"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, November 3, 2008

Several Inconvenient Truths: Ethics of CO2

The following is the text of a talk I gave, or strictly speaking intended to give at the Ethical Society of Austin. It turned out that I extemporized much more than read, but the general outlines were the same. I hit the same points in the same order, in other words. So this is not only the talk I intended to give but a pretty good proxy for what I actually said.

The parable, which accessibly presents a crucial idea that needs to get into people's understanding about the situation, is taken from Paul Baer's essay "Equity, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Global Common Resources".

The audience was a group of Texans with progressive inclinations but like most Texans I would guess not entirely friendly to centralized decision-making. To some extent, I am trying here to make a case as an unapologetic liberal for a certain amount of government in the classic big-government liberal (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson) vein.
SEVERAL INCONVENIENT TRUTHS: The Ethics of Carbon Emissions

If the world's civilization were built on ethical principles, which as I understand it we think it ought to be, how much would we owe the future, and even the distant future?

Last time I talked to this group, I tried to make the case that the future of the world was in our hands. Neither God nor Nature controls the future. We have become so powerful that what people used to call Providence is no longer a guarantee. We have nobody and nothing but our own ingenuity to promise us that the world will support us as well in the future as it did in the past. What the world will look like in a century or a millennium or possibly even longer depends very much on what we do now.

Today I will contend, first, that behaviors we do every day have consequences in the very far future, and second, that while addressing these problems begins at home, it doesn’t end at home, or even at our national boundaries. We have world problems that the whole world needs to solve collectively. 
We don't really know how to do that, but we have no choice but to try to figure it out.

I’m going to talk a bit about carbon dioxide, but I don't want this to be a science lecture, or a science discussion. I have nothing against the vanishing tradition of public lectures but I don’t think that’s why we meet here.

I am aiming for a discussion of ethics and global citizenship. The carbon problem presents us with an important example. There are other places where the same sorts of issue come up.


The point of view I’m advocating here is explicitly liberal; it has little traction in Texas on the left or on the right. I believe that in the end, collective action is necessary and so involvement of government is inevitable. So we might as well take the trouble to do it right rather than pretend we can minimize it. 
I grew up in Montreal, a city that has always been explicitly liberal, that celebrates government more than resenting it. So I realize the point of view I’m pushing here is a bit alien. From the point of view of the world, though, it’s not me who is the outlier. In a democracy, the people should feel that the government is their servant, not their master. Of course, if you can imagine how to get out of this mess without government and treaties, it certainly would be interesting to hear about it.

You've heard a lot about climate change lately. I have lived most of my life in cold icy places, and around this time of year I don't miss them a bit. On balance, though I complain about the heat, I prefer the southern climate to the northern. 
Yet we are all worried about a global temperature change of just a few degrees, even though I personally have been through changes of about twenty degrees without it bothering me too much. And in fact, it is the colder places that warm up most in global warming, so some people argue that there’s little basis for concern.

Well, for one thing, it’s me that moved to the new weather, it wasn’t the place I lived in that changed. That’s a very big difference. I had to adapt. The trees and grasses and animals didn’t.

More to the point, in the extreme where we continue to do little or nothing to prevent it, the changes eventually become very large.

What changes?

a) Weather patterns. The main ideas are that severe storms become more severe, and droughts more common. Essentially, rainfall becomes more bursty.

b) People and infrastructure are in the wrong place. Borders prevent migration, and some nations, especially smaller and/or drier ones become overpopulated without any fault of their own; migration stresses increase.

c) Huge additional stresses on ecosystems. Widespread forest decline. Increase in invasive species, decline in biodiversity, increased extinctions. This adds to existing stresses.

d) Large sea level rise, probably on a longer time scale. It may take centuries between the time that the ice sheets are destabilized and the time they collapse. It’s possible this has already started

e) While the ocean can adjust to a very slow increase of CO2 to very high levels, its adjustment time is thousands of years. If it encounters a carbon spike on a faster time scale, it becomes acidified. Dissolving CO2 in seawater also increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean, and thus decreases ocean pH. As ocean pH falls, so does the concentration of the carbonate ion, and when it becomes undersaturated, structures made of calcium carbonate dissolve. In short, too much CO2 in the atmosphere will kill the ocean, even if there is no global warming at all. Like sea level rise, the peak of this effect occurs hundreds of years after the peak in atmospheric CO2. Even if climate change effects are more modest than we think, it appears we are committing subsequent generations to a crisis in the viability of the entire ocean.

How bad these effects are depends very much on how long it takes us to stop adding more carbon to the system. At what level of CO2 do these consequences become catastrophic? Nobody knows, but most agree that eventually they do.

Renowned climatologist Andrew Weaver of UBC recently said that

"People have simply no idea how serious this issue is."

“It's so serious, he said, that unless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world's species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

"Climate scientists who grapple with this every day ... we see where it's headed. We understand it very well.

"I think the public needs to know, straight in their face, that you can give up on civilization as we know it. "

Notice the difference in time scales between actions and consequences. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime (roughly speaking) of a century or so. So when you drive to Taco Cabana to avoid cooking at home, the benefits accrue immediately, but the consequences are spread over an entire century. Every day for the next hundred years, that carbon you emitted will contribute to changing the world's climate. The moment we are committed to a catastrophe occurs long before the catastrophe itself does.

To summarize; we know qualitatively what is happening, but when these events really get kicked off is unknown. In some cases the event becomes inevitable long before it occurs. We aren’t really wired to deal with things like this. At least in an old-fashioned train wreck you could see the train coming.

That’s hard enough; perhaps you had already heard most of it.

There are still more complications I’d like to call your attention to.

First, to avoid disaster, we must stabilize carbon in the air long before it is all used up. The sooner we do so the less risk we take. In order to do this we must either stop burning the stuff altogether or else catch all the CO2 and put it someplace.

Yes, emissions must go to near zero and the sooner the better. "Soon" means starting to take serious steps now, to achieve near-zero emissions in the next few decades. Until we get to near zero emissions, the disruption in climate will continue to get worse. This can’t be achieved by any one country. It has to be achieved everywhere in the world.

Second, at just about this time we are running out of petroleum. Let's be clear. We are not running out of fossil fuel, just out of petroleum. For those of us in car-oriented cultures this is very daunting.

If it weren't for the other problems I just mentioned, though, I wouldn't worry much. There are potential processes for obtaining liquid fuels from shale, or from coal. These are highly energy-intensive, but still yield more energy than they withdraw so it would seem to constitute a setback for prosperity but not a killing blow. This will be exacerbated by companies exagerrating their reserves to keep their stock values high, some say. The end of oil may come sooner than we have planned for, so the readjustment may be painful.

With climate change in the picture, though, matters get much worse, because those alternatives are much worse for the CO2 accumulation problem than petroleum is. We simply can't allow them to proceed, and we can't afford not to have them proceed either. What a tangle!

Other ways of achieving personal mobility involve either external power supplies or other portable fuels like hydrogen. It's important to understand that these keep our cars moving but don't provide power themselves.

In short, the decline of petroleum puts ever greater demands on our other energy systems just as we need to be setting up massive changes. Of course, other recent bad news, especially on the financial front, greatly constrains what we can easily afford at this time.

Finally, I have one more piece of bad news to add to the mix. I'm not much of a story-teller, but I do have a parable about this last point that I inherited from my friend Paul Baer, a principal at the non-profit EcoEquity, which tries to draw the world's attention to this next point. It's crucially an ethical point rather than a scientific one.

Imagine a small island shared by two farming families, say the Norths and the Souths. For the purposes of this story, let's assume the island is equally divided; it doesn't really affect the argument. Now this island has a shared aquifer, and for a long time both families got by with subsistence farming, supported by this well water. But some years ago, the Norths scripmed and saved, and managed to acquire a modern new pumping system that greatly improved their ability to get water, hence their farming yields, hence their wealth. They renovated their house, installed new HVAC, terraced their vegetable garden, and so on. Unselfishly, the Norths urged the Souths to follow in their footsteps, and sure enough, the Souths have been saving up and are about to install a pump of their own.

At about this time the Norths start to worry about draw-down of the aquifer. They inform the Souths and try to come to some agreement about which family should pump how much. Eventually they realize they will have to match the average recharge rate of the aquifer, but the Norths have been pumping far above this rate. What is the ethical balance?

Should the Souths and the Norths continue at their current ratio, meaning that new pump or not, the Souths will actually get less water than previously? Should the Norths and the Souths split the water equally? The Norths argue that they have a culture that "requires" more water and so the balance should lie somewhere in between. The Souths, however, argue that the Norths have already received the benefits of the earlier pumping, and that the South's share should be more than half on an annual basis until the total draw to date has been equalized.

You can think of putting carbon into the atmosphere as like taking water out of the reservoir. The analogy is a pretty good one, and this is the core of the struggle at meetings like Kyoto. The gap between the advanced countries and the developing countries on how to allocate emissions is vast. How should it be resolved?

If every individual gets the same allocation of tradeable emission rights, the rich country will buy up emissions rights on the open market, leaving the poor country only slightly less poor and the rich country still consuming a lot. The poor country would see such an arrangement as making the wealth differential permanent. The less developed countries argue for at least taking into account cumulative emissions. On that basis, though, the right of the highest consuming countries like the US to further emissions is zero!

There have been several rounds of global negotiations on these matters. Most famous was the Kyoto accord, a nonstarter in the US Senate because it eschewed any limits on developing countries. Note however, that it was signed by all significant nations besides the US and Australia, but was only actually put into effect by very few nations, notably the Netherlands.

The recent followup meeting at Bali last year left the US terribly isolated. Eventually the US made capitulatory statements at the meeting, but no serious policy changes were implemented.

Leaving aside the minutiae of international treaty negotiations, it’s worthwhile to consider

In our new circumstances, the idea that everyone can get richer and richer forever is no longer especially credible. It’s hard to see a world in which the rich stay rich at the cost of the poor staying poor as fair or sustainable. The emergence of limits to global growth leads to serious issues about global equity that in the past could be ignored. Some sort of agreement is necessary, and a purely competitive stance by wealthy nations, especially the US, will continue to prevent it.


It’s often argued, including by Irene and me, that much of our wealth in the rich countries is not wealth but "illth". If we come to recognize this, it will help a lot.

In many ways we'd be better off with less energy intensive, more collaborative systems. And a great deal can be achieved in this direction by individual and small group effort. This just conceivably could leave a little room for growth in the poorer countries. While I'd love to see us less energy intensive and more social, though, I don't think it will be enough, and it probably won’t catch on soon enough.

As communities, we can work on restructuring our lives. We can make more alliances, share capital-intensive tools, share housing and adapt existing buildings rather than wantonly building new ones. As citizens of cities, and states, we can support less energy intensive infrastructure (light rail, bicycle paths, local markets) and identify ways to increase our resilience to climate change. All of this is necessary and still not sufficient.

That’s why it’s equally important is the fact that there are technological solutions to our problems.

We have to find ways to organize ourselves so as to support development of carbon neutral energy (like wind, solar, and nuclear energy) and possibly of carbon sequestration. We also need to cope with the post-petroleum needs of transportation and freight, which will put still greater demands on other energy systems. We need careful and rational decision making about complex infrastructure issues. We collectively will need the sorts of things that always get local opposition: transmission lines, power plants, nuclear waste facilities, CO2 pipelines and so on.

They will not implement themselves, though. The changeover will be expensive no matter what we do. This will require huge decisions about and huge investments in infrastructure and technology both here and elsewhere. This is the hard part at the national level. It will require a spirit of cooperation and a respect for competence over political expedience.

The international level may be even harder. Avoiding disastrous consequences requires at least a modicum of global agreement on who gets to do what.

What I am saying, basically, is that personal and community responsibility is not enough. Commitments at the national and global level are needed, that amount to more than just lip service. As individuals we have little role in negotiating them, but we have a huge role in whether they have enough support to be passed.

These measures must be supported; it’s an ethical obligation. We have to see our task as getting the whole earth through the mess, not just ourselves, and not even just our own countries. Anything less has the flavor of rearranging deck chairs. As individuals, we need to work within our commuities and social connections to explain the necessity of these sorts of uncomfortable changes and pave the way for people to put up with them. The alternatives are much worse.

The important thing is that like fishing, using fuel is no longer a private affair. A fish you catch is a fish I don't catch. A gallon of gasoline you use is a gallon I never see. What was best viewed as an open, unbounded system suddenly becomes a zero-sum game, and a global one. And yet, there can in the end be no losers. We are in the unaccustomed position of being ahead and needing to play for a tie.


Before I open this up for discussion, there’s one more thing I’d like to point out.

As we all know, Texas is special. Texas has a special role to play in this issue in the world for a few reasons. For one thing, just as our geographic fate, we have been a nexus for oil and stand a good chance of being so for wind, solar, and carbon sequestration. For another, our culture has been a standout in individualism even within the US, and the US has been a major problem in the process of the world agreeing to any carbon treaties with teeth. So I think there is both a special opportunity and a special obligation to change the worldview of Texans, particularly on this point.

I’d also like to express a bit of disappointment. Often Austin is mentioned as a leader, at least within the US context, in sustainability and energy conservation, but as we moved here Irene and I went from a one-car family (where we’d have to remember, on some cold days, to start the car up and drive around the block a few times to recharge the battery) to a two-car family. I have always managed to commute on foot, by bicycle, or by train. Austin provides a much more convenient climate for biking or walking, but the city is laid out to discourage it. Again, this is a problem we can’t solve as individuals.

On the other hand, I’ve found democracy in this town to be alive and well. My impression, and this was unexpected, is that people participate in local, city and state issues with interest and vigor, with considerable wisdom, and perhaps even with a decency that is on retreat elsewhere in the country. But on the left and on the right, there is a suspicion of big projects and big decisions. I am sure there are reasons for this, but it is a problem. Do you think I’m right that this needs to change? If I am, is there a way to change it? What Texas does is important to the whole world.


Again, I’d like not to discuss the science today. I am open to organizing a meeting to do that some evening if there’s interest. For now, let’s take the situation at face value, and discuss it as a hypothetical.

1) What are ethical responsibilities to future generations, if any? Specifically how should this affect our behavior with respect to the earth as a whole system? How far into the future does our responsibility stretch? Should we care about the seventh generation? The seventieth?

2) Is there any hope of getting enough Americans, or specifically enough Texans, to understand the point of view of the developing countries? Is it reasonable to tie the future of energy to the past of development? Does past behavior of a country matter?

3) Are global environmental ethical questions appropriate for the Ethical Society of Austin and the American Ethical Union to take on? If not, what other organizing principles are available to grapple with these issues?
I guess especially points 1 and 2 are open for discussion here if anyone out there has something to say. (I am told that the AEU is going to have the environment as a key organizing concept at next year's annual assembly in Missouri.)


David B. Benson said...

David Rutledge (CalTech EE professor) has studied the matter and states that peak coal will occur around 2025--2030. His thread is on TheOilDrum.

Dr. Michael Lardelli has good slides

Click on his name. Be sure to read to the very last (scary) slide.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks David. Very disturbing stuff, on more than one count. Perhaps I am worrying about the wrong thing.

However, the picture painted there is actually a bit prettier than the one we greenhouse worriers have. If there is so little coal avialable then the shift to carbon neutral is, at least, only a matter of positive will and need not be accompanied by restraint.

The solutions are remarkably similar: carbon-neutral energy is the name of the game. The main difference this makes in terms of mitigation strategy is that if it's correct, it takes CCS off the table as a first order component of policy. We still need collective action to develop new incentives and new infrastructure on a huge scale.

If this is right, if peak coal is imminent, it certainly calls a big piece of the IPCC process and climatological conventional wisdom into question. This is very different from any assessment I have seen, unlike the oil peak which is consistent with the carbon inventories I've seen.

I'm not going to change my mind entirely on this evidence but it has a plausible enough flavor that you have me doubting exactly how we will fail if we do.

David B. Benson said...

We'll run out of minable phosphate.

David B. Benson said...


Dano said...

NPK application has allowed our industrial-scale agriculture (with applied irrigation). When we run out of, say, mineable Pi, we will be forced to return to organic fert - manures etc.

This will necessarily shrink the scale of our agriculture. Us folk who like local food understand that localizing ag means more folk growing food in their yards, and on vacant lots. I intend to semiretire in ~10 years and consult to folks growing gardens in McSuburbia, as our scaled ag will begin to change by then.



Michael Tobis said...

A couple of interesting q's here, now, and just exactly the sort we all need to see more of.

Dano, how does small scale positively affect availability of phosphorus?

I seem to recall an Isaac Asimov essay from ages ago where he argued that phosphorus was the limiting element in total terrestrial biomass, but I think he was talking about an extreme case.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- I still think the original questions you posed are important. First, we cannot be sure that the claimed limit of 460 ppm is actually correct. Second, even if correct, I doubt we understand enough about, say, methane emissions from drying peatbogs and marshes to be certain than a 'tipping point' will not been reached at that level.

Anonymous said...

Very nice speech, thanks for posting. What was the general tone of the discussion afterwards?

The parable leads me (and I suspect most) to the conclusion that the cumulative draw of resources should be equalized. In the real world, that may be too much to ask though, at least in the short run. It seems inevitable in the long run though, as an ethical decision that everybody could in principle agree upon.

Hank Roberts said...

How can coal be the limiting factor? Or is this ignoring carbon feedback, e.g. methane? But the CO2 level has been much higher; is that all supposed to be in rock rather than in coal, these days?

Michael Tobis said...

Oops, sorry I didn't reply here sooner.

OCC, the conversation was very cordial.

Hank, yes, the very high carbon events were in the distant past on geological timescales. The carbon is bound into the crust in various forms.