The Calamity Frame

December 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.


  1. I think it looks increasingly likely that we are heading towards calamity however (http://stevehynd.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/copenhagen-and-the-2-degree-guard-rail-the-wrong-goal-missed/).

    Still though, I can see the use of arguments like this in terms of getting people to pragmatically act.

    My only (conceptual) query is whether this further adds to the doubt factor around cc that is fostering inaction!


  2. I am, of course, also worried about calamity, but I guess I have a few worries. One worry is that politically it’s overkill and that it will backfire. Another worry is that it may lead us to make rash decisions, like supporting poorly concocted plans to “steer” the climate. A third worry is that it’s ethically false. A fourth worry is that it leads some people to believe that it all hangs on the science (more on that later).

    Also, just for clarity, I can’t figure out what your ‘this’ refers to when you say that ‘this further adds to the doubt factor.’ Are you talking about the calamity frame or my criticism of the calamity frame?

  3. I think enough change, hotter or cooler, would threaten calamity, disrupting ecological patters that all present life on Earth is adapted to. Perhaps cooling doesn’t threaten positive feedbacks and ‘runaway’ change. In any case, your principle (it’s wrong to do what is not permissible) is puzzling to me because no one *individually* is doing anything impermissible. I’m heating/lighting my house, or driving to work, not changing the climate. *That* is only a consequence of individual actions in aggregate. I don’t see how you avoid basic problems about responsibility (and intentionality) in collective action problems. Thanks for the post!

  4. Yeah, what concerns me is not the consequences of my actions but rather the reasons I have for taking actions. I probably could’ve made that clearer, but I didn’t want to get into it.

    It’s one thing to heat and light your house. It’s another thing to heat and light your enormous mansion while roasting marshmallows on a pile of flaming HDTVs that you’ve torched for fun. Some of our actions we can plainly justify. Others of our actions — like profligate purchase and consumption of crap that doesn’t do much for us — can’t be justified.

    It’s the profligate stuff that concerns me…and I think it’s particularly true if we can find ways of minimizing our footprint to achieve a still very good life.

    I think we should try to do things that don’t trespass on other people or the rest of nature. I think it’s our responsibility to find ways of living that don’t trespass on others.

    • Those are value judgments.

      YOU don’t think people should act in a particular way… doesn’t really matter what the consequences are, you just don’t think people SHOULD do certain things that you don’t agree with based on your values.

      You’ve told everyone that you don’t understand the science… you haven’t REALLY looked into it so you’re just going to trust the established scientists… the one’s who we’ve recently found out have fudged the books on climate change…

      You are simply using the excuse of possible impact of humans on climate to promote your idea of how you believe people should behave.


    • Damn right they’re value judgments. That’s my stock and trade. I’m an ethicist. Maybe you missed that.

      It’s not “my values” doing the work, though, it’s a particular orientation toward right and wrong. I think that those sorts of activities are difficult to justify (where justification is understood in procedural and deliberative terms), and that’s what makes them wrong.

      Finally, it’s not that I don’t understand the science. I understand it well enough. I’m just not an expert in the science; and so, as I do with everything else in my life, without a compelling reason to doubt what the scientists are telling me, I leave the science unchallenged. I do that with everything else too: I trust the engineers who build bridges, I trust the people who cook food in restaurants, I trust the monetary system, and so on.

      • So, really your argument isn’t really an argument. it’s just plain belief.

        The problem?

        They’re YOUR values and your beliefs. You’re attempting to use the veneer of science as justification to to support your personal philosophy. The reality is that you simply wish to impose YOUR values on others. That’s not acceptable.

        You’re no different than any other ideologue.

        Why not just espouse sharia? Your “argument” is no different. It’s ultimately a religious argument… one that is totally based on belief.


  5. But if we accept Mill’s Harm Principle (I am at liberty unless I am harming others, i.e. a form of trespass) and *my* profligate consumption *alone* doesn’t harm anyone, then what reason do I have to *not* do it? You know my position (roughly): the good person will not be a profligate consumer.

  6. Your are endorsing the precautionary principle whilst expressing doubts about the science. I really don’t think you can get away with that post Climategate.

  7. I am neither endorsing the precautionary principle nor expressing doubts about the science, either or both which I could easily get away with after ClimateGate.

  8. I think defining what is accepted into the ‘canon’ of accepted science is the key to this question. If it is IPCC’s AR4, my response is we can take enough time to evaluate options and construct better policy mechanisms than we have to date. If some of the papers published since 2007 claiming to have found greatly accelerated and destructive trends are part of the science we base decisions on, then our decision making process must be tighter–both in time and our range of options.

    For a variety of reasons, I as a non-scientist who deeply care about this subject have to admit I place less confidence in much of the work done post-2007. It seems from the outside to be politically motivated specifically to rush decision making and limit our options. Since what I really want is time and more options, my natural predisposition is to react to that. But I’m speaking as a non-scientist and my imputation of motives and results may not be at all relevant.

  9. not trespassing is right on. i heard today from a woman whose village in the arctic was warming to the extent they would need to fully relocate but are now experiencing the coldest winter in years. does this mean we should start driving hummers, leaving the lights on and running the water for no purpose? instead i would like to see a commitment to intentionally developing and living now that we have it within our capcity to embrace better technologies and low impact methods that are purposeful and profitable without trespass.

  10. Geo-engineering mentioned in the BBC today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8405025.stm

    “The concept of geo-engineering has its adherents but it is also fraught with economic, social and technical difficulties.”

    Nary a meager mention of your silly “ethical” difficulties! How d’ya like them apples?

  11. With climate change, you seem to be arguing that even if the consequences of a changing climate aren’t bad (or, let’s say, they were good), we could very well still be obligated to mitigate because there is a sense in which we’ve done wrong regardless of the particulars of the outcome.

    What if there is consensus that business as usual, should its consequences – regardless of whether or not they are intended – be neutral or positive, ought to be continued? Then by what standard are we obligated to change practices[mitigate climate change]?

    I’m not trying to invoke some tyranny of the majority, I merely question whether or not there is a particular number/proportion of people that need to “feel wronged, even though the pacemaker is 100% safe” (from your science progress post) before there is a general obligation to avoid putting (metaphorical) “pacemakers” into the biosphere, or what; and if not, then how is the obligation defined at all?

  12. […] get me wrong, I think the language of calamity is a serious problem for the climate debate. That’s not what bothers me about this essay. What bothers me is his stupid fracking hasty […]

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