In an extremely thoughtful piece in Saturday’s Globe, Charles Montgomery uses some of my comments from a previous blog post on Bali as a spring-board for analyzing the ethical dimensions of the climate crisis.
On one side of “the perfect ethical storm” sit John Baird and Stephen Harper, moralizing about their position:
“It is simply unconscionable to think that only the [developed] countries can do the job themselves,” John Baird told Parliament. “We are not prepared to allow the big emitters, the big polluters like the United States, China and India, to get off the hook. We need all the big emitters on board, everyone with an oar in the water rowing together.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also hinted at virtue and the ethics of his stance at last month’s Commonwealth summit in Uganda. “It’s the only right position,” he said of his efforts to block a deal that called on rich countries to accept binding targets on greenhouse-gas emissions.
The other side (where I am dutifully located) also uses “morally charged rhetoric:”
Activist Sunita Narain, for example, has warned that Canada would have “the blood of the poor” on its hands if it waits for developing nations before acting on climate change. Toronto Green Party candidate Chris Tindal has written that anything less than Canada’s full participation in Bali would be “an immoral failure on a grand scale.”
And this week KAIROS, a coalition of Canadian Christian groups, issued an open letter to Canada and the conference in Bali urging them to stand by the “obligations and moral leadership” of the Kyoto framework and to advocate for a “just” climate-change agreement.
This presents a problem, argues Dale Jamieson, a professor of philosophy and director of the Environmental Studies Program at New York University, since climate science realities (and therefore, the related ethical dilemmas) are very complex.
“If Jack steals Jill’s bike, it’s easy to see why that’s wrong and to have an intuitive sense that there must be compensation, that Jack should be punished. That’s pretty uncontroversial.”
But what, he asks, if Jack and a large number of unacquainted people set in motion a chain of events that prevents people in the future, or in some faraway part of the world, from ever having bikes? “That’s the challenge of climate change.”
And check out this disturbing observation by Donald Brown, a professor of environmental ethics, science and law at Penn State University, about what happens when we only discuss the “costs” of climate change in economic terms:
For starters, the IPCC measures benefits and harms in terms of global market value – incomes and gross domestic products – but it takes everything else off the table.
“This results in the bizarre effect that the lives of people in poor countries are virtually worthless compared to the lives of people in rich countries, since the measure of their value is their earning power.”
And here are some of the most important ideas in the story, and also one of the best explanations I’ve seen as to why the Harper-Baird approach is wrongheaded, despite sounding logical on the surface.
In October, Sunita Narain, director of the New Delhi-based think tank the Centre for Science and the Environment, flew to Guyana to brief Commonwealth finance ministers on an increasingly popular concept of climate justice among poorer countries.
It suggests that in a truly fair world, the right to use the atmosphere would be spread equally among the world’s people – an approach that takes into account not only per-capita emissions today, but how much each nation has already polluted the atmosphere.
However, by the time she was done, Ms. Narain says, the Canadian delegation had stopped listening. Perhaps, she suggests, because under either a per-capita or historic measure Canada has failed its ethics test miserably.
“Industrial countries like Canada have used the atmosphere so they could grow,” she says. “If you look at the total of those emissions from mid-1800s until recently, you find that the entire atmospheric space has already been colonized by the rich countries. Now, they tell the rest of us there’s no more atmosphere for us to use.”
From 1950 to 2000, Canadians used 707 tons of greenhouse gas per person – or about 44 times as much as the average Indian. And today we are emitting about 19 tons per person while countries such as China hover around the four-ton mark.
But the IPCC has concluded that to avoid catastrophic climate change, a safe level of per-capita emissions would amount to about two tons for every individual on Earth.
Actually, “wrongheaded” might be too generous a descriptor for the Conservative non-plan. Montgomery gives the last word to Prof. Jamieson, who’s a little more, shall we say, critical.
[The Conservative government’s suggestion that all nations must “grab an oar and row at the same pace”] is a powerful metaphor, but ethicists such as Prof. Jamieson say it is slightly “perverse,” considering our skyrocketing jump in emissions. And it is a jarring departure from the position the country has taken since 1992, when it agreed with other rich nations that it would have to start rowing first.
It could also lead to a more obvious ethical problem: total inaction.
“Now, Canada’s position could be interpreted as saying we’re not going to do anything unless other countries go first,” Prof. Brown observes. “These kind of arguments can’t be excused. They just don’t meet ethical scrutiny now that climate change is already killing people around the world.”
That’s a damning (and, in my view, accurate) indictment of this government. So, will we (meaning the human race) ever build a large enough foundation of common ground to solve the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species? The answer must be yes, as failure cannot be an option. (Or, as Petra Kelly put it, “if we don’t do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.”)
On the other hand, will this government ever “be on the same page” with reality? All evidence suggests otherwise. They oppose reality itself with a dogmatic vigilance resembling the Catholic church’s initial reaction to evolution. The continue to pontificate their talking points even when they know they’re not true. No, the government will not change, therefore we must change the government.