Monday 20 January 2020

Environmental Ethics and Climate Change

Posted by Keith Tidman

The signals of a degrading environment are many and on an existential scale, imperilling the world’s ecosystems. Rising surface temperature. Warming oceans. Sinking Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Glacial retreat. Decreased snow cover. Sea-level rise. Declining Arctic sea ice. Increased atmospheric water vapour. Permafrost thawing. Ocean acidification. And not least, supercharged weather events (more often, longer lasting, more intense).

Proxy (indirect) measurements — ice cores, tree rings, corals, ocean sediment — of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that plays an important role in creating the greenhouse effect on Earth, have spiked dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The measurements underscore that the recent increase far exceeds the natural ups and downs of the previous several hundred thousand years. Human activity — use of fossil fuels to generate energy and run industry, deforestation, cement production, land use changes, modes of travel, and much more — continues to be the accelerant.

The reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contributed to by some 1,300 independent scientists and other researchers from more than 190 countries worldwide, reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides ‘have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years’. The level of certainty of human activity being the leading cause, referred to as anthropogenic cause, has been placed at more than 95 percent.

That probability figure has legs, in terms of scientific method. Early logical positivists like A.J. Ayer had asserted that for validity, a scientific proposition must be capable of proof — that is, ‘verification’. Later, however, Karl Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, argued that in the case of verification, no number of observations can be conclusive. As Popper said, no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white. (Lo and behold, a black swan shows up.) Instead, Popper said, the scientific test must be whether in principle the proposition can be disproved — referred to as ‘falsification’. Perhaps, then, the appropriate test is not ability to prove that mankind has affected the Earth’s climate; rather, it’s incumbent upon challengers to disprove (falsify) such claims. Something that  hasn’t happened and likely never will.

As for the ethics of human intervention into the environment, utilitarianism is the usual measure. That is to say, the consequences of human activity upon the environment govern the ethical judgments one makes of behavioural outcomes to nature. However, we must be cautious not to translate consequences solely in terms of benefits or disadvantages to humankind’s welfare; our welfare appropriately matters, of course, but not to the exclusion of all else in our environment. A bias to which we have often repeatedly succumbed.

The danger of such skewed calculations may be in sliding into what the philosopher Peter Singer coined ‘speciesism’. This is where, hierarchically, we place the worth of humans above all else in nature, as if the latter is solely at our beck and call. This anthropocentric favouring of ourselves is, I suggest, arbitrary and too narrow. The bias is also arguably misguided, especially if it disregards other species — depriving them of autonomy and inherent rights — irrespective of the sophistication of their consciousness. To this point, the 18th/19th-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham asserted, ‘Can [animals] feel? If they can, then they deserve moral consideration’.

Assuredly, human beings are endowed with cognition that’s in many ways vastly more sophisticated than that of other species. Yet, without lapsing into speciesism, there seem to be distinct limits to the comparison, to avoid committing what’s referred to as a ‘category mistake’ — in this instance, assigning qualities to species (from orangutans and porpoises to snails and amoebas) that belong only to humans. In other words, an overwrought egalitarianism. Importantly, however, that’s not the be-all of the issue. Our planet is teeming not just with life, but with other features — from mountains to oceans to rainforest — that are arguably more than mere accouterments for simply enriching our existence. Such features have ‘intrinsic’ or inherent value — that is, they have independent value, apart from the utilitarianism of satisfying our needs and wants.

For perspective, perhaps it would be better to regard humans as nodes in what we consider a complex ‘bionet’. We are integral to nature; nature is integral to us; in their entirety, the two are indissoluble. Hence, while skirting implications of panpsychism — where everything material is thought to have at least an element of consciousness — there should be prima facie respect for all creation: from animate to inanimate. These elements have more than just the ‘instrumental’ value of satisfying the purposes of humans; all of nature is itself intrinsically the ends, not merely the means. Considerations of aesthetics, culture, and science, though important and necessary, aren’t sufficient.

As such, there is an intrinsic moral imperative not only to preserve Earth, but for it and us jointly to flourish — per Aristotle’s notion of ‘virtue’, with respect and care, including for the natural world. It’s a holistic view that concedes, on both the utilitarian and intrinsic sides of the moral equation, mutually serving roles. This position accordingly pushes back against the hubristic idea that human-centricism makes sense if the rest of nature collectively amounts only to a backstage for our purposes. That is, a backstage that provides us with a handy venue where we act out our roles, whose circumstances we try to manage (sometimes ham-fistedly) for self-satisfying purposes, where we tinker ostensibly to improve, and whose worth (virtue) we believe we’re in a position to judge rationally and bias-free.

It’s worth reflecting on a thought experiment, dubbed ‘the last man’, that the Australian philosopher Richard Routley introduced in the 1970s. He envisioned a single person surviving ‘the collapse of the world system’, choosing to go about eliminating ‘every living thing, animal and plant’, knowing that there’s no other person alive to be affected. Routley concluded that ‘one does not have to be committed to esoteric values to regard Mr. Last Man as behaving badly’. Whether Last Man was, or wasn’t, behaving unethically goes to the heart of intrinsic versus utilitarian values regarding nature —and presumptions about human supremacy in that larger calculus.

Groups like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have laid down markers as to tipping points beyond which extreme weather events might lead to disastrously runaway effects on the environment and humanity. Instincts related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — where people rapaciously consume natural resources and pollute, disregarding the good of humanity at large — have not yet been surmounted. That some other person, or other community, or other country will shoulder accountability for turning back the wave of environmental destruction and the upward-spiking curve of climate extremes has hampered the adequacy of attempted progress. Nature has thrown down the gauntlet. Will humanity pick it up in time?


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

In the words of the philosopher Holmes Rolston, ‘The epistemic crisis is as troubling as the environmental crisis, and one must be fixed before the other can.’ There is a pressing need for a rational basis for a healthy, balanced relationship with nature, and we don't seem to have it.

Here is where I think the answer lies. To borrow a term from John Locke, nature is 'almost infinite'. It is beyond us, and beyond human cosseting and monitoring. We have to let nature be nature. Leave it alone, to the extent that it will be self-sustaining through all the cycles of nature. This is not the same as Edward Wilson's proposal that we should set aside half the land and sea, as a 'first, emergency solution'. He assumed thereby that we have the ability, over time, to master the problem. I don't think we do. Rather, there must be a permanent separation of the natural environment, as far as this is possible.

We may have religious readers, where the view is that we are the stewards (or lords) of creation. 'Let nature be nature' may seem to contradict that. Interestingly, in the Genesis account of creation, God says (abridged), ‘I have given to humans every plant seeding seed, and to every creature every green plant.’ This might support the idea that nature belongs not only to humanity, but to 'every creature'.

Keith said...

Well said, Thomas!

I agree with Rolston’s observation that the crisis is as much ‘epistemic’ as it is environmental. And to some degree, I agree with the following sentiments: ‘[Nature] is beyond us, and beyond human cosseting and monitoring. We have to let nature be nature. Leave it alone, to the extent that it will be self-sustaining through all the cycles of nature’. Albeit, slightly qualifiedly.

Why ‘qualifiedly’? Well, to my mind, the human species has so assaulted the planet — and continues to do so — that we owe Earth to try undoing the damage we’re causing. I’m not sure we can afford to ‘leave it alone’. Besides, our own welfare is at stake, as risks to food and shelter and disease and social disruption spike. I see our responsibility less as ‘cosseting’, but both morally imperative and categorically existential.

It’ll mean stopping the assault; and it’ll mean living more compatibly with all nature, of which we’re an integral part. To be less singularly human-centric, even though the world’s economic interests will result in pushback. These are all huge challenges, with no assuredness that we can get it right — or at least get it right before foreshadowed extremes hit irreversible tipping points. The clock is ticking, with consequences arguably dire.

Martin Cohen said...

"The signals of a degrading environment are many and on an existential scale, imperilling the world’s ecosystems."

It's a good point to bring us, thanks Keith. I don't actually agree that the environment is degrading as you say though. I remember 50 years ago my primary school teachers telling us that there would be no water/ trees/ soil left by the year 2000... but indeed there still is. The media loves to make everytig into the 'final crisis' but I think we should be very cautious before agreeing. That's not to say that humans are not a terrible scourge on the planet, though. We have driven too many species either to extinciton - or the very edge of it - already. ANd yes, extinciton is 'forever'. But in terms of the Earth's climate, i like I think Thomas do see a danger in dignifying mankind as a kind of 'climate controller'. DO we control the subterranean movement so the Earth's core - the ones that determine the planet's magnetic field and to a large extent the ocean temperatures? Do we contorl the SUn's interior activity, that affects its radiation and both clouds and sunlight on Earth? Do we control the great currents of the oceans, like the one in the Atlantic that has weakened recently seemingly sending warm water to the artic and drastically reducing the sea ice there?

Of course, I am hinting that we do not, but the impications of this are more existentail - we do NOT really control the Earth's climate and our ability to manage the planet's ecosystems is only within limits. Yet equally, even within those limits, we do so poorly. Was it Holmes or someone else who ured that if we MUST build all over the land, we reserve a fraction in perpetuirty for the animals and nature? The natural park aproach, in effect. Yet even this tiny commitment we seem to be unwilling to make - witness the constant unravelling of environmental protection in Trump's America.

Keith said...

The Earth to run out of all water and soil by the year 2000? I’m not sure, Martin, what that would even look like. It sounds as if those ‘primary school teachers’ might have been a bit amok. No idea why teachers felt comfortable about instructing pliant students on matters that the instructors seemed to know little to nothing about. Sounds like an impeachable offense — or at least a plot line for (bad) science fiction. ;-)

I do agree, however, that the news media, being foremost profit centers, not uncommonly get breathless over dramatic stories whose hype is intended to lure eyes and ears. It’s one of the Achilles’ heels of the industry. As for climate change and the environment, however, fortunately we don’t have to depend on cable news for the mother lode: I find there are many science-based sources for deeply informed discussion of the topic.

I also agree that when it comes to the behaviour of the sun or of the Earth’s core or of tectonic shifting, of course humans can’t control those. Truth be told, I’ve never actually heard such extravagant claims. But humans don’t need to be capable of these superhuman things in order to influence the trajectory of climate change and environmental preservation. There’s a lot that humans can do and influence, described in exquisite detail in online-searchable reports by all sorts of credible organizations.

In short, I propose that there’s no reason for the world to subscribe to humans’ powerlessness.

As to reference to the current policies in the United States, and elsewhere in the developed world — their relationship to climate change and the environment — I feel policies are catalyzed by a mix of what I’d label anti-scientism (rejection of scientific methods and integrity), corporatism (protectionism and emphasis on short-term profits), denialism (the weather and environment are doing just fine), a tinge of libertarianism (as little government as possible), and developed-world-ism (‘we’ve got ours, and we want to keep it’, which infects other countries, too). Such ideologies tend to wax and wane, though, taking on a form that depends on who’s wearing the government’s sable mantle at any point in time.

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