Thursday, May 15, 2014

Climate Change, life and death

Professor John Broome, of the University of Oxford and author of “Climate Matters”, delivered the Royal Institute of Philosophy lecture at York University this week.

His is a philosophical approach to climate change. How is that relevant? The United Nations Framework on Climate Change sets out to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” To achieve this it needs to:

  1. Identify the level of emission concentration in the atmosphere low enough to prevent dangerous interference
  2. Define acceptable global annual emissions
  3. Allocate these annual emissions fairly  among nations

Moral philosophers are involved in stage 3, but stages 1 and 2 are decided by scientists, economists and politicians. Professor Broome disagrees with this because value judgements are involved at all three stages and he doesn’t believe that scientists, economists and politicians are much good at making such judgements. He is concerned that the UN Framework on Climate Change suggests that decisions on what constitutes dangerous climate change are value judgements and should be “determined through socio-political processes.” He doesn’t think the result of this process can be readily supported. The IPCC has set a target of a maximum emission of 1 trillion tonnes because that gives a better than 2/3 chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Why 2/3? Why 2°C?

Professor Broome believes that decisions should be made on expected values, not on likelihood. For example, the likelihood of the average house burning down is very small but the consequences are likely to be very serious. Because of the value of the catastrophe, it makes sense to buy a fire extinguisher.

How can we evaluate the harms and benefits of climate change? People are already dying as the result of climate change. The effects of weather are significant, leading in turn to poverty, malnutrition and disease. The fact that people die as a result of climate change is negative in itself, but as a consequence of their deaths there are fewer descendants and future generations are smaller, even to the extent that human extinction becomes an increasing possibility. The effect of climate change on the population - and vice versa - is largely ignored by governments. Some argue that changes in population levels are ethically neutral: Broome challenges this, but admits that we have no consensus on how to take these changes into account. The population elephant remains in the room.

Questions at the end of the session drew the comment that being nice is not good enough. We need to promote green virtues, but there are not enough virtuous people, so the only answer is government coercion. 

One questioner suggested that burning all the fossil fuel reserves in the world would not have serious consequences. He couldn’t quote supporting figures. Professor Broome disagreed but could not provide opposing figures and neither could I. However, it’s all here: