Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.

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.

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

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.

Wet and wild weather

Living in Boulder through this week’s historic flood was wild. And I mean that literally. Extreme weather is some of the only wilderness most urbanites are exposed to these days. There’s something exciting and adventure-inspiring about a good storm—the unknown, the uncontrollable. But only to a certain point—only within our comfort limit. Even outdoorsy folks generally don’t opt for true wilderness anymore—the occasional hunting, fishing, and multi-day backpacking trips spent surviving on sustenance food are soon followed by showers, couches, electricity, restaurants, beer, climate control, and all the other comforts of modern life we’ve come to take for granted.

But floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, tornados and the rest are quick to remind us of nature’s wild power. I’ve personally experienced Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike—and some indirect effects of Hurricane Katrina—in Houston, extended extreme drought in Austin, Hurricane Irene in New York, and now a 100-year flood in Boulder. For all our sentimentality about Mother Nature’s harmony and plenty, natural disasters tell another story—one of the Earth’s indifference to our troubles. It’s easy to romanticize wilderness—and for a lot of reasons we should—but we should also keep in mind the violence that comes the with it.

Despite some internal disagreement about the meaning and virtue of the idea of wilderness, it is usually a clarion call for environmentalists. But I think the wilderness—the same natural force that drove humans out of the state of nature—could play a slightly different role in the debate over climate change.

In the most general terms, climate change means increasingly extreme weather events. For the US and many other places, it will look like bursts of extreme precipitation followed by extended dry periods. In other words, the flood in Boulder fits the pattern. Of course, to what extent or degree this flood was caused by climate change exactly is tough to say, but it’s hard to reflect on an event like this past week and not implicate climate change in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, some calls for climate action could start to look something like “climate change must be stopped because it’s bringing the wilderness to our doors!” For rhetoric’s sake, it’s probably best not to confuse the term “wilderness” with more than one context or connotation. But it seems important to recognize that by intensifying such extreme weather through climate change, we’re literally bringing the power of the wild into our homes (mostly basements, in Boulder’s case). Supporting climate action because we believe the nonhuman world is inherently valuable is one thing (and apparently not very persuasive to many in politics), but property damage and loss of life from extreme weather might finally drive home the justification for national climate policy with anthropocentrics. A silver lining, at best, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Experiencing wilderness is enchanting, inspiring, and important for developing a sense of place and meaning in secular modernity. But let’s not necessarily invite the wild in for coffee. Radical, home-destroying, life-taking weather exists with or without anthropogenic climate change. It should be obvious that we should do whatever we can to stop exacerbating these natural disasters, even and especially if it means evolving beyond our unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyles. Maybe something about Boulder—alongside these 10 facts about climate change—will be mentioned in this week’s Climate Change Hearing before the US House of Representatives.

Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.

jmk

A prognosis of T. Boone Picken’s LNG vehicle future

I stumbled across this piece by Alan Krupnick this morning while browsing Real Clear Energy (one of my stops along my daily morning news adventure). Essentially, he offers us an evaluation of the state of play for T. Boone Picken’s vision of a LNG vehicle future. The prognosis, by Krupnick’s account, is still to uncertain to call, but I think we can make something of it.

Liquid Natural Gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel because of its newly accessible abundance via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but it also has drawbacks. The vehicles themselves are more expensive than gasoline or hybrid alternatives (e.g. – Honda’s new LNG Civic as compared to its gasoline and hybrid counterparts) so the payback point takes longer to reach through savings on fuel costs alone. Of course there are subsidy programs that could bring down the cost, but they expired in 2010, and the prospect of getting Congress to agree on much of anything is, well…bleak, let’s say.

LNG vehicles also have significantly shorter range than gasoline or hybrid alternatives — and that’s before mentioning that LNG fuel tanks can take up to 50% more space than gasoline tanks or hybrid batteries, and even with severely reduced cargo or passenger space they still have shorter ranges (LNG: 218 miles per tank v. Gas: 383 mpt v. Hybrid: 504 mpt [looking again at different models of the Civic]). So, given the space issue, it may make more sense to focus on using LNG in large trucks, vans, and buses. But forecasts of the costs of maintenance are unclear, so fleets of LNG vehicles will have to struggle with uncertainty on that front for some time.

Finally, there is the question of infrastructure for LNG vehicles, which Krupnick frames as a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Infrastructure developers want there to be plenty of LNG vehicles on the road before taking on big projects, but consumers want infrastructure to be in place before they’ll be willing to take the risk of buying a non-gasoline or non-hybrid vehicle. Perhaps this gap can be bridged through commercial cooperation, where prospective LNG truck fleet purchasers coordinate with infrastructure developers to start building refueling stations in strategic locations along pre-established routes. Maybe if LNG starts showing up at Love’s or Buc-ee’s it’ll start making more sense for people to make the change (the same applies for electric vehicle plug-in stations, or even hydrogen powered vehicles), but until that happens most will probably see it as too risky, especially considering the reduced range of LNG vehicles.

Of course, there are still plenty of concerns worth raising about how we get our natural gas these days (fracking), the actual economic ripples of the industry, and the climate change/air pollution impacts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with natural gas production. But T. Boone Pickens is convinced that LNG should be the future of transportation and Krupnick nods toward optimism, despite citing “uncertainties” about the environmental dimensions of such a transition.

So ask yourself — what is the real issue at hand? Cheap energy? Energy security? Environmental stewardship? Climate change mitigation? Energy independence? Economic growth?

At its core this represents one of the latest technological stabs at perpetuating our energy intensive standard of living while attempting to accommodate other competing values — but for all that it’s worth, we’re still talking about a short-term fix. And it’s one with many uncertainties surrounding it. Switching from oil to natural gas, at best, is like a first stitch in mending a deep wound. It may stop the bleeding a little, but we’re still lost in the woods if sustainable energy is our goal. Natural gas is, in many ways, desireable, questionable, risky, and perhaps inevitable (though not in some cases re: Longmont, Boulder, Yellow Springs, Broadview Heights, Meyers Lake, Cincinnati & the State of Ohio), so if we are going to use it, we ought to use it as best we can to pave the way for or to buy us time until sustainable, renewable energy technologies become competitive. In the meantime, I would still recommend going the Hybrid route or carpooling if you must drive — and even further, consider alternatives to personal automobiles like walking, biking, or public transit. Of course this isn’t always feasible, practical, or compatible with our established ways of life (especially living in places like North Central Texas) but small steps eventually traverse the world. We must, in this case and many others, take Ghandi’s advice and be the change we wish to see.

Cheers,

JM Kincaid

When in RoME…

As expected, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME) in Boulder, CO, which I had the pleasure of attending, inspired some welcome moral pondering. In particular, the keynote address on Thursday of the congress, “What rights may be defended by means of war?” given by Dr. Jeff McMahan of Rutgers University, struck a chord.

McMahan’s talk was one about the permissibility of responding to lesser aggression with force or violence, and what conditions justify such retaliation. His talk was not environmentally related, but naturally, that’s the direction that my own thinking took his conclusions. In the interest of suspense, I won’t go into exactly what I’m thinking about because it will soon become an actual paper, so I’ll preface it with a question:

If the United Kingdom can permissibly defend its territory in the Falkland Islands from Argentine lesser aggression, could the Maldives defensibly wage war (making some generous assumptions about the Maldivian capacity to wage war) against the US, China, India, or other culpable European nations, in response to territorial losses from anthropogenic climate change related sea-level rise?

At this point, I absolutely do not suggest an affirmative or negative response to this particular question (and may never land on a suggestion within that dipole), but what this question fundamentally gets at (whether it’s at all or ever permissible for a state to wage war for environmental purposes) is certainly worth considering and may be increasingly pertinent in the future of geopolitics and moral philosophy.

Cheers!

JM Kincaid