Climate Ethics: What Can Science Tell Us?

"This is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow that to happen, it is deeply unethical. I have such faith in our democratic system, our self-government, I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause a real sea change in the way Congress reacted to that. I thought they would be startled and they weren't."

                                                       -  Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

Before the release of "An Inconvenient Truth:  A Global Warning", (transcript) the debate of what-to-do-about-all-that-co2 mainly took place out of the public's eye.  In essence, academics did their thing and policy makers did theirs.  While there is an argument that Al Gore's position as head communicator for the climate change movement was just as divisive as it was helpful, I find it hard to argue against one thing - Al Gore showed the public why climate change mattered, and why ethics were just as important as the economics, the science, and the politics.

So getting to the title of this post:  What can science tell us about ethics? Well, directly?  Absolutely nothing.  The way in which we collectively develop a code of values is independent of way in which we attempt to determine truth, or the closest approximation to truth.  But what science can do is act as a guide, or a tool, to determine how we behave when we are faced with ethical dilemmas.

Previously, here on SkS, John Cook examined the paper, "Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations" (Sampson 2011).  In it, he described our moral hazard in the paper's main conclusions:

If those who are emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by direct global warming impacts, how shall we motivate them to change?

And further, using his logic on adaptability, to which the paper did not cover:

[I]t doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to surmise that the poor, developing countries that emit the least pollution are also those with the least amount of infrastructure to deal with climate impacts. So we are left with a double irony - the countries that contribute least to global warming are both the most impacted and the least able to adapt.

The take home graphic:

 A new paper, "Early onset of significant local warming in low latitude countries" (Mahlstein 2011) takes the idea even further.  

The most strongly affected countries emit small amounts of CO2 per capita and have therefore contributed little to the changes in climate that they are beginning to experience.

What brings the authors to this conclusion?

Here we show that due to the small temperature variability from one year to another, the earliest emergence of significant warming occurs in the summer season in low latitude countries (≈25◦S–25◦N). We also show that a local warming signal that exceeds past variability is emerging at present, or will likely emerge in the next two decades, in many tropical countries. Further, for most countries worldwide, a mean global warming of 1 ◦C is sufficient for a significant temperature change, which is less than the total warming projected for any economically plausible emission scenario.

In short, those countries who have emitted the least CO2, and contributed least to the problem, will be the first to experience temperatures outside regional past variability.  

And we're already committed to it.

The map shows the global temperature increase (◦C) needed for a single location to undergo a statistically significant change in average summer seasonal surface temperature (TAS), aggregated on a country level. The black line near the colour bar denotes the committed global average warming if all atmospheric constituents were fixed at year 2000 levels. The small panels show the interannual summer-season variability during the base period (1900–29) (±2 standard deviations shaded in grey) and the multi-model mean summer surface temperature (red line) of one arbitrarily chosen grid cell within the specific country. The shading in red indicates the 5% and 95% quantiles across all model realizations.

[H]ere we have documented a key aspect of tropical vulnerability that is physically based (rather than linked to the economical issues in these countries): the size of the warming signal relative to interannual noise.

Now push the clock ahead a generation or two.  How long will it take for the climate to change enough to be outside those fully actualized persons' adapted variability?  What can we do to mitigate that change and allow the next set of humans to progress without having to spend their inhertited treasure on dealing with the previous generation's inability to find a sustainable way to produce energy?  How long before we begin to deal with these inequalities and deficits in justice?  

This will depend on how much we can learn and our individual and collective code of ethics.  

With science as our guide, we can get a look into the future.  And with our ethical code, we can decide on a course of action  We have tools at our disposal.  Will we use them?

Posted by grypo on Saturday, 27 August, 2011

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