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What's ethical about climate change?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/24/09 @ 1:43pm

"We've turned the corner," Andrew Light, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress (CAP), warned about global warming at the Case Baker-Nord Humanities "Cultures of Green" Week keynote address on Oct. 22. "We're not talking about computer models, but observable changes."

Light's presentation "Ethics and Climate Change" put the latest science in the framework of policy prescriptions moving through Congress. He left a glimmer of hope that the U.S. is not going to blink facing down the maw of global catastrophe.

First, the bad news. Climate science from March 2009 shows our somnolent business-as-usual approach will lead to an atmospheric concentration of 1000 parts per million of carbon dioxide, not the IPCC target of 380 ppm or even the contingent 450 ppm needed to avoid irrevocable destruction. Already, the Arctic sea ice is melting faster than the last IPCC report anticipated, and sea levels are rising.

What will the world look like in 2100?

"My five-month-old son will be in his nineties and may not want to live in a world with eighty-foot sea level rise. The point is, this is not passing on the problem to some future generation that we'll never meet."

Why, then, do Americans rank global warming last in their worries? Light addressed the polls.

"The problem is what I call a 'finite pool of worries,'" Light said. People cannot worry about everything.

"So (CAP) did a study, Climate Change and the American Mind (pdf) where we asked Americans only about global warming. It gave us a sense of what people care about."

The questions focus on outcomes and actions we can take to address global warming. The answers that ranked high include, 'protect God's creation' and 'protect our children.'

CAP plans to do a follow up study that will drill down into actions based on these broad concerns.

Meanwhile, the country is about to hear more about global warming as the Senate begins debate on the Kerry-Boxer climate bill next week. If the Senate fails to deliver a climate bill, the Obama Administration has a Plan B, Light said, which is to arrive at the international climate change conference in Copenhagen in December with an estimate of how much carbon the U.S. can reduce through the Supreme Court's decision to allow the EPA to regulate CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

"The administration will have a stick or at least a crude tool in being able to deliver on emissions reductions.

Discussing the realities of global warming will help us 'get beyond the moral impasse' of, for example, costs of action to poor populations. There is a moral foundation to the UN Climate Process, Light said, and it's based on the following principles:

1. That not every country needs to make the same level of reductions (The U.S. is responsible for more of the CO2 already in the atmosphere than China and India).

2. We recognize 'nationally appropriate mitigation actions'-that each country takes action that works for them and the world's developed countries provide technical and financial assistance; and

3. We have a moral obligation to future generations.

Underpinning the moral argument is the economic feasibility of shifting from an economy driven by carbon to one based on renewable energy and green jobs.

"CAP ran cost estimates and determined it will cost $34 billion in renewable energy investment to reach our (emissions) reduction target, and that energy efficiency gains alone could pay for the entire thing.

"Look at the win wins. It will put thousands of people to work in the clean economy. When you look at the cycles of the American economy, we have spent our way out of recessions. This is the way to spend our way out and put us on the path to lower emissions."

Trained as a philosopher, Light said his critical thinking skills earned by a Humanities degree prepared him for his important role.

Environmental ethics are a new field, one that started in the 1970s around the time of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

"In the 70s environmental ethics meant expanding traditional economic arguments to the value of nature. This kind of approach is not sound because to isolate the values of nature and keep it separate from humans doesn't work. You have to balance the needs of nature against others, particularly in the developing world. So, the balancing act is very critical. We need to be able to offer people practical advice."

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