The Calamity FrameDecember 9, 2009
One of the more remarkable lines of argument circulating around Copenhagen is that we are here to avoid “calamity.” There is evidence of this orientation almost everywhere, but for starters, it may help to read it straight from the COP15 website. Or here, watch this video:Vodpod videos no longer available.
Maybe it’s just that talk of a climate calamity rolls off the tongue in poetic Nabokovian fashion, or that it is theatrical in the sense illustrated by the above video, but I suspect that there’s something more to it. I suspect instead that many people think it really matters whether climate change will in fact be calamity, that we won’t get anything done unless we’re beset with the task of saving the world.
I think it’s false that it matters whether climate change will be calamitous; and I also suspect that some of the rhetoric clouds the discourse…
Even if climatic changes don’t ever reach the level of a calamity, it seems to me, we are still obligated to do something about climate change. We’re still obligated to reduce our emissions and our GHG footprint, even if our actions make the world demonstrably better for a large number of people. Whether the effects of climate change are calamitous or fortuitous has little bearing on how we should act.
Consider: if climate change did the opposite of what it is projected to do, what then would we be required to do? Would we be required to help it along?
If climate change made the world cooler, say, thereby lowering sea level (I guess) and giving us more beach-front property, would this be a good thing? Would this be something that we could endorse and encourage?
Or would climate change of the positive variety also be a problem?
I’m of the mind that that would be a problem, that no matter how we tilt the balance, either towards warming or cooling, either towards calamity or towards non-calamity, it is a problem for us to engage in practices that bring about climate change.
For reasons similar to those that encourage me to say that we ought not to geoengineer the climate, I say similarly that we ought not to recklessly allow climate change. The difference between geoengineering and anthropogenic climate change is substantial of course, but rests in the fact that the former is a coordinated effort and the latter is an utterly uncoordinated effort. I think it is a practical impossibility that we could ever arrive at the conditions that would authorize and permit coordination on the geoengineering front, and so therefore we ought not to do it. But I think it is a fact about anthropogenic climate change that the conditions that would authorize and permit it are not and cannot be met. Therefore, I’d say, it’s wrong. We ought to do what we can to reduce our footprint.
I don’t want to downplay the severity of anticipated changes. I have every reason to believe that the changes will affect some populations in significantly negative ways. I just want to point out that it’s not clear to me that the calamity frame is necessary; and a part of me worries that this frame in particular is doing damage to the PR efforts of those who really want to encourage environmental responsibility.
If we are responsible for bringing about a global climatic change, and if people are made better or worse off thanks to our reckless actions (as opposed to our deliberate actions), this is a moral problem for us… we need to do something about it, even if it will not result in calamity.