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.

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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.