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: 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 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 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

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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 be 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 April 2017 logged around 409ppm (updated May 2017). 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 hundreds of 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, wrongdoing, rights, and 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