climate change

Cross Post: How psychology can help us solve climate change

Time to cooperate. Hands by Shutterstock

 

The Paris agreement on climate change calls for a global responsibility to cooperate. As we are often reminded, we urgently and drastically need to limit our use of one shared resource – fossil fuels – and its effect on another – the climate. But how realistic is this goal, both for national leaders and for us? Well, psychology may hold some answers.

Psychologists and economists have long explored the conflict between short-term individual and long-term collective interests when dealing with shared resources. Think of the commons dilemma: the scenario in which a field for grazing cattle works well when everyone cooperates by sticking to one cow each, but which leads to the so-called “tragedy of the commons” if more selfish drives take over.

It is useful to think about overuse of fossil fuels and its effect on the climate as a similar dilemma. If we were to think of this from a purely economic perspective, we would likely act selfishly. But psychological research should make us more optimistic about cooperation. Continue reading

Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

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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

Après nous, le déluge: legislating science

The North Carolina senate tried to pass a bill in June banning state agency researchers from using exponential extrapolations in predictions of sea level, requiring them to just using linear extrapolations. After being generally laughed at, the legislators settled for a compromise: state agencies were forbidden to base any laws or plans on exponential extrapolations for the next three to four years. Now a new report shows that sea levels are rising faster near North Carolina than anywhere else on Earth.

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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?

Planet of the (Little) Apes

The Daily Mail has recently published an article entitled ‘Planet of the (little) apes: Save the world by genetically engineering humans to be smaller, suggests NYU philosopher.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2114430/Save-planet-genetically-engineering-humans-smaller-suggests-NYU-philosopher.html)

 It is always good to see the Daily Mail covering philosophy and covering issues in applied ethics in particular. The NYU philosopher in question is former Uehiro Centre researcher S. Matthew Liao. His co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are both affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute here at Oxford and the paper under discussion is called ‘Human Engineering and Climate Change’ and is forthcoming in Ethics Policy and the Environment, an interdisciplinary academic journal which specialises in environmental policy and ethics.

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