Friday, October 16, 2015

THE ETHICAL AND MORAL DILEMMAS OF DEALING WITH CLIMATE CHANGE

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In the United States the political debate over climate change (for some, global warming) ebbs and flows. In a legislature that has become as polarized as opposite ends of a bar magnet (they repel each other), and that is obsessed with opposing a sitting president and the 2016 presidential election, it’s futile to expect any rational debate on this or any other subject. In fact, it’s probably futile to expect rational debate after the 2016 election.
Does that mean that we the people should ignore the subject? As one of the ‘people’, my answer to that question is NO! If we can’t expect anything useful from our politicians, it’s left to us to do something on our own. If the horse won’t pull the cart, then we should get out and push.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state up front—I’m not a scientist. I’m a writer. I was a soldier for 20 years, and a diplomat for 30 years after that, so I’m not qualified to argue for or against the subject on scientific grounds. I am, however, capable of reading and understanding the arguments presented by others, and coming to my own conclusions, I’m able to distinguish logical arguments from fallacious ones—of separating fact from b.s..

What do we know about Climate Change?

Courtesy NASA Image Exchange
After reading hundreds of pages of argument, pro and con, here’s what I’ve gleaned on the issue.
-         During the past century or so, the average global temperature has risen 1.5oF.
-         Projections (estimates) for the next century range from 0.5 to 8.6oF.
-         Global temperatures result from a blanket of gasses surrounding the earth that keep heat from escaping.
Even those who deny global warming can’t refute the above—they’re facts that are available publicly. I’m sure, though, that there are some who would like to try. Regardless of that, I’m convinced that global warming (a component of climate change) is a fact.
We also know what causes it. Certain gasses, Greenhouse Gasses (GHG), such as carbon dioxide (CO2), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Methane (CH4), and Fluorinated Gasses serve to block heat from escaping the atmosphere, raising the temperature of the earth, just as a blanket warms us in bed. We even know where these elements come from.
Photo courtesy US DOE, Renewable
Energy Lab
-         Carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuel for energy, industrial and agricultural activities, and deforestation (the lack of trees to absorb the CO2)
-         Nitrous oxide results from agricultural and manufacturing activity and from burning solid waste.
-         Methane comes from the production and transportation of coal, natural gas, and oil, from livestock and from solid waste landfills.
-         Fluorinated gases are synthetic gasses that come from industrial processes.
Of these gasses, the biggest villain (though it’s not the sole cause of global warming) is CO2, which accounts for over 80% of the GHG.
While some will argue the point, the negative effects of higher global temperatures are, to me at least, pretty obvious. I’ve mentioned the problem of deforestation. Plants absorb CO2. When trees are cut for timber, agriculture, or other construction, more of the CO2 we produce through other operations remains in the air. Warmer temperatures also created weather imbalances. Higher snow melts which result in floods. More moisture in the air, leading to heavy rain or snow storms. The ocean is warmer leading to more acidic conditions, affecting marine life and marine habitats, stronger hurricanes and other tropical storms. Warmer temperatures have caused polar ice cap melts resulting in higher sea levels. In the 20th century, for instance, sea levels have risen 7 inches, leading to coastal erosion and stronger storm surges, increasing the damage from storms. Hurricane Katrina in 2006 was a pretty compelling example of this.

What does all this mean?

There’s no part of the globe that’s totally protected from the negative impact of climate change, but certain communities and nations are more vulnerable than others. Coastal communities, low-income communities, and lesser developed countries; the elderly, infants, or people with infirmities; all are less able to withstand or recover from some of the disasters caused by global warming. The poor wards of New Orleans, some of which still have not been rebuilt, are an example right here in the U.S., the world’s richest country.
But, rich countries and communities are affected. The movement of people from devastated areas, the costs of rebuilding, lost productivity, all potentially impact everyone. Worse, the effect on future generations can’t be accurately predicted. And, therein lie the ethical and moral dilemmas.
For an individual, becoming actively involved in the climate change issue would seem to be no easy thing to do. And, by involved, I mean actually becoming knowledgeable, not just swallowing the line that seems most palatable, or that is in line with your politics.
A person can, though, become educated, in the first instance, by removing the word ‘conspiracy’ from his or her vocabulary. A conspiracy is a secret agreement by two or more people to do something unlawful or harmful, or the act of plotting with others to do something harmful. While much about climate change is complex and difficult to comprehend without careful study, it’s all out there if you have the patience and will to look for it.
One such theory, for instance; that the big energy companies are conspiring to debunk the belief in climate change; is quite popular with many on the pro side of the debate. Unfortunately, if so many people know so much about it, it fails the first test of a conspiracy—it’s no longer secret. What seems more logical to me is that the companies, focusing as many companies do on profit and loss, are playing both side of the issue.
Take Exxon Mobil, for instance. In 1977, Exxon Mobil scientists conducted research that showed a definite correlation between fossil fuel combustion and global warming. Actions to mitigate this effect, though, were deemed extremely expensive, so Exxon also spent money trying to debunk its own scientists’ findings. Of late, the company has been making pro-environment noises, while at the same time it’s been a longtime member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that has called climate change a scam. Exxon has contributed millions to ALEC, and until a CEO change in 2006, supported a large number of climate change denier groups.
In 2010, one of British Petroleum’s (BP) rigs in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, causing an oil spill of some 3.19 million barrels. It will take years to assess the total extent of the damage from this disaster, but within days, dead marine life was seen in the water and on the beaches, stranding of dolphins increased, and the number of dead seabirds is estimated to be in the thousands. Some shrimp fisheries had to be closed for a year. The extent of damage, in the Gulf and to the coastal ecosystems will take years to fully assess. In 2015 the U.S. Justice Department announced a final settlement against BP of $20.8 billion for the disaster, the largest oil spill in American history. The ultimate total cost of this disaster, however, has been estimated to be in the neighborhood of $54 billion. That it took five years to reach a settlement, despite the fact that BP paid about $1 billion immediately, has left many environmentalists less than satisfied.
Depending upon which side of the climate change conspiracy issue you occupy, you’ll see these cases differently, focusing on those facts that support your already held beliefs. Trying to look at both sides can be confusing. But, the only logical way to assess a situation is to look at both sides.
The big energy companies like Exxon and BP are based on fossil fuels, a resource that is nonrenewable—one day it will no longer exist. Since they’re in the energy business to stay, and are not being run by stupid people, one must assume they know this. From that it’s logical to assume they would be positioning themselves for the day when they have to find a new source of energy. But, in order to do that, they must survive. Immediate transition to an alternate source, assuming such a reliable source was immediately available, would be an expensive undertaking. It’s logical, therefore (to me at least) that they would try to make as much as possible, for as long as possible from the existing source until they can profitably develop and exploit an alternative. It doesn’t surprise me, then, to see them use stonewalling, lobbying, or other delaying tactics that allow them to remain profitable while they make the necessary adjustments. I’m not saying this approvingly, just stating what seems an obvious conclusion to me.
Energy companies—many big corporations in fact—lobby legislators to stonewall unfavorable regulatory laws, or spin them in their favor, for the same reason. The fact is, many of these regulations are ineffective, or only marginally effective, and are always costly, which in their view threatens their economic survival.
Corporate allies in this are legislators who, concerned with getting elected or staying in office, respond to campaign contributions from deep pockets, and media outlets that present the issue in ways that often only further confuse an already complex issue.
Claiming to be objective, and presenting both side of the argument, the media often presents debates between climate scientists, who express their degree of uncertainty honestly as they argue that climate change is real, and anti-global warming activists who often have no scientific credentials and rely on emotional arguments. Faced with a scientist with charts and diagrams, who gives percentages and talks about degrees of certainty, and an activist who talks about job loss, and lack of certainty, it’s no wonder most people are confused. How would react to the following scenarios?
-         In 100 years the average global temperature will rise another 0.5 to 8.6oF, causing a rise in the sea levels. With such a wide temperature range, the sea level rise can only be roughly estimated.
-         During the winter of 2014-2015 the northeast U.S. experienced a polar vortex, dumping unprecedented amounts of snow. In March 2015, Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma walked onto the floor of the Senate with a snowball in his hand, claiming that this proved that there was no such thing as global warming.
If you’re a non-scientist, you’d likely be more moved by the second scenario. I believe in global warming, but by the time I was shoveling more than three feet of snow from my driveway for the fourth time, the last time in late March, I had to admit to being concerned. Instead of immediately changing my belief, though, I did a little reading. What I learned was that warmer temperatures cause moisture to be retained in the air. At certain temperatures, this water is released as rain or snow—in large amounts. Warmer average temperatures also affect winds which causes shifts in the polar vortex, normally contained over the poles. The large precipitations—deluges or blizzards, are of relatively short duration, but heavy in volume, and in the case of rain causes severe flooding. The warmer average winters we’ve experienced for the past few years also increase snow melt which leads to floods. Strangely, after such heavy unseasonal rains or snows, in some areas severe droughts follow. Damage following damage.
If these unusual weather patterns continue, the resilience and recovery capability of certain areas and communities could be stressed to the breaking point.

What are our moral and ethical obligations?

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast survived Hurricane Katrina—just barely—only to be hit a few years later with a huge oil spill. The area is still rebuilding from the impact of both. Hurricane Sandy, unofficially known as ‘Superstorm Sandy’, was the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. It devastated areas of the East Coast farther north than ever before, causing damage even in New York City, and damaging monuments on the National Mall in Washington, DC. In September 2015, there was fear that Hurricane Joaquin would follow Sandy’s path, but it veered out to sea before making landfall. Will there be another—or, a better question might be, when will the next one strike? For our sake, and that of future generations, can we afford to ignore the possibility?
Photo courtesy U.S. Navy
Can we afford to ignore the long-term effects of storms and other natural and manmade disasters to our coastal communities, the destruction of vital ecosystems if the effects of global warming, which scientists believe contribute to the frequency and strength of hurricanes, if we get more superstorms in the next year, the next 10 years, the next 100 years? What is our responsibility to future generations, to the poor, to the non-human species with whom we share the planet? What is our responsibility to the earth itself—the only home we have at the moment?
A lot of questions; questions we should be asking ourselves. Questions that as far as I’ve been able to determine in my reading, have not been a significant part of the debate on the issue, but that should be.
At the risk of being repetitious, the one thing we can do is educate ourselves. We can learn as much as possible about climate change, or if you prefer, global warming. We can study both sides of the issue, and then subject each side’s arguments to a logical analysis. How much evidence is presented to support each argument? Does the argument appeal to logic, or is it based on emotion? Then, and only then, should we decide what we believe to be true, keeping in mind that the future can never be definitely known until it’s the present. If, in the absence of some action on our part, that potential future is likely to be disaster, we would be foolish to wait—or to take the view that since we’ll all be dead in 100 years, it doesn’t matter. To our descendants a hundred years from now, it will matter.

That is my call to action. Learn analyze, and decide for yourself.

Regardless of where you currently stand on the issue of climate change, share your thoughts on this article by commenting below. Share it with your network and encourage them to do the same. Raise your voice and let it be heard. Put this debate where it belongs, with us, the people. #raiseyourvoice  #BAD15