Shutdown the meltdown

Who cares about Antarctica? Between failed marine reserves, rogue icebergs, the ratcheting down of federal science funding, and research stalled by the US government shutdown in October, the Antarctic meltdown is something of a hard case. On one hand, the international delegation of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR) has been rumbling about the creation of a massive ocean sanctuary—what would be the largest in the world—which seems like progress. At the very least, the various reserve proposals by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and others in the EU indicate rising awareness and political salience about “the last intact ocean ecosystem on Earth.” I suppose there’s the chance that underlying motives for its creation could be geopolitical or economic—a move to thwart anti-sovereignty claims or the fishery interests of other nations and bulwark their own competitiveness, but something tells me there’s genuine concern about the ecological pressures and risks to biodiversity at the heart of the marine reserve ideas.

Cape Denison--photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

Cape Denison–photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

On the other hand, the CCALMR has also failed to create the sanctuary three times in the past year because the commission requires unanimity in decision-making. In particular, Russia, Ukraine, (and now China) have repeatedly blocked the proposals to protect their own fishing interests in the Southern Ocean, presented under the guise of concern for legal technicality. Disappointing, to be sure. But it shows that Antarctica is more than just a blip on the political radar, even if the proposed reserve hasn’t managed to pass.

Speaking of radar—we may recall that NASA discovered an 18 mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier in 2011. Upon its discovery, scientists speculated that eventually the crack might cause a glacier to break off. In July of this year, the prediction came true. Images from the TerraSAR-X satellite of the German Space Agency reported that, indeed, a city-sized iceberg had separated from the Pine Island Glacier. At the time, however, it was basically being kept in place by other sea ice.

Pine Island Crack--Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Pine Island Crack–Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

But not anymore.

Similar in size to Manhattan, the separated iceberg has made its way out of its icy entrapments and is floating out to sea. Sounds benign enough, but it’s actually a problem—on top of the disposition shared by many that the slow degradation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is itself lamentable. The problem at hand, however, is an instrumental one. The iceberg is headed for the space between Antarctica and Cape Horn on the southern-most tip of Chile, which is an especially trafficked international shipping lane.

Pine Island Rift--image courtesy of NASA

CLICK ME FOR ANIMATION! Pine Island Rift–GIF courtesy of the German Aerospace Center

The iceberg could stick around for more than a year before it dissipates, and if it does move through Drake’s Passage and end up in the shipping lane it could cause some serious obstructions to trade and transportation—or at least pose complications. It’s unclear what exactly could be done about the new glaciers other than circumvention, so perhaps the situation is better framed as a condition rather than a problem—but at least it’s a temporary one at that. Nevertheless, now that Antarctica and Antarctic issues are verging into the realm of economics and international trade its relative political importance may elevate. To that effect, a team of UK researchers recently received and emergency grant to track and study the iceberg’s movement.

Drake's Passage--image courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of http://www.worldatlas.com

Which brings me to another point—NSF funding, the government shutdown, and Antarctic research, which are especially relevant here at CU-Boulder since we have a legacy and prospect of research in Antarctica.

I talked about the state of federal funding for academic research at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge. In essence, folks like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are doing their best to restructure and minimize the federal budget for research and allocation priorities. Unless research strictly pertains to national security or will yield demonstrable economic benefit, apparently, by their account, it’s not worth funding. As far as Antarctic research goes, the economic benefits aren’t necessarily obvious, nor does it straightforwardly improve national security—which of course erroneously assumes that better understanding complex ecosystems and ubiquitous issues like the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations through ice cores and other paleontological records through programs like the WISSARD drilling project don’t strengthen national security, make us better off through new knowledge, or help us figure out what sorts of adaption measures will be necessary as the climate changes. Hogwash. Be that as it may, by new funding standards, it seems likely that funding for Antarctic research may become harder to come by.

Image courtesy of www.theguardian.com

Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com

What’s more, the partial government shutdown in October didn’t help. Of course the federal shutdown didn’t help anything, but—aside from national parks and furloughed federal workers—of particular relevance here, the budgetary holds ups stifled funding for the US Antarctic Program and its three field stations, to which a team of CU researchers had been planning to travel in late October (the beginning of summer in Antarctica). Perhaps not surprisingly, the research timetable is quite sensitive and so because of the shutdown and lingering budgetary priority questions, much of the Antarctic research planned for this year has been deferred. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF informed hopeful researchers from CU Boulder, UC Santa Cruz, UT Austin, and other institutions alike poised and expecting to head south, that, as they feared, they’d have to wait to embark on their icy adventures. As the NYT put it, the ripples of the government shutdown made it all the way to the end of the Earth. Well done, obstinate, uncompromising, and unreasonable members of Congress who shall here remain nameless—well done. In any case, we should all keep an eye on this. And we should all care about Antarctica.

On top of the world

Antarctica is stunning, to say the least. Though the aesthetics and importance of the Earth’s southern-most continent are easily and often overlooked. I think this is unfair. It’s certainly biased against Antarcticans. But this oversight isn’t necessarily because people think the glaciers, mountains, Archipelagos, lakes, snowy deserts, penguins, whales, and seals aren’t especially beautiful or important. Presumably people think, or at least would think, quite the opposite—charismatic mega-fauna, icy caverns and all.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, my concern here is more spatial and cartographical. Or, rather, it stems from lingering frustrations related to the assumptions that underlie our spatial and cartographical representations of the Antarctic, and how those assumptions affect our understandings of what Antarctica is and its importance relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, the typical distorted, flattened, elongated pictures of Antarctica we get from North-Atlantic-centric mapsRobinson and Mercator projections alike—are, at best, disappointing and preclude thorough appreciation for the size, shape, place, value, importance, and beauty of the Antarctic continent.

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

I mean—really—who are we kidding? Antarctica does not look like that. Obviously, some degree of distortion is inevitable when portraying spherical shapes on a flat surface—but this is exactly my point. Antarctica is rarely seen for what it “actually” looks like, nor in continuity, because of our typical Euro-centric-map-influenced perception of the world. Granted, world maps look like world maps, not like the world. To that effect, globes are more accurate representations of the planet. But even then, Antarctica is usually at the bottom, mercilessly impaled and obscured by the trinket’s axis of rotation.

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Among the last of the pristine, unindustrialized, non-instrumentalized regions of the planet, the vast, isolated, solitary nature of the Antarctic wilderness is an awe-inspiring holdout of human non-interference, distinctly absent of permanent human habitation, perched unsuspectingly on top of the world. Wait. On top? Indeed. The idea that north is “up” goes largely unquestioned because our spatial orientation and perspective of planetary positionality has been dictated and subsequently assumed by northern-centric portrayals of the Earth created by sea-faring European explorers, navigators, and cartographers that saw Europe as both on top of and at the center of the world. The result is a historical legacy of Euro-Atlantic-centric maps perpetuated still today.

But this presumed directionality and centricism is ultimately fiction. It would be just as correct to portray the South Pole as upward facing. For that matter, the same holds true of the East, West, and everything in between. After all, the Earth is just a sphere(-ish) object floating in space. There is no up or down in the void.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

For better or for worse, we tend to associate size and relative spatial position—i.e. above and below—with importance. Now, relative spatial orientation—that is, where X  is located in comparison to Y—is certainly relevant, especially with regard to the Antarctic, to establishing our perceptions of importance. Often we assume that being “above” equates to being “better” and that being “below” equates to being “worse.” Poppycock. While socially prevalent, these associations are fallacious; they are more a pernicious matter of habit than of justified belief. Writing from Brisbane, Australia at the moment, the idea of being “down under” seems particularly salient, but in no way should being down under be presumed as or used as a pejorative term. Most would probably contend that Antarctica is “below” North America, and that it’s at the “bottom” of the Earth. But Antarctica is neither above nor below any other continent, Australia and North America alike. We just happen, by instrumental and anthropocentric convention, to portray it that way. In turn, we do Antarctica itself and its inhabitants a serious disservice and minimize the perceived importance of the southern-most continent.

With regard to size and perceptions of importance, we also tend to think that “bigger is better” and that we ought to prefer the large. Growing up in Texas, these were simply tenants of the Good Life. But, again, these are specious premises at best. Gargantuan, obnoxious, unwieldy automobiles in a congested urban landscapes, for example, are far from preferable. Imagine trying to park an H2 in Manhattan. To the same point, if the Sun were any larger than it is, life on Earth probably wouldn’t have developed as it has and all of our human shenanigans would have been physiochemically and energetically precluded. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Indeed, Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” profundity has been hailed as revolutionary by localists, anarchists, environmentalists, and environmental economists since being published in the 70s. But sadly, others have noted, the idea is slowly being forgotten in context of global industrialization and an ever-growing human population.

It also seems important to point out that while the United States measures in at 3.794 million square miles and Europe at 3.931 million square miles, the Antarctic continent spans a whopping 5.405 million square miles—a difference in size we probably wouldn’t expect given the misleading flat and stretched portrayal of Antarctica we’re used to. Perhaps Europeans are less guilty of associating size with importance, but Americans tend to especially value the big over the small—so maybe noting Antarctica’s comparative largeness could help motivate a shift in the equivocation of size, value, and importance. If size matters, Antarctica matters more than the US and Europe. The Peter’s Map—an area-accurate projection—speaks to this point.

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Typical Euro-Atlantic-centric projections disproportionately represent the size of the northern hemisphere and portray the continents of the southern hemisphere as much smaller than the comparative reality. The Greenland Problem is a good poster-child for this disproportionality.

In Mercator projections, Greenland looks to be of similar size to Africa. But in reality, Africa is 11.67 million square miles whereas Greenland is only .8363 million square miles; the former is almost 14-times larger than the latter. Granted, the Mercator projection was created for navigation, not necessarily for proportional accuracy, but if maps are supposed to depict reality in shaping our worldviews, then we’ve been living in a Mercator fantasy.

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Regarding the Greenland Problem, the Peter’s Map is certainly an improvement. But it comes with shape distortions of its own, so it’s far from ideal. Moreover, while the Peter’s Map is a more accurate proportional representation of size than the Mercator projection, it still does nothing with regard to the fair treatment of Antarctica. Peter’s Antarctica is still relegated to the bottom of the map, split along its radius, and flattened out.

Ultimately, no map will ever be perfect, nor will every map serve every purpose. Rather than trying to find “the best” map, we might prefer to be cartographic pluralistic relativists and insist that various projections be displayed together, side by side, in every case so that no single worldview is ostensibly portrayed as “better” than any other, and in turn, prevent the disproportionate assignment of value and importance that accompanies visual representation and evaluation of the Earth. Alongside the Mercator, Peter’s, Hobo-Dyer, “south-as-up,” and Robinson projections, so too belongs an Antarctic-centric perspective. If Antarctica is going to get a fair shake in politics, ethics, and the allocation of resources, then we ought also consider and incorporate a worldview where Antarctica is the center of attention. Besides, Antarctic-centricism makes for a beautiful map. And we all know what they say about a picture’s worth in words.

Antarctic-centric map--courtesy of username “Karilyn” of www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic-centric map–courtesy of username “Karilyn” of http://www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic loss and damage

November 11th marked the beginning of the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—this year held in Warsaw. Six major components generally comprise the UNFCCC agenda, but two main pillars get the most attention: mitigation and adaptation. The focus on mitigation means nations—developed and developing (naturally there is some contention between rich and poor nations here)—reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to curb the intensity of climate change. As part of the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to target a reduction in GHG emissions sufficient to keep global temperature increases within 2°C. An ambitious goal, perhaps overly so, to say the least. Adaptation, on the other hand, speaks to the idea that some degree of climate change is inevitable at this point and that nations need to make plans to deal with long-term impacts like sea level rise on behalf of vulnerable people and areas.

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw--photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw–photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

Subsumed by the adaptation pillar, the Warsaw Conference has largely centered on the notion of “loss and damage.” In essence, loss and damage related to climate change means losses of life, territory, economic prosperity, climatic stability and predictability, biodiversity etc., and damages related to weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and onset of sea level rise. Some analysts have suggested that loss and damage deserves to be considered a third pillar all its own next to mitigation and adaptation.

In pragmatic terms, discussion of loss and damage ultimately becomes a discussion of culpability, liability, responsibility, and compensation. Sticky territory to be sure. Money politics surrounding loss and damage is contentious at best. No one wants to pay more than their fair share, but few agree on how to determine what shares are “fair.” In large part, the divergence is one between the relative importance of cumulative v. annual GHG emissions, and which should receive more emphasis in establishing financial obligations—basically the same question that stopped the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. In either case the debate revolves around two major players—the United States (the largest cumulative GHG emitter by far) and China (now the largest annual GHG emitter). Obviously other countries (Europe and the other BRIC nations) have their hands in this issue as well, but the US and China are the big two.

So loss and damage—clearly a salient issue. Climate change means unprecedented losses and damages. When it comes to nations, determining relative interests are somewhat intuitive. Everyone has, albeit varying, national interests in addressing climate change for domestic reasons, and no one wants to pay more than their fair share—no one likes the idea of other countries freeloading on their mitigation efforts. But, clearly, climate change isn’t just a domestic issue. Climate change entails a slew of international losses and damages involving global commons—the oceans and Antarctica, for example—which don’t have straightforward national borders to delineate interest groups and stakeholders. Indeed, Antarctica has plenty to lose and damage to incur, but lacks the domestic interest element, strictly speaking. The Antarctic meltdown has, for the most part, only been discussed indirectly in terms of sea level rise.

Antarctic territory map--photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

But Antarctica has more going on than just melting glaciers, break-away icebergs, and contributions to sea level rise. I’m thinking, for instance, about changes in biodiversity we can expect to see as ecological conditions shift on and around the continent and Southern Ocean. Between rising atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, and a warming Southern Ocean, the ~16,000 species known to inhabit Antarctic itself or the waters surrounding it have some notable challenges ahead—but no national  interest, strictly speaking, to represent them at the UNFCCC. In particular, let’s consider some charismatic mega-fauna like the endangered Southern Elephant Seal and the variety of endangered whales that live on and near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Sealing and whaling (especially whaling) have been—and still are, sadly—problems for these populations, and climate change coupled with habitat loss and changes in ocean temperatures and acidity will only increase their stressors. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, then Southern Elephant Seals lose breeding grounds, and whales and seals alike will need to adapt to changing oceanic conditions. So what’s to be done on their behalf? While Antarctic interests are represented at the UNFCCC by non-governmental organization (NGO) observers, Antarctica doesn’t exactly have its own seat at the table.

Southern Elephant Seal--photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Luckily, Antarctica will benefit from mitigation efforts regardless of whether it’s afforded explicit attention or not—but ethically speaking, because improvements to Antarctica’s lot are, in a mitigative sense, coincidental or happenstantial, this may be unsatisfying. And few—perhaps with the exception of some researchers and activists—worry about Antarctic adaptation. So, again, what’s to be done to hedge against Antarctic loss and damage?

To this point, aside from UNFCCC action, there was a recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—another fantastic acronym for an appropriately instrumentalist name—to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary around Antarctica, totaling somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 million square kilometers.

Penguins in the Ross Sea--photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Penguins in the Ross Sea–photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Unfortunately, Russian and Ukranian representatives questioned the authority of the CCAMLR to declare such a sanctuary, and, in turn, blocked its establishment, undermining what political good will may have existed in this context. Disappointing, to be sure, but in a sense this objection is just a business-as-usual exercise of power given the structure of the Antarctic Treaty System, which—we can only assume is to avoid a sort of Aristotelian tyranny of the majority—demands that international decisions pertaining to Antarctica be made unanimously. So we probably won’t see the creation of an Antarctic Marine Reserve any time soon. While the sanctuary may not have been proposed with specific regard to climate change, it would have been progress regarding Antarctic loss and damage nonetheless. But so much for that.

Humpback whale breach--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Humpback whale breach–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Sadly, the failed marine reserve also means a failed way to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean. Historically, whaling near Antarctica has been atrocious. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union (among others) was responsible for the disappearance of more than 180,000 whales. 180 thousand. But as of ~27 years ago commercial whaling was declared illegal by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the ban put a stop to all whaling. Yes—even in this day and age—there are still whalers out there. What’s even more surprising is that it’s technically  legal. Japan was granted a moratorium from the prohibition in order to do scientific research that involves whaling. Whaling for science! Makes sense, right? Earth First! and Greenpeace eco-activists aren’t the only ones who find this repugnant. Toward protecting against Antarctic biodiversity loss, in 2010 Australia took Japan to court at the Hague—the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands—in order to challenge the validity of Japan’s “scientific research,” which, by Japan’s argument, requires killing whales. Japan has taken more than 10,000 whales from the Southern Ocean since 1988.

Japanese whaling ship--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Japanese whaling ship–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

The Hague should pass down its judgment within the next few months, so at that point we’ll see what justice holds for whaling. Perhaps on the pessimistic side of legal analysis, by Dr. Rowan Hooper’s reading, the Australian case may be emotionally compelling, but Japan may have a stronger legal argument to uphold their exception from the IWC’s prohibition.

Suffice to say, between climate change, habitat loss, warming water, ocean acidification, and whaling—there are plenty reasons to be concerned about Antarctic loss and damage. The question, then, is what should and what will be done about it moving forward. Let’s get it together humans.

The ethics of rising sea level (II)

Rising sea level: Future generations and distant populations

Despite the gravity of the catastrophic sea level rise scenario, we cannot treat it as if it’s here and now when deciding how to act today. In reality, sea level rise involves two kinds of murky ethical distance: temporal and spatial. Sea level rise scenarios pertain to future generations and future generations of distant populations. As if the moral standing of future generations weren’t contentious enough, the “future generations of distant populations” element of the sea level rise makes things even more complicated and difficult to reconcile with the intuition that someone should do something.

Map courtesy of geology.com

The United States with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Let’s restrict what follows to considering two possible moral agents: the individual US citizen and the US state as a collective entity.

What responsibilities, if any, do individual US citizens have with regard to sea level rise? Are individuals obliged to address sea level rise for future generations’ sake? It seems intuitive that we do indeed have certain individual responsibilities to posterity. The idea of acting in the interest of our children and grandchildren is commonplace. Even Locke seems to endorse the sustainable use of the environment for sake of others and future generations, providing that however we use the environment there should be “enough and as good left in common for others.”

On the other hand, our behavior tells a different story about how we regard the future. In economic terms, humans tend to discount the future—meaning we value the future less than we value the present. This is why we accept conditions like interest rates on loans or fail to adequately save for retirement. Given that we tend to discount even our own futures, the idea of individuals actively affording future generations a non-positive discount rate may verge on absurdity.

Nevertheless, just because we do discount the future doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. In fact, it may be the case that we should not discount the future because it leads to highly counterintuitive conclusions as some have argued. For instance, given a sufficient time differential, positive intergenerational discounting of any amount leads us to conclude that benefits to one life today are worth costs to millions of future lives. By intergenerational discounting logic, the benefit of joyriding your ’67 Corvette down Miami Beach today may be worth putting Miami underwater in the future. Such a counterintuitive conclusion seems clearly wrong and may indicate that the very notion of intergenerational discounting is repugnant to the intuitive responsibility to consider posterity when deciding how to act.

If, assuming individuals do indeed have certain duties to future generations, then do individual duties to future generations also extend to future generations of distant populations—e.g. future Bangladeshis—or stop at future Americans?

And what responsibilities, if any, does the United States as a national entity have to future generations of the American collective? Intuitively, again, the US as a state seems to have certain responsibilities to do right by and protect the interests of its own future generations; an intuition codified by the 2005 amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act, which recognizes the threat of and need to address rising sea level. After all, the very continued existence of the US state depends upon a flourishing future population and resilient infrastructure. The US state has, if nothing else, a rational interest in acting to hedge against sea level rise risks to its future generations. Assuming, then, that collective duties to future people exist, do they also extend to the future generations of distant states? Does America today have any responsibility to tomorrow’s Bangladesh?

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--map courtesy of geology.com

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–map courtesy of geology.com

These questions stir several competing moral intuitions. For example, we might intuit that future people have moral standing and should be taken into consideration when making decisions in the here and now. In turn, we might then be obliged to alter our individual or collective emissions behavior today in order to address climate change and slow the rising seas tomorrow. On the other hand, future generations don’t yet exist, and so it may make little sense to afford them much significance in our decision-making or to attribute them certain preferences, if any, being that we have little way of telling what they might be.

And what role does distance play? We might have the intuition that distance matters for moral standing; we might suppose that our responsibilities to each other wane as distance between us increases. We may then only have responsibilities to people proximate to ourselves, or in the case of future generations, people who will be proximate to us. If distance does matter, then our duty as individuals or as a nation to address sea level rise may then just be for the sake of future Americans living in coastal areas.

If, alternatively, we have the moral intuition that distance doesn’t matter when establishing moral standing, then we would want to afford equal consideration to proximate future generations and distant future generations. If that’s the case, we should keep space in our moral calculus for future Americans as well as for future Bangladeshis.

But establishing individualistic conceptions of duty toward future generations and distant populations is more difficult than intuition might let on. Individual duty to future individuals runs into issues with the non-identity problem, as well as causal (and perhaps rational) impotence objections. Individual duty to distant individuals is likewise vulnerable to causal impotence, as well as certain epistemic and pragmatic limitations.

Challenges to individual duty

The non-identity problem

The non-identity problem refers to the extreme contingency of people. That is, depending on what we do in the here and now, the set of humans that exists in the future will be different. Contingent upon our choices today, the group of individuals living in the future will be one or another. Provided their existence is understood as a good, future generations affected by sea level rise can’t be said to be worse off than they otherwise would have been because if we had behaved differently, then an entirely different set of people would have been born; that is, they would never exist in the first place.

So, to that effect, suppose individuals decide to do nothing about sea level rise. Because of our actions today, sea level rises dramatically by the end of the century and populations all over the world are displaced. But at least they exist, says the non-identity problem. If we had chosen to behave differently and kept sea level rise more at bay, different individuals would have been born and the people in the catastrophic scenario would never exist to begin with—arguably the worst of bad consequences from their perspective. From the catastrophic-sea-level-rise-generation’s point of view, our non-action on climate change and sea level rise is actually in their best interest because that potential reality is the only one in which they exist. By this logic, individuals shouldn’t do anything about sea level rise for future generations’ sake because the existence of the people for whose sake we’d be acting depends precisely on our non-action today.

Causal and rational impotence

Moreover, individual duty to mitigate sea level rise runs into trouble with causal impotence, and perhaps rational impotence as well. The gist of causal impotence is this: even if you as an individual were to do everything in your power to reduce your contribution to sea level rise, your impact would be so small that, for practical reasons, it would have no recognizable effect. Changing one’s individual behavior may not be capable of causing any significant improvements in the situation—and we can only be held responsible for what can be done. If, as individuals, we can’t mitigate sea level rise, we aren’t morally obliged to do so.

What’s more, the cost of changing one’s behavior in the here and now may be so high that what little effect one could have simply isn’t worth pursuing. If costs to the individual for negligible future gains toward addressing sea level rise are exorbitant, the rational agent may then, justifiably, decide not to change her or his present behavior.

Individual duty to distant populations runs into similar problems with causal impotence. Essentially, we may be more able to affect people who are closer to us than those who are distant. Individually, we may be more capable of providing aid or respect to folks nearby than those on the other side of the Earth. Presuming we can cause noteworthy positive effects for distant people, however, an objector might still respond that we accrue greater benefits for proximate people than for those far away, given an equal amount of cost or effort. Considering nearby populations over and above distant ones may just be a matter of pragmatics or practical reason. To a related epistemic point, it’s also more difficult to know one’s impact on distant people than on proximate people. Unless we can know—i.e. observe or measure—the effects of our decisions on distant populations, it’s tough to say that such effects exist or matter.

As such, individuals may not be obliged to address the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet or catastrophic sea level rise for the sake of future or distant people. We may have no duty to change our individual behavior with future or distant individuals in mind at all. But this conclusion conflicts with the intuition that we should do something about sea level rise.

In turn, the collective moral agent considered below—the US state—may provide a way out.

A case for collective responsibility to address sea level rise

Collective entities such as nations or institutions are more resilient to the non-identity problem, distance-related concerns, and to causal and rational impotence objections. As a state, the US may indeed have certain duties to future generations and distant populations that oblige us to address Antarctic melting and sea level rise. It seems a less controversial point that the US as a state has certain duties to future Americans regarding inevitable rises in sea level and flooded cities. In as much as future Americans comprise the very collective entity to which those obligations would hold, it follows that, even if only as a function of rational self-interest, the US should act to protect the integrity of its population and territory.

Future generations

With explicit regard to the non-identity problem, it may be true that there are no particular individuals to whom we are obliged because of the extreme contingency of people, but state identities are less contingent, if at all. Barring social collapse, upheaval, or revolution, in coming centuries the United States will still be the United States and Bangladesh will still be Bangladesh. As states have certain responsibilities to one another as autonomous members of the global community, even if only by convention, each is obliged, now and in the future alike, not to harm or be complicit in bringing harm to another. Presuming collective identity is uninterrupted, there is no non-identity problem for states.

Nor is causal impotence a problem for state entities with regard to future generations. The state is, in fact, among the very modes of cooperation and coordination that transports us from being causally impotent to being causally significant. Changing behavior collectively to address melting land ice and sea level rise may indeed put a dent in, or at least stall, looming catastrophe. There are, however, reasons to think that even collective entities may be unwilling or unable to regard future generations with a non-positive discount rate if the short-term benefits of defection are greater than the benefits of cooperation. Future-oriented public policy probably needs to be win-win if we aim to overcome natural human short-sightedness.

In addition, the state may be more willing to assume lower or non-positive discount rates because, for the contiguous identity of collectives, the question pertains to intragenerational discounting rather than intergenerational discounting. Unless the US dissolves and becomes a new state, the US is dealing with its own future in addressing sea level rise. There is good reason to doubt that collective entities are more likely than individuals to assume lower discount rates or non-positive discounting even for their own futures (e.g. the US national debt and deficit), but intragenerational discount rates are typically weaker than intergenerational discounting.

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Moreover, some economic theorists argue that any amount of positive intergenerational discounting is unjustified in most policy cases. That is, public policy should value the future at least as much as the present. Others have argued that it is altogether “ethically indefensible” for governments to discount the future at all, or that society should at least discount the present and future equally. Taken together, there seems to be a strong case for collective—i.e. national—responsibility with regard to future generations and addressing catastrophic sea level rise.

Distant populations

The question of distance in establishing moral standing may be an altogether empty question for states, particularly the US. The international community is, after all, so entangled, interconnected, and co-dependent that the idea of “distance” as an ethical limiting factor may be incoherent. Through the influence of global markets and international politics on domestic affairs, states are, to a certain degree, ubiquitously omnipresent within one another.

The US, in particular, has roots spread so far throughout the world that to argue that spatial distance abridges its moral duty makes little sense. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the US has military bases in 63 countries and embassies all over the world, companies born in the US have gone on to become globally influential multinational corporations, and US contributions to climate change and the global ecological crisis—catastrophic sea level rise included—are undeniable. The US is everywhere, and thus, so too is the extent of its moral responsibility.

It stands to reason that while individuals may have difficulty establishing responsibilities toward distant and future individuals, there is a stronger case to be made for the duty of states to each other now and with regard to the future. If anyone is responsible for dealing with catastrophic sea level rise, it seems to be states.

Assuming states take it upon themselves to address sea level rise (and that may be assuming too much) the question then is: mitigation or adaptation?

Mitigation and adaptation

Interestingly enough, even if the US, for example, were to act to mitigate sea level rise only for its own sake, the benefits would be distributed globally in as much as sea level is a function of global systems. Bangladesh would still benefit from US mitigation even if the US acted with only its own interest in mind. There’s something to be said for acting for the right reasons, but in this case, motivation may be less of a priority if the result of mitigation is the same regardless of moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning is an issue, however, if the US’s reaction to sea level rise is adaptation rather than mitigation. If the US opts to adapt to rising sea level rather than attempt to mitigate it, then short of providing foreign aid or taking refugees, Bangladesh, its people, and their de facto host countries will shoulder the full burden of a problem they were not complicit in creating. This seems like a problem.

There is a key difference, ethically speaking, between adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation is forward-looking insofar as it aims to prevent or reduce the intensity of future undesirable conditions, whereas adaptation means dealing with present conditions. One cannot adapt, strictly speaking, to conditions that have not manifested yet. In other words, forward-looking adaptation may be more appropriately understood as mitigation. While mitigation questions related to sea level rise pertain to future generations and distant populations, adaptation to sea level rise once the problem is upon us will only be a question of distant populations.

This distinction might help simplify the moral dilemma, or it might not. Once sea level rise is immediately at hand, individuals may not have the non-identity problem blocking an obligation to help distant populations adapt, but they must still answer to causal and rational impotence objections regarding distance. Collective moral agents like states may be more likely candidates for said duty, but this presumes that either distance doesn’t matter, or, as I have argued above, that for states—the US in particular—distance is something of an empty question.

Go back to Part I

The ethics of rising sea level (I)

Rising sea level: Inevitability and responsibility

The physics of climate change—the greenhouse effect—are well established. As the Sun blasts the Earth with energy, the Earth absorbs some of it and reflects the rest. Then, depending on surface conditions and the composition of the atmosphere, more or less of the reflected energy makes it back out to space. But if the atmosphere gets in that reflected energy’s way because it’s full of carbon, for example, it gets reflected again back down at the Earth. Since much of that energy is heat, global temperatures go up. Just like an enormous greenhouse. Meanwhile, the Sun is still blasting the Earth with energy and the process continues.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

The Earth functions much like an organism. Certain homeostatic processes are physiochemically determined. If the system overheats, symptoms start to develop as the system adjusts to stabilize itself. For humans, we might sweat, feel light-headed, lose consciousness, or worse. For the Earth, landscapes change, ecosystems adapt, weather gets more erratic and intense, land ice melts, the oceans expand, and, in turn, sea level rises.

Climate change and sea level rise

Climate change means many things—uncertainty among them—but the relationship between global temperature and sea level is straightforward. When the planet cools, sea level drops, and when it warms, sea level rises. This happens for two reasons: 1) the thermal expansion of water and 2) melting land ice.

The former means that as heat diffuses from the atmosphere into the ocean, the volume of the ocean—the literal space between the water molecules—increases. If that’s not intuitive, think of steam rising from boiling pot of water: if you add enough heat to water, the space between the molecules increases so much that they fly apart and into vapor form.

As for the latter, you can probably guess Antarctica’s role.

As Antarctic temperatures rise, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will continue to melt, the amount of water in the ocean will increase, and sea level will rise. For obvious reasons, any amount of sea level rise poses problems for coastal communities everywhere.

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we can generally predict 2.3 meters of sea level rise for every °C increase in average global temperatures over the next 2000 years, more than a third of which will attributable to the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet. By that math, even if the world manages to keep global warming within 2°C (which is doubtful), we can still expect sea levels to rise by nearly 15 feet.

You can click on the map below and zoom in to see for yourself what the world looks like with 15 feet of sea level rise.

Map courtesy of CReSIS

Map courtesy of CReSIS

In North America, 15 feet of sea level rise would mean cities like New Orleans, Miami, New York, and Boston are flooded, as are sizeable portion of the Yucatan Peninsula and Alaskan coast. Around the world, Bangladesh and the Maldives, large parts of South East AsiaNorthern Europe, much of the Amazon Delta, and the northern coast South America would be underwater.

Though I use hypothetical language, it is important to be clear that some degree of sea level rise is now inevitable. Given present atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the relevant question is not if sea level will rise, but when, and by how much?

Expectations and inevitabilities

To put expectations in perspective, FEMA’s most recent assessment projects sea level rising by more than a meter by 2100. Miami, the Maldives, the southern tip of Vietnam, swaths of Indonesia, and the mouth of the Amazon Delta are flooded with just one meter of sea level rise.

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of CreSIS

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of CreSIS

Here’s a world map of 1 meter of inundation for reference.

And it won’t stop then or there.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured in September 2013 logged around 393ppm. The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere was the Pliocene—3 million years ago. The Pliocene was significantly hotter and sea level was more than 20 meters above what it is today. Given the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, in coming centuries as the Earth’s natural feedbacks to carbon forcing play out, we are likely justified in anticipating something like Pliocene-era sea levels.

With 20-25 meters of sea level rise, the map looks very different.

North America with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

North America with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Here’s an interactive map tool you can use to check out various amounts of sea level rise.

In the United States, 20 meters of sea level rise means the state of Delaware, California’s bay area all the way to Sacramento, the entire edge of the Gulf Coast (Houston’s port becomes the coast and much of Louisiana goes the way of Atlantis), and the bottom third of the Florida Peninsula are all underwater. Elsewhere in the world: Shanghai, Bangladesh and the Maldives are long since submerged.

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

But it could be much worse depending on how global climate policy evolves and how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and other stocks of land ice respond to climate change.

Catastrophic sea level rise

For sake of thought experiment, let’s consider the catastrophic scenarios projected by the IPCC’s A2 and A1F1 emissions pathways, putting us somewhere between 800 and 1000ppm CO2 by 2100. These worst-case scenarios mean that eventually, as Earth systems respond over centuries to come, we reach Eocene conditions—a world entirely without ice. Without ice anywhere on Earth, sea level sat more than 100 meters higher than today. The map tool only displays up to 60 meters of sea level rise, but that should be motivating enough. Just consider it a conservative portrayal of Eocene-era sea levels. BuzzFeed also recently issued some interesting depictions of what the world looks like without ice.

North America with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

North America with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

There are good reasons to think that this is bad, or at least undesirable, in and of itself. Maybe we want land ice to exist for its own sake. It might just make us feel better to know that glaciers are out there. Moreover, perhaps we have an obligation not to destroy the natural condition and function of the Antarctic ecosystem, even if not for the ecosystem’s sake but out of respect for Antarctica inhabitants’ right to habitat.

Relevant concerns, to be sure. But the human implications of catastrophic sea level rise are more than disturbing enough to warrant the catastrophic hypothetical. With Eocene era sea levels, cities flood the world over, many coastal countries are submerged entirely, and thousands upon millions of people lose their homes.

Asia with 6m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Asia with 6m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

In the United States, the Gulf and Southeast Coasts are fundamentally reshaped. Florida is completely submerged, the Mississippi Delta consumes all of Louisiana and extends into northern Arkansas and Tennessee, and Georgia and South Carolina lose large stretches of eastern territory. Bangladesh and much of India, vast amounts of Northeastern China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as much of Northern Germany including Berlin are entirely flooded.

Europe with 60m of SLR

Europe with 60m of SLR

Some nations like the US and China have large amounts of inland territory into which their populations can move (albeit still at huge costs), but many do not. Many people, Bangladeshis for example, will lose their entire country in the catastrophic scenario. This raises several questions.

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Where should people of entirely submerged nations go? How should responsibility for adaptation assistance be divided? Should neighboring nations take on climate refugees simply because they’re closer, or should nations with greater contributions to climate change or greater ability to pay shoulder more of the responsibility?

The forced migration of countless individuals to new regions within and without their own nations—i.e. population displacement—is perhaps the most obvious ethical dilemma presented by the catastrophic scenario. Bangladesh is commonly considered with regard to the catastrophic sea level rise and population displacement because it is densely populated and especially vulnerable to rising sea level.

Moreover, Bangladesh’s cumulative and annual contributions to climate change inducing greenhouse gases are negligible. Compared to the United States, Europe, India, and China, Bangladesh is not, in large part, complicit in causing climate change, the melting of land ice, or the rise of sea level. That Bangladesh bears little responsibility for causing climate change and its impacts on sea level, yet shoulders the most extreme conceivable consequence is intuitively objectionable by most common conceptions of justice, rights, or fairness. And if we were to weigh the marginal benefits of industrialization against the resulting change in climate and sea level rise, it would be a strange calculus indeed that rules the prerogative to continue burning fossil fuels over and above the global costs of lost coastal territory and massive population displacement.

Continue reading to Part II

The conservative confusion

I am conservative. But I am not a Republican. Why? Because a large faction of today’s GOP is desperately confused about what being conservative really means.

What does being “conservative” mean?

In fact, much of the United States seems confused about what it means to be “conservative.” The confusion is understandable, but the result is a frightening Orwellian conflation and dramatic oversimplification of rhetoric that seriously compromises the integrity of our political system.

Most presume that being conservative means being Republican. Likewise it’s often presumed being an environmentalist means being “liberal” and thus a Democrat. But these presumptions are erroneous and egregious.

Not all conservatives are Republican, and certainly not all Republicans are conservative. The religious fundamentalist, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-women, anti-healthcare agendas of much of today’s radical Republican Party are actually hyper-liberal in some important ways.

On the other hand, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-science, pro-women, pro-healthcare platforms of many Democrats are ultimately rather conservative.

Being conservative, in a pure sense, means believing in conservation on two main fronts: 1) the conservation of individual liberties and self-determination and 2) the conservation of natural, human, and financial resources. The former amounts to protecting individual freedoms from government overreach—i.e. small government—while the latter pertains to minimizing the financial, environmental, human health, and international risks we take as a society.

It’s also important to mention that being conservative also means being in favor of free markets in a relative sense—but this idea is ultimately subsumed by the principle of conserving resources. And it’s only in a relative sense because no one takes the idea of an absolutely free market seriously anymore. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Anti-Trust Act, worker’s rights, emergency services like Police and Fire Departments, the Military, and the regulation of the financial industry are staples of our prosperous modern society—and are, in principle, socialist institutions. But no one questions their importance or goodness anymore.

Being in favor of “free markets” really means being in favor of efficiency—which in essence means conserving resources. The laws of supply and demand that govern “the free market” naturally produce efficient outcomes, otherwise known as the equilibrium price at which sellers should sell their goods and buyers should buy them. Prices represent real resources, so buying and selling goods at market equilibrium means conserving resources. Clearly this is conservative—but it’s not necessarily Republican.

The idea that free markets will produce efficient outcomes assumes that prices represent true cost, but we know that in many instances today this isn’t the case. Costs to the nonhuman environment and human psychology are often omitted from pricing schemes, as are costs to future generations and distant populations. True cost is also often obfuscated by government subsidization.

Fossil fuels, for example, would be vastly more expensive if costs to future generations, costs to the nonhuman environment, and costs to distant populations were taken into account when determining price—and government subsidies help keep the wool pulled over our eyes by further reducing the direct costs of fossil fuels for consumers. If the price of fossil fuels represented true cost, renewables would be far more competitive than they are, and in turn we’d be consuming far fewer fossil fuels to sustain our energy-intensive way of life. In other words, we’d be conserving more of our fossil fuel resources and conserving environmental quality. Insofar as Republicans support the continued subsidization of fossil fuels, they are certainly not being conservative about the conservation of resources or the environment. It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy to call oneself “conservative” and then simultaneously support federal subsidies for one of the most profitable industries in human history. Democrats who support subsidizing fossil fuels aren’t being conservative either, but Democrats generally don’t campaign on conservative rhetoric.

Hyper-liberal Republicans

Somehow, baffling as it may be, Republicans today have convinced the country that being reckless with the environment, opposing women’s and gay rights for religious reasons, taking enormous financial risks (e.g.—paying for wars with credit, forcing a federal budgetary shutdown, deregulating the financial industry, etc.), cutting funding for scientific research while increasing the government’s regulation of scientists, and precluding the provision of health insurance for a huge segment of the workforce are conservative ideas. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Being “conservative” in its historical and etymological sense is more akin to being precautionary or risk-averse about whatever issue is at hand, e.g. – the limitation of individual freedoms by the government, environmental quality and protection, technoscientific progress, etc., than it is to being Republican. In fact, many of today’s Republicans are actually hyper-liberal when it comes to some important issues.

Environmental conservation is conservative

Environmental conservation is a fundamentally conservative agenda. Being conservative about the environment means conserving natural resources and minimizing the environmental risks we take as a society by taking precautionary measures. Preserving biodiversity and natural land conditions makes ecosystems more resilient to changes in the environment—e.g. climate change—which transitively makes human civilizations that are part of those ecosystems also more resilient. Environmental protection is both conservative and in our best interest insofar as conserving environmental quality is both good for us and good in itself.

Sustainability, renewable energy resources, and wilderness conservation are all fundamentally conservative positions in that they conserve natural resources and the state of the natural world. Despite the fact that the EPA and several hallmark environmental statues were passed by Republicans, environmental protection couldn’t be further from most Republican platforms today. The problem is that many of today’s Republicans talk as if being pro-environment is synonymous with being anti-business or anti-economy.

In reality, even command-and-control environmental regulation incentivizes innovation and ultimately conserves the very natural resources upon which business builds itself. Without natural resources, business would have nothing to work from. Moreover, the need today for environmental limitations on corporate freedom (i.e.—environmental rights) is just as obvious as was the need for labor rights during the Gilded Age and early 20th century. Certain human and environmental abuses and exploitations by unregulated industry are simply unacceptable by any modern standard of justice.

Opposing women’s and gay rights is not conservative

Republicans generally oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights for religious reasons. But while these oppositions may be traditional, they certainly aren’t conservative. Setting aside the fact that legislating religious values is illegal and unconstitutional in this country, regulating away people’s freedoms—whether that be the freedom to marry who you love regardless of gender or the freedom to control your own reproduction—is big government by definition.

When it comes to issues as private as what happens in our bedrooms and within our uteri, Republicans today actually advocate flagrant government invasions of personal privacy and freedom—and think they can get away with calling themselves “conservative.” In fact, they’re just the opposite. Whether for religious or secular reasons, the limitation of individual liberty by the government is a liberal agenda.

Religious dogma aside—when it comes to abortion rights, being conservative actually means conserving women’s rights to control their own bodies, putting self-determination over and above the government’s right to dictate women’s lives. Abortion is taking a life (if life doesn’t begin at conception, then when?)—but it should be legal and it should be rare.

Likewise, same-sex marriage is actually both conservative and traditional. It may not be part of the Christian tradition, but Christianity is not the only relevant tradition pertaining to marriage. Legalizing same-sex marriage means conserving and protecting the rights of all citizens to deviate from heteronormative sexuality from big government. Moreover, same-sex marriages represent monogamy—a traditional conservative value. Banning same-sex marriage, on the other hand, as many Republicans have sought and some succeeded, is an obvious big government move.

Health insurance is conservative

While the Affordable Care Act may create a government mandate, its purpose is ultimately a conservative one. Insurance is a fundamentally precautionary endeavor. Insofar as being conservative means being precautionary about risks—human health and economic alike—taking public action to protect the health of our citizens and thus our workforce works on both fronts. At the end of the day, national health insurance means safeguarding both the health of our citizens and the strength of our economy (considering how much labor is lost to otherwise treatable illness).

Moreover, the argument that we “shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s healthcare” doesn’t hold water. By buying into any insurance plan—public or private—we are, by definition, paying the bills of our provider’s other patrons whenever we aren’t using our insurance. What’s more, hospitals are already legally required to treat emergency room patients regardless of their financial status, and when those who can’t pay receive treatment, the costs are distributed to the rest of us. If anything, we’ll conserve both human health and economic resources by making sure that everyone has health insurance. Health insurance is conservative. And let’s not forget that we are all legally obligated to have car insurance and no one thinks that’s a bad thing.

Being anti-science, anti-education is not conservative

Finally—and I talked about this at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge—if being conservative means reducing financial risks, then it’s also safe to say that being conservative about how we invest our nation’s money should mean making safe investments. In contrast, the anti-science anti-education positions personified by climate science-denying, NSF-defunding zealots like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are polar opposites of safe-investment logic.

Scientific research and public education are among the safest investments society can make. The benefits of an educated workforce are clear. Educated workers are likely to be more efficient, more innovative, more industrious, more entrepreneurial, and more promotable. Likewise, the returns on investment in scientific research are often immeasurable and unforeseeable. Scientific progress is piecemeal, serendipitous, experimental, and unpredictable. While scientific progress can be twisted to serve evil purposes, the positive social gains of scientific R&D are all too obvious. Yet Republicans today seem bent on imposing dramatic cuts to science and education funding, while simultaneously increasing regulatory strictures on scientists and educators; the Inhofe-Smith agenda smacks of big government and flies in the face of safe-investment logic.

Reclaiming conservativism

Many Republicans today are not conservative. In many cases, the Republican Party seems to be a strange blend of hyper-liberal value-driven anti-science religious fundamentalism (“let’s legislate away women’s and gay rights, defund and over-regulate the NSF, and deny the simple physics of climate science!”) and radical xenophobic neoliberal anti-environment social Darwinism (“let’s disenfranchise the poor, minorities, and immigrants—who cares if they get sick?—and do away with as many environmental protections as possible!”). In no way are these conservative positions. And in no way should many of today’s Republicans be allowed to call themselves conservative. If anything, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-women, pro-healthcare, pro-science politicians out there should reclaim the word “conservative” for true conservatives and true conservativism. Let’s get it together, humans.

Prime real estate!

Antarctica is melting! An iceberg the size of Chicago recently broke off of the Pine Island Glacier because of an enormous and growing crack in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the Chicago-sized glacier is only the latest event in a recent trend of Antarctica’s glaciers melting.

Why this is happening is still something of a mystery—but a warming Southern Ocean eating at the ice from below and higher air temperatures from climate change melting it from the top-down are the main suspects. Whatever the cause, the Antarctic is melting—and we might be responsible, even if only in part. So what does, and what should, the Antarctic meltdown mean to us?

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Should we see the Antarctic meltdown as yet another sign that the human footprint on Earth is out of control and must be stopped? On the contrary, if anthropogenic climate change is not at the root of Antarctica melting, it’s not so clear that we have a responsibility to intervene for its own sake—though intervention for humanity’s sake may be another story.

There are several implications of a melting Antarctica worth considering. Worthy concerns range from sea-level rise and the threat posed to human civilization, what Antarctica might mean to us as climate change intensifies, habitat and biodiversity loss, messy international politics over the governance of a global commons, the inherent value of wilderness, and the impacts of Antarctic melt on ocean ecology.

The issues raised above are too many and too complex to cover in a single post. So, this represents the inaugural installment of a six-part series I will be writing on the ethics, science, and policy questions surrounding the Antarctic meltdown.

The ethical elephant in the room is sea-level rise. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise somewhere between 16 and 23 feet. Coastal dwellers beware. Even if humans aren’t responsible for Antarctica’s recent trend of melting, outwardly we seem morally obliged to mitigate the Antarctic meltdown because of its disastrous consequences for humans living on coasts. But human interests aren’t necessarily the only concern. In any case—hold that thought. We’ll dive into the ethics of sea-level rise in a later piece.

Fresh water and climate change

What follows takes a look into what Antarctica might mean to us in context of freshwater scarcity—or rather, drought—-due to climate change. In a recent piece, “Our new hydroverlords,” I discussed some of the scary possibilities that could arise as a result of water scarcity due to climate change. With this fresh in my mind, I thought—what role does Antarctica play in this dialectic?

Consider: water is essential to life on Earth. While the marginal value of water is relatively small—a 20 oz. bottle of fresh water can cost less than a dollar—its total value is beyond measure—without water, life as we know it would come to an end. Disregarding the needs of the nonhuman world for the moment, we use water for drinking, agriculture, industry, recreation, etc. The list goes on.

Freshwater only makes up about 2.5% of the total water on Earth, and most of that—more than 99%—is trapped in the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets. Of that 99%, the Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 30 million cubic kilometers of ice—and it has been that way for the past 40 million years. But this pristine and ancient reservoir is draining into the ocean.

Technically, Antarctica is a desert. Among several other places contending for record low annual precipitation, Antarctica is one of the harshest, highest deserts on the planet. But ice has been building up for millennia, so while scarce precipitation falls there each year, the ice is at least a mile thick in most places. So, if we even come close to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s most severe drought prediction, we may start seeing the South Pole in a different light within the century.

Depending on how much desalination technology improves in the next 80 years or so, places with plentiful freshwater resources may get increasingly hard to come by. That’s not to suggest that governments or multinational companies should start shipping glacier fragments or piping melt water—or that this would be legal, feasible, cost efficient, or desirable—but as latitudes of livable precipitation press northward and southward, Antarctica may start looking more and more like prime real estate. With the human population climbing well beyond 7 billion and close to a billion people going without access to clean freshwater already, there are bound to be lots of hot, thirsty folks in the future.

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099 — CLICK TO ENLARGE

Seven nations—Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Argentina, France, New Zealand, and Norway—have claimed territory in Antarctica by right of discovery and occupation, but the Antarctic Treaty System has peacefully suspended any future territorial claims. So long as the treaty is in place, these claims should neither expand nor diminish—nor should Antarctica become an object of international discord.

In short, no one “owns” Antarctica so no one can “buy” resources or property there like we typically think when it comes to land. But land is land and humans are, at the end of the day, just animals that will adapt to climate change however we can if things elsewhere get inhospitable enough.

Resource scarcity exacerbated by a climbing population and climate change could mean a new interest in extraction from the Antarctic. If humans are struggling with drought and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting anyway, shouldn’t we attempt to harvest that freshwater resource rather than let it slip into the ocean?

Changes in the Antarctic ice could also be seen as an opportunity for fossil fuels exploration and send the Southern Ocean the way of the Arctic.

In the most radical scenario, even multinational emigration, settlement, and urban development is possible. If things get warm enough from catastrophic climate change and the land beneath the ice sheet starts poking through, should humans become Antarctica’s first permanent mammalian terrestrial inhabitants?  In spirit reminiscent of Westward Expansion, should we press forward—or rather, southward—into the wild?

Human presence in the Antarctic would represent a fundamental shift in Earth’s last wild ecosystem, as well as for geo-politics—and both are rife with ethical quandaries. If at some point our survival or the prevention and alleviation of human suffering depends upon Antarctic resources, then have we non-arbitrary justification for doing so? But barring abject, otherwise inescapable poverty, don’t we also have good reason to prefer to see the world’s last wilderness remain exactly that?

Human beings have been an exceptionally successful invasive species and could no doubt make life in Antarctica work, but the inherent value of preserving its natural condition may outweigh our disposition to view the nonhuman environment as a resource stock. Put a pin in that thought: we’ll consider the idea and value of wilderness again and in more depth in a later post.

So humans are resource hungry and need places to live—especially as the world population grows—but Antarctica isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. If it comes to that, it’ll be a long time off. If such a day does arrive, something of an international governance fiasco might ensue. Antarctica could become the world’s next radical political experiment.

But not to worry, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty currently prohibits development in Antarctica almost altogether (short of a low-impact scientific research stations) in order to “preserve the intrinsic value of Antarctica.” In turn, some of these questions may be ethically rich but legally moot…for now.

However, a recent attempt to create a new Antarctic ocean sanctuary failed in an moment of international politicking—so perhaps we should take this as a sign that, like the climate, international norms of Antarctic governance are changing. Or is the failed sanctuary vote just business-as-usual? But hold that thought, yet again. We’ll get to that in one of the next installments of the Antarctic meltdown.