Friday, July 08, 2016

How Not to Save the Planet - and its critics [UPDATED]

The second issue in this year's volume of Ethics, Policy & Environment includes my target article How Not to Save the Planet. I accept the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about how climate change has contributed to serious environmental problems for which human beings have responsibility - I am no climate change sceptic. So much, so uncontroversial.

But the main argument is against proposed solutions to these problems offered by political philosophers. From the environmental footprint and polluter pays principle to adaptation technologies, I claim that none - as argued by their proponents - solves the problem of climate change. While all claim to be the key to unlocking a sustainable forever after, I argue that we must do better.

And this leads me to a central charge: that each gets wrong the kind of problem that climate change represents, namely, as a problem that can be solved through what I call 'end-state solutions': if we do x, then y will be the result. This gets it wrong because climate change will continue whether or not there are human beings. In turn, this raises new ethical questions and policy challenges for our thinking - and doing something about - climate change.

In one response to my article, Alexander Lee and Jordan Kincaid reflect on whether we can lose the planet but save ourselves. Their argument is to blame the policymakers, not the philosophers. They appear to concede my critiques of the major proposals advanced by leading philosophers working in the ethics of climate change, but argue "the value of philosophy rests not on successful policy action, but in the process of moral evaluation". They conclude "philosophers can guide moral mitigation, even in a world where climate mitigation is no longer possible".

This brings together different arguments, but I want to focus on some assumptions: that philosophy can provide guidance even where its recommendation "is no longer possible" - in short, it can still guide us even if the guidance could never be acted upon. I cannot see the value in an ethics that is impossible as guidance - even if I accept the value of a principle is not dependent on its lack of success in practice.

I would have wanted to hear more about how, if the principles of polluter pays and others remain valid, they might be implemented better. A political philosophy that has such a disregard for the real world - where possibility is considered irrelevant - not only gives philosophy a bad name, but takes us too far away from considering the value of institutions which must always play some important role for political philosophy.

In a second response to my piece, Jonathan Peter Schwartz argues that my claim that "the ecological footprint strategy as an 'end-state' solution profoundly misses the point". His claim is that those most beyond their means are in affluent states that contribute most to the climate change-related harms that will be suffered by those in poorer states. We therefore should aim for a "sustainable global economy" to help buy ourselves more time "to effectively pursue the adaption strategy Brooks' advocates".

In reply, it is worth noting that my criticism of the ecological footprint strategy took more than one form. I argued that a one-size-fits-all footprint does not treat all countries equally (some will have greater or lesser research needs depending on local climates) or fairly (some individuals over a lifetime will require different footprints).

I also noted - and left out by Schwartz - that locking all countries into the same sized footprint will allow some countries (namely, the most affluent) to solidify their global position of power over others (namely, the most poor) because more wealthy states are better placed to exploit such conditions to their benefit. The implication is keeping ourselves within a sufficiently small one-size-fits-all footprint might prolong a sustainable future (versus where we are headed now), but the rich will become better off than the poor.

The mistake is thinking that this will be a sustainable future. I am clearly in favour of BOTH conservationism AND adaptation: my central criticisms focus on those who think we can choose one over the other. And this seems a problem with Schwartz's view: he notes "with several hundred to thousands of years to pursue adaption research and strategies" - I'm less convinced an ecological footprint can deliver it and doubtful a sustainable economy is an easy fit with this footprint without hearing more about what he has in mind.

In a third response to my article, Ben Mylius argues for a process-centred approach to thinking about climate change. I'm unsure we disagree about that. I can see why Mylius thought of my critique of end-state solutions as a kind of "outmoded Hegelian idea" about some kind of end of history given my previous work on Hegel's philosophy -- although actually I had Robert Nozick in mind and his critique of Rawls's theory of distributive justice.

But I don't see where his analysis builds off of mine. I am clear that thinking there is some one goal or end-state of affairs is misleading - and potentially dangerous - thinking given that the climate is constantly changing even if there were not human beings.

The fourth and final response is by Clement Loo and he also argued for a process-based framework. We are clearly in agreement here ("Brooks convincingly makes the case that the current arguments for climate mitigation and adaptation fail".) Loo endorses a reparative view of climate change and his account, if brief, is highly interesting with much to be said for it.

I accept there is an intuitively attractive case to be made for those who contribute to the harms others suffer from should contribute to some kind of response like repair. Where I am less certain is the precise nature of the response (economic? punishment? something else?) and how any moral intuitions we have can be employed into a compelling policy framework. Loo accepts this and so my main reply to his thoughtful piece is I'd like to see more - and may well agree with where he takes the argument. But we must see it fully developed to make that judgement.

In short, it is a pleasure to receive such reflective and insightful critiques of my work on climate change (originally written as a response to papers on the topic delivered at Newcastle University during my time there that I disagreed with - my paper systematizes my similar responses over the years).

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