Climorality: Pragmatics and Policy


Hurricane Sandy en route to the U.S. coast on Oct. 25. Photo credit: NASA

Assessing a moral obligation is one thing, but acting in response to such obligations is quite another. 

And even when the moral obligation to curb climate change reinforces practical imperatives, the catalysts for change invoke a range of controversial policies. 

“The way forward is actually pretty clear,” says Jeff Sevringhaus, professor of geosciences at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “The very first thing I would do is level the playing field: remove the subsidies that we currently have in the United States for fossil fuel energy sources, so that at least solar, wind and fossil are all on the same playing field." 

Currently, he says, fossil fuel industries "get huge tax breaks to the amount of billions and billions of dollars, which encourages private industry to go in a particular direction of using fossil fuels."

The Environmental Law Institute conducted a review of fossil fuel and renewable energy subsidies for fiscal years 2002-2008 and found that federal fossil fuel subsidies amounted to approximately $72 billion over the six-year study period. Those funds, the environmental advocacy group notes, come directly out of the pockets of taxpayers. 

Subsidies for fossil fuels more than doubled the $29 billion in subsidies afforded to renewables over the same period, according to the institute.

Many scientists and philosophers agree that the key is shifting our focus to alternative energies and developing those forms of energy, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. 

After ending the subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry, “just transfer [those resources] over to R & D, so that there’s no net increase to the federal budget,” Sevringhaus suggests.

And many experts think it only makes sense to charge the fossil fuel industry for waste disposal. The industry is the only business sector that is allowed to dump its own waste -- in its case carbon dioxide emissions -- for free, environmental author and co-founder of Bill McKibben points out in his recent Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” This would be like a restaurant owner deciding she doesn’t want to pay for trash pickup anymore, just throwing it out in the street instead – and not getting fined, McKibben suggests.

“I like the idea of a carbon disposal fee assessed at the wellhead or in the coal mine,” Sevringhaus says. “So, whenever you take fossil fuel out of the ground, you pay a tenth of a percent disposal fee. It doesn’t have to be much. It’s not gonna stop the fossil-fuel industry in its tracks or anything, but what it will do is pay for the safe removal of that CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Charging the fossil-fuel industry to pay for such waste, while removing subsidies and tax breaks will, in turn, force them to charge more for their product, industry backers argue. 

But more expensive fossil fuels are not necessarily bad, argues Darrel Moellendorf, professor of philosophy at San Diego State University and author of the upcoming book, "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: Values and Policy." 

“As we increase the price of fossil fuels, we make more attractive the price of wind and geothermal, solar and other forms of energy and we will then spur innovation in these fields,” he said.

Allowing renewables to gain a competitive advantage by slightly raising the price of carbon fuels will send the right market signal to people who want to innovate and invent new types of solar panels and invent new types of clean energy, Sevringhaus notes. “It’s just too hard for solar and wind to compete in the marketplace. Coal is just too cheap.”

But many pragmatists, including scientists, point out that fossil fuels are likely to remain in the mix for a long time, especially with the push for more energy resources supported by a gold rush of new oil and natural gas reserves now accessible in the U.S. They argue that all solutions need to be on the table.

One example of innovation is the development-stage carbon-capture or “direct air capture” technology that would enable the removal of the emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Klaus Lackner, geophysicist at Columbia Univeristy, recently received a federal grant to further develop his carbon “scrubber” technology. A single scrubber, measuring 10 by 15 feet, can capture one ton of carbon dioxide per day, the emissions of approximately 100 cars driving about 25 miles each that day.

“The first thing I would do is implement Klaus Lackner’s carbon capture technology right away,” says Aaron Putnam, postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Aaron Putnam and George Denton discussing the complexities of carbon capture from the atmosphere at the Comer Conference on Climate Change in September. Matt Rhodes/MEDILLAaron Putnam and George Denton discussing the complexities of carbon capture from the atmosphere at the Comer Conference on Climate Change in September. Matt Rhodes/MEDILL

George Denton, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maine, agrees with Putnam and Sevringhaus that carbon capture ought to be top priority. It’s the same basic ethic of cleaning up after yourself, he argues.

If such technology bears fruit, it would raise another practical and moral issue, namely how much CO2 should be allowed in the atmosphere once we harness and implement the power to sequester it. Deciding how much CO2 ought to be present is not a simple task, because the effects are so diverse. 

“Every level of CO2 will favor one part of the Earth in terms of human habitation and not favor another part,” Denton explains. “So, in some areas it will cause the sea ice to decrease, in some places it will cause a wind belt to perhaps move north, which will affect the areas on both sides both negatively and positively. There will be pluses and minuses in every single change that CO2 introduces.”

And driving CO2 levels up or down has the likewise effect to the temperature. The difficulty would then arise as to where to set the ideal carbon thermostat, with all geographic locations considered.

“Before this started to happen, the CO2 levels were about 280 parts per million (ppm). Now we’re just about passing 400 ppm,” Denton says. “The case would be, what does one lower back to – do you lower back to where it was in 1850 before this all started, before the Industrial Revolution? Where do you set it?”

There’s also the potential problem of lowering it back too much.

“You also don’t want to bring the CO2 back too far inducing another ice age,” Putnam warns.

Not only will carbon sequestration remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but that captured carbon could in theory then be used to make synthetic and liquid hydrocarbon fuel, while solar and wind provided the energy source for manufacturing. We would then sell and burn those fuels in conventional ways, returning the carbon to the atmosphere, but then we would be able to start the cycle over again by capturing those emissions.

“That’s closing the loop – it’s a net zero cycle,” Sevringhaus says.

In his concluding remarks on the issue of climate change in his press conference earlier this month, President Obama made it clear that his administration's position on the issue will completely revolve around how it will shape the economy.

“If the message is somehow that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go for that – I won’t go for that,” Obama said. He continued, “If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something the American people will support.”

Although backers of cheap carbon fuels argue that fighting global warming will cause economic damage, Columbia's Putnam says that economic prosperity and addressing climate change do not need to be mutually exclusive.

“America has had a tendency to be quite innovative in the past and they’ve taken these leaps of faith in new technologies that have turned out to be very good for the economy and jobs,” he says.

There’s also the issue of how much money not addressing the issue costs, another point that Obama stressed. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor report, commissioned by 20 nations most vulnerable to climate change, estimates that impacts already are costing the global economy $1.2 trillion per year, with the United States taking a 2 percent hit to GNP by 2030. 

If climate change enabled Hurricane Sandy’s magnitude and will further encourage her descendants, those costs in damages will add up fast. Damages from Sandy alone are estimated at $30-50 billion. 

But should economic incentives be the primary drivers when it comes to an issue like climate change? What if the Obama administration concludes that it will be too costly and risky to address the issue and decides to put it on the back burner for more economic friendly policy agenda? Ethicists and scientists argue that we simply push the problem and the bill onto future generations.  

Change is on the horizon, in any case. The International Energy Agency predicted earlier this month that the United States is slated to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s foremost oil producer within the next decade, helping the country become energy self-sufficient by 2030. In addition to independence from oil imports, this self-sufficiency will be made possible by expanding the extraction of natural gas. Accessing newly plentiful reserves of both fuels is made possible by hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” muddies the water when it comes to the ethics and practical response to climate change on one hand and boosting the economy on the other.

Fracking involves pumping a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock to fracture it and release the old and natural gas.     

Proponents say that hydraulic fracturing is essential to relieve the U.S. dependency on the Middle East for oil and key for generating job growth, tax revenue and pulling the country back from the fiscal cliff.

States such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota are embracing hydraulic fracturing with open arms, creating tens of thousands of jobs around the sector and turning rural towns into “boom towns” almost overnight.

Proponents also point to the research reported by the International Energy Agency earlier this year, which found that the increased use of natural gas has led to the United States reducing overall fossil fuel emissions by 7.7 percent from 2006-2011, “the largest reduction of all countries or regions.”

Although switching from coal to more natural gas has certainly had a significant impact, a few other factors also contributed to the decrease in emissions, according to the energy agency.

An exceptionally mild winter in 2011, “reducing the demand for space heating” and “lower oil use in the transport sector (linked to efficiency improvements, higher oil prices and the economic downturn, which has cut vehicle miles traveled)” have also influenced the decrease in emissions, the International Energy Agency reports.

The position the Obama’s administration adopts on hydraulic fracturing will have to take into consideration the findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel is expected to release a draft of its upcoming 2014 report on the possible links between the practice and water pollution.

The President and his administration may find themselves in a tight spot if the IPCC concludes that environmental and public health damage done by hydraulic fracturing is significant. They will have to decide between energy independence and booming state economies on one hand, and changing the environment for the worse in addition to public health risks on the other.

From an ethical standpoint, the economics in the matter are largely irrelevant, argues Laurie Zoloth, bioethicist and religious scholar at Northwestern University. For her, the moral harm to others that comes with excess or sloppy carbon use is akin to the moral harm done to slaves. If you think of it coldly, slavery was great for economic growth, she notes.

“It would be quite useful to not pay people and just make them work for you because you whip them, right?” Zoloth says. But that’s just not an option – you just can’t do it because it crosses a moral line regardless of how beneficial it would be for the economy, she says.

Slavery seemed indispensible at a certain point in human history. "I think it’s the same thing with fossil fuels," Zoloth argues. “It seems indispensible to us now, but we have to figure out something else.”


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