The Ecopsychology Issue

Philosophy on the Edge

Would you commit murder?
Frame from The Seventh Seal

Last October, in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives — a tiny nation made up of more than one thousand low-lying islets in the Indian Ocean — called an urgent and highly unusual meeting of his cabinet. Government officials donned scuba gear and headed into the sea, convening on the ocean floor five meters below the surface where they signed a document calling for global cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. The half-hour meeting, observed by snorkeling journalists and captured on video by waterproof camera was, to use a phrase coined by political theorist Stephen Duncombe, an “ethical spectacle”: a theatrical attempt to call attention to a very real threat and moral predicament. The Maldives aren’t submerged yet, but they will be soon enough if the world doesn’t take action to prevent such a fate.

Though President Nasheed is widely hailed as an ecological visionary — he was even named one of the “Heroes of the Environment 2009” by Time magazine — his cabinet’s spectacular assembly was largely ignored by more powerful nations. Though countless developing countries will face unprecedented disasters in coming years as a consequence of unmitigated climate change — heat waves, floods, storms, droughts, crop failures, pandemics, displaced populations and more — these avoidable catastrophes have been sidelined. World leaders are focusing on another more appealing and potentially lucrative issue: how to divide up the atmosphere’s diminishing capacity to absorb greenhouse gases in a way that will not inconvenience — but will actually benefit — an already privileged minority.

mercy or murder

On the second day of the Copenhagen summit Mohamed Axam Maumoon — the articulate, impassioned 15-year-old climate ambassador of the Maldives — put the moral predicament in stark terms: “On the basis that you know what you are doing is wrong and you can see that the victim is begging for mercy … would you commit murder?”

His poignant question reminded me of a thought experiment made famous by the philosopher Peter Singer. The “shallow pond” scenario imagines a hapless bystander who notices a small child in danger of drowning. The child can easily be saved, but a new and expensive pair of shoes will be ruined as a result. Most of us sense immediately that shoes are trivial compared to human life, yet it is precisely the specter of stunted economic growth that industrialized nations invoke to justify stalling on environmental issues. Our governments are too obsessed with the GDP to prioritize preventing harm. Meanwhile, a recent report from London’s Telegraph warns that climate change is set to be the single biggest threat to children’s lives worldwide, estimating that up to 250,000 young people could die of its effects in the next year alone. For fear of ruining its shoes, the developed world appears to be turning its back on important moral precepts regarding the fundamental value of every human life.

If we accept the premise that every human life has the same intrinsic value — that all people are equal — a simple question follows: What entitles one person to use a far larger portion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases than someone else? What permits Americans to produce 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year while people living on the continent of Africa produce less than one ton on average? The answer, of course, is nothing. In light of this, the “per capita principle” is taking hold in some environmental and diplomatic circles. It’s the radically simple idea that all people have the right to emit the same amount of greenhouse gases, which, according to a recent German study, would mean a quota of 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually. As Peter Singer says, “one person, one share.”

The current climate crisis demands that we make a novel conceptual leap and begin thinking about human equality in terms of energy and resource consumption. If we don’t, as Climate Ambassador Maumoon put it (in a comment that referred not only to the Maldives but also to countries like Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia), “it’s as good as killing us off.” Unfortunately his exhortation was hardly melodramatic. A report commissioned by the Global Humanitarian Forum, launched in 2007 by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, puts the climate change-caused death toll at 300,000 people per year. This number is projected to double by 2030. Likewise, groups like Pan African Climate Justice Alliance caution that a two-degree Celsius increase in global temperature (a target the Copenhagen pledges fell short of) will mean “an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger” and “water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people.” It seems we are indeed willing to commit murder.

thinking like a convict

As the Copenhagen conference came to its anticlimactic end, I was reminded of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” one of the more provocative thought experiments known to philosophy and economics, and one that, unlike the shallow pond scenario, highlights the darker angels of our nature. The prisoner’s dilemma envisions two criminals, both accused of the same misdeed, held in separate cells. Their punishment will be minimal if they both stay quiet; if one provides testimony against the other, the testifier will go free while the other convict is punished harshly; if they both testify, the punishment will be significant for both parties. The dilemma illustrates the tension between individual and group rationality or between selfish behavior and social behavior: The criminals will inevitably rat each other out and, by pursuing self-interest, make the situation much worse than if they kept their mouths shut.

Taking various iterations over the years, the prisoner’s dilemma has fascinated philosophers, mathematicians, psychologists and economists, ultimately promoting the view that human beings are generally selfish, though not always rational. If they were rational, after all, the hypothetical prisoners would cooperate since the outcome would be better for all involved. At Copenhagen the richest nations behaved like petty criminals, sabotaging collective betterment for economic gain and turning toward mutual destruction in the process. The thing is that unlike the criminals in the prisoner’s dilemma, who are prohibited from speaking to one another, the leaders at the climate summit spent 11 days trying to broker an agreement and still ended up with the worst possible outcome: no legally binding treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There’s also the important fact that while both criminals in the hypothetical scenario are guilty as charged, blame is not so easily shared when it comes to climate change. The wealthiest half-billion people on earth, or a mere seven percent of the population, contribute half the carbon dioxide emitted. Meanwhile, the poorest half of the world’s citizens are responsible for only seven percent of emissions.

In the days leading up to the summit, European negotiators pledged to sign up for carbon emissions cuts of 30 percent if — and only if — other major polluting nations agreed to do the same. As we all know too well, the United States and China balked and the targets were abandoned in favor of a vague unenforceable nod toward lower emissions. Unable to come to a collective agreement, the world’s most powerful nations acted like selfish prisoners, refusing to accept responsibility for the impending ecological catastrophe or to take significant steps to remedy it unless everyone else did to the exact same degree. In other words, why should Canada curb emissions if China builds one hundred new coal-fueled power plants? If you’re thinking like a cliché criminal, the answer, sadly, is it shouldn’t.

RAND researchers developed the prisoner’s dilemma during the Cold War. Entranced by game theory, they used it to argue that a kind of paranoid equilibrium could be achieved through self-interest and suspicion, a bizarre and questionable insight that led to the promotion of nuclear arms race-logic and so-called strategies of deterrence. The only problem was that when they tested the prisoner’s dilemma on their secretaries, the researchers were shocked to find that people generally trusted rather than betrayed one another. These results were repeated in later trials. It turns out that when regular human beings — as opposed to nation-states or RAND scientists — play the prisoner’s dilemma, a powerful tendency to cooperate often overpowers mercenary opportunism.

Copenhagen demonstrated that governments don’t compromise and cooperate like regular people; neither do corporations. The prisoner’s mindset may be anathema to many individuals, but it’s a worldview more central to capitalism (an economic system that rewards greed above all else) than some may like to admit. It turns out that thinking like a convict may give us some chilling insight into how the market-based solutions to climate change hyped by Wall Street and Washington will actually function. Cap and trade may make prisoners out of us yet.

selling the sky

While many of us may accept the premises that each human life has the same intrinsic value, that all people are equal and that nothing entitles one person to produce more carbon dioxide than anyone else, these are hardly the principles guiding climate policy.

Not by a long shot. These days, the existence of carbon emissions is treated not as a political or ethical issue to be resolved but as an economic asset to be exploited. The atmosphere has been claimed as a private commodity. Corporations, with the aid of the UN, are buying and selling “rights” to pollute it. Consequently carbon trading is now the fastest growing commodities market on Earth. But what exactly is the commodity these markets are peddling? It’s a highly unusual product. It’s not carbon that is being bought and sold but rather the assurance of its nonproduction.

And what about these rights? If everyone has a right to the sky, does that mean rights are something that can be transferred and speculated in, collected and hoarded? Can they be passed on and inherited? The answer to these and other equally outlandish questions is an enthusiastic yes. Cap and trade gives corporations the “right” to pollute through the buying and selling of permits. Some of these permits are “grandfathered,” allowing old plants to avoid regulation. This means, counterintuitively, that the right to contaminate the environment is bequeathed on the basis that one has a track record of doing just that. But even more problematic are the “offsets” that companies can purchase instead of cutting their carbon production. These offsets are credits generated by projects that claim to reduce emissions but often don’t, since there’s no reliable system of monitoring or enforcement: wind farms in China, methane-capturing landfills in New England, old-growth forest protection projects in South America. Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro — reporting on carbon trading from rural Brazil — exposed the system’s fatal flaw, which also happens to be the secret to its profitability: No one has the power to remove junk credits from the market, even if there’s proven misconduct.

James Hansen, the NASA scientist who was one of the first to blow the whistle on global warming, warns that cap and trade does little to slow climate change, while simultaneously removing all incentives to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. “Because cap and trade is enforced through the selling and trading of permits, it actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate,” Hansen recently argued. “If every polluter’s emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear.” Cap and trade ensnares us in a twisted prisoner’s logic, deterring the most desirable outcome. Though the greatest good would come about if we quit producing greenhouse gases altogether, formidable interests are now invested in keeping carbon-market profits high. That’s why cap and trade won’t get us out of the mess we’re in. Instead, as Hansen has cautioned, “it merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars.” It’s been widely acknowledged that the market for trading permits will be loosely regulated and the actual “offsets” hardly supervised. Only a few months ago, the European Union admitted that carbon-trading fraud had cost the bloc’s governments $7.4 billion in lost tax revenue over the previous year and a half. But even for investors who don’t engage in outright swindling, policing the carbon market is going to be a boondoggle of unprecedented proportion.

And what a boon it will be, at least for those who know how to game the system. Much was made of Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the “United States is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries.” Even if that money actually manifests and is eventually dispersed, it involves sums that look positively paltry in comparison to the carbon market, which is already valued at well over a trillion dollars a year. Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development described the Copenhagen summit as a “colonial moment,” explaining that rich countries essentially traded “beads and blankets for Manhattan.” He laments that the atmosphere, the last remaining unowned resource, has been carved up and allocated to the already wealthy.

No wonder carbon-trading shops have been swamped with résumés in recent months. “I think that the guys on Wall Street, as well as people in related industries, all kind of see this as a growth area in the economy, or a potential growth area in the economy, and would like to get involved,” Evan Ard, a spokesman for the carbon brokerage firm Evolution Markets, told the New York Times. All that despite the fact that even Deutsche Bank has condemned the current arrangement, complaining that the carbon market is ineffective and unlikely to contribute to cutting emissions “for the foreseeable future.”

our climate is not their business

We are facing an unparalleled challenge. Unlike nuclear weapons, greenhouse gases can’t be contained. The stakes for humanity have never been higher. The prisoner’s mindset will only doom us all.

In a recent editorial Hansen asks us to consider what he calls the “perverse” impact cap and trade will have on altruistic actions. “Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car,” he writes. “That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it allows somebody else to buy a bigger SUV — because the total emissions are set by the cap.” Hansen’s observations inspire one to wonder what system would reward our altruistic impulses instead of stifling them? What arrangement will encourage us to dramatically curb our energy consumption, to invest in sustainable development, to quit acting entitled to every last ounce of the world’s resources?

Michael Hardt, coauthor of Empire and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, argues that the solution is a system with the common at its center, a category that includes everything from the forests, seas and atmosphere to ideas, language and affects. The common, in Hardt’s formulation, is that which eludes measurement and rebels against commoditization: It both defies and is deteriorated by property relations. “Just as your land shares with the neighboring land the benefits of rain and sunshine it will share too the destructive effects of pollution and climate change,” he explains. The common also disrupts and exceeds the dominant measures of value. In other words, just as we cannot put a dollar value on human life — all we can say is that every human life is of equal worth — so we cannot assign a price to something as ubiquitous and essential as the atmosphere or as integral to our species’ survival as carbon dioxide. Instead of struggling to determine the cost of carbon — which can then be manipulated by the market — we should instead abide by Singer’s simple equation: “one person, one share.”

At Copenhagen the wealthy countries advocated for modern-day indulgences, including offsets and credits, for those lucky enough to afford them. They faced off against the global south, which rightly continues to demand reparations for the climate debt incurred by industrialized, colonizing nations over the last century. Hardt, who was in Copenhagen, saw the summit primarily as a struggle over the management of resources that must be shared, whether the world’s powerbrokers want them to be or not. The challenge at hand, Hardt would later reflect, lay in developing “a politics of the common that both recognizes the real limits of the Earth and fosters our unlimited creative capacities — building unlimited worlds on our limited Earth.” In other words, the climate crisis has revealed the environment’s finite nature, its fragile balance and our precarious place therein. But the human imagination remains boundless, our capacity for empathy and solidarity inexhaustible and the future uncertain.

For now the problem is not a lack of vision. We have both the moral principles to guide us — the atmosphere belongs to everyone, and everyone is of equal value — and a bounty of intelligent, effective solutions on the table: setting ambitious emissions targets, instituting a carbon tax, establishing a “fee-and-dividend model,” investing in truly renewable energy and sustainable development, embracing the “polluter pays” standard, and leaving fossil fuels in the ground, among other ideas. The problem is the insatiable minority who wants to privatize the sky — and the lack of popular will to counter their arrogating ways. That said, hopeful signs indicate a growing opposition. The climate justice movement, currently making appearances around the world, is the best available evidence that we have not yet become hostage to the logic of the market, that the prisoner’s mindset is not yet dominant.

If climate change has taught us anything, it is that we can no longer remain oblivious to our interconnection. With the simple flip of a switch we contribute to the inundation of the Maldives. Maumoon’s blunt question must ring in our ears: “On the basis that you know what you are doing is wrong and you can see that the victim is begging for mercy … would you commit murder?” It’s still not too late to change our answer.

Astra Taylor is the director of two documentaries about philosophy, Zizek! and Examined Life, both distributed by Zeitgeist Films and available on DVD. A companion book, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, is available from The New Press.

20 comments on the article “Philosophy on the Edge”

Displaying 11 - 20 of 20

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sil

I don't get why so many people want to believe that all human life has the same intrinsic value. The value of a life is directly proportional to many factors, chief among them: How much good versus how much bad does that person bring to this world. To take this premise seriously you'd have to agree that the life of Charles Manson is worth the same as Kofi Anon's.

Even if this premise were true, people are not rational agents. You cannot convince someone to change using a premise they do not agree with. To change their mind you must first either use a set of premises they agree with or convince them to accept your premises. You have done neither.

sil

I don't get why so many people want to believe that all human life has the same intrinsic value. The value of a life is directly proportional to many factors, chief among them: How much good versus how much bad does that person bring to this world. To take this premise seriously you'd have to agree that the life of Charles Manson is worth the same as Kofi Anon's.

Even if this premise were true, people are not rational agents. You cannot convince someone to change using a premise they do not agree with. To change their mind you must first either use a set of premises they agree with or convince them to accept your premises. You have done neither.

Anonymous

Dude, this is the most retarded comparison I've read on the internet.

Which, seriously, has to be saying something.

It was idiotic when they pulled the cheap publicity stunt, it's sad-bordering-on-stupefying that nobody has called BS. I'm stunned the press didn't fall for it hook-line-and-sinker, but then perhaps even they know when an argument is ridiculous on its face.

The above comparison is saying the Maldives are sinking at a rate that would kill some rather large percentage of 300k people (the population of the Island) before they could...take a boat somewhere else?

Seriously. It's what you're saying.

I mean, a tidal wave might, and a tidal wave might very well happen with or without global warming. A tidal wave might happen tomorrow. It might have happened last week or 200 years ago. If it a tidal wave happened tomorrow, you people would blame global warming about as fast as their Imams (since no citizen can be a non-Muslim, since other religions are totally banned in the country) would blame the immorality of Western Influence. And for much the same reason (faith without reason).

If you're really worried about it, and it could happen tomorrow, start a fund to get people the hell out of the Maldives. Give them sailboats made from pineapple plants, or something. Very green - and delicious.

So, if you're not intending to say that, your argument proceeds to boils down to economics - 300k people want to stay where they are but are at risk of losing some chunk of land mass over a long time, versus the impact of (we'll call it prematurely, instead of the more apt 'moronically') transferring multiple billions of people to some other - undefined - never defined - form of energy consumption, storage and utilization.

Energy==work and ultimately work==food. So, you're suggesting a grand social experience likely starving people - certainly risking it - or if not ultimately starving, then impoverishing them of other natural goods, like clean water or housing or education or nifty gadgets to store knowledge like the ipod or the internet - all of which require cheap energy to make happen and more cheap energy to give access to people.

But, really, most of the environmental movement doesn't care about that. What you want is to use your kind of environmentalism as a 'thin wedge' to drive class warfare - make the rich capitalists pay for being rich, even if it doesn't (and it won't) help the poor people. Because, honestly, you can't care, since if you did, you'd see when something is ridiculous, instead of pass it on with a straight face.

Seriously, it's people like you who put the 'mental' in environmentalism, and because of the underlying agenda (the countries and groups pushing these type of 'solutioins' are doing it to even the power gap to the economic power of the G8 by utilizing the mechanism of ignorant, white liberal guilt) and reject practical, normal, sane conservation-friendly things. Like Nuclear energy. Or anything, really. There's never really a solution because the problem isn't the problem.

Why, pray tell, are there _never_ engineering solutions to these problems. I know three ways to remove CO and CO2 from air in a detectably large amount using sunlight. Are you saying not _one_ of them or the other ten dozen ways I don't know might scale if operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 or 20 years or 100 years? No, never, not even the possibility of a solution - or of funding research into that kind of solution - will ever occur to you, because the problem isn't the problem.

But, really, back to the article. The problem is there is no philosophy here, only jingoism. I'm a philosopher, and I've seen a lot of philosophy in my time, and you can tell this is a photoshop of philosophy because of some of the pixels. (I'm also funny.) I've got a degree and everything (special focus was Medieval philosophy post the 14thC revolution - back when words still meant something and truth was one thing people could use reason to arrive at, rather than no thing that people use persuasion to agree on - a thoroughly protestant notion that made it into what is laughably called "secular" culture). But, regardless, no actual philosopher - even a modern one - would dare accept this tripe. It's pseudophilosophy .

Anonymous

Dude, this is the most retarded comparison I've read on the internet.

Which, seriously, has to be saying something.

It was idiotic when they pulled the cheap publicity stunt, it's sad-bordering-on-stupefying that nobody has called BS. I'm stunned the press didn't fall for it hook-line-and-sinker, but then perhaps even they know when an argument is ridiculous on its face.

The above comparison is saying the Maldives are sinking at a rate that would kill some rather large percentage of 300k people (the population of the Island) before they could...take a boat somewhere else?

Seriously. It's what you're saying.

I mean, a tidal wave might, and a tidal wave might very well happen with or without global warming. A tidal wave might happen tomorrow. It might have happened last week or 200 years ago. If it a tidal wave happened tomorrow, you people would blame global warming about as fast as their Imams (since no citizen can be a non-Muslim, since other religions are totally banned in the country) would blame the immorality of Western Influence. And for much the same reason (faith without reason).

If you're really worried about it, and it could happen tomorrow, start a fund to get people the hell out of the Maldives. Give them sailboats made from pineapple plants, or something. Very green - and delicious.

So, if you're not intending to say that, your argument proceeds to boils down to economics - 300k people want to stay where they are but are at risk of losing some chunk of land mass over a long time, versus the impact of (we'll call it prematurely, instead of the more apt 'moronically') transferring multiple billions of people to some other - undefined - never defined - form of energy consumption, storage and utilization.

Energy==work and ultimately work==food. So, you're suggesting a grand social experience likely starving people - certainly risking it - or if not ultimately starving, then impoverishing them of other natural goods, like clean water or housing or education or nifty gadgets to store knowledge like the ipod or the internet - all of which require cheap energy to make happen and more cheap energy to give access to people.

But, really, most of the environmental movement doesn't care about that. What you want is to use your kind of environmentalism as a 'thin wedge' to drive class warfare - make the rich capitalists pay for being rich, even if it doesn't (and it won't) help the poor people. Because, honestly, you can't care, since if you did, you'd see when something is ridiculous, instead of pass it on with a straight face.

Seriously, it's people like you who put the 'mental' in environmentalism, and because of the underlying agenda (the countries and groups pushing these type of 'solutioins' are doing it to even the power gap to the economic power of the G8 by utilizing the mechanism of ignorant, white liberal guilt) and reject practical, normal, sane conservation-friendly things. Like Nuclear energy. Or anything, really. There's never really a solution because the problem isn't the problem.

Why, pray tell, are there _never_ engineering solutions to these problems. I know three ways to remove CO and CO2 from air in a detectably large amount using sunlight. Are you saying not _one_ of them or the other ten dozen ways I don't know might scale if operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 or 20 years or 100 years? No, never, not even the possibility of a solution - or of funding research into that kind of solution - will ever occur to you, because the problem isn't the problem.

But, really, back to the article. The problem is there is no philosophy here, only jingoism. I'm a philosopher, and I've seen a lot of philosophy in my time, and you can tell this is a photoshop of philosophy because of some of the pixels. (I'm also funny.) I've got a degree and everything (special focus was Medieval philosophy post the 14thC revolution - back when words still meant something and truth was one thing people could use reason to arrive at, rather than no thing that people use persuasion to agree on - a thoroughly protestant notion that made it into what is laughably called "secular" culture). But, regardless, no actual philosopher - even a modern one - would dare accept this tripe. It's pseudophilosophy .

Tennessee

"It turns out that when regular human beings — as opposed to nation-states or RAND scientists — play the prisoner’s dilemma, a powerful tendency to cooperate often overpowers mercenary opportunism." That's the best argument for democracy I've ever heard, though it's a possibility that when if people indivudually made decisions for their nation-state they would be more selfish than deciding for themselves, so perhaps we're headed towards becoming one global nation. Still though, a very revealing perspective of these dark times in which we live, like watching a Mambety flick except it didn't take 3 hours. So, thank you.

Also, to the fools saying that "all people arn't equal", you're kind of reenforcing the arguement that capitalism is a parasitic mentality that has developed in the last century because I'm pretty sure even Americans agree that "every individual has certain inaliable rights". Well most Americans, I mean we closed gitmo so...

Tennessee

"It turns out that when regular human beings — as opposed to nation-states or RAND scientists — play the prisoner’s dilemma, a powerful tendency to cooperate often overpowers mercenary opportunism." That's the best argument for democracy I've ever heard, though it's a possibility that when if people indivudually made decisions for their nation-state they would be more selfish than deciding for themselves, so perhaps we're headed towards becoming one global nation. Still though, a very revealing perspective of these dark times in which we live, like watching a Mambety flick except it didn't take 3 hours. So, thank you.

Also, to the fools saying that "all people arn't equal", you're kind of reenforcing the arguement that capitalism is a parasitic mentality that has developed in the last century because I'm pretty sure even Americans agree that "every individual has certain inaliable rights". Well most Americans, I mean we closed gitmo so...

Kelson

I for one would love other viable sources of energy. Viable being the important word.
But to push the impractical, because of the improbable ( human caused global warming ) is disingenuous.

Even slashing carbon dioxide emissions to 80% below 2005 levels would reduce projected global average temperatures in 2050 by barely 0.2 degrees F, according to a study that used the UN’s own climate models. That’s because China, India and other developing countries are building new coal-fired power plants every week, even as the United States and Europe shackle their economies and send more jobs overseas. How do you justify such destructive, punitive, meaningless legislation?

Kelson

I for one would love other viable sources of energy. Viable being the important word.
But to push the impractical, because of the improbable ( human caused global warming ) is disingenuous.

Even slashing carbon dioxide emissions to 80% below 2005 levels would reduce projected global average temperatures in 2050 by barely 0.2 degrees F, according to a study that used the UN’s own climate models. That’s because China, India and other developing countries are building new coal-fired power plants every week, even as the United States and Europe shackle their economies and send more jobs overseas. How do you justify such destructive, punitive, meaningless legislation?

Dennis Nikols

The primary premise behind Copenhagen is not based on science and not based on philosophical defensible grounds. It is based on Mythos, not Logos. In the following essay I address many of these points. This essay is part of a series of essays examining the a number of topics, such as: Epistomology, trust, models, data, time, etc., related to the philosophy of science. (retreadresources.com/blog) I am a professional geologist and a pseudo philosopher of science. The first rule of all scientific thought is be skeptical of everything especially your own ideas.

Is Global Warming Essentially Man Made, Essentially Natural Or Some Combination Of The Two? (Posted 04/10/10)

Looking back over the essays written and posted to date, I see no design but happenstance, no pattern of order established. That is not quite how this essay writing started out. It did have a plan and logical sequence. Not quite what happened, however. I think an examination of the question: is global warming essentially man made, essentially natural or some combination of the two, is a good place to start. Other questions immediately come of mind and they should. Is the place warming at all? This is a series of short essays, not two hundred or longer page books. Indeed several books have been published in recent years attempting to do this. Perhaps additional essays addressing these other questions should be written as well. Here I will focus on the question as stated.

Again, I will make some bold statements, assuming the reader is not ignorant of the arguments swirling around our society. I will assume the reader has read all or most of the others in this series and will use that information to inform this essay. The planet has been warming, in a climatological sense, since the peak of the ice advance in the Pleistocene. I say this for one simple reason. Most of the Pleistocene ice has melted. The Neanderthal and Crow Mignon men had nothing to do with the onset of the glaciers or with their demise. We know the Pleistocene had several glacial and interglacial episodes. We know, with reasonable certainty, other historic ice ages have occurred in the mist of geological time. Most of these episodes predate the existence of men. While we may wish to debate the reasons for this phenomena, a human component is not a topic on that list. Any hypotheses we invent must accommodate this knowledge.

The reasons for this apparent warming trend must then lay with some natural phenomena or combination of phenomena. Remembering that the present is only the key to understanding the past and knowing that humans were not a reason, we must eliminate them from the analysis equation. We have no reason to believe the physics or chemistry of the natural would has changed. Our reasons then should be identifiable. We know from simple observations that many natural phenomena are cyclical and effect different parts of the globe differently. Sun Spots, SST, planetary orbits and so on are examples. We also know that these cycles or rhythms are of different periods and not always of the same intensity. We know that they do effect our weather and climate. We may not be certain how or how much. We also know other cycles of longer periods occur. We may not know all that much about those cycles, however. We know that the fluid dynamic and feed back models used today, for climate studies, are anything but accurate or even complete. We know such phenomena as the NPO, ENSO, AMO, AO and so on, all have effect, if not well quantified or understood. We know gases and arsenals effect things. Any hypothesis we propose must accommodate these cycles and ideas. I remind the reader we do not prove things, we falsify them.

In sum, the various climate models are based on incomplete and often inaccurate information. They are useless to explain the past. How useful are they to predict the future? Are we facing some come kind of Apocalypse related to climate? Are the activities of humanity influencing this? Do we have confidence in the model results sufficient to make policy? What does philosophy have to do with all this?

Each of these questions requires its own book to fully understand. Stephen Haller in his book "Apocalypse Soon Wagering on Warnings of Global Catastrophe (2002) examines some of these questions. His conclusion is, we just don't know. (no significant improvements have been made to these model since 2002.)

"In summary, Stephen Haller provides a comprehensive criticism of the reliability of global warming models and a deft exploration of the concept of policy-making in cases of potential global catastrophe. This book clearly and consistently demonstrates that the prediction abilities of many global warming models are weak and cannot serve as a sufficient basis for calculating the probability of global catastrophe." (Book Review by E.A. Corley in the Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law, Vol. 3, April 2003)

In the latter chapters of his book, Haller concludes taking any action on logical, epistemological, ethical and more or general philosophical grounds is not supported. He then takes arguments from Pascal, to say we must apply precautionary principal when scientific uncertainty presents even a small risk. Haller argues that Pascal's arguments provide reasons for action. One need not believe to act. In my mind this is a Mythos not Logos. In essence, if we act on the hypothesis that God exists, “Pascal points out that the benefits of this action will have an immediate pay-off and might even have an infinite pay-off in the afterlife. These are reasons for faith.” That is the Mythos part. Haller argues that the same is true for having faith that AGW is occurring.

Haller points out that “the evidence from the models does not provide sufficient evidence for belief, and this is why they fail to convince everyone. However, they do provide reasons for action.” This is not logic, it is taking a working hypotheses (models) and converting them to orthodoxy. The models he is talking about only considered AGW. The catastrophes he is looking at, are just as likely to be imaginary, as real. He argues that even a small probability is sufficient for action. I would argue that mankind needs a higher probability then rolling the dice, before we invest billions without knowing what we are doing. (We may have many other good reasons for moving away from a carbon based economy but AGW is not one of them.)

We may well demonstrate, some portion of recent increase in average global temperature, is directly related of Carbon Dioxide. The question is how large or small is that portion. Having some understanding of how the temperature models work, much understanding of how modeling works and some understanding of the physics and chemistry involved, my understanding is not much. I see to much noise in the system and far to much data smoothing to make me comfortable. (I am being kind here, cooking the books and outright invention is more common then we may think.)

Most if not all the catastrophic predictions are predicated on faith not logic. Many result from misinformation and half truths. Some just seem to be invented by the authors. Some may even come about. I will assure the reader they won't look like what is predicted, nor will these things happen in some instant in time. Some of these predictions have already been discredited as incomplete understanding of the literature or perhaps fabrications. (see essay Numeric Models)

In the world of fiction the author can speculate and suspend all scientific reason. That is permissible. The mythologists have been doing this for centuries. In some faiths the catastrophic events from part of the dogma. Judging from book and movie titles, it would appear our culture is fascinated by such mythical things. Real catastrophic events do happen in the real world. I am not demeaning those real events. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms, tornadoes and so on happen. We can predict some more or less well, storms for example. We can sometimes predict others but not well, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The changing sea level is just such a situation. Sea level has been rising, all be it not as a smooth line, since we have been keeping accurate records. If memory serves since the Pleistocene's maximum ice, more or less 12,000 years ago. It has been rising and falling since seas were invented. The Cretaceous period is a great example. Geologists call them transgressions and regressions. They have a rhythm and obvious periodicity. Were it not for these events many geologists would be out of work. This is nothing new. Sure the time scales are relatively long and the reasons for these changes are related to tectonics, as well as presence or absence of ice and I am sure other reasons. That is my point, it is complex and does not happen all that quickly.

A recent study from the University of Haifa points out “Rising and falling sea levels over relatively short periods do not indicate long-term trends. An assessment of hundreds and thousands of years shows that what seems an irregular phenomenon today, is in fact nothing new. The sea level in Israel has been rising and falling over the past 2500 years with a one-meter difference between the highest and lowest levels, most of the time below the present-day level...”

It appears that the relationship between hurricane losses, storm frequency and intensity and rising temperatures is a fabrication or gross misrepresentation of the published literature. One can not make policy based on this kind of foolishness. Policy must be based on Logos, not Mythos.

It would appear that our cultural fascination with pending doom and the fiction connected to it has translated to more propaganda and sophistry then reality. This is not completely the fault of those that modeled and ask the what if questions. The questions need to asked. The interpretation of the answers needs be sober. Just because a model indicates this or that could happen, if the assumptions are all valid, is all well and good. When you convert that into orthodoxy, having accepted it on faith, other consequences result. The key here is, if the assumptions are valid. That is where the real science comes about. As I review many of the assumptions being used by modelers, I find them wanting.

Advocacy Groups such as Oxfam use this orthodoxy as a tool for advancing their goals. This in no way implies the stated goals of Oxfam or others, are not worthy. It is to say that propaganda, no matter the source, is just that. Gentleman, the end still will not justify the means. Here is an example of what I am on about:

In September 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”.

“In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialized nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.”

I am without words. Okay, I have lots of them but this is a polite and reasoned essay. The only “scientific certainty” connected to this issue is, none. The Precautionary Principal is morally bankrupt. (see my essay "Precautionary Principle — Philosophical Implications Or "to many idiots, to few tigers")

I have fictionalized before in these essays. Parables can be a useful communication tool. I will do so now, although not in story form.

Assuming that the conditions are roughly the same today as in ± 1320 and those pesky natural cycles are on a period of roughly 700 years, I predict we will be interring another “little ice age” in about 10 years. I also predict the Carbon Dioxide concentration will continue unabated between now and then. If we are very lucky the contribution of Carbon Dioxide to warming will be greater then I feel it is. To that end, perhaps the peoples in the northern Europe and Canada will not quite freeze in the winter, it will be just damn cold.(see essay History)

My guess is, the truth lay some place in the middle not on either extreme. Those who say the climate is not changing and those who say it is because of AGW, are both wrong. Geologic history shows us climate is always in flux.

That said, what to do, nothing? No, never nothing. People don’t work that way. The climate does not work that way. We will do what we must and probably nothing more. That is probably the motivation behind the fear and propaganda of the faithful on both sides.

Wise policy makers will steer the middle course. Yes, we need to be sensitive to our back yards. Yes, we need to spend resources to properly understand what is happening and why. Yes, we need to use resources wisely. Yes, we should try a be as efficient as possible, in that use. Yes, we need to keep in mind catastrophic events do and will happen. We need to prepare to moderate the human suffering that arises. Yes, we need to do the right thing but only for the right reasons. Those who live next to a volcano or on top of active faults need to be alert and help themselves with preparations. If you live below sea level maybe you better raise those dikes a bit more every 10 or 15 years. This is not a scientific, moral or ethical issue, these are practical, human, political and economic issues.

Dennis Nikols, P. Geol.

Dennis Nikols

The primary premise behind Copenhagen is not based on science and not based on philosophical defensible grounds. It is based on Mythos, not Logos. In the following essay I address many of these points. This essay is part of a series of essays examining the a number of topics, such as: Epistomology, trust, models, data, time, etc., related to the philosophy of science. (retreadresources.com/blog) I am a professional geologist and a pseudo philosopher of science. The first rule of all scientific thought is be skeptical of everything especially your own ideas.

Is Global Warming Essentially Man Made, Essentially Natural Or Some Combination Of The Two? (Posted 04/10/10)

Looking back over the essays written and posted to date, I see no design but happenstance, no pattern of order established. That is not quite how this essay writing started out. It did have a plan and logical sequence. Not quite what happened, however. I think an examination of the question: is global warming essentially man made, essentially natural or some combination of the two, is a good place to start. Other questions immediately come of mind and they should. Is the place warming at all? This is a series of short essays, not two hundred or longer page books. Indeed several books have been published in recent years attempting to do this. Perhaps additional essays addressing these other questions should be written as well. Here I will focus on the question as stated.

Again, I will make some bold statements, assuming the reader is not ignorant of the arguments swirling around our society. I will assume the reader has read all or most of the others in this series and will use that information to inform this essay. The planet has been warming, in a climatological sense, since the peak of the ice advance in the Pleistocene. I say this for one simple reason. Most of the Pleistocene ice has melted. The Neanderthal and Crow Mignon men had nothing to do with the onset of the glaciers or with their demise. We know the Pleistocene had several glacial and interglacial episodes. We know, with reasonable certainty, other historic ice ages have occurred in the mist of geological time. Most of these episodes predate the existence of men. While we may wish to debate the reasons for this phenomena, a human component is not a topic on that list. Any hypotheses we invent must accommodate this knowledge.

The reasons for this apparent warming trend must then lay with some natural phenomena or combination of phenomena. Remembering that the present is only the key to understanding the past and knowing that humans were not a reason, we must eliminate them from the analysis equation. We have no reason to believe the physics or chemistry of the natural would has changed. Our reasons then should be identifiable. We know from simple observations that many natural phenomena are cyclical and effect different parts of the globe differently. Sun Spots, SST, planetary orbits and so on are examples. We also know that these cycles or rhythms are of different periods and not always of the same intensity. We know that they do effect our weather and climate. We may not be certain how or how much. We also know other cycles of longer periods occur. We may not know all that much about those cycles, however. We know that the fluid dynamic and feed back models used today, for climate studies, are anything but accurate or even complete. We know such phenomena as the NPO, ENSO, AMO, AO and so on, all have effect, if not well quantified or understood. We know gases and arsenals effect things. Any hypothesis we propose must accommodate these cycles and ideas. I remind the reader we do not prove things, we falsify them.

In sum, the various climate models are based on incomplete and often inaccurate information. They are useless to explain the past. How useful are they to predict the future? Are we facing some come kind of Apocalypse related to climate? Are the activities of humanity influencing this? Do we have confidence in the model results sufficient to make policy? What does philosophy have to do with all this?

Each of these questions requires its own book to fully understand. Stephen Haller in his book "Apocalypse Soon Wagering on Warnings of Global Catastrophe (2002) examines some of these questions. His conclusion is, we just don't know. (no significant improvements have been made to these model since 2002.)

"In summary, Stephen Haller provides a comprehensive criticism of the reliability of global warming models and a deft exploration of the concept of policy-making in cases of potential global catastrophe. This book clearly and consistently demonstrates that the prediction abilities of many global warming models are weak and cannot serve as a sufficient basis for calculating the probability of global catastrophe." (Book Review by E.A. Corley in the Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law, Vol. 3, April 2003)

In the latter chapters of his book, Haller concludes taking any action on logical, epistemological, ethical and more or general philosophical grounds is not supported. He then takes arguments from Pascal, to say we must apply precautionary principal when scientific uncertainty presents even a small risk. Haller argues that Pascal's arguments provide reasons for action. One need not believe to act. In my mind this is a Mythos not Logos. In essence, if we act on the hypothesis that God exists, “Pascal points out that the benefits of this action will have an immediate pay-off and might even have an infinite pay-off in the afterlife. These are reasons for faith.” That is the Mythos part. Haller argues that the same is true for having faith that AGW is occurring.

Haller points out that “the evidence from the models does not provide sufficient evidence for belief, and this is why they fail to convince everyone. However, they do provide reasons for action.” This is not logic, it is taking a working hypotheses (models) and converting them to orthodoxy. The models he is talking about only considered AGW. The catastrophes he is looking at, are just as likely to be imaginary, as real. He argues that even a small probability is sufficient for action. I would argue that mankind needs a higher probability then rolling the dice, before we invest billions without knowing what we are doing. (We may have many other good reasons for moving away from a carbon based economy but AGW is not one of them.)

We may well demonstrate, some portion of recent increase in average global temperature, is directly related of Carbon Dioxide. The question is how large or small is that portion. Having some understanding of how the temperature models work, much understanding of how modeling works and some understanding of the physics and chemistry involved, my understanding is not much. I see to much noise in the system and far to much data smoothing to make me comfortable. (I am being kind here, cooking the books and outright invention is more common then we may think.)

Most if not all the catastrophic predictions are predicated on faith not logic. Many result from misinformation and half truths. Some just seem to be invented by the authors. Some may even come about. I will assure the reader they won't look like what is predicted, nor will these things happen in some instant in time. Some of these predictions have already been discredited as incomplete understanding of the literature or perhaps fabrications. (see essay Numeric Models)

In the world of fiction the author can speculate and suspend all scientific reason. That is permissible. The mythologists have been doing this for centuries. In some faiths the catastrophic events from part of the dogma. Judging from book and movie titles, it would appear our culture is fascinated by such mythical things. Real catastrophic events do happen in the real world. I am not demeaning those real events. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms, tornadoes and so on happen. We can predict some more or less well, storms for example. We can sometimes predict others but not well, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The changing sea level is just such a situation. Sea level has been rising, all be it not as a smooth line, since we have been keeping accurate records. If memory serves since the Pleistocene's maximum ice, more or less 12,000 years ago. It has been rising and falling since seas were invented. The Cretaceous period is a great example. Geologists call them transgressions and regressions. They have a rhythm and obvious periodicity. Were it not for these events many geologists would be out of work. This is nothing new. Sure the time scales are relatively long and the reasons for these changes are related to tectonics, as well as presence or absence of ice and I am sure other reasons. That is my point, it is complex and does not happen all that quickly.

A recent study from the University of Haifa points out “Rising and falling sea levels over relatively short periods do not indicate long-term trends. An assessment of hundreds and thousands of years shows that what seems an irregular phenomenon today, is in fact nothing new. The sea level in Israel has been rising and falling over the past 2500 years with a one-meter difference between the highest and lowest levels, most of the time below the present-day level...”

It appears that the relationship between hurricane losses, storm frequency and intensity and rising temperatures is a fabrication or gross misrepresentation of the published literature. One can not make policy based on this kind of foolishness. Policy must be based on Logos, not Mythos.

It would appear that our cultural fascination with pending doom and the fiction connected to it has translated to more propaganda and sophistry then reality. This is not completely the fault of those that modeled and ask the what if questions. The questions need to asked. The interpretation of the answers needs be sober. Just because a model indicates this or that could happen, if the assumptions are all valid, is all well and good. When you convert that into orthodoxy, having accepted it on faith, other consequences result. The key here is, if the assumptions are valid. That is where the real science comes about. As I review many of the assumptions being used by modelers, I find them wanting.

Advocacy Groups such as Oxfam use this orthodoxy as a tool for advancing their goals. This in no way implies the stated goals of Oxfam or others, are not worthy. It is to say that propaganda, no matter the source, is just that. Gentleman, the end still will not justify the means. Here is an example of what I am on about:

In September 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”.

“In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialized nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.”

I am without words. Okay, I have lots of them but this is a polite and reasoned essay. The only “scientific certainty” connected to this issue is, none. The Precautionary Principal is morally bankrupt. (see my essay "Precautionary Principle — Philosophical Implications Or "to many idiots, to few tigers")

I have fictionalized before in these essays. Parables can be a useful communication tool. I will do so now, although not in story form.

Assuming that the conditions are roughly the same today as in ± 1320 and those pesky natural cycles are on a period of roughly 700 years, I predict we will be interring another “little ice age” in about 10 years. I also predict the Carbon Dioxide concentration will continue unabated between now and then. If we are very lucky the contribution of Carbon Dioxide to warming will be greater then I feel it is. To that end, perhaps the peoples in the northern Europe and Canada will not quite freeze in the winter, it will be just damn cold.(see essay History)

My guess is, the truth lay some place in the middle not on either extreme. Those who say the climate is not changing and those who say it is because of AGW, are both wrong. Geologic history shows us climate is always in flux.

That said, what to do, nothing? No, never nothing. People don’t work that way. The climate does not work that way. We will do what we must and probably nothing more. That is probably the motivation behind the fear and propaganda of the faithful on both sides.

Wise policy makers will steer the middle course. Yes, we need to be sensitive to our back yards. Yes, we need to spend resources to properly understand what is happening and why. Yes, we need to use resources wisely. Yes, we should try a be as efficient as possible, in that use. Yes, we need to keep in mind catastrophic events do and will happen. We need to prepare to moderate the human suffering that arises. Yes, we need to do the right thing but only for the right reasons. Those who live next to a volcano or on top of active faults need to be alert and help themselves with preparations. If you live below sea level maybe you better raise those dikes a bit more every 10 or 15 years. This is not a scientific, moral or ethical issue, these are practical, human, political and economic issues.

Dennis Nikols, P. Geol.

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