Editor’s Note: The following post is by Dr. John Lemons, an accomplished environmental scientist who has frequently written about issues that emerge at the environmental science-ethics interface. Dr. Lemons begins with a summary of recent scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change. This is followed by observations that climate change ethics has failed to penetrate climate change decision-making. Because of this failure and the urgency of putting the world on a hard-to-imagine ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction trajectory, Dr. Lemons calls on ethicists to examine ethical issues entailed by those who choose to participate in non-violent civil disobedience as a way of bringing attention to the seriousness of the climate change crisis. Climateethics has frequently included articles that acknowledged strong scientific support for the dangerousness of the climate change crisis and recently has acknowledged the total failure of politicians and the media in the United States to acknowledge that the United States has duties and responsibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and not just economic interests in climate change policy. See, for example, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions, http://climateethics.org/?p=206, and, The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions, http://climateethics.org/?p=138. However, as recently noted in ClimateEthics, one government’s climate change policy appears to have been motivated by ethical responsibility to the rest of the world, motivation that seems to have led to significant commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate, http://climateethics.org/?p=214. However, as we will see in future posts, even though Scotland made a strong policy commitment to GHG reductions apparently motivated in part by ethical considerations, this does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that Scottish commitments equal their moral responsibilities. Therefore, Dr Lemons' observation that ethical analyses of the climate change crisis has not yet led to policy change in most of the developed world is on target for the vast majority, if not all, developed countries. In addition, Dr. Lemons call for ethical analyses of responses to the climate change crisis that match the magnitude of the challenge is an appropriate new consideration for ClimateEthics. In this article, Dr. Lemons asks the appropriate question of climate change ethicists: "Given the lack of responsiveness to the climate change crisis by most developed countries, what should climate change ethicists be talking about?"
The goal of this paper is twofold: (1)to briefly describe recent scientific information on global climate change that suggests a greater need for urgency of action than might have previously been thought, and (2)to suggest that philosophers develop ethical stances that support nonviolent civil disobedience action to mitigate the problem of global climate change given its urgency.
In a climatethics.org post “Climate Change: The Normative Dimensions of IPCC’s Approach to Uncertainty,” I described the conservative nature of the IPCC Working Group 1 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) insofar as, e.g., concerned sea level rise projections, melting of the Arctic sea ice, dynamical melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and nonlinear events such as increased methane releases due to rising temperatures in permafrost (Lemons 2007). As mentioned in my post, the IPCC’s approach to use of scientific information is conservative because it is mandated by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization to reduce speculation in its review of scientific and technical peer–reviewed literature. Practically speaking, this means that the literature IPCC reviews is that about which a high degree of scientific confidence exists (e.g., say, 90 percent) and, hence, excludes information about threats or impacts that might be possible but are bounded by a lower degree of confidence.
Consequently, in the AR4 Report the IPCC decided to limit its projections of temperature changes within a 90 percent confidence level and, therefore, discounted a comparatively small but significant risk of larger temperature increases than those projected; if larger than projected temperature increases occurred this would, among other things, disproportionately affect regions in high latitudes as well as exacerbate climate change problems for future generations. A second example is that the IPCC (primarily) decided to exclude comparatively lower probabilities of rapid dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets and therefore discounted serious and irreversible damages from possible higher sea level rises. Finally, a third example is that IPCC decided to exclude non–linear events that could possibly result in higher or more rapid increases in temperature or sea level rise.
The international community is poised for the 2009 December UNFCCC COP in Copenhagen to consider how better to respond to global climate change in light of both the pressing need to do so as well as the need to replace the Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2012. To be sure, among information to be assessed at the COP will be recent studies that demonstrate not only that the IPCC’s AR4 Report underestimated significant global change impacts but also demonstrate there is an even greater urgency or immediacy to take action to combat global climate change than previously thought. Following, I provide a few brief (but not inclusive) examples of recent information that supports a greater need for immediate action to combat global climate change.
II. Recent Scientific Findings
A. Arctic Climate Change
Recent evidence indicates that Arctic sea ice is declining at a significantly higher rate than projected by IPCC’s AR4 Report (Stroeve et al. 2007). Additional evidence shows an anomalous shift from the millennial–scale cooling of the Arctic (stemming from the decline of maximum temperatures during the first half of the present interglaciation which is about 10,000–6000 years ago) to warming begun in 1900 and which has been intensifying since 1950 wherein the region has warmed about 2.2 C with the decade from 1998–2008 being the warmest in 2000 years; and, further, that the warming in the Arctic contains a clear human “fingerprint” (Kaufman et al. 2009). One consequence of declining Arctic sea ice is that as it declines it becomes more vulnerable to melting.
B. Greenland Ice Sheet Melting
The IPCC’s AR4 Report basically excluded considerations of dynamical melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet because it felt that there was insufficient evidence to consider such melting and to do so would involve the IPCC in speculation as opposed to basing conclusions on scientific information about which there is a high degree of confidence. However, recent studies show that the loss of ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet has increased in recent years and is more rapid than projected by IPCC’s models (e.g., 2007 melting was the most extensive since record keeping on the ice sheet began). One consequence is that sea levels are projected to rise more than 1.2 meters by 2100, significantly more than projected in IPCC’s AR4 Report (AMAP 2009).
C. Carbon Cycle Feedbacks
To a large extent, the IPCC’s AR4 did not consider some linear or non–linear feedbacks that might have consequences to climate change impacts. Recent studies have shown that the Arctic Sea is an important carbon sink, but that its carbon cycle is very sensitive to climate change (see, e.g., Bates 2009). For example, the uptake and fate of carbon in the Arctic Sea is influenced by physical and biological processes that are subject to global climate change impacts such as sea ice cover, seasonal phytoplankton growth, ocean circulation, ocean acidification, effects of rising temperatures, etc. All of these impacts are changing in a way that either decreases the ability of the Arctic Sea to uptake carbon dioxide or increases its release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
D. Degradation of Arctic Terrestrial and Sub–Sea Permafrost
Perhaps one of the most disturbing recent findings is that degradation of the Arctic terrestrial and sub–sea permafrost is releasing large amounts of methane that have been frozen as methane hydrates (see, e.g., Canadell and Raupach 2009). This is particularly worrisome because methane is about 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Release of methane hydrates was not considered in the IPCC’s AR4 report. Yet, recent information indicates that: (1)large amounts of methane are frozen in arctic methane hydrates; (2)continental shelves hold most of this methane and they increasingly are being released as permafrost melts; (3)that sub–sea permafrost is already releasing methane; and (4)there is a positive feedback of methane release insofar as methane hydrates increase in volume when they are destabilized by an increase in temperature and this leads to abrupt methane releases to the atmosphere.
III. Ethical Implications of Recent Scientific Information
In my original climateethics.org post, I wrote: “If the IPCC had explicitly considered in AR4 the risks of higher temperatures outside the boundary of a 90 percent confidence level, dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and non–linear responses to drivers of climate change this would have enabled public policy makers to be more effective in formulating responses to climate change under conditions of scientific uncertainty. Further, had IPCC done so this might have contributed to implementing the precautionary principle in responding to risks from a globally changing climate,” and, therefore, helped to address the problem of urgency.
In my view, the recent scientific facts I have briefly described support the need for greater urgency to combat global climate change, especially by the United States and other developed nations that have contributed disproportionately to both the magnitude and increasing rate of global climate change. Having said this, I see few if any positive signs that the United States in particular or more generally many developed nations are taking or will take sufficient and timely actions to address the urgency of the global climate change problem. For example, the recent “American Clean Energy and Security Act” (HR 2454, 26 June 2009) passed by the US House of Representatives is a weak bill insofar as mitigating the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. The Act called for only a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 2005 levels and, hence, is far below IPCC’s reduction recommendations. Further, the prospects for the US Senate passing strong climate change legislation do not seem promising. Added to this situation is the fact that G8 statements state that member nations “will try (italics mine) to limit global warming to 2 C above pre–industrial levels” and do not contain binding or other recommendations for short–term emissions reductions (Guardian 2008). Given the lack of urgent action to combat global climate change, it could be argued that those involved in environmental ethics might wish to add an additional focus to their on–going studies and analyses that might (hopefully) better promote the urgency for action. If this is the case: What is to be done?
IV. New Focus for Climate Change Ethics?
A. Non–Violent Civil Disobedience In Human Affairs
On 8 October 2007, a small group of environmental activists climbed the interior of the Kingsnorth coal fired power plant in Kent, England, in order to paint on the smokestack a demand that Prime Minister Gordon Brown end such facilities, which release nearly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere daily. Of course, the activists were caught by the police and arraigned on charges of trespass, damage to property, etc. (For a full accounting of this event, see Engler 2009).
Perhaps surprisingly, the activists were acquitted of charges by a 12–person jury after considering the defendants “necessity” defense, which although not used often does apply to situations in which a person violates a law to prevent a greater, imminent harm from occurring. In US criminal law, “necessity” may be either a possible justification or exculpation for breaking the law (Christie 1999).
In the Kingsnorth case, world–renowned climate scientist James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, flew to England to testify where he presented evidence that the Kingsnorth plant alone could be expected to cause sufficient global warming to prompt “the extinction of 400 species over its lifetime.” Citing a British government study (Stern 2007) showing that each ton of released carbon dioxide incurs $85 in future climate change costs, the activists contended that shutting the plant down for the day had prevented $1.6 million in damages–a far greater harm to society than any rendered by their paint on the plant’s smokestack–and that their transgressions should therefore be excused.
Hansen has done more than conduct scientific studies on global climate change and testify at, e.g., the Kingsnorth trial. On 23 June 2009, Hansen was arrested for his first time for nonviolent civil disobedience in West Virginia, the heart of the US coal country. Because coal is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions both in the United States and worldwide, and because there is enough coal left in the ground to heat the planet to catastrophic levels, that fossil fuel has been the focus of much new protest, as attested by Hansen’s arrest. Parenthetically, in March 2009, hundreds of people, including Hansen and “350.org” campaign organizer Bill McKibben, joined in “human chains” to block the entrances to a symbolic target: Washington, D.C.’s capitol power plant, a coal–burning facility built in 1910 that provides steam and refrigeration power to Capitol Hill. As a result of the protests, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers requesting that the plant switch to natural gas.
Hansen and McKibben are not alone in stepping outside of the confines of their professions and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Increasingly, other groups and individuals are engaging in similar protests (Engler 2009).
B. If Not Now, When?
As a natural scientist I have been engaged in global climate change issues since the early 1980s, particularly with respect to the integration of science with public policy and ethics. However, at this point in time there is little that I see that is a cause for optimism in the battle to solve global climate change on an ethical basis, to reduce immediately and significantly the emissions of greenhouse gases based on the best available scientific information. I hope I am wrong in my pessimism.
My formative years were the 1960s and early 1970s, and during those times I witnessed and/or participated in nonviolent civil disobedience to promote an end to the Viet Nam war, to promote women’s rights, and to promote environmental welfare. Preceding these kinds of protests, of course, were those of the 1950s to end racial segregation in the southern US.
With respect to global climate change problems the question I now grapple with is: Is traditional ethical analysis of the problems sufficiently influential to public policy and decision–makers given the urgency to act? It seems to me the ethical foundation for mitigating global climate change is well established. But if these foundations are not influencing national and international policy and decisions to deal with the urgency of the problems, then perhaps those involved in environmental ethics should consider helping to provide an ethical defense of nonviolent civil disobedience to better promote policies to combat global climate change. Again, I make this suggestion knowing that, in part, progress on racial desegregation in the southern US, progress on equality for women, and progress to end the war in Viet Nam was furthered by nonviolent civil disobedience.
To the extent my perception that there is slow progress by developed nations in taking urgent action actions to combat global climate change is correct, and given the view that traditional academic analysis of the ethics of global climate change is not as effective as we might hope, my questions to the community of environmental ethicists are: (1)Is the time for civil disobedience now? (2)What ethical justification, if any, can environmental ethicists provide for civil disobedience to combat global climate change? (3)If the consensus of environmental ethicists is against justification of nonviolent civil disobedience, what alternative is there that might be more immediately effective than current approaches?
V. Postscript and Conclusion
I wish to be clear that I am not faulting those involved in the ethics of global climate change in their traditional focus of studies or influence with policy makers and decision¬–makers. Indeed, the work of such ethicists is never finished because each time a new climate change issue arises it introduces new questions for analyses. And, make no mistake that I believe ethicists have contributed greatly to a deeper understanding of the problems and prospects of global climate change. Simply put, my recommendation is that global climate change ethicists continue looking at proposed climate change policies and arguments through an ethical “lens” while, because of the urgency of taking action to combat global climate change, at the same time devoting new serious attention to examining when nonviolent civil disobedience is ethically justified.
Dr. John Lemons
Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
Department of Environmental Studies
University of New England
Biddeford, ME 04005
(AMAP) Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. 2009. Update on Selected Climate Issues of Concern. Oslo, NO. 15 pp.
Bates, N.R. 2009. Marine Carbon Cycle Feedbacks. Pages 55–68 in: Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications (M. Sommerkorn and S.J. Hassol, eds.). World Wildlife Federation International Arctic Programme, Oslo, NO.
Canadell, J.G., and Raupach, M.R. 2009. Land Carbon Cycle Feedbacks. Pages 70–80 in: Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications (M. Sommerkorn and S.J. Hassol, eds.). World Wildlife Federation International Arctic Programme, Oslo, NO.
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