Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere? Climate Change, Wealth and Liberty – Part 2

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by: Michael Hoexter

In Part 1 of this post I summarized US and worldwide efforts to create legal standards to limit GHG emissions and described the political opposition to these efforts as based on a narrow conception of liberty, negative liberty, popular among conservatives over the last three decades. I introduced two types of ethical system, deontology and utilitarianism as helpful in understanding the debates over climate legislation.

The Supposed Wealth vs. Green Tradeoff

Lomborg and other critics of "green" point out how many advantages fossil fuels offer residents of the developed world. Large cars, minivans, and SUVs have become key enablers of an extremely mobile lifestyle for families, allowing them to lead a hyper-mobile lifestyle, where much family life is conducted on the go. Electric or plug-in hybrid versions of these people carriers are just a few years away, so this lifestyle or some future version of it may gradually become independent of fossil fuels.

One of the more recent and cleverer arguments that counsel inaction on the climate is the notion that fossil fuel use is equivalent to social wealth and this wealth prevents more harm and maximizes more pleasure than the attempt to “go green” and slow global warming. Popularized by Bjorn Lomborg and now repeated by many, this argument is based on the narrower form of utilitarian ethics mentioned in Part 1 that suggests a limited scope of knowledge about future events is wise; present pleasures and pain avoidance loom larger than dangers to future pleasures or the threat of future pain.

A version of the wealth vs. green tradeoff argument most recently available in a column of the New York Times by climate “skeptic” John Tierney, suggests that wealth both precedes and is a cause of the greening of an economy, with wealth premised on fossil fuel use. The general structure of this argument is not new, as opponents of environmentalism have often portrayed environmental protection as a concern of the idle rich or at least inessential to economic growth. Tierney attempts to divert attention from government regulation’s effect on the greening of economies by suggesting that wealthy people start to care about their environment and that somehow from there we see, through a presumed market effect, more efficient and cleaner use of natural resources. Many commenters to Tierney’s blog post (perhaps one positive is that Tierney’s opinionated views function as bait for commenters who actually know what they are talking about…but you have to dig to find them) are quick to point out that the relationship between wealth and environmental improvement is not linear and is initiated almost invariably by government regulations.  

Whatever the factual inaccuracies that both Tierney and Lomborg use to reinforce their positions there are some important issues related to fossil fuel use and development that need to be attended to in this discussion. While Tierney and Lomborg counsel slow action or inaction on climate, many countries of the developing world accuse the West of a double standard in seeking to curb fossil fuel use and therefore some representatives of developing countries feel entitled to ramp up the use of fossil fuels to spur their own development. Fossil fuels are energy “caviar”, very concentrated portable energy, stored in molecular form, that are still plentiful and fairly cheap in many areas of the world, though on a world historical scale will eventually become scarce. It is also true that all of the current industrial and now post-industrial powers have had access to and now still use fossil fuel to fuel their development. Furthermore energy use of any kind at some level of energy-intensity is a hallmark of developed or rich countries; development and a society’s wealth can be defined as shifting from using human musclepower alone to using powered equipment to make useful products and deliver useful services. Some commentators call this a shift from exclusively endosomatic (inside the body) to exosomatic (outside the body) energy.

Leapfrogging the use of coal to power industrial development in places like China and India is one of top global priorities in the area of climate. The fatalism of climate "skeptics" is not going to get us close to a solution.

Lomborg styles himself to be a defender of the developing world in suggesting that getting rich by repeating the West’s development path is the highest priority for most of the world, while Tierney sees himself simply as a realist in suggesting that the sequence of events from fossil fuel use to greening the economy is a natural history. However both are prey to a key fallacy that leads to their peculiar views, what might be called the “fallacy of continuity”. Both Lomborg and Tierney assume that change and development happen as a continuous process: that the future is simply an incremental change from the past. In this they are not alone as the U.N.’s International Energy Agency and US Energy Information Agency forecasts for energy use both show a similar tendency to stress continuity (continued growth in fossil fuel and renewable use in parallel) with regard for the climate protection goals enunciated by their sister agencies. Both authors must show themselves to be utterly convinced that climate change will be moderate or insignificant in its effects. And crucially both think that economic development will continue and must continue in the same way it has occurred in the past. This leads Tierney, for instance, who almost always selects those snippets of data that suit his political framework, to overlook the “break points” in the history of environmental quality, when a regulation actually kicked in and reduced emissions or increased energy efficiency.  

While climate change appears to be "black swan" to those who assume continuity with the past, in actual fact it is at most a grey or off-white swan, i.e. not much of a surprise anymore. The degree to which scientific findings are viewed as valid and important by different political cultures is correlated with the degree of surprise accorded climate change and the need for action on it.

Put another way, Lomborg and Tierney are, like the majority of financial analysts in 2006 and 2007, ignoring the twin “black swans” of climate change and the political and human reaction to climate change. The term “black swan” has become popularized by writer and financial analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has pointed out how assumptions about randomness and normality led economists and business analysts to ignore unlikely events, a.k.a. “black swans”. Assuming continuity, while seemingly the “conservative” option, is not always wise when a discontinuity is likely. However, the attractions of keeping intact, in their own minds, their mental models and contrarian ethics keeps them discounting or ignoring these black swans. And to make matters worse for Lomborg and Tierney, climate change and the reaction to climate change are not really “black” at all but at most “off-white” swans, as the data keeps pouring in about the seeming inevitability of both.  

The fact is, that Lomborg and Tierney don’t know for sure, nor can they convince using reason rather than fear and innuendo, that 

1. Wealth will always and ever be associated with intensive fossil fuel use

2. Less developed countries are condemned or fated to repeat the West’s development path

Due to the threat of climate change, the likelihood is high that through intensive international cooperation a different development path or paths can be organized both for the already developed societies of the world and the developing societies, though not without monumental effort. Lomborg and Tierney both want to make these likely and preferable solutions seem less likely and less preferable for personal or political reasons that are unclear. Certainly a contrarian stance enables one to attract media attention and sell books. 

Acid rain, a result of sulfur dioxide emissions from coal generation plants, comes from impurities in coal not the carbon in coal itself. The scrubbing of emissions is at least one order of magnitude less challenging a problem than eliminating the emissions of carbon dioxide entirely, which is the "intended" chemical result of burning all fossil fuels.

But let’s not kid ourselves that we simply need to continue on a linear “pollution then greening” path that we have already started in the West and will spread to the developing world. As MIT Chemistry professor, Keith Nelson, reminds us in a comment on Tierney’s blog, the stemming of carbon dioxide emissions represents a challenge of a different magnitude than scrubbing out or removing traditional pollutants. Nelson reminds us that the intended chemical reaction that releases energy from fossil fuels by necessity releases carbon dioxide, unlike the release of contaminants like sulfur dioxide or mercury. With 80-85% of worldwide energy use being attributable to fossil fuels, this means entering into another industrial revolution, either the third or the fourth depending on how you count these things.  

Tierney’s and Lomborg’s stance is then to ignore or foreclose this oncoming technological revolution or the possibility of it before it really gets started. Besides its denial of reality, the ethical fragility of this stance is evident when we see how the emerging outlines of this revolution are denied or distorted by these two commentators. While they grasp at the utilitarian justification that continuing contemporary pleasures and pain avoidance associated with fossil fuel use justify ignoring the needed future transformation, this stance requires distortions of fact about the seriousness of climate change and how human will as expressed through government regulation and technical innovation have already gotten us a small portion of the way.

Risks of Change vs. Risks of Business as Usual

In this famous Monty Python sketch, a timid public accountant wants to go into lion-taming but decides, after considering that he would be facing large carnivorous beasts, that he doesn’t really want to do it. Our choices present a lot less risk to us than this fictional choice, but we need to put the right policy instruments in place to be able to transition to a new energy economy.

If ethical arguments are not Tierney’s and Lomborg’s strengths, they are also relying on our natural risk averseness to send a message to their readers/listeners:  “don’t risk change, it’s not worth it.” The subtle and not so subtle appeal to fear of change can paralyze those on the fence who otherwise might be spurred to action. Faced with an extremely high probability of continuing disruption to the climate, people and governments, despite our natural conservativism, are girding for a long process by which societies change their emissions and energy systems. While reassurances can be made that all our current satisfactions will remain in the same or similar form (i.e., from fossil-fueled mobility to an equal level of mobility largely fueled via renewable generated electricity) we cannot guarantee that the transition will be smooth and that no changes will occur. Those who share Tierney and Lomborg’s position or similar, attempt to emphasize the potential loss of even the smallest convenience as paramount and more important than the gain of climate security and new forms of wealth.  

The risks of business as usual are even greater in terms of their consequences for the planet and our future pleasure and pain as well as in terms of the scope of choices that will be open to us and to our descendants. Our attachment to our current pleasures seems so puny in comparison to the wholesale destruction of many of our future pleasures and pains and freedom to enjoy them. In a way it seems unfair to compare these two risks, perhaps something that has aided Lomborg and Tierney, because opponents may hesitate to go at their main arguments. No one wants to be a scold but sometimes…

A final assumption that Lomborg and to a less extent Tierney communicate is that our current economic system and our satisfactions which support it are fragile and will not survive green initiatives. For them it is better to allow this, in their accounts, fragile “beast” to continue on its way rather than to move aggressively to change our transport and energy systems. However this position, again, normalizes inaction and ignores a history of vigorous efforts to change economies, some of which have had negative outcomes and some which have had positive economic outcomes, like the building of the railways in the US, the Marshall Plan, the WWII mobilization in the US, the US Interstate system, and the Chinese government’s management of the PRC’s economy after Deng Xiaoping. To assume that continuity is the norm is to underestimate our adaptability and our ability to realize our best or at least better intentions when required.  

If what, according to the Stern Review we would be facing a 20% drop in world GDP if we continue on our “business as usual” course, a few years of working out a transition to a greener, more sustainable economy would seem to be worth it. However, the risk averse among us will remain unconvinced by anything that does not promise them the same satisfactions or even continuing enlargement of those satisfactions in a linear or geometric progression from today onward.

Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere?

To answer the question then of whether we are free to pollute requires, in the great tradition of philosophers and some politicians, to define what we mean by “free”.

The Existential Sense of “Free”

Because of the nature of the energy infrastructure we depend on in the developed and developing countries, most of us unfortunately have the existential freedom to pollute the atmosphere by exercising our ability to use fossil fuels to enhance our mobility. Concerted effort will be required to transform this infrastructure so we will have the choice to enjoy powered mobility and not pollute the atmosphere.

While existential sounds like a fancy word, it just means starting with the reality of human existence rather than from abstract principle. This means “are we now able to” pollute in terms of taking the action now.

The answer is simply and disturbingly, “yes, we, as individuals with sufficient financial means can pollute the atmosphere”; we are now existentially free to pollute given that we have built an economic, transportation, agricultural and industrial system that is dependent on polluting the atmosphere as a free externality, i.e. dumping ground. As we in developed and rapidly developing countries live in this worldwide system of interdependent economies, we are with somewhere close to 99% probability contributing more rather than less to the atmosphere’s concentration of greenhouse gases.

This means I am free to go out and drive my car around, as little or as much as I like, within my financial means and time available, able to buy products that are dependent on emissions within the same financial and time constraints, and able to do work that is dependent on these emissions.  

We are also existentially “free” to emit the more potent warming gases, synthetic CFCs, that still exist around us, though in this case we would be breaking laws in most states that regulate these chemicals, not for their warming potential but for their ozone depleting ability.

The Legal Sense of “Free”

Currently there are no federal laws on the books in the US that say that it is in any sense illegal to emit more or less carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, though synthetic greenhouse gases like CFCs are now heavily regulated here and in most countries. For power companies in New England, the RGGI cap and trade system has started its first compliance period on the first of this year, which means that these companies will attempt to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 10% by 2018. An economy-wide law prohibiting a certain type of greenhouse gas emissions or a cap and trade or other greenhouse gas legislation with an emissions limit would at least in theory draw a line beyond which people and organizations would NOT be free to emit naturally-occurring global warming gases into the atmosphere. The legal “unfreedom” associated with this transgression would depend on the penalties involved in overstepping the legal limit on emissions or breaking the prohibition on a given type of emissions.

At this moment in time, prior to the implementation of either a legal rule or a law with a cap or allotment we are still legally free to emit as much or as little carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane as we like.

The Ethically Justified Sense of “Free”

An important element in designing effective laws or taking actions to reduce emissions is to clarify the ethical bases of these laws and actions. Ethics is not just the province of legal or ethical specialists; everybody uses and refers to our personal versions of ethical systems we carry around with us to make decisions about a myriad of daily activities. Without a widely accepted public recognition that new laws are good and right according to widely-accepted norms or standards, they may not pass through legislatures or other institutions of government or if they pass they may not be able to be enforced or realized via shortages in funding, as politicians must in some way make reference to ethical arguments in building coalitions in the legislature or figuring out how to appeal to the public.  

While the existential view avoids the introduction of universal principles of right and wrong before or after the fact, the ethical systems we have reviewed require either a priori principles or post-hoc analyses to determine right from wrong or better from worse. Previously, we have already established that the only ethical justification for a continuation of business as usual in the use of fossil fuels comes from an extremely reduced version of utilitarian ethics that values the current pleasures and pains of a fraction of the world’s population and its continuance in the very near term over everyone else’s pleasures and pains. Or, a more sophisticated version of this narrow utilitarian vision suggests that the world’s economic system and therefore it’s livelihood is premised on the undisturbed continuation of this particular balance of pleasures and pains and will not be able to withstand the regulation and mitigation efforts related to reducing greenhouse gases.

If we depart from this exceedingly narrow ethical universe, we will conclude that we are in ethical terms, definitely not free to continue to pollute the atmosphere in excess of its capacity to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. A reasonable deontological ethics would mandate that because of our duty to ourselves, to future generations and to those who now emit little in excess of these gases particularly in developing countries, we would need to cease in the shortest order possible. If we expand the utilitarian perspective to take account of climate science and the expectable future pleasures and pains of our own and future generations, inaction on climate would also not lead to the happiest outcomes for the most people. Therefore, from both a more complete utilitarian ethics or a deontological perspective that account for what is becoming common sense in the area of climate science, our existential freedom to use fossil fuels now is unethical. Our current contemporary freedom to use these fuels interferes with the freedom of others to expand their wellbeing currently and most gravely the freedom of future generations to enjoy a decent livelihood.

Limits of a “Climate Virtue-Ethics”

Living off grid can be a personal expression of a commitment to nature and the climate. More commonly people, in accord with a climate virtue ethics, try to make their "on-grid" life as green as possible. Even though personal virtue should be encouraged, there are limits to what individuals can do on their own, especially if incentives and physical infrastructure are in place that encourage people to use more carbon intensive goods and services.

Given the above conclusions, it would seem to be the most righteous path for individuals to cease as quickly as possible emitting fossil fuels so as not to impinge on our own future freedoms and those of others. However an immediate cessation is often not practical and may not be desirable; despite this many of us may experience the need to purify ourselves in the pursuit of greater personal virtue.  

In addition to the deontological and utilitarian designs for ethical systems, there is additionally another parallel design for an ethical system that is called a “virtue ethics”. A virtue ethics emphasizes that the good is that which encourages virtue and discourages non-virtuous character traits in people. Virtues are prized traits of individuals; virtues can originate in or correspond to deontological systems of ethics most readily (e.g. honesty = following the rule of telling the truth). Carbon pricing as the leading edge of climate and energy policy can be viewed, perhaps caricatured, as an attempt at a modern climate virtue ethics; the carbon price will encourage climate virtue in individual people and corporations and this will then spread to the social and economic systems in which we live.

The problem with a virtue ethics as a predominant operative ethical framework is that system- and group effects of good and bad behaviors and differences in influence are discounted:  the promotion of and development of virtue individual by individual remains key. This leads to an individualized ethical universe which may end up distorting the tasks ahead of us, many of which may need to be undertaken in coordination with other people and with many organizations working in concert.  A virtue ethics overlooks the indirect or follow-on effects of people in groups or living in society.

Transitional Use of Fossil Fuels

If we believe that immediate cessation of use of fossil fuels, while virtuous on an individual level, is not optimal from the point of view of building a zero net-carbon society and economy, do we then necessarily arrive at Lomborg’s solution which councils slow or no action? Lomborg suggests that we must remain or become “rich” which he equates with fossil fuel use and disregard for mounting GHG levels.

Some immense off road machines like this mining truck or tunnel boring machines are powered by grid electricity through trolleys or cables but move fairly slowly or over well-defined paths. For mobile machines building the electric energy infrastructure we need, using compressed natural gas may be one cleaner alternative to diesel.

Those who believe as I do that a zero net carbon society will require a good deal of new electric infrastructure both for electricity generation and electric transportation, using fossil fuels, especially compressed natural gas to power the off-road machinery that helps build the zero-carbon infrastructure may be one important use for some of our remaining fossil fuels. In this I differ with T. Boone Pickens who believes that we need an entire new natural gas fueling infrastructure to power freight transport in the next decades. I believe it is possible to transition more quickly to electricity in the transport of most freight through electric rail and other means. More important in my view, is the powering of the off-road machines like cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, and graders using a portable high concentration fuel until such time as these can be powered via electricity. Therefore I would suggest that the ethically and technically optimal use of natural gas in the next couple decades would be to power off-road and off-grid machines building the zero-carbon infrastructure we will need. 

Even on a personal and individual level, if we would strand or reduce our personal “power” by not using fossil fuels in the next few years, it would appear that there would be slim ethical justification for doing so. Even in a deontological ethics, one can and does have a duty to oneself to take care of oneself, even in the most group-oriented versions of such an ethical system, one does so in order to take care of others.

However, we would hope that governments and forward thinking private companies throughout the world will enable these transitional uses to “sunset” into more sustainable forms of energy use rapidly, let’s say within 5 or 10 years. Otherwise the transitional use of fossil fuels will start to look ever more “Lomborgian” and weak in its commitment to facing the challenge.  

Changing the Energy System

Houses such as this 4-bedroom house with a 4-car garage in Arizona are designed and sited in a way that with our current energy infrastructure demands intensive fossil fuel energy use. Luckily Arizona has enormous sustainable energy potential but it will require leaders and consumers to commit themselves to a sustainable energy course, "weening" themselves from fossil fueled transport and electric generation..

If we contrast the amount of resistance and the many objections to climate legislation and action on renewable energy that are batted about the media and in political circles with the stark ethical case for decisive action, one is left with the impression that our culture is incredibly tolerant of if not friendly towards an attitude of entitlement and short-sightedness. In fact, that I have taken some pains here to build strong ethical arguments against such flimsy positions is a sign that we normalize and accept thought and political leaders who lead us to an attitude of spoiled indulgence rather than realistic assessment of our options.  

Are we “spoiled” and lazy? Are we unable to buck up and face the tasks ahead knowing that perhaps, and just perhaps, there will be some sacrifice involved, along with building a new energy economy, the basis of a more sustainable new economy? The gains are surely greater than the losses but we will over the next period of months and years hear again and again about the how terrible and dangerous the sacrifices that we will make will be.

It is too bad that the policy vehicle, cap and trade, which climate and energy action groups as well as legislators have picked is so flawed. If there has been an unfortunate choice of emphasis, the general mission of those who support it is ethically justified, which is the focus here.  

To overcome or outgrow our dependence on fossil energy will require not just a summoning of inner virtues on the part of dispersed individuals nor just lambasting the strongest advocates of our dependence, but developing a clear view of the political and economic path ahead. In my opinion, a full-scale mobilization of economic and political resources will be required, like that which occurred during the Second World War, which goes beyond the visions of carbon pricing advocates. To halt our emissions at the level of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide or to return to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide as is now recommended, will require a coordinated effort that will be spurred both by price signals but also by combined efforts by governments and diverse industrial sectors. 

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