My ethical take on climate action
My friend Mark challenged me to explain where I really stood on the subject of climate change. Not this or this or but something personal.
It took me a long time to get there. Three or four different false starts and probably more than ten hours of writing. Then emailed a version of this, decided to blog it, and five hours later it had doubled in size. But I’m glad I wrote it.
So first: it’s a trolley problem—-a kind of problem in morality or ethics. In the classic trolley problem, there’s this trolley that’s going down the track toward a switch. If you don’t throw the switch the trolley will go straight and kill five people. You can see them. They look like nice people. If you do throw the switch it will go down a side track and kill one person. Looks like a nice person, too. Not wearing a MAGA hat or anything. What’s the ethical thing to do.
Some people decide such problems using a utilitarian view of ethics: five dead people are less bad than one dead person, so the ethical choice is to throw the switch. But utilitarianism runs into all sorts of other problems that I’m not going in to here. Trust me. There are problems.
Others take a deontological view. There are rules, and you follow them. One rule: you don’t kill people. Even if you save five to kill the one, the five you save doesn’t justify the one you killed. If could throw the switch and save five people without killing anyone, then the ethical choice is to throw it. But if throwing the switch kills someone, the only ethical choice is to not throw it. This has problems too, of course. Because nothing is simple.
So I’m not a pure utilitarian, but I’m more of a utilitarian than a deontologist. I’ll throw the switch if the difference between lives saved and lives lost is worth my time. Say throwing the switch kills 4,999 people instead of 5,000. I mean they’re all pretty stupid to be standing around on a railroad track. So the first thing I want to know is: how much out of my way do I have to go just to save one of these morons?
And besides, how do I know the count is accurate? In the original trolley problem, I can trust my own perception: I can count the number of people verify the switch works as expected. But as things scale up, I have to rely on other people. Is it really 5,000 vs 4,999? Maybe someone miscounted? Maybe it’s 4,999 vs 5,000? Are any of them wearing MAGA hats? That might change my mind.
And it gets worse. Suppose someone tells me the number of people who die in each case is determined by a machine that’s driven by a random number generator. In both cases it will pick a number from a uniform distribution. In one case the mean number of people killed is 1,000, in the other case will be 5,000. The choice that kills an average of 1,000 people is better than the choice that kills an average of 5,000, but you don’t get to choose an average outcome. You make a choice and some number of people will die.
But who told you that the mean number of people in one case is 1,000 people, and the mean number in the other case is 5,000. What if they’re wrong about the mean. And is it really a uniform distribution? What if the shape of the distribution is different? And do you change your mind depending on the distribution mean?
What if instead of a random number generator someone has written an economic model that tells you how many people will die in the near-term if you make a certain policy choice and someone else has written a climate model and tied it to an economic model that tells you how many people will die in the longer-term if you make that choice.
What if we’re not talking about death but about misery? What if some of the miserable people are people in far off lands? Does that change your thinking?
Here are the factors that affect my view of this wickedly complex trolley problems.
Humans are conscious creatures—but not the only conscious creatures. One should not act in ways that cause or continue unnecessary suffering by conscious creatures. But not all conscious creatures are equal, in my reckoning. Humans are different from other conscious creatures in ways that I think are important. Because of those differences, I place a higher value on preventing the unnecessary human suffering and on improving human well-being than on preventing the suffering of other conscious creatures.
We humans are a brutal species, but we are not the only brutal species. We are one of the few species (but not the only one) with members that murder their own kind in pursuit of selfish ends. We are not the only species with members who rape others of our own and other species—-sometimes to death and past death. Humans are not the only species with members that brutalize and eventually kill other creatures for no other discernable purpose than pleasure.
To talk of “humans vs nature” is a metaphor rather than a fact. Like every species on this planet, we have evolved through natural selection. The human species is as much part of nature as any other species. But the human species is also different from every other species in important ways. We are not the only species on the planet whose members are conscious, but we are the only species with some members that show evidence that they are conscious of being conscious. I think this is important.
We are also the only species with members that write and appreciate poetry among other forays into arts that are unique to humans. We are the only species with members who have discovered and continue to discover the laws underlying regularities in the universe—including those that produce weather and climate. We are the only species with members who are aware of the impact their species on the planet and consider what to do about it. We are the only species with members who know we are on a planet! We are the only species with members who think about the long-term future of their species, planet and even the universe. We are the only species that have developed ethical frameworks and with members who think about the ethical consequences of their actions.
As far as we know, we are not just the only species on this planet that does these things, we are the only such species in this galaxy. There are reasonable, scientific arguments for believing that our uniqueness is a fact independent of the bounds of our knowledge.
The thriving of almost every kind of living thing is at the expense of the thriving of some other kinds living thing—and to the benefit of some other kinds. Because of the unique qualities of humans—that we are conscious, that we have and continue to gain knowledge—I place a higher value on the thriving of humans (and the species that are our symbiotes along with us) than on the thriving of other groups of species.
The ethical issue underlying my view of climate change is this: if some number of human lives a hundred years in the future could be saved at the cost of even one human today continuing its suffering, how many future lives would I want to save to support actions that allow one person to suffer longer? How certain would I want to be that those lives will actually be saved before supporting actions that continue suffering in the present?
That’s the trolley problem. Take some action, we certainly cause harm to some number of people? Some even die. The harm can be measured by prolonged human suffering. We know that impoverished people seek to leave their lives of misery and privation and suffering. We know that actions that raise the cost of energy make this more difficult, and thus preserve their suffering. For me, it must be fairly certain that proposed action will be an effective way to prevent a large amount of future suffering to justify the continued suffering that it will certainly produce.
How many suffer? I know that if the action is substantial then the effects will be substantial, and there are people who will give you a number.
It is reasonable to take the IPCC reports as our best understanding of the range of likely future climate outcomes. The reports tell us that if we take no steps to mitigate CO2 emissions that disastrous outcomes are possible. But disastrous outcomes, according to the IPCC are far from certain. The IPCC reports tell us the range of effects of assumed mitigating actions. The benefits of the mitigation are also far from certain.
How many people will suffer? There are people who will give you a number. So what action should an ethical person take if they know it will cause an unknown amount of suffering in the nearer-tem and prevent unknown amount in the longer-term?
I would be willing to take actions that are likely to result in gaining critical knowledge that we lack even knowing those actions will cause some harm. The knowledge that I believe is critical includes greater knowledge of climate mechanisms, greater knowledge of variability, greater knowledge of the probability of outcomes, greater knowledge of the consequences of solutions we know about, and knowledge of new solutions that might be more effective.
I am not willing to support actions that prolong suffering on the assertion that because there is some likelihood of disaster—and there is some likelihood of disaster, no doubt—that “we must do something—or everything we can—before it’s too late.” It may already be too late. It may be too late if we don’t act in ways that we could act. It may not be too late at all. I don’t know and I do not believe anyone knows. Other people may be willing to advocate actions that prolong suffering out of fear, because of their faith in others’ certainty, despite the fact that such certainty is almost entirely unwarranted, and despite their own ignorance and inability to make their own judgment. I am not.
OK, there you have it.
I don’t think that climate change is the biggest problem that we face, and I don’t think that it’s the best problem for me to apply my talents and resources to solving. What are the biggest problems and what do I work on? That’s the subject of another post. Maybe several.