Category Archives: Climate change

Risk Assessment in Developing Countries

In the discussions on how to provide protection against risks in order not to compromise the ability of future people to enjoy a clean and safe environment, one distinction is of particular importance. It refers to the way in which developed and, respectively, developing countries should manage these risks for the benefit of future generations.

Taking this distinction seriously from a normative point of view, two issues are worth exploring:

1)      While in the developed world, the problem seems to be mostly one of optimizing risk management, or how to provide public safety by effectively minimizing natural risks, in developing countries, the main problem stems from a complex system of inter-related social vulnerabilities, which generates a number of separate, additional risks. Certain social and institutional problems specific to developing countries are so important in terms of their negative effect on public safety and environmental protection that they should be considered risks in themselves.

2) Secondly, developing countries display a characteristic which, at first view, may seem paradoxical. They are countries where societal risks are high, pervasive and self-reinforcing, but, at the same time, they are the least concerned to work for minimizing them. Instead, they seem to be focusing primarily on natural risks. On the contrary, developed countries with a tradition of concern for public safety take societal risks seriously, even in cases where these are (comparatively) much lower.

Take, for instance, nuclear energy. Except for particular conditions (for example, high seismic hazards), the natural risks are quite comparable across the two groups of countries using similar technologies.

However, risks of short-sighted or even contradictory policies resulting from institutional backwardness, corruptibility, non-compliance, are not so comparable. In some developing countries, far from being isolated factors, they are the daily background of decision-making.

Choosing a site for a waste repository or deciding on the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant are, therefore, fraught with a distinct set of problems: lack of coherent regulations, poor administrative capacity to take action in case of an accident (starting from overlapping responsibilities of institutions to insufficient buses to transport people from the community affected), or the shallow excuse that public policies should first mirror the immediate interests of citizens (welfare, development).

If this is how things look in some parts of the developing world, I would argue that such different situations should require different strategies. In my view, this would mean that developing countries should abandon the ‘reductionist’ fallacy, of equating risks with (only) natural risks, and take societal risks seriously. The fact that this would definitely be more costly for the time being should not affect the normative dimension of the problem. If we choose to rely partly on the analogy with the budget a person should manage to minimize a set of risks, then being poorer would not imply one should not save. On the contrary, being poorer is in many cases being more vulnerable, and saving could add some protection.

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

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And I was hoping for spring…

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’Winter is coming’… is the motto of one of the rivaling clans in the very popular HBO TV-series Game of Thrones based on an even more popular book series by George R. R. Martin calles A Song of Ice and Fire. It depicts a small world with rivaling political forces fighting for influence and power in the shadow of a pending natural disaster – The Winter – that will make the battles, intrigues and cunningly laid plans to dominate others seem like child´s play.

’Winter is coming’… Soon the different groups and parties will be forced to join rank against this common enemy – or be overrun by forces much greater than their own. At least that is the impression I am left with having seen the first two seasons of the series. It might just be me looking through a distorted perspective, but I cannot help see the series as an allegory of the political landscape today and the fight for power, resources, influence and economic advantages that takes place in the shadow of the ”winter that is coming” in our reality: climate change. I am not sure whether it is this resemblance with the current political situation or the surprising amount of very scantily clad young women, blood filled action scenes and mythological scenery that has given the series the huge success it has had.

But it does seem fitting that the series is aired in a situation where we basically seem to have given up on climate change and are just focusing on getting the economy back in growth mode.  It is very hard not to hear the words ”Winter is coming” as a comment to our own situation. A situation that is characterized by the inability of democratic societies to recognize that the idea of perpetual growth in a closed system is suicidal. A situation characterized by our common ability to close our eyes to the dire warnings from climate scientists that we are heading for 4 degrees temperature raises or more within the next 100 years (for some reason nobody seems concerned about what will happen in 150 years).

’Winter is coming’… and as the as the severity of the situation grows, reality to an ever incressing degree resembles a lazy tv-movie: from the stereotypical scientists warning us about a pending disaster to the stereotypically uninterested politicians that are more concerned about re-election than taking care of the public good. It is like watching ’Jaws’, ’Earthquake’ and ’Vulcano’ at the same time with the only difference being that we are all playing the part of the politicians these days.

No matter how many hyped concepts such as ’green’, ’sustainable’, ’responsible’ or environmentally friendly’  we place before the basic notion of ’growth’ there can be little doubt that the current tehcno-fetishism and daydreaming about golden technologies that will allow us to continue our patterns of consumptions and save the planet, are wearing thin. Techo-optimism is a new phrase describing the bankrupcy of a culture that is left hoping for the impossible while digging its own grave. A culture so unimaginative and fearful that the mere idea of changing our life-styles seems more threatening than the catastrophic climate changes caused by our current way of life.

’Winter is coming’… and as it approaches we go on with our daily lives: watch Game of Thromes, song contests, Champions League, make babies, laugh at stupid pictures on Facebook, and generally forget about the reality we live in. The human ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and continue to live everyday lives in the shadow of events out of our control is a beautiful phenomena. There is strength and hope in that. But what about our ability to deny that we are in a situation where we need to hope and fight? Our ability to simply close our eyes to the havoc we create and vaguley hope that spring will come no matter what we do? It is hard to see that as anything else than part of reason why the winter is still coming – and it is already April.

Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not)

After some reflections on conference tourism (here, here, and here), we asked for statements “Why are you flying to conferences? If not — why not?”

Martin Schoenfeld (this is his blog) said:

Yes, I do restrict my air travel. Why? Frankly, because I think not doing so would be bad karma. How? In that I only go to places now where the trip serves multiple purposes, such as attending a conference and giving a departmental colloquium at the same destination, or combining personal reasons, such as visiting friends or looking up relatives, with professional activities. But just going to one place for one purpose—nope, not anymore. Karma!

Robin Attfield said:

I find this difficult. In practice, I try to avoid long-haul flights, but continue to travel to places in Western Europe, which can sometimes be done by train. I have passed up invitations to go to Hawaii and to China, in each case sending my paper by other means. (In the case of China, I made a DVD and posted it to the relevant conference, which apparently appreciated it.) But I did travel to Pennsylvania and Notre Dame to honour two invitations in 2011. On the other hand, I managed to send a paper to a conference in 2010 in Washington State electronically, and to reply to live questions by telephone.

I also had some thoughts:

yes, I do travel to conferences. And I now even accepted a job abroad which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t also said Yes to the “love miles” involved in visiting friends and family at home. I tried to justify work-related air travel to myself by envisioning these emissions as the university’s emissions rather than as my emissions. Though, to be honest, when I flew to Japan my curiosity to see a new country was just as much a motivation to attend the conference as the purely academic interest. In such a case, it’s much more difficult to claim that these emissions are not my emissions — which is only partly true anyway, if at all. And anyway, even if they aren’t my emissions, I am still the one in the position to do something about them.
While I do travel to various places for work-related reasons, this reduces my desire to travel for private reasons (it’s as if my privileged position as an academic allowed me to tick off the box “See the world” on my life’s to-do-list – a box which I shouldn’t have put on the list in the first place, though…).
I currently lack the will to restrict myself more, and if I would do more, I would start with other things. Still, I feel a lot of tension about flying and I refrain from acquiescing in my current stance. I also welcome hostile remarks from friends as a helpful reminder not to acquiesce…

If you’re willing to share some lines (also anonymously), please do so! You can contact us here.

Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

Neoliberalism and Climate Change

Here you can find a collection of interesting thoughts on climate change by George Monbiot, published on his personal blog:

http://www.monbiot.com/2012/12/03/forbidden-planet

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Extremism of Moderation

Idealists with integrity are pretty annoying and demanding to be around. These are people who emulate Gandhi and hold that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Most others prefer to talk about what should be done and then find a host of excuses for not doing so.

One way to avoid acting upon our values is by making people who actually do so seem suspicious. Often we use a word borrowed from the world of religion to ward them off. They are: ‘fanatics’!

I have come across this phenomena several times over the last few weeks. One instance was in connection with the commercial collaboration between Tivoli in Copenhagen – a famous amusement park, but also national heritage in Denmark – and Kopenhagen Fur. Also, I experienced it in several discussions about eating meat. Allow me to briefly explain both contexts.

Tivoli made a deal with the fur industry that would benefit them financially. In return, the fur industry could use Tivoli to promote their products and thus sprinkle themselves with fairy dust from the stories of magic and innocent childhood that are usually associated with Tivoli’s brand. This was a very odd mixture of child amusement and brutal fur production, wherefore Tivoli received more protests than expected. What is interesting though is the discourse used by supporters of the collaboration in the social media (online newspapers, Facebook etc.)

Two strategies were employed: the first strategy was to point out the inconsistency of those who objected to the cooperation. ”How can you oppose the fur industry if you eat meat? If you want to be against this you must be a 100% vegan – it is just another way of using animals”.

However, it is obviously not a viable position to place each and every use of animals in the same category. One can argue that A and B are not the same and that there e.g. are differences in the way free-range pigs and mink are raised that make it possible to enjoy the first but not the other without being ethically inconsistent. Disregarding this it is striking how self-evident consistency is taken as an ethical prerequistite. If situation A and B are alike, you must without a doubt judge them in the same way. But this view-point is not self-evident, but much discussed within ethics, usually under the heading of the importance of context for ethical decision-making.

Behind this, however, lies a much more far reaching claim: If one is not 100% consistent, then one should not act at all! If one is not perfect in a moral sense then one might as well be an utter bastard. At least this is viewed as being better than inconsistency or, as it is also known, hypocrisy. The question must be whether this is actually the case though? Can you ward off criticism of your behaviour merely by pointing out the imperfection of your opponent? Should we refrain from acting, if our actions are not totally consistent? What if we give the homeless man 10 euros on the way home, but then stop at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for 20? Somehow it seems that I would be more consistent, had I not given the money to the homeless person.

The demand for perfection thus becomes an excuse of oneself on logical grounds. It is an avoidance of actually engaging with a life where perfection might never be attainable. Nonetheless, everybody is to some degree able to help other beings to a better life in countless situations – even if we could do even better. However, the moral demand becomes senseless, if it is reduced to an alternative between perfection and indifference. Morally the task must be to do the best you can and find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.

The demand for consistency has also played a big role in the current Danish debate on how to act in light of animal contributions to climate change. One way to reduce emissions is to limit the amount of meat and animal products (dairy, eggs etc.) in your diet: less meat is preferable, vegetarianism more so, and going vegan the optimal solution for the climate. The fewer animal products, the fewer emissions (However, this is only a rule of thumb, since e.g. food miles may be highly detrimental for the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables.). At the same time animal production causes a range of other problems with regard to deforestation, changes in savannas, drainage of wetlands and desertification, water use among other issues.

It seems there are a host of good reasons to change our diets. Nonetheless, many people promoting this change are very careful not to become purists. ”Let us not become fanatics/extremists” they warn. Other times they insist there is ”…no need to become religious about it.” Indeed, many similar expressions are frequently heard in public debate. It seems that vegetarianism and especially veganism is viewed as being fundamentally wrong – too drastic. This perspective marks vegetarians as a kind of food-Taleban militia with no regard for common sense. This would perhaps make sense if changing one’s diet were received in revelation as a divine command. The deity demands veganism as a sacrifice: the lord giveth vegetables and taketh away the meat. This is not the case though: vegetarianism/veganism is actually a rational choice in the scientific knowledge of our day and age.

Rather, the prevalent rhetoric seems designed to preserve the status quo instead of actually discussing the values, arguments and choices in front of us. Interestingly, those who call opponents of the fur industry hypocrites also often use the discourse of religious zealotry in other connections – and the result always seem to be that they are excused from changing, their behaviour

The discussions surrounding the human use of animals shows how many of us use concepts to get off the hook. Finger pointing and shouting ”Hypocrite” or ”Extremist” is enough for most to feel justified in continuing on the given path although the charade is wearing thin. Indeed, it is becoming ever more apparent that we are putting up a show to avoid admitting our indifference about our victims, about changing our ways, or about the paralyzing effect our fear has on us.

Perhaps it is time to follow those who act, however imperfectly, rather than be afraid of them. Perhaps the world would be better off with more hypocrites. Perhaps it is the time to be afraid of our amazing ability to lie to ourselves and invent excuses that allows us to do anything. Who knows – we might even make things a little better along the way if we avoid the extremism of moderation!

The author would like to thank Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions.

A crucial – but hardly mentioned – issue for climate negotiations

When asked about the prospects for climate negotiations, commentators usually sigh loudly and try to locate some small window of opportunity for incremental progress. The general impression is that there are stalemates, diametrically opposed interests, and few options for squaring the circle. Slow steps are all we can hope for in this bleak picture, it seems.

In the midst of this pessimism, we should not forget that there always remains the possibility of radically changing negotiating positions. Exogenous “shocks” to citizens’ views on climate change are imaginable. Here are two scenarios. A number of environmental disasters could hit a major country, thereby radically altering its perception of self-interest. A wave of religious awakening could sweep across another major country where the type of religion involved preaches radical harmony with nature. Both scenarios are unrealistic but we should not forget that in the past, political positions sometimes have been turned on their head in the course of a few years. We usually talk about low-probability-high-impact events with respect to bad outcomes. But we should not forget that there are also low probability events with respect to good outcomes. A radical change in public opinion is such a good outcome with low probability.

What does this have to do with climate negotiations? Climate negotiations should be set up such that they could accommodate any unexpected positive turn of negotiating positions. UNFCCC procedures, institutional flexibility, dialogue atmosphere etc. should not only be designed with the 99% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints set tight limits on climate policy but they should also be designed with the 1% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints could suddenly dramatically soften. It would be an awful shame if political will to solve the climate problem should surprisingly arrive but the inertia of political institutions would be unprepared to pick that up.

Those who think that the incremental progress of today is roughly on a par with not doing anything at all about climate change (a view I do not share), should be especially open to the above thoughts. In other words: Those who favor an all-or-nothing approach to mitigation (because they think doing little is about as bad as doing nothing) should view institutional preparedness for a radical turn in public opinion a high priority.

New Publication: Handbook of Risk Theory

A book of 1187 pages, like the one edited this year by Sabine Roeser, Rafela Hillerbrand, Per Sandin and Martin Peterson, would no doubt deserve a lengthier presentation than this blogpost. The reason I chose to refer to it here is that I find it definitely worth including on the reading list of researchers from many distinct fields of philosophy. First, the philosophical background of its editors helps shape the discussion as a theoretical framework in which risk is a central notion, with implications on many fields of research, as the 46 chapters indicate. Secondly, the structure of the book suggests possible routes of approach, at the core of many philosophical interests: the nature and epistemology of risk, decision theory, ethics, or sociology or risk.

With contributions from leading scholars, this anthology aims to discuss some major questions in the field of risk theory, such as: How should we conceive the relation between risk and safety, or risk and uncertainty? What mistakes do we make in measuring risk? How should we mitigate risks in fairness to future generations? What counts as morally acceptable risk? But there is equally fresh material in it which results from incorporating the discussion about risk into social justice theories, such as the capabilities approach, virtue ethics, trust, or particular cases of  responsibility, e.g. towards children.

If, at the end of the book, the reader finds herself/himself persuaded by some of the approaches defended, but still overwhelmed by the intricacies of risk theory,  she/he could perhaps find solace in the fact that there are enough risks left for each of us to explore in our everyday lives.

People in 1900 predict our times…

ImageIn yesterday’s seminar, we discussed Matthew Rendall’s fascinating article about protecting our grandchildren against climate catastrophe at their own expense. The article builds on the idea that under certain assumptions our grandchildren might be much better off than we are.

This assumption about rising levels of welfare caused a lot of protest. The point that still bothers me in this whole discussion is this: How on earth could we actually give reasons for claims to the effect that future generations will be better off than us or worse off than us?

I suggested some ways of giving reasons for such claims here. Here’s a further method one could use for avoiding arbitrariness about predictions about the future:

  1. Estimate your own gut feeling about the future being richer or poorer than us.
  2. Think hard and carefully about the direction in which our gut feeling is probably distorted by biases.

In that context, it might also be instructive to see whether the past over- or underestimated future welfare rises. A fun and interesting example is from the Ladies Home Journal of December 1900. A journalist asked the “wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” what they expect the world to look like in 2001. Read here for yourself.

They predicted peas as large as beets and strawberries as large as apples. Sometimes the forecasts are quite good, though. Twitter even seems to have made this prophecy come true  “Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas (…)”.

Are More Babies Better?

Two authors write about the same topic but about completely different subjects: Population.

Phil Cafaro writes an advanced review on Population and Climate Change for the WIREs Climate Change journal. The whole article is exclusively about how population size affects climate change.

But there’s also an effect the other way round: climate change affects population size. In John Broome’s new book on climate change there is a chapter entitled “Population” and pretty much the only topic is how climate change might decrease the human population (or increase it or eliminate it).

Funny how the two authors diverge so much in their focus. While Cafaro’s piece talks about population purely because climate change is bad, Broome’s chapter talks about climate change because a smaller population is bad.

I think Cafar0’s topic (population causing climate change) is more important than Broome’s (climate change causing population shrinkage). But at the same time, Broome is perfectly right to highlight the other side. It’s very difficult to come up with a coherent ethical view that would give no importance to how our actions affect population size. How come hardly anybody talks about that — the intrinsic value of a larger population — in climate policy?