Aegean civilizations following volcanic eruptions.

The light cast by the creation story in Genesis suggests that the challenge to our moral imagination may be no less great. God gave Adam dominion over the Garden of Eden, with an obligation to care for the garden and to exercise restraint. As pertinent in the Anthropocene, Adam and Eve each denied responsibility for eating from the Tree of Knowledge and instead sought to shift blame.

Simply because of the demands on global resources created by a growing and ever more invasive human population, the threats to environmental sustainability raise moral as well as physical issues. The natural phenomena studied have “tipping points”, points at which Earth systems will change state catastrophically: species die-offs, coastal inundations, and other catastrophic environmental change. Further, the populations that are most vulnerable may have least control over what may happen to them.

Other issues are raised by the challenge to understand, let alone manage, the global environmental impacts of the enlarging human footprint. How we come to understandings of these global challenges also raises moral issues. The methodologies deployed to study the phenomena of concern implicate value choices at fundamental levels of inquiry: problems of missing data, confidence intervals, significance levels, acceptable uses of proxies, data smoothing, etc.

Moreover, as we consider potential costs, our vision may be clouded as well by what we wish to see and not see: by dread of costs we wish to avoid, by dangers we have a stake in denying, by duties we would rather shirk. The sins of vanity, greed, and sloth are particularly mortal risks in the Anthropocene Epoch. 

The human challenge in the Anthropocene is ultimately the same issue of acceptance of personal responsibility that humans have confronted since the dawn of creation. The Earthly challenges in this new epoch may be larger in scale and consequence, and our resources to understand these challenges scientifically have likewise evolved. But, as Genesis reveals, the human challenge to accept responsibility and a reluctance to do so are as ancient as creation.



VIDEO:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fvgG-pxlobk

 Nicola Jones, Human Influence Comes of Age: Geologists debate epoch to mark effects of Homo Sapiens, http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110511/full/473133a.html

Marlowe Hood, Extreme makeover: are humans reshaping Earth?http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ixb

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Research Undertaken by Prominent Climate Skeptics Concludes That Global Warming Is Real

Thursday, November 10, 2011  by tday

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project launched by prominent scientists skeptical of the consensus view that global temperature is increasing rapidly has through its independent analysis concluded in scientific papers submitted for peer review and publication that the consensus view reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is essentially correct and that human activity is a factor in the warming trend. In contrast to much of the research relied on by the IPCC, the Berkeley project has published its data on the Internet for reanalysis by others.  The data set includes data from 39,390 unique weather stations, more than 5 times as many as are included in the Global Historical Climatology Network Monthly data set, the focus of many prior climate studies.

The conclusions expressed by the project depend critically upon use of modern statistical techniques for merging data series and processing error to control for data gaps, weather station selection bias, and other measurement artifacts, including the “urban heat island” effect that climate skeptics have alleged precludes reliable use of time series data from weather stations that have over time become surrounded by urban development. At the time the project was launched, its research focus, Earth surface temperature time series data, had recently been drawn into the news through publications of leaked email communications between climate scientists that allegedly documented efforts to cook the temperature data in favor of an agenda.

For those skeptical of scientific independence, the result has been surprising because the project leader, Richard Muller, a long-time critic of government-sponsored climate studies, obtained a substantial portion of the project financing from a foundation controlled by David and Richard Koch, individuals well-known as supporters of politicians who have made denial of global warming a marker of political orthodoxy. Another of the researchers, Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, had earlier asserted that other climate scientists had “airbrushed” the temperature data.

In other recent research, already published in Nature after peer review, scientists from the United Kingdom and New Zealand have concluded that in large parts of Eurasia, North Africa, and Canada global temperatures could exceed the 2°Celsius maximum limit to avoid dangerous climate change, including floods, droughts, and rising seas as early as 2030.  Staying within this limit will be challenging. Other recently published climate research has concluded that global emissions of greenhouse gases will need to peak before 2020 to avoid catastrophe, an outcome that observers doubt the U.N. Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, will be able to achieve when it convenes November 28, 2011.

Climate research is notoriously complex and its methodologies are unfamiliar to many scientists with established reputations in other fields.  Even within the field of climate research, it is accepted that climate models do not fully account for all variables and that accurate measurement of the human effect on global warming can improve.  Desert dust storms, the mechanisms for cloud seeding, and the effect of the solar cycle are only some of the variables still to be better understood. 

The next step for the Berkeley project will be to assess total warming of the Earth’s oceans. In the meantime, other scientists are continuing to call attention to the physical evidence of climate change, including glacial melting, changes in growing cycles, desertification, increases in drought intensity, and spreads of plant and animal pathogens.


A summary of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project conclusions is here.  The project homepage is http://berkeleyearth.org/

For additional background on the project: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/04/local/la-me-climate-berkeley-20110404

For a general discussion of global warming impacts: http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jun/02-degrees-of-separation/article_print

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