Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Acting on Global Warming: Is It Immoral?

I've recently researched scientific opinion and discovered that there is a near-100% consensus that global warming is real -- about 96% think it's 100% man-made, while about 4% believe it's 50% man-made.

Then there are the rabid denialists, also known as conservatives. This would be a simple political observation if the effect on policy of the denialists weren't so dire.

Here, now, is another viewpoint: Accepting the scientific consensus  -- and who shouldn't? -- we are left with what amounts to two choices, mitigation or adaptation. There are varying degrees between these two choices, but the extent to which one chooses, as an individual or a nation, what we do is some position between the two poles.

Last night on Daily Kos, I found a clear-eyed expression of just what our choices mean:
Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix.
It’s a powerful bit of language. It makes clear that not acting is itself a choice — a choice in favor of suffering.
But in another way, Holdren’s formulation obscures an important difference between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate effects) and adaptation (changing infrastructure and institutions to cope with climate effects). It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.
With every ton of carbon we emit, we add incrementally to the total concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That total is what determines the effects of climate change. By emitting ton of carbon we are, in a tiny, incremental way, harming all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Conversely, however, every ton of carbon emissions we prevent or eliminate benefits, in a tiny, incremental way, all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).
In other words, mitigation is fundamentally altruistic, other-focused.
In fact, I’ve understated the altruism. Remember the famous carbon time lag: Carbon emitted today affects temperatures 30 (or so) years from now. So mitigation today doesn’t actually benefit humanity today; it benefits humanity 30 years in the future, when the carbon that would have been emitted would have wrought its effects. It benefits people who are both spatially and temporally distant. That’s almost pure altruism.
(Note:  I’m putting aside the present-day co-benefits of mitigation policies. Obviously they are important! And I’ll get to them in a minute. But for now I’m talking purely about reducing carbon for climate’s sake.)
Adaptation is nearly the opposite. It is action taken to protect oneself, one’s own city, tribe, or nation, from the effects of unchecked climate change. An adaptation dollar does not benefit all of humanity like a mitigation dollar does. It benefits only those proximate to the spender. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on mitigation is disproportionately preventing suffering among future Bangladeshis. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on a sea wall is preventing suffering only among present and future New Yorkers. The benefits of adaptation, as an iterative process that will continue as long as the climate keeps changing, are both spatially and temporally local.
This excerpt is from an article entitled "Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent." Read the whole thing here. But the point is clear: When we mitigate climate change, we act morally and globally. When we stop burning coal as a nation, the entire world benefits. But when we choose only to adapt, we act locally, to the detriment of the world community.

When we decide to build sea walls to preserve our coastlines -- the Dutch would be great at this -- we save our coasts but do nothing for the coastlines of Africa and Asia and anyplace too poor to adapt. They will suffer more.

The bottom line is that this is a moral choice. Beyond the obvious point that conservatives tout their Christian views as driving their actions in life -- leaving them wide-open to charges of hypocrisy -- the only thing preventing them from viewing themselves as morally corrupt on the issue of global warming is outright denial.

It's funny, and tragic, that so far it's the choice they've made.

It might be easy to pick on Mario Rubio because he's gone the Bobby
Jindal way with a "How can I know, I'm not a scientist" to justify his
climate-change denialism. But what conservative hasn't adopted the view?
Which GOP presidential hopeful can risk another position? Not a one.
What does that say about the moral choices they are making?

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