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Sometimes the Old Man pops out of the cave for a spot of fishing. This weekend, he’s been engaging in a bit of philosophy at RealClimate. Thanks to RC for providing the platform for the discussion, and to Steve Reynolds for his interesting and challenging observations; I hope he comes to the cave to carry them on.

It starts with the Old man saying:

“It is interesting to observe the difference between this discussion and one which a group of philosophers might have on the subject. Too much of the above is about cost and responsibility. There are more fundamental questions to ask. Why do we perceive warming in the future to be ‘bad’? Is this a function of a reduction of wealth, a hindrance to ‘progress’ or development, or of risk to life and livelihood?

Is it possible to operate sufficiently effectively within a ‘shallow’ ecological framework, which accepts the economic systems and markets as they are and seeks to adjust the details, or do we need to take a ‘deep’ ecological approach, which posits a fundamental conflict between capital/developmental/market-based society and the nature of the changes needed to prevent a deeply undesirable future?

As I have mentioned on this blog before, we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.

The only way you can get out of this is to establish that we don’t know whether or not climate change projections are reliable enough to posit future harm. What future generations choose to do is irrelevant to our moral obligation. The only other out, it to argue that we have no collective responsibility to others, even if they might be innocent victims, and our lifestyles are the source cause of their suffering.

I’d also point you to the ‘Ethics and Climate Initiative’, which I know little about, but seems to have its heart in the right place.”

In response, Steve Reynolds offers:

“…we cannot avoid the moral problem faced by the inaction option; if, in the event that we can have a reasonable supposition of harm to others, we choose nonetheless to do nothing, then we must shoulder a burden of responsibility for the consequences of that inaction; we chose not to prevent harm.”

But what if actions to prevent harm cause greater harm (even with good intentions)?

The Old man replies:

“Steve Reynolds; then you end with an argument for consequentialism; the virtue in an action being determined by the consequence, rather than the intention. but consequentialism isn’t the only show in town. There is more than one way to define a ‘moral’ or ‘good’ or ‘right’ action or decision. Most climate (and policy) arguments revolve around a broadly pragmatic, humanist, utilitarian view of what constitutes ‘right’, or ‘good’, that is to say, that the sum of happiness/pain is an appropriate metric to determine the moral status of a decision. There is also the additional suggestion of ‘enlightened’ self-interest; that what is good for the planet/climate is good for all of us. If we persist in measuring what is good for us in terms of what makes us wealthier, or sustains our current lifestyle, then the economics of action to prevent serious climate change can never be fully justified, Stern or not, until such time as it is self-evident that inaction is more costly than action. By which time…

Even before we start arguing about the economic implications of action/inaction, I would contend that we need to consider the human (social) implications. In this type of argument, we must place value on human life, collectively and individually. If you wish to take it further, you can also place value on ecosystems and species, habitats and regional environments. The simple principles of equity, justice, and equality demand that we place no more intrinsic value on one life than on any other. This, however, comes at a price; the compromising of the principle of liberty.

Though there is so much more to say, I’d better stop here.”

Steve replies:

“If we persist in measuring what is good for us in terms of what makes us wealthier, or sustains our current lifestyle, then the economics of action to prevent serious climate change can never be fully justified, Stern or not, until such time as it is self-evident that inaction is more costly than action. By which time…”

Which is an argument for geoengineering as insurance.

But I do not accept that the impact of mitigation on the wealth of developed nations is the only issue. Access to cheap energy in developing nations is likely the difference between life and death for many more people than any difference mitigating AGW would make.

Old man:
“Steve: why would this imply a geoengineering solution; I don’t get it? I’d have thought that the geoE. solution was implied more by the cost/benefit approach rather than the alternative. Can you perhaps expand on your thinking on this?

I won’t argue about your second point; it seems relevant and important. I had been talking from the POV of ‘our’ lifestyles, of course. However, I’d dispute the assumption that, in the long-term, cheap energy will preserve or create more ‘good’ than mitigation. This is not to say that developing nations’ peoples don’t need energy to improve their chances of survival, just that the timbre of the impacts assessments is on a whole different scale to these.

Where we’ll agree is that everyone’s well-being has to be considered, both geographically and temporally.”

______________________________________________________________

Steve:

Re. “why would this imply a geoengineering solution; I don’t get it? I’d have thought that the geoE. solution was implied more by the cost/benefit approach rather than the alternative. Can you perhaps expand on your thinking on this?”

My point was that the potential severe unintended economic consequences of strong mitigation regulations might be avoided by near term concentration on energy production research. If warming effects are more severe than expected, then a short term geoengineering solution would be available as insurance.

Old Man:

“Thank you for explaining; I think I get where you are coming from. What sort of thing might an ‘unintended economic consequence’ of mitigation be? I presume you are thinking in terms of global recession, derived from dramatic economic impacts on consumption patterns in the USA, or something similar. Whilst I can see how this can be seen as undesirable in many ways, I am not sure how such an incident would be helped by a short-term geoengineering solution; it is more likely, surely, to be managed by a market solution. However, I don’t feel that we are thinking that much differently on this subject.”

______________________________________________________________

Steve:

“What sort of thing might an ‘unintended economic consequence’ of mitigation be? I presume you are thinking in terms of global recession…”

That is one concern, but primarily the more certain and likely more harmful effects of very expensive non-GHG energy on people in developing nations unable to afford it.

The booming economies of China and India are making great progress bringing people out of miserable poverty. I want to see that continue, not end.

Note that severe effects from AGW are not likely to occur until these people can afford to adapt and advanced research gives us reasonably cheap non-GHG energy.

There’s a further reply, which I’ll add later.

Another dialogue ensued in the same thread, between the Old man and ‘Onar A?am’; I may put this up on the site for further consideration. The important thing for you, dear reader, is to see that the Old Man is really quite approachable, and loves nothing more than a lively debate with interested seekers after wisdom. It would be nice to see a bit of this kind of dialogue going on in the cave…

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