Friday, 30 March 2007

Ethics and Climate Change

The Ethics of Climate Chaos

Glenn Albrecht PhD

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The scientific evidence for climate change is now overwhelming. Almost every day we hear news of yet another study that documents the actual changes to our formerly predictable weather patterns and biophysical processes. We all now see and read about the economic, health, psychological and ecological impacts of the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes such as Katrina and Larry. There are places on earth where climate change is happening so rapidly that people have new words to describe the shock of change in what was once a reasonably reliable and predictable context. The Inuit of the Arctic have applied a word, uggianaqtuq’ (pronounced OOG-gi-a-nak-took) which has connotations of a “friend acting strangely” or unpredictable behaviour to the way climate change is impacting on their culture[i]. Our world is indeed beginning to act in strange ways but what is even stranger is that in the face of such change, we are not acting quickly enough to counter the prospect of catastrophic risk to all future activity in our economies and our cultures. We can expect new epidemics of illness, physical and mental, in the face of such devastating change. I have created the concept of solastalgia to capture the 'uggianaqtug' in the English language.

You might have thought that the ethics of actually changing the global climate would have been on the top of the agenda in all of the recent talkfests on long-term energy policy. After all, what is at stake with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is the future environmental security of all beings on the planet and in particular, the ability of humans to cope with massive but largely unpredictable changes to every aspect of their lives.

In a world operating under complex and unstable conditions, adaptation to the impending changes will be largely impossible because all current forms of planning are based on data and predictions linked to the past. However, in the brave new world, there will be many surprise events in the emergence of complex non-linear complex systems acting under new factors driving their evolution. Such system unpredictability will render useless many of the institutions and methodologies created to manage risk in our economic systems. The institution of insurance, for example, will be one of the first to fail as actuarial analysis fails to cope with evolving non-linear systems in the form of an array hugely damaging unnatural events. In a world characterised by chaos, all that was friendly and familiar will become strange to us and the Inuit will be seen as prescient.

The ethical issues of climate chaos are quite clear and can been understood within the principles of sustainability developed over the last 20 years in the international community. A key ethical issue is equity or the distribution of benefits and burdens of climate change. The intragenerational ethics of climate change is highlighted by the fact that some human communities have already had their lives directly and negatively affected by rising sea levels and melting glaciers. In the Pacific, low lying, inhabited islands are being inundated by the sea, leading to the world’s first climate chaos refugees. As suggested above, in the Arctic, melting permafrost and glacier retreat have already made life difficult for the Inuit people as they can no longer rely on a foundation of solid ice for safe travel, secure buildings and for sources of traditional food such as seals. The people of Himalayan countries such as Bhutan have already experienced catastrophic floods from glacial lakes that form, then burst under the rising flow of glacial melt water. These floods destroy in-stream hydro-electric power generation and the lights go out in Bhutan.

In both the Arctic and the Antarctic, impacts on biodiversity have now been documented with sea ice melt causing Polar Bear habitat to shrink and more snow causing negative impacts on Caribou and Moose. Antarctica is also experiencing major changes with Krill, the foundation of the food chain, in severe decline with flow on effects to populations of fish, seals, penguins, and whales further up the food chain. The world over, there is mounting evidence that as warming occurs, biodiversity or the variety of life, is rapidly disappearing. The extinction of frog species has now been linked to warming and many other species including the Mountain Pygmy Possum of Australia are under similar threat. Biodiversity can be considered under the umbrella of interspecies equity in the here and now, so we already have major lapses in ethical obligations to species other than ourselves.

If we add the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, wild fires and droughts on humans, domesticated animals and wildlife, then another layer of huge impacts has already been imposed on current generations. In Australia, the extreme hot temperatures will see increasing deaths from heat stress in humans and animals (e.g., cattle) and most recently in January 2006, poultry.

The potential impacts of climate chaos that we are imposing on future generations of humans are so great that one would have thought that leaders of countries such as the USA and Australia who profess ‘civilised’, Christian values would have them at the top of their agendas. But no, the prospect of escalating warming delivering epidemics of infectious diseases, catastrophic failure of agricultural systems, failure of fresh water supplies, massive coastal damage due to storm and tidal inundation and other unpredictable changes as a result of climate chaos has not yet bothered them.

Although the concept of intergenerational equity might seem abstract to some, to deliver into the hands of future children and grandchildren a world that will be in major and prolonged crisis is not a difficult ethical issue to contemplate. It is simply unacceptable to sit on our seats of power, board or conference tables and deliberately do nothing or too little to give children an experience of a beautiful, secure and predictable future world. After all, a major reason why we work so hard and burn so much energy is … to give our children a better world to live in.

The level of scientific knowledge we have about climate chaos issues has reached the point for urgent and extensive action. Right now, we have firm scientific evidence that global warming has been escalating since the industrial revolution, that it is linked to historically unprecedented increases in the levels of carbon dioxide and other human produced gases in the atmosphere, that the sea level is rising at twice the rate of the previous one hundred and fifty years and that it is the human industrial activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels that is responsible for all of the above. In response to all of the information documented about the possibility of irreversable climate chaos, the immediate need to drastically curtail or even cease the mining and burning of coal and oil should be on our agendas. At the very least, ramping-up our commitment to clean, renewable energy in all of its forms should be an international priority.

Even if evidence of the effects of climate chaos was not available to us, the application of another foundation of sustainability ethics, the precautionary principle, or the idea that we ought to minimise risk or possible harm to current and future generations before actual scientific proof of harm is before us, should be on top of political and policy agendas. Failure to consider and fully implement the precautionary principle through the Kyoto framework or any other multilateral government agreement marks the current generation of political leaders and climate sceptics as standing on ethically thinning ice. As the temperature and the sea level rises, the climate sceptics, along with the glaciers, are in retreat (rapidly!).

Politicians and many business leaders in Australia and the USA in particular have used national and international forums to make Faustian bargains with the future in an effort to achieve the impossible goal of infinite economic growth in a finite world. The tragedy of climate chaos represents a failure to seek long overdue reconciliation of human life within the limits of planet earth. It is to be hoped that the purveyors of the hubris of infinite growth will burn forever in an even hotter climate than the rest of us.

[i] IOL, Effects of climate change seen in the Arctic,
http://www.int.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=31&art_id=qw1144790291815B224
(accessed 11/09/2006) See also: http://nsidc.org/data/arcss122.html

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