Monday, February 21, 2011

Ethical responsibility and climate change

Today at work we were talking about ethical responsibility and climate change. A colleague suggested that the difference between China and the US could be likened to that between a murderer and someone guilty only of manslaughter. His argument was that when America began its industrial development, no one knew about the risks of climate change whereas China began its industrial rise at a time when these risks were already well understood. Recognizing that climate change will, in effect, kill people in the future, my colleague suggested that China was guilty of nothing less than deliberately murdering future people and that only the dishonest practice of “time-discounting” could obscure this fact.

Listening to this argument, I realized that it brings out many of the reasons why I disagree with mainstream views on the ethics of climate change.

Firstly, we have to consider that China has witnessed an unprecedented decline in poverty over the last three decades. The poverty rate has fallen from 85 percent in 1981 to 10 percent today and even if rural poverty remains dire in many places, mass starvation has been averted and countless present lives have been saved. It is clear that fossil fuels, especially inexpensive coal power, have been instrumental in making this rapid export-oriented economic growth possible.

Secondly, when looking at the number of people that are at risk of dying in the future as a result of climate change, we have to compare that number to what the consequences would be if the world were to adopt the kind of socio-economic policies that my colleague and other neo-Malthusians tend to advocate, such as a dramatic reduction in economic activity. The number of people that would be affected if some countries were to fall into spiralling deflation while others (the US comes to mind) would strenuously hold on to their current way of life, especially by the use of military force. In fact, we cannot even begin to imagine how the system of global capitalism, and all the billions of individual aspirations that are tied to it, could be dismantled without risking serious international mayhem and ecological destruction as people would return to self-sufficiency.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we have to look at the long-term implications of current growth patterns. If China succeeds in lifting all of its 1.3 billion people away from poverty and into the global middle class, we would have hundreds of millions of talented people who could contribute to the world with their creativity and productive labour. Instead of only looking at the consumption-side of the economic equation, we should ask what role these people could play in securing the long-term survival of humanity through the development of new energy sources, more advanced recycling technologies and, ultimately, space colonization. If we truly are not to discount the future, then we cannot ignore the simple fact that if humanity were to climb to the stars, millions of years of civilization would lie ahead of us and tens of billions of humans would be able to enjoy the precious gift of consciousness.

Considering all of this, I believe that we have a moral duty to do what we can to mitigate climate change, be it through demand-side reductions or supply-side innovation (see previous post). However, we would indeed be guilty of wilfully murdering future people if we chose to ignore the bigger historical picture of human evolution. As much as we need change, we need change in an intelligent direction, a direction that can inspire rather than frighten people and a direction that has a reasonable chance of securing democratic support not only in individual countries but also in a pluralistic world.

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