Environmental Ethics

Living near a busy road can kill you

Early April saw some unusually smoggy days across much of Western Europe, resulting in widespread media attention to air pollution.
(See, for example, here, here and here.) On one day, air quality in some parts of London was worse than in Beijing. Further attention has been drawn to the issue by a number of recent official reports, including one from the World Health Organisation, which has declared that air pollution is now the world’s biggest single environmental threat to health.

As has been noted, media coverage can give a misleading picture of the health risks of air pollution. Coverage tends to focus on short-term peaks, such as those seen recently in Western Europe, but the health risks of air pollution are primarily related to long term exposure, and show no ’safe threshold’ effect. Elevated baseline levels of pollution are thus more of a problem than occasional peaks.

There’s another important aspect of air pollution that often goes unnoticed; small geographical differences can have a marked effect on exposure to air pollution and thus on risk of adverse health effects. For example, living near a busy road appears to substantially increase air pollution-related mortality. A study published last year in the Lancet (press summary here) investigated the effects of very local differences in air quality on mortality by pooling 22 European cohort studies. The investigators found that an increase in average annual fine particulate (PM2.5) exposure of 5 µg/m3 was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of dying from all natural causes. This is approximately the difference between living on a busy urban road and living in a traffic-free area. The finding was robust in the face of correction for various possible confounding factors. Continue reading

Do we have a moral obligation protect the climate?

On 6 December, Prof. Dr. Bernward Gesang, Chair of Philosophy and Ethics of Economy at the University of Mannheim, presented an interesting talk on “Do individuals have duties to protect the climate?” exploring if individuals have moral obligation to change their behaviours to mitigate climate change from an Act Utilitarian perspective, i.e. the view that an act is permissible if and only if no other acts bring higher overall utility. Continue reading

Oxford Martin School Seminar: Robert Rogers and Paul Van Lange on Social Dilemmas

In a joint event on November 15th, Prof Robert Rogers and Prof Paul van Lange presented their scientific work related to social dilemmas.

Social dilemmas are situations in which private interests conflict with collective interests. This means that people facing a social dilemma have to decide whether to prioritise either their own short-term interests or the long-term interests of a group. Many real-life situations are social dilemmas. For example, as individuals we would (economically) benefit from using public motorways without paying taxes to maintain them, but if all acted according to their self-interest, no motorways would be built and the whole society would be worse off. In the academic literature, the three types of social dilemmas that are discussed most prominently are the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Public Goods Dilemma, and the Tragedy of the Commons. All three types have been modelled as experimental games, and research from different fields like psychology, neuroscience, and behavioural economics uses these games to tackle the question of under which conditions people are willing to cooperate with one another in social dilemmas, instead of maximising their self-interest. The ultimate goal of such research is to be able to give recommendations about how to solve social dilemmas in society.

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Invasion from the blue planet: are we protecting Mars too much?

Are we overprotective of Mars? That is the claim made by Alberto G. Fairén and Dirk Schulze-Makuch in a recent commentary in Nature Geoscience. They argue that current planetary protection policies that try to prevent bodies in the solar system from becoming contaminated by Earth-life are too costly, inhibit scientific exploration and might actually be unnecessary because of natural contamination. How much value does a pristine non-terrestrial environment have?

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Not all philosophers are equal

Not all ethical issues are equally important. Many ethicists spend their professional lives performing in sideshows.

However entertaining the sideshow, sideshow performers do not deserve the same recognition or remuneration as those performing on our philosophical Broadways.

What really matters now is not the nuance of our approach to mitochondrial manipulation for glycogen storage diseases, or yet another set of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes in the debate about the naturalistic fallacy. It is: (a) Whether or not we should be allowed to destroy our planet (and if not, how to stop it happening); and (b) Whether or not it is fine to allow 20,000 children in the developing world to die daily of hunger and entirely avoidable disease  (and if not, how to stop it happening). My concern in this post is mainly with (a). A habitable planet is a prerequisite for all the rest of our ethical cogitation. If we can’t live here at all, it’s pointless trying to draft the small print of living. Continue reading

Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.

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Why slaughterhouses should welcome CCTV

by Rebecca Roache

Covertly filming shocking animal abuse in the meat industry (and other industries involving animals) is a common tactic of animal welfare charities such as the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals, Animal Aid, and PETA. The footage is generally obtained by workers for the charities who gain employment at slaughterhouses, farms, laboratories and the like; and it has been instrumental in prosecuting abusers and applying pressure on meat producers to improve welfare standards, as the New York Times reported at the weekend.

The same article also reports a disturbing response to this practice by several US states:

They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.

Those who flout this so-called ‘ag-gag’  legislation may, among other things, be placed on a ‘terrorist registry’.

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Values for Geoengineering Governance

Geoengineering as a response to anthropogenic climate change is of increasing interest to members of the scientific community.  The challenges of developing technologies powerful enough to manipulate the global climate are considerable and varied.   As well as the scientific and technical issues, many people (understandably) have concerns about geoengineering.  Hence issues of governance are key. As the technologies are in their infancy, it is futile at present to propose detailed regulatory structures, but one place to start is to discuss the  values by which the development of geoengineering technologies must be guided.   The Oxford Principles, originally proposed in 2009, were one of the first attempts to do so.

A paper now out in the journal Climatic Change, available here, gives an explanation of the values behind the Oxford Principles: Continue reading

Invoking and banishing the dread demon “Lead”

Some researchers have fingered a surprising culprit for the crime wave that ended in the 1990s: lead, mainly from leaded fuel. We know that lead leads to development difficulties in children, and in country after country, lead emissions closely mirror the crime rate 23 years later – after those children have grown up into mature, irresponsible adults.

A nice story – only problem is, people aren’t very interested in it. We prefer to tell stories about actual human villains, morality tales with clear blame and praise and entertaining situations (contrast the amounts spent fighting terrorism versus road accidents). Lead causing crime just isn’t sexy.

So to combat this universal human tendency, that causes us to misdirect our efforts and our focus, I propose we should treat Lead as an human-like villain. In its oily lair, the demon Lead rubes its metallic hands together in glee, imagining the millions of children whose developments it is stunting, and the thousands of young men it tipped into criminality, and the wailing of their victims. It plots further increases of its empire of crime, and gnashes grey teeth in frustration as heroic regulator squeeze its powerbase out of the air, the fuel, and the water.

You should already feel your emotional priorities shifting. This alternative visions should enable us to give Lead the attention it deserves, in comparison with other lesser threats with more appealing stories. Use our story-biases in the service of good – we can feel the appropriate amount of joy when we triumph over Lead; emotions, not just reason, are needed to keep up our motivations in dealing wit these threats.

And then the demon can be joined in its dark imaginary lair by the vicious Vampire Malaria, the Zombie-Lord of the Road Traffic Accident, and the bloody Psychopathic Death Cult of Cardio-Vascular Diseases. To arms, good citizens of the world, against these sinister anthropomorphised and correctly prioritised threats!

The price of uncertainty: geoengineering climate change through stratospheric sulfate

With thanks to Clive Hamilton for his talk.

Stratospheric sulfate seems to be one of the most promising geoengineering methods to combat climate change. It involves the injection of  hydrogen sulfide (H2S), sulfur dioxide (SO2) or other sulfates, into the stratosphere. Similar to what happens after major volcanic eruptions, this would reflect off part of the sun’s energy and cool the Earth, counterbalancing the effect of greenhouse gases (see for instance the “Year without a Summer” that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora).

It is probably the best geoengineering solution to climate change, in that it’s likely to work, should be technically feasible, can be done by a single nation if need be (no need for global consensus), and is likely to be very cheap – especially in comparison with cutting emissions. But it has a few drawbacks:

  1. It will have unpredictable effects on the weather across the globe.
  2. We can’t really test it – the test would be doing it, on a global scale.
  3. We wouldn’t know if it worked until we’d had about a decade of temperature measurements.
  4. Once started, it’s extremely dangerous to stop it – especially if carbon emissions keep rising.

So, should we do it? Narrow cost-benefit analysis suggests yes, but that doesn’t take into account the uncertainty, the unknown unknowns – the very likely probability that things will not go as expected, and that we’ll have difficulty dealing with the side effects. This includes the political side effects when some areas of the globe suffer more than others from this process.

How bad does global warming have to get before we consider this type of nearly irreversible geoengineering? If we had to choose between this and cutting emissions, how high would the cost of cutting have to go before we sprang for this instead? In short, what price do we put on avoiding uncertainty on the global scale? Can we estimate a dollar amount, or some alternative measure of the cost – quality-adjusted life years, or some other human-scale estimate? Or is this an illusionary precision, and do our intuitions and qualitative arguments (precautionary principle?) give us a better estimate of whether we should go ahead with this?