The true loss of Paris

A friend of mine recently asked, “Will there be any tangible impact to the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, or is it more of a crummy political gesture without a lot of actual affect?”

I thought I would take the opportunity to publicly respond.

The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from Paris is certainly a signal of bad faith to 99% of the world, and compromises the integrity of US leadership in the court of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the real tragedy is one about our commitment to climate adaptation, not mitigation. Mitigation is essentially the effort to reduce carbon emissions in order to prevent climate change. Consider that the US has actually been reducing its carbon emissions naturally over the last several decade. Market displacement of coal by natural gas and surges in solar and wind energy generation has been slowly driving down carbon pollution on its own. Nevertheless, that trend will eventually bottom out.

Ultimately, what pulling out of Paris means for US climate mitigation efforts is that the Trump/Pruitt EPA will no longer enforce the Clean Power Plan (CPP) of the Obama era, which used law to restrict the amount of carbon that coal fired power plants could emit. Insofar as coal is going under anyway, it is tough to say how the CPP timeline and our new CPP-absent one would compare. But the CPP would have legally committed us to a 26-28% reduction in carbon emissions by 2026 compared to 2005 levels, which was our promise to the Paris Agreement. Without the CPP there is no mitigation guarantee.

I suspect we will continue to see carbon emissions in the US decline for a while longer because cars are getting more fuel efficient and we’re using more natural gas, wind, and solar for electricity these days. But that will have a soft bottom and likely be subject to some rebound because markets tend to fluctuate non-linearly; and people will see their gas and electric bills go down a bit, and by the Jevons Paradox, react by consuming more.

Abandoning Paris means that the US is relying entirely on natural, i.e. unregulated, market forces for its mitigation efforts, and market forces are generally unreliable, and moreover, our market predictions are often wrong because people aren’t the “rational actors” economic models usually assume.

Paris was a colorful feather in the hat of global cooperation, but as far as mitigating climate change itself goes, we are already well past 400ppm-CO2, and even if we were to cut global emissions to zero today (which we can’t and won’t) we have already locked in roughly another century of warming because the greenhouse effect takes a long time to unfold. That means we are in for even more super storms, drought, famine, exacerbated regional resource conflicts, sea level rise, and human displacement the scale of which we’ve never before seen and to which we will have no choice but to adapt.

The loss of US contribution to Paris’ mitigation efforts is deplorable, to be sure, but what we should truly lament is the loss of US’s international commitment to adaptation. In the 21st century and beyond, adaptation—not mitigation—will be the whole court: king, queen, and jester.

Two Problems of Climate Ethics: Can we Lose the Planet but Save Ourselves?

New publication by Alex Lee and myself in Ethics, Policy & Environment, titled above. Access the PDF online here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.06.28 AMHere’s the abstract for a preview:

Climate change presents unprecedented challenges for the ethical community and society at large. The harms of climate change—real and projected—are well documented (Pachauri et. al, 2015). Rising sea levels, increased drought, warming temperatures and other impacts of climate change will devastate vulnerable communities, the global economy, and the natural world unless difficult choices, behavioral changes, and major policy shifts are made. But the problem we must address is not just the amalgam of climate harms. Climate change also presents a multifaceted problem of moral wrongdoing consisting of the actions that caused or coalesced to cause climate change. The ‘problem’ of climate change is both an issue of harmful impacts and a question of wrongdoing. While certain deleterious effects of climate change are unavoidable, philosophy offers solutions to moral problems that are not contingent on successful mitigation or adaptation. In light of this distinction, Thom Brooks’ criticism that philosophers have ‘misunderstood’ the climate change problem as a problem that is solvable (Brooks, 2016) arises from a conflation of the two climate change problems and not from a shortcoming of philosophy in the climate conversation. Climate harms may not be easily addressed, but righting wrongs is a separate matter.

Let’s get it together humans

Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

In the wake of last week’s UN General Assembly, the world seems an unscrupulous chaos. The fight against ISIL continues to escalate as the international coalition officially adds Russia (and awkwardness via Syria à la Assad), Hong Kong protests Chinese authoritarianism, Ebola rampages on in west Africa, and—let’s not forget—last Tuesday, NYPD arrested a polar bear. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for the military-industrial complex I don’t know what is. A white man in a uniform, with a gun, putting nature in handcuffs. Volumes spoken.

Photo courtesy of Carbonated

Image courtesy of Carbonated

Meanwhile, the Sept. 5 ceasefire in Ukraine remains tenuous as shelling in Donestk has repeatedly threatened to end the shaky truce between Kiev and the rebels in the east. The official word seems to be that the ceasefire is holding. But have no illusions about it, the Ukrainian crisis is hardly defused. The ceasefire is technically between Kiev and Moscow, not Kiev and the separatists, so the ceasefire has “held” only insofar as explicitly Russian troops aren’t shooting at Ukrainians. Instead, the newly declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk have consolidated military forces into the United Army of Novorossiya (New Russia) to keep fighting the regime in Kiev and their fighters’ behavior is becoming increasingly flamboyant and barbaric. Despite the official word, people are still dying in Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of

Novorossiya militant—-image courtesy of

Media coverage in the US might be dwindling because of ISIL, but under no circumstances should we consider the Ukrainian crisis resolved. NATO is still arming Kiev, the Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine alliance forces are deployed along the eastern European borders with Russia, NATO troops are stationed in the Baltics, and Russian military convoys in Ukraine, while partially withdrawing, are still very present.

Conveniently ignoring Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the UN GA as another opportunity to call out (@ 10:00) the United States for hypocritically coercing nations and exploiting crises around the world for economic and geopolitical gain under the auspices of good triumphing over evil. Granted, we do do that. We’ve been using moral righteousness to veil economic and geopolitical interests since Theo Roosevelt attacked Cuba and strong-armed Colombia in Panama for sake of bringing civilization to the uncivilized. US foreign policy has been something of a contradiction since then—a strange blend of moral emancipatory agendas and capitalistic imperialism. Accept freedom or die.

Photo courtesy of

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—-image courtesy of

Perpetuating the US-Russia dialectical rivalry, Obama fired back on 60-minutes reasserting a narrative of American exceptionalism and moral responsibility to intervene militaristically in crises all over the world (@ 9:34), wherever we happen to see ourselves needed. Indeed, we’ve been patrolling the world since Roosevelt exclaimed US prerogative to police the globe of “chronic wrongdoing” with his 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

Obama_60 min

But this US-Russia dialectical rivalry isn’t just a vestige of the Cold War. Ours has been a set of competing narratives for more than a century. In the same year that Teddy declared the US the world police (1904), the Russo-Japanese War over control of Manchuria and Korea was raging. In turn, TR intervened to ensure that there was no decisive winner for sake of regional stability. So began the US-Russia geopolitical contest for supremacy. Only thirteen years later, in the midst of World War I, Russia had its Bolshevik Revolution and the millenarian contest between Capitalism and Communism erupted. The geopolitical rivalry became enshrined in ideological dogmatism of undeniably religious fervor.

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of

Both nations came into their “industrial-owns” in the early 20th century, and since the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, the bureaucratic norm among State and international elites has been to disguise and discuss economic and military-industrial interests with moral platitudes. The same kind we hear from leaders today like Putin’s “Plea for Caution”, and President Obama, RFM Lavrov, and Secretary Ban Ki-Moon at the UN. I’d like to think that the people behind these bureaucratic and political offices genuinely mean what they say. But for all their personal sincerity and resonant optimism, the world remains a socioecological mess.

Just look at the Outcomes Report from last week’s UN GA and the Millennium Development Goals Report from 2013. Despite the lofty rhetoric—for all the “just” war and subsequent bureaucracy—the vast majority of what we’ve done over the past 70 years (since the UN’s founding) has accomplished little more than to serve existing neoliberal economic interests. Success in trade liberalization, economic growth, and industrial development has meant some degree of poverty alleviation in developing nations—a worthy goal to be sure—but what progress there has been toward poverty alleviation has come at unprecedented social and ecological cost. Deforestation, climate change, mass extinction and biodiversity loss now define the Anthropocene and income and gender inequities the world over resemble a writ-large global classism reminiscent of Gilded Age America. The richest of the rich have never been richer, and the poorest of the poor have never stood to lose so much for so little in return. This is as true within advanced industrial societies as well as without

Graph courtesy of the World Bank

World Income Gap—-graph courtesy of the World Bank

Image courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

American Distribution of Wealth—-figure courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

While “sustainable development” is in international vogue, nothing about it has proven sustainable in any meaningful holistic sense. The very idea of sustainability has been hijacked by neoliberal elites in powerful States, international regimes and multinational corporations and, despite espousing social equity and ecological resilience goals, has come to emphasize capitalist economic interests above all else while socioecological priorities fall to the wayside. The “green neoliberalism” of the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF and the like is anything but green.

The joke—the really incredulous thing about all this—is the idea that what we’re doing can be made sustainable without radical, fundamental change; that we can globalize capitalism, universalize hyper-consumer culture, grow economies and populations perpetually and do it all sustainably just by consuming certain types of products made by “eco-friendly” multinational corporations. Duped by hollow “free market environmentalist” advertisement and promotion, consumers in advanced industrial societies have come to conflate the socioecological spirit of sustainability with the economic capacity of existing multinational industries to produce, and we to consume, certain material goods in perpetuity.

But sustainability is not just the perpetual production and consumption of goods, trade liberalization, economic growth, and poverty alleviation—though looking at WTO, World Bank, IMF, UN, etc. sustainable development policy and outcomes as compared to their rhetoric, its easy to understand how so many of ecological conscience could succumb to the rhetoric and unknowingly become complicit in the conflation of sustainability with green neoliberalism and the international economic model of endless growth. It’s time to pull back the wool! Sustainability is actually a much deeper, more robust, holistic combination of socioecological values and principles.

The essence of sustainability means the rational and reasonable ecological orientation of society—that we consume reasonably and justifiably within the planet’s resource extraction biocapacity; the embrace of cooperative socioecological complementarity over market-based competition; the rekindling of social fairness principles like usufruct and the irreducible minimum that underwrote precapitalist cultures; the decentralization of policymaking authority such that decisions are made by the people they affect rather than by bureaucrats living far away; radical direct municipal democracy and the inversion of conventional top-down governance; citizen majorityownership of local industrial means of extraction, production, and consumption; and the non-domination of women, men, and nonhumans by traditional concentrations of wealthy, white, male elites.

The bottom line is this: unsustainability is a crisis of inequitable overconsumption. Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, we’ve long surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity, and our international trajectory remains fixed on a model of infinite economic growth. We must consume less if we wish to live sustainably. But radical, fundamental change doesn’t mean a reversion to Stone Age living or Earth-goddess worshipping Neolithic eco-mysticism. Far from it. We need not sacrifice living well in order to live sustainably.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. "Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century." Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century.” Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Capitalism as we know it is not a necessary precondition for industry, technology, and modern standards of living. Precapitalist societies in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central America and the Ancient Roman Empire enjoyed wondrous technology and scientific innovation. But innovation was produced through cooperative complementarity rather than the more recent social Darwinist Western mantra of “healthy competition” mangled and abducted from evolutionary biological theory. The creativity and fecundity of nature as produced by evolutionary competition is a descriptive observation of biological phenomena—not a prescript for social organization. Nevertheless, endless competitive growth, rather than cooperative complementarity, has, in turn, led the global community down a path of unsustainable material resource consumption wholly without precedent in historical precapitalist civilizations of comparable science, technology, and quality of life. Granted, these precapitalist societies had their own domestic problems from which we gain the wisdom of hindsight. The point is that capitalism is not the only way to ensure existential resource security, ameliorate the hardships of animal life, and live enriched by science and technology. We need not consume so rapaciously to live well.

Individually, much of what we consume does little toward improving our wellbeing, so we’d likely live better by living with less. Indeed, individual consumption is frequently coerced by advertising and manufactured needs, and, in cases of addictive, gluttonous, and akratic consumption, leads to vicious and futile recursions of consumption and discontent. Consuming less means liberation—emancipation—from the invisible chains cast by the invisible hand; the cold mechanical market reduction of biodiversity and ecology to mere resource stocks and human life to a nihilistic cycle of labor and consumption. We would live better for living with less. We would live better for being free of capitalism’s vicious futility.

But the majority of global material resource consumption is institutional and systemic: large central States, international bureaucratic regimes, and multinational corporations dictate the terms of material resource exploitation, production, and consumption according to the prerogatives of ownership. We mere serfs own little and so decide even less. If we want to live sustainably, in turn, we need a radical and fundamental change in the basic structures of society: institutional and systemic inequitable overconsumption our targets of revolution.

The 20th century model of neoliberal elite-dominated nuclear-industrial nation-states and international regimes in collusion with multinational corporations that together auto-validate their ownership and exploitation of the planet like an echo-chamber or citation-circle has proven socially inequitable, ecologically destructive, unsustainable, and culturally undesirable. But the current generation in power is too set in its ways to be the revolution.

remaking society_cover

It is up to us—we the Millennials—to remake society. Socioecological revolution is our responsibility, because amidst hypocritical, played-out antagonistic rhetoric from the world’s two biggest nuclear powers—all while sociopolitical and ecological crises hang in the balance—the war machine in Ukraine and the Levant rolls on and neoliberal elites continue their reign at the expense and exploitation of you and me and women and people of color and all of the nonhuman ecology of the world around us, now reduced to resources to be consumed by capital society and war.

If this seems hyperbolic, just looks who’s been making an killing off death and crisis since November 2013 (when Orange Revolution tension re-percolated onto Kiev’s streets after former President Yanakovich rejected a trade deal to further liberalize Ukraine’s economy) and before, now intensified by the international coalition mobilizing to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria. While ten companies in particular are getting rich from war, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumann & Airbus Group NV have all seen nearly geometric increases in stock value since last November, and exponential increases since November of 2012. These are all warplane, warship, artillery, missile, armored vehicle, arms, and electronics manufacturers. And all of these are astoundingly resource intensive products and processes, and they’re largely driven and powered by fossil fuels.

Lockheed 2013 stock trendsGeneral Dynamics 2013 stock trends

Where there’s war, there’s oil. Whether we’re fighting for it or not, it’s always a major player. Oil production and exports in the US have skyrocketed since 2006 with the fracking revolution, and global consumption is at an all time high and rising. Much of that increase in global oil consumption is demand-driven by developing countries. Much of the status quo is comprised of consistent demands in advanced industrial nations. But in all cases, it’s driven by institutional and systemic neoliberal constructs never far removed from the demand of war. This inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic and institutional issue—the problem of our era—the Millennial issue.

Graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

United States Total Oil Production—-graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

We must take responsibility. Soon we’ll depose prior materialistic generations and take the seats of power for ourselves and remake society from within, but in the meantime we must work from without and use the tools, however shabby they may be, at our disposal. For now, that means exercising—despite causal impotence objections—extreme justificatory discretion when participating in the market. It also means that we must VOTE. Be knowledgeable of and involved in politics. Be politically active. Take action. Vote. This November and in every election moving forward, vote. Granted, our choice in America between Democrats and Republicans is stifling and unrepresentative. With the exception of a few polarizing social issues, the two US parties are almost identical. Both perpetuate the same model of hyper-centralized nationalism, global capitalism spread by imperial neoliberals and war hawks, clandestine cahoots with multinational corporations, and the disenfranchisement of any and all who don’t contribute financially to campaign mudslinging chests.

Indeed, the two party system, lack of congressional term limits, and campaign finance regulation are among the biggest systemic institutional challenges facing our generation. But problems of that sort seem solvable only from within the halls of Congress, kept largely unreachable by the vast majority of the public because of extravagant campaign spending expectations hidden behind the revolving door of Iron Triangles.

To that effect, we need new parties. We need an end to career politicians, and we need to strictly limit corporate aggregate and per-candidate campaign contributions and expenditures. But first we need to vote. And then we need to ensure that we carry our proud post-materialist values forward into our nation’s future governance. This is not a call for mere reform nor anarchy, but for revolution. A fundamental change to the basic constructs of society. It’s ultimately up to us. Answer the call.

Let’s get it together humans.

Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

Love your country, question your government.

Love your country, question your government.

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

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of

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

Image courtesy of

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

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of

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 and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of 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

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

Let’s restrict what follows to considering two possible moral agents: on one hand, individual US citizens, and on the other, US civic bodies—-i.e. cities, states, and the nation itself.

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, do US civic bodies have to future American generations? Intuitively, again, US civic bodies seems to have certain responsibilities to do right by and protect the interests of their own future generations; an intuition codified at the national level 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 US civic life depends upon a flourishing future population and resilient infrastructure. US civic bodies have, if nothing else, a rational interest in acting to hedge against sea level rise risks to their future generations. Assuming, then, that civic duties to future people exist, do they also extend to the future generations of distant people? Does America today have any responsibility to tomorrow’s Bangladesh? Does Texas? Or New York City?

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--map courtesy of

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–map courtesy of

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 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 individual and civic duty 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 individual 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.

Consequentialist 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, civic duty may provide a way out.

A consequentialist case for civic duty to address sea level rise

Civic bodies such as cities, states, nations and institutions are more resilient to the non-identity problem, distance-related concerns, and to causal and rational impotence objections. The various US civic bodies 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 say that US civic bodies have certain duties to future Americans regarding inevitable rises in sea level and flooded cities. In as much as future Americans comprise the very civic bodies to which those obligations would hold, it follows that, even if only as a function of rational self-interest, US cities, states and the federal government should act to protect the integrity of population, infrastructure, 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 civic bodies are less contingent, if at all. That is, they’re more persistent and consistent. 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 civic bodies have certain responsibilities to one another as agents 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 civic identity is uninterrupted, there is no non-identity problem for civic bodies.

Nor is causal impotence a problem for civic bodies with regard to future generations. Collective civil life is, in fact, the very mode of cooperation and coordination that transports us from being causally impotent to being causally significant. Changing civic behavior 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 civic agents 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, civic bodies may be more willing to assume lower or non-positive discount rates because, for contiguous civic agents, the question pertains to intragenerational discounting rather than intergenerational discounting. Unless the US civic life dissolves, US civic bodies are dealing with their own future in addressing sea level rise. There is good reason to doubt that civic bodies 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 & deficit, broke states, & bankrupt cities), 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 civic duty with regard to future generations and addressing catastrophic sea level rise.

Distance matters less for civic bodies

The question of distance in establishing moral standing may be an altogether empty question for civic bodies, particularly the US state. 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 civic bodies to each other, now and with regard to the future. If any moral agent is responsible for dealing with catastrophic sea level rise, by consequentialist logic, it will be a matter of civic duty.

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

Mitigation or adaptation: an ethical contention

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. Moreover, 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. Civic bodies 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 civic bodies—the US in particular—distance is something of an empty question.

Go back to Part I