Environment

The Ethical Hypocrites

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAug 13, 2010 8:53 PM

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Here's an ethical argument, boiled down, that has caused a bit of a stir: The evidence for man-made climate change is incontrovertible. The consequences are potentially catastrophic to humanity. Our leaders thus have an ethical duty to take action that reduces greenhouse gases. Because they have not acted our leaders are being irresponsible and unethical. I think it's safe to say that many if not all climate change advocates would agree with this. Indeed, some prolific climate bloggers, such as Joe Romm and Michael Tobis, often frame their arguments in such moral terms. So if we are to take Romm and Tobis at their word--that it is a huge moral failing not to act on man-made climate change, then I don't understand why they are so reluctant to argue just as strenously for climate adaptation, especially since both believe that climate change has already arrived, wreaking death and destruction. I've had a recent exchange with Tobis about this that deserves greater airing. In the thread of my previous post, there was a discussion about the nature of a disagreement between two highly regarded climate scientists, when Tobis popped in to say:

The situation on the ground has changed in the last couple of months, folks. You'd think that might have some effect on the argument.

This was Tobis's way of saying that the discussion over technical disagreements was trivial, given the spate of weather-related disasters around the globe that he and the media are linking to greenhouse gases. If this is the case (that the recent floods, heatwaves and fires are global warming related), I said, well, then even more the reason to start talking serously about the need for adaptation. Tobis countered with the typical zero-sum talking point, that mitigation (curbing carbon emissions) has to take precedence over adaptation, and that in any event, adaptation was largely a local matter. This is the standard argument from climate advocates, who believe that encouraging talk about adaptation will undermine the urgency that should be paid to mitigation. Thus, the emphasis has to remain on mitigation, they argue. But now that climate advocates such as Tobis are asserting that climate change has arrived with a vengeance, with tragic human consequences, I'm wondering: is it not irresponsible and unethical of them to play down the need for adaptation in order to keep the focus on mitigation? Why can't they give equal attention to the importance of adaptation? Why should it be a second tier concern, when it's so desperately needed? The climate debate is often framed in apocalpytic terms by Romm and Tobis: the future of civilization is at stake. Well, where's the moral outrage over the suffering of people today, and those in the near future, of which perhaps could be alleviated if adaptation were treated more prominently in the climate debate? Where's the post by environmental ethicists decrying this blithness with which adaptation is treated by climate advocates?

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