Sunday, November 7, 2010

Intentional climate change, procedural justice and the case for individual action

I shall try to continue to make the case for individual action in this post, particularly in relation to trash and the effects of our consumerist decisions. I have written about the issue of personal responsibility and individual action here, here, here and here, each with slightly different emphases.

I just re-read a thoughtfully written article by Dale Jamieson on Ethics and Intentional Climate Change. He describes the current lack of ethical accountability for geo-engineering the climate, whether it be by large-scale reforestation using a single, fast-growing tree species, or putting up mirrors in space to reflect the downwelling incoming solar radiation by a certain amount. He also describes issues of unintentional consequences, which abound in engineering and technofixes that have been implemented in the past. For example, he describes the evolution of superbugs because of excessive use of pesticides and medicines in today's world. One of the most interesting things he talks about is the issue of procedural justice. We cannot argue against the fact that the current negative state of the world's environment is primarily due to a Western ethic of domination over nature, and that such an ethic promulgated to others in the East and "under-polluted" South without a full understanding of its consequences leads to even more environmental and social destruction. In response to growing concerns about climate change, you may know that that the United Nations has tried to facilitate talks to have a global agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gases under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. What has come out of such talks are ineffective "protocols" like Kyoto, and "declarations of goodwill" like that out of Copenhagen last year. If you are following climate change negotiations, you may be pessimistic about what may come out of Cancun in the next round of climate talks. Regardless, such approaches to solving global environmental issues, although coming out of the confluence of actions of institutions, organisations and people, are inherently dominated by the voices and money of a few actors. Nothing came out of the Copenhagen round of talks because of stalling on the part of the US and China. In the end, those most affected are those whose voices are silenced. It is the "freedom" and "sovereignty" of the US and China to stall important talks and agreements, but there is an inherent domination of sub-Saharan Africa that comes along with it. The same goes with geo-engineering and climate change. There are significant hurdles of procedural justice. Whose voices will be considered when making monumental decisions such as intentionally altering the Earth's climate to fight against "unintentional" climate change? Indeed, many of the ideas that are floating around for geo-engineering are much cheaper to implement than say providing "less fortunate" countries with resources and money for adaptation. The unintended consequences of changing large physical systems are most likely not reversible - climate change is likely irreversible, too. Jamieson lays the case that some serious ethical foundations must be laid before we can even think about implementing any large-scale geo-engineering scheme like seeding the world's oceans with iron so that large algal blooms can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But how are we to find common ground with such a diversity of moral philosophies and traditions in the world? Many decades may pass before the US will see eye-to-eye with China. Indeed, the US is probably more concerned about cyber espionage and warfare with China than about dealing with climate change.

But what is reversible?  Human behaviour is reversible, even though it is difficult to get people to change their behaviour. We cannot wait for top-down, "global consensus" strategies to be implemented to solve such a dynamic, divisive problem. Individual action and choices have profound effects for our localities, economies and environment. When we take individual action to refuse, reduce and reuse we concretely address issues of greenhouse gas emissions, landfilling trash, burning toxic wastes, and shipping electronics to China and India for "recycling." No one can deny this. These actions do have an effect on those in contact with us. I can attest to that. There are no questions of procedural justice, distributive justice, or consensus that need to be addressed.

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