February 1, 2010

Somebody buy Don Brown a red pen and a heavy-duty pair of editorial shears. Brown, associate professor of Ethics, Science and Law at Penn State University just put this lengthy disquisition up online. It’s one helluva screed. Be sure to pop some corn before you sit down for a read.

I was with Brown in Copenhagen, so we had an opportunity to talk about things. For the record, I don’t share his degree of pessimism, but there are a few things that I think we should highlight. First, I might again gently point out that his post should really be broken into several posts (each about one tenth as long as the full piece). It’s a blog, for chrissakes. Nobody has time to sit down and sift through this.

Second, I want to say that, unlike Don, I don’t think that “ethics” is a monolithic endeavor, so I’m leery of suggestions that “ethics” has any singular thing to say about the climate. I think, instead, that there are many deeply interesting ethical problems associated with climate change and that the academic ethics community really should work to address some of these issues. Where the gavel will fall, I don’t know.

Apart from that, here are a few things Brown says (this is about 3/5 of the way down):

In the lead-up to Copenhagen, ClimateEthics identified ethical criteria that any Copenhagen agreement would have to satisfy, see Minimum Ethical Criteria For All Post-Kyoto Regime Proposals: What Does Ethics Require of A Copenhagen Outcome http://climateethics.org/?p=50,

In this prior analysis, ClimateEthics concluded that any proposed post-Kyoto regime must as a matter of at a minimum:

• Require sufficient greenhouse emissions reductions to assure that the international community is on a greenhouse gas emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change harm. This is sometimes referred to as the environmental sufficiency criteria.

• Begin to base differences among national allocations on the basis of equity and justice. This is sometimes referred to as the equity criteria.

I think we need to get clear on a few things. For one, this language of “dangerous climate change harm” is incredibly vague. I’ve been unclear on it for a long time. Are we talking about harm to the climate or harm to people due to changes in the climate? Depending on what we mean by this, we will likely have dramatically different policy outcomes.

For another, we need a lot of clarification on equity and justice criteria. I heard this refrain over and over again in Copenhagen, and I simply couldn’t ascertain what was meant by it. Are we talking about distributive justice? Equality of opportunity? Capabilities justice? Justice as fairness? Theorists want to know; and it is mighty important for us to get clear on what we mean by this.

Here’s more:

That is, any proposed post-Kyoto regime must:

• Assure that those responsible for climate change provide adequate, predictable adaptation funding to enable developing countries and in particular the most vulnerable developing countries to do what is necessary to avoid climate change damages in cases where it is possible to take action and to prevent damages, or be compensated for climate change damages in cases where it is impossible to take protective action. We will refer to this as the just adaptation criteria.

Identifying “those responsible for climate change” is, of course, no simple task, so this is one area where considerable investigation is necessary. On one hand, we’re all complicit. On another hand, some are no complicit than others. On yet a third hand — I have three hands, mofo, wanna make something of it? — maybe we can’t assign responsibility at all.

Moreover, it’s not clear why being complicit or responsible for bringing about climate change would necessarily translate into an obligation to provide “adequate, predictable adaptation funding.” I agree that maybe western developed nations should provide this funding, but it’s not clear that we should do it because we’re responsible for having brought about climate change. Not only should I help the hungry even if I am not responsible for having made them hungry, but sometimes if I have made someone hungry (by bartering for their food, say), it is not clear that I therefore owe them a debt to make them less hungry.

I hate to play grumpy ethicist, but I want to see more action from the philosophical community on these questions, so rather than take Brown’s missive as a blockbuster proclamation from Discovery, I think we can mine it for difficult questions.

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