Friday, December 11, 2009

Climate Change: It's Not the End of the World

"What does it matter that, by following my advice, my friend gave the kid third degree burns over fifty percent of his whole body? The kid didn't die."

What would you think of the moral character of a person who made this type of claim.

So, consider the moral character of the claim, "What does it matter that we destroy whole cities and cause widespread suffering among whole populations? We didn't destroy the earth?"

I hear that latter comment - or something very much like it - among the global warming deniers quite regularly. Usually it takes the form, "CO2 levels were much higher in the past than they are now, and it wasn't the end of the world."

Nope, it wasn't "the end of the world." However, there are a lot of things that humans have reason to be concerned about other than "the end of the world." The idea that, "If it does not bring about the end of the world, then it is not worth worrying about" is absurd.

It displays the same type of moral callousness as, "My victim did not die, so I have done no wrong.'

The culprit in my example - the person who encouraged a friend to act to as to cause a kid to be severely burned - is a paradigm of virtue when held up against the "not the end of the world" global-warming denier. The person in my example brings about the suffering of one kid. It is a lot of suffering to be sure, but it is only one kid.

The global-warming denier who treats us to the "not the end of the world" argument is willing to see the destruction of whole cities and the suffering of whole populations. As long as the world does not end, it doesn't matter.

However, the peculiar thing is that we do not TREAT the "not-the-end-of-the-world" denier the way we treat the, "I burned the kid but did not kill him" denier of harm. In the latter case, we truly are trained to respond with moral outrage - and moral outrage is well deserved. We can't have those types of attitudes running around in our society. The idea of tolerating the attitude that whatever does not kill a child is permissible is intolerable.

Yet, there is even less of a reason to find the attitude, "That which does not end the world is permissible" that some global-warming deniers give us. Here is an example in which our moral sense simply is not properly tuned. We are giving a moral pass on something that is far more morally horrendous than something that we find absolutely intolerable.

The proof that we give a moral pass on this kind of argument is that it is quite common in discussions of global warming, and yet our reaction to that claim is much, much milder than our reaction would be to somebody who made a similar claim about burning a child.

I suspect that the reason for this is that, until recently, the moral callousness of being indifferent to the destruction of whole cities has not been much of an issue. We have not had to train our children for moral outrage against that type of person, because the capacity to bring about the widespread destruction of whole cities did not exist before. There was the potential of wiping out whole cities in a war, but this was not callous indifference to the destruction of whole cities. This was tribal "us" versus "them" sentiments getting out of hand.

Now, casual indifference to the destruction of whole cities risks inaction when whole cities are actually at risk of destruction. Now, there is a cost of ignoring the moral crime of indifference to such destruction. Now, we have real, practical, real-world reason to condemn the person who says, "It does not matter if whole cities are destroyed, as long as the Earth itself is not destroyed," as somebody morally much worse than the person who says, "It does not matter if a child is burned over 50% of his body, as long as he wasn't killed."

We may need to train ourselves to have the aversion to such a person that the moral situation now requires. One way we can do that - one way we can train our emotions - is by recognizing the logical equivalence of relevant moral analogies, and by recognizing that we are talking about the real-world effects of real-world actions.

The next time you encounter a global-warming denier who uses the "not the end of the world" argument, think of a person who has just said, "It does not matter whether I burned the kid over 50% of his body. I didn't kill him." Think about that type of person, and recognize that the person you are discussing global warming with has just said something much, much worse.

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Addendum:

It is time for my standard statement that regular readers to this blog are sick of. The right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from condemnation for what one says and writes. However, it IS a right to immunity from violence in response to what one says or writes. Legitimate responses must be limited to words (including words of condemnation) and non-violent actions.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

The dishonesty of this post is jaw-dropping. You must be pretty damn confident that your regular readers are doe-eyed lapdogs who will eat anything out of your hands, in order to trot out such bogus straw-man arguments.

NOBODY is saying anything remotely like "What does it matter that we destroy whole cities and cause widespread suffering among whole populations? We didn't destroy the earth?"

The argument you're shamelessly mischaracterizing is NOT that past warming has been harmful, but not harmful enough to bother doing something about. The argument is that the past warming skeptics have noted, like the Medieval Warm Period, didn't harm humanity at all.

If you were an honest man, your task would be to either a.) show us why the MWP wasn't as warm as we think it was, or b.) what harm it actually did do to humanity, if any.

But please, if for no other reason than your own self-respect, spare us the straw men and playground-bully tactics.

Rex said...

I am a subscriber to your feed, and I typically find your posts to be great food for thought. This one is no different, however I question a couple of your premises.

Firstly, in the Earth's history, the temperature has been much warmer and much cooler than it is now. CO2 levels have been significantly higher and lower in the past than they are now. None of these past events had a thing to do with Humans.

I am really glad that the Earth has gone through these fluctuations, because that path spawned Humans, and I for one am happy to be here!

The thing that I don't get about Humans though, is 99.9% of all species of life that ever lived on this planet is extinct now. That is called natural selection. Suddenly though, we Humans have taken the view that no more species shall become extinct on our watch and that the atmosphere must perpetually retain the same chemical composition of what a thousand years ago? Why? Who asked us to ensure that evolution stops and that the planet enters a happy unchanging stasis forever? And if we were NOT asked to do this, who's idea is it that we should halt these processes? And who agreed that we should set ourselves on this course?

The last question I have for now is: What is our response going to be if Humans do decide to break the global economic bank to reduce CO2 emissions, and a huge volcano erupts somewhere and totally negates all of our effort in one day? Seems kind of silly and frankly, a little arrogant, to me.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Firstly, in the Earth's history, the temperature has been much warmer and much cooler than it is now. CO2 levels have been significantly higher and lower in the past than they are now. None of these past events had a thing to do with Humans.

There are non-human causes to increases and decreases in global CO2 concentrations. However, there is no evidence of any of them being in play new. We have the plain fact of humans putting about 8 gigatonnes of CO2 into the air and atmospheric CO2 levels increasing at 4 gigatonnes per year. As the tub example explains, this is sufficient to show that this increase is due to human emissions.

There are a lot of non-human causes for death. However, it would be a weak argument for a defense attorney to claim, "A lot of people have died in the world, and my client could not have possibly killed all of them. Therefore, he is not guilty of killing Ms. Smith."
The thing that I don't get about Humans though, is 99.9% of all species of life that ever lived on this planet is extinct now. That is called natural selection. Suddenly though, we Humans have taken the view that no more species shall become extinct on our watch and that the atmosphere must perpetually retain the same chemical composition of what a thousand years ago? Why?

I agree with you that this position with respect to extinction does not make a lot of sense - and is open to criticism. However, value is a relationship between states of affairs and desires. The fact that people desire that certain species not go extinct is enough to give the preservation of those species real value. (Though we also need to assess whether that desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. The desire to rape children makes the act of raping children valuable to those with the desire but, in this case, we can see many and strong reasons to condemn the desire.)

This is why I do not put a lot of weight on the issue of species becoming extinct. I do, however, put a lot of weight on the destruction of cities and the suffering of whole populations.


The last question I have for now is: What is our response going to be if Humans do decide to break the global economic bank to reduce CO2 emissions, and a huge volcano erupts somewhere and totally negates all of our effort in one day?

The amount of CO2 that humans put into the atmosphere in 1 year exceeds that of all of the volcanoes in all the world over 40 years. It would take a supervolcano the size of Yellowstone Park going up to have the effect you mention. While this might happen in the next decade, we may well have hundreds of thousands of years to wait before that happens, and a lot of different ways to deal with the potential harm that have not yet been invented.

I exercise almost every day to preserve my health. An automobile accident or some deadly disease might still kill me some day and "totally negate all of my effort." This does not imply that the effort is worthless. I may have a great deal of time between now and then to enjoy good health. There is no reason to destroy my health today because something might well destroy it in the future.

Morally, it would be even worse for me to destroy your health - to injure or poison you - and then to say that it does not matter because you would have died eventually some day anyway.

Hume's Ghost said...

"The right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from condemnation for what one says and writes. However, it IS a right to immunity from violence in response to what one says or writes. Legitimate responses must be limited to words (including words of condemnation) and non-violent actions."

It might save you some trouble to edit your blog page and add that in to the blog design somewhere, as a kind of permanent disclaimer/reminder.

Hume's Ghost said...

"The argument you're shamelessly mischaracterizing is NOT that past warming has been harmful, but not harmful enough to bother doing something about. The argument is that the past warming skeptics have noted, like the Medieval Warm Period, didn't harm humanity at all."

Yes. And they are wrong:

But if you look at the [Medieval] warm centuries with a global perspective, the wide incidence of drought is truly striking and offers a sobering message about tomorrow's world. Prolonged aridity was widepread in medieval times and killed enormous numbers of peope. Evidence is mounting that drought is the silent and insidious killer associated with global warming. The casualty figures are mind numbing. About 11 million people between Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea were in serious danger of starvation as a result of multiyear droughts in 2006. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria estimates that by 2010 around 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly a third of the population, will suffer from malnutrition because of intensifying drought ...

The long-term future is even more alarming. A study by Britain's authoritative Hadley Center for Climate Change documents a 25 percent increase in global drought during the 1990s, which produced well documented population losses. The Hadley's computer models of future aridity resulting from the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions are truly frightening. At present, extreme drought affects 3 percent of the earth's surface. The figure could rise as high as 30 percent if warming continues, with 40 percent suffering from severe droughts, up from the current figure of 8 percent. Fifty percent of the world's land would expereince moderate drought, up from the present of 25 percent. Then the center ran the model without factoring in the impact of greenhouse gases, which they assumed were the temperature change villans. The results implied that future changes in drought without anthropogenic warming would be very small indeed.

Beastinblack said...

Overpopulation will be the end of the world. forget tedious emissions statistics, the fact is there are too many human beings on this planet. 3 options: totalitarian birth control, mother nature works her brutal way or people take responsibility for their actions.

Eneasz said...

Anon - The only way you can say this is a strawman is by claiming that global warming will not destroy whole cities. Because if global warming IS likely to destroy whole cities, than this IS a correct translation of the "It's not the end of the world" claim.

You use the MWP as your evidence that cities will not be destroyed. Please note that the MWP was localized to Europe(ish) and overall global temperatures were about the same as they are today, perhaps a small fraction cooler. See here, here, and here.

You also say that previous periods of global warmth have done no recorded harm to humanity. This is true, but that is because humanity didn't exist during those periods. The oldest historical records we have are 5000-6000 years old. As you can see, there has been almost no significant temperature change in that time period, and thus no climate changes that would have effect on humans.

As significant temperature increase IS projected to destroy cities, the comparison stands.

Rex -
Who asked us to ensure that evolution stops and that the planet enters a happy unchanging stasis forever? And if we were NOT asked to do this, who's idea is it that we should halt these processes? And who agreed that we should set ourselves on this course?

Well, we certainly don't HAVE to stabilize the climate if we don't want to, just like we don't HAVE to throw water onto a burning house if we don't want to.

The people who want to halt these processes are those who's cities, crops, and lives will be devastated by this climate shift. Those who agreed to set themselves on this course are those affected and those who care about the fate of those affected. If you don't care about destroying the cities, crops, and lives of millions of people then obviously you won't be motivated to do anything about it. Thus the "It's not the end of the world" argument.

Also a minor nit to pick - evolution doesn't "stop", just like gravity doesn't "stop". :) It'll just be driven by other factors more than by climate (compared to the past).

Eneasz said...

Hume's Ghost -

I personally shy away from using drought arguments, because of the difficulty I have in showing that overall world-wide drought lands will not be compensated for by increased rainfall in other areas. (Obviously this is ignoring the costs and years of famine as the agricultural infrastructure has to be rebuilt in new areas, as well as the possible wars that may result). If you have any links on-hand that demonstrate that this change is likely to net on the more-drought side I'd be very appreciative. :)

The Vicar said...

Describing global warming's effects with "it won't be the end of the world" is misleading -- I believe deliberately so. Making the world incapable of supporting even unicellular life would more or less require destroying the physical planet, not just the biosphere, which is practically impossible. (See this humorous treatment.)

What it will be is the end of the world as we know it. Add five degrees of temperature, and most edible multicellular ocean life will die off. (Along with a lot of other things, such as the entire Great Barrier Reef.) For that matter, increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere cause a rise in ocean acidity, and the pH of the ocean is indeed falling to the point where some species are reaching their limits.

Huge chunks of land which are currently arable will become not merely unarable but totally uninhabitable. Since added heat means more evaporation, there will be more water in the atmosphere, too, and more energy to move it around with, so we can expect more extreme weather such as hurricanes, and heavier snowfalls during the winter.

The person whose estimates of things like icecap melting rates and species dieoff has come closest to the reality is James Lovelock, discoverer of the hole in the Ozone layer and author of the Gaia hypothesis. His long-term estimate for the maximum population of a warmed earth: 200 million people, if they are very disciplined and careful to use the land properly. Pretty much all of that 200 million, by the way, would be living in the far north and south; the current major countries would be long-since wasteland.

The U.S. alone has a higher population than 200 million, so even if all the other countries in the world say "oh, hey, we'd rather die than inconvenience America, so you guys get to evacuate first", about a third of the U.S. population would then be dead even if the U.S. population ceases rising right now.

For that matter, we're all ignoring a rather obvious fact: sooner or later, the rise in temperature is going to seriously threaten a nuclear nation. The thing which keeps nuclear war from happening is the threat of reprisal; if a country is convinced it will cease to exist anyway, that threat ceases to be a deterrent. Quite aside from the temptation to bomb the U.S., China, and India as the major causes, they might very well decide to bomb the arctic areas just out of spite, so that the areas to which the survivors might want to retreat are filled with radioactive fallout, on the "if we're going to die, we're taking you with us" principle.

So, yeah, a warmed earth would be an end, all right.

skyewriter said...

Delurking for a comment:
My husband (Ph.D. candidate in physics) is a paleo-climatologist who works on ice-core samples from the WAIS ice-sheet. Anyone who *believes* (belief being a key term here) that climate change is not a reality is as likely to get a visit from the Great Elf from the North on December 25th.

Altho' my husband is in agreement with the academic, educated, scholarly group on the reality of climate change, he is also a realist. He is traveling to San Francisco this very weekend to attend and present at the USGS conference. Many of his colleagues agree: we are likely past the point of no return with CO2 emissions. The cap-and-trade shenanigans will not affect an unavoidable future: floods, droughts, famine, and widespread disease in the poorest, most densely populated coastal areas across the globe (75% of the world's population lives within 5 miles of salinated bodies of water [_Coastal Researcher_ available through university libraries). Also, your readers might want to check the USGS website for their facts regarding the CO2 emissions from volcanoes. A fraction of what humans emit with fossil fuel burning...

I am sorry, Atheist Ethicist, that you suffer comments from "anonymous" attackers who cannot seem to make any argument beyond an ad hominem attack or use of the empty the tu quoque fluff.

I enjoy your blog immensely.

John Doe said...

Umm, Skyewriter, what we don't need is more "appeals to authority." (My husband is a scientist.) Nobody disputes global climate change, what they dispute (or are skeptical of, in my case) is whether change is in any way attributable to human activities.
I'm sure he is wonderful, and that you are too, but just saying that he is a scientist doesn't end the discussion, but thanks for trying. I know that sounded nasty, but I don't know a nice way of saying it. I'm a ham-handed old man I guess. I'm not trying to be a pr!ck, I'm searching for the truth, and you saying my husband is a scientist is not exactly a convincing argument.

Alphonzo, not trying to be controversial here, but I've been giving your comment some thought. YOu said in a comment afterwards:

"There are non-human causes to increases and decreases in global CO2 concentrations. However, there is no evidence of any of them being in play new."

I agree with the above sentences, but would like to add that there is evidence that we are deforesting the planet more and more every day. Are you aware of whether there are any studies that enquire whether the amount of increase of CO2 in any way correlates to the deforestation of the planet? I can see that the easiest explanation for the increase in CO2 might be the increased use of the combustion engine and industrialization, but it might not be that simple. Perhaps it is those things plus the deforestation of our planet. [I'm a long time advocate of planting trees.]

skyewriter said...

Thanks, John Doe, for your thoughts. It is precisely the appeal to authority (ethos) that this argument needs because *lots* of people dispute climate change. Those who are studying climate (with millions and millions of dollars in fact-backed research) are those who know the truth behind this debate. It is the appeal to emotion (pathos) that gives anonymous and others like her/him the means to sway public opinion through fear and intimidation. Those same tactics are used in the media by those who refuse to research the facts for themselves and rely on opinion instead of thinking critically. Literalism is the enemy of civil discourse and your comment proves that.

My only goal with my comment was to contribute what I know from first hand discussions with scientists (my husband and tenured, research professors at our university) and not level small attacks at people with snarkiness ("Umm..."). Pathos is not persuasive... it only causes reaction. Nicely done since apparently that was your goal.

Hume's Ghost said...

"If you have any links on-hand that demonstrate that this change is likely to net on the more-drought side I'd be very appreciative. :)"

The next paragraph of that book reads:

In human terms, the United Nations Environment Program reports that 450 million people in twenty-nine countries currently suffer from water shortages. By 2025, an estimated 2.8 billion of us will live in areas with increasingly scarce water resources.

John Doe said...

Skye, touche', not that I didn't expect it. We even now, so that we can discuss this rationally?

I didn't understand what you meant by: "Literalism is the enemy of civil discourse and your comment proves that." Would you explain? [no snark on my part, I really don't understand.]

Further, I'm trained as a lawyer, not a scientist. But as a lawyer, I've seen "scientists" come in on both sides of an issue more often than you've had mentrual cycles. The sides were diametrically opposed, and it was physically impossible for both sides to be right. And it usually appeared that they "happened" to support thte side that hired them. So call me jaundiced.

You say that, "Those who are studying climate (with millions and millions of dollars in fact-backed research)are those who know the truth behind this debate." THAT DOES NOT PERSUADE ME, THAT MAKES ME EVEN MORE SKEPTICAL!!!! If somebody is being paid millions to study something, they had better be even more scrupulous, above-board, and ethical than those who aren't. And they had better not be trying to prevent opposing views from being published in peer-reviewed articles. And, as my algebra teacher used to say, they had better "show" their work.

Finally, fine, let us know what you know. From being married to a scientist, what do you "know" about global warming? Better yet, get your hubby to contribute here. I'd be glad to pick his brain.

Jim Lippard said...

The role of population in climate change leads to some complex ethical problems--for example, the IPCC projections for African emissions presuppose that no attempt will be made to eradicate malaria. If malaria were eradicated, saving millions of lives, African CO2 emissions would be much higher. Yet the goal of mitigation is itself to save human (and nonhuman) life.

The kind of moral callousness you describe is already exhibited with regard to other human-caused suffering--most of the world lives in poverty and doesn't have clean water or enough food, for example. Climate change is no different in that regard, and its adverse effects will be the most severe on the world's most impoverished.

Eneasz said...

The next paragraph of that book reads:

Yah, but books aren't a comment-friendly source. Very few people will go buy a linked book, and even fewer will read through the whole thing. I guess I should do my own homework here and start googling. :)

Doug S. said...

Just playing devil's advocate for a moment. ;)

---

The World Health Organization estimated that in the year 2004, 1.2 million people died in automobile accidents. That's roughly equivalent to the population of Stockholm, Sweeden.

So, because we use cars, we commit the equivalent of depopulating a small city every year. Clearly, we need to institute strict measures to restrict people's driving so people will no longer die in automobile accidents. After all, anything else would be sheer moral callousness!

---

Now, what's wrong with the above argument that isn't wrong with arguments to restrict CO2 emissions?

Matt S said...

@ Doug S
We're working on safer cars. When I used to read in Popular Science or somewhere about once a year they'd run an article talking about future cars that drove themselves, or cars that stuck to an infrared line in the road, and we've begun to see more ads with cars that have collision detection.
Also, the Click-it or Ticket campaign seeks to reduce driving injuries and deaths by ticketing drivers who don't wear seatbelts.

Matt S said...

About the argument concerning endangered species:
For all his conservatism and such, my Dad used to subscribe me to the World Wildlife Fund magazines and whichever mag had the Ranger Rick comics in it, and from that I learned that it's important to try to stop animals from becoming extinct for a couple reasons.
1 it's kind of wrong for us as a species to kill off other species to fuel our rapacious lifestyles. I personally feel like we're sort of playing god by not trying to reduce our impact on the environment. As a boy scout much emphasis was placed on Leave No Trace camping, because we don't want to disturb wildlife and we want future generations to enjoy nature.
2 We don't know what benefits to humankind various endangered organisms offer. For one, we know trees process CO2. There are plenty of plants and animals very important to health research that are in danger.
3 We don't always know how our actions threaten various ecosystems. By killing one organism in the food chain, we affect the whole food chain, and that could ultimately affect us.


Finally as a side note, I really hope that anonymous will start giving us at least a name. The internet's pretty impersonal as it is, we'd at least like to know what to call you.