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Are We Free to Pollute the Atmosphere? Climate Change, Wealth and Liberty – Part 1 May 1, 2009

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Energy Policy, News and Events, Sustainable Thinking, Uncategorized.
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In Part 1 of this two part post I look at climate change regulation from the perspective of  political fights around the concept of freedom and government intervention.  As it turns out, the philosophical discipline of ethics has something interesting to say about these conflicts.
After 8 years of inaction on climate issues, the new EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson has a number of opportunities to make a difference in the area of effective regulation of global warming gases.

After 8 years of inaction on climate issues, the new EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson has a number of opportunities to make a difference in the area of effective regulation of global warming gases.

On April 17th, the US EPA ruled that carbon dioxide and five other global warming gases pose a danger to public health, the precursor to their regulation. On a separate track, Congress and the Obama Administration are aiming to pass some form of carbon pricing legislation in the next year or two, most likely a cap and trade bill though I would hope our leaders will consider the less cumbersome, more robust carbon tax instead. In any case, there have been many moves afoot over a period of years to make illegal or less favorable the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through various regulations both within the US and around the world.

These efforts have spurred much opposition from groups usually from the political Right that often couch their criticisms in terms of the concept of freedom from government restraint. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been a leading group in this area, and is often joined by better known groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Some groups deny that climate change is occurring while others minimize its effects; the attitude of these groups about the reality of climate change seem to be a result of their adherence to the value they place on a certain narrow definition of liberty rather than a serious confrontation with the climate data. There are many efforts by self-anointed conservatives and by some in the Republican Party to lampoon these new laws as restricting emissions of gases like carbon dioxide that are “plant food”.

The recent, surprisingly different political treatment by conservatives of black carbon regulation versus greenhouse gases substantiates the conclusion that resistance to the reality of climate change has a lot to do with resistance to the likely cure rather than the problem itself. We have in the last year or so found out that black carbon or soot is the second biggest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. On April 22nd, with the support of many Republican lawmakers, including James Inhofe who has at least in the past denied the existence or importance of climate change for many years, the US Senate approved a law that deals with black carbon as a pollutant and tasks the EPA to come up with measures to reduce it.

One of the inexpensive solutions to black carbon emissions in developing countries is the use of solar cookers like this Kyoto Box to heat water, make soups and stews.  As yet there is no inexpensive consensus solution for baking and grilling applications, which presents a considerable challenge to food cultures in many countries.

One of the inexpensive solutions to black carbon emissions in developing countries is the use of solar cookers like this Kyoto Box to heat water, make soups and stews. As yet there is no inexpensive consensus solution for baking and grilling applications, which presents a considerable challenge to food cultures in many countries.

Black carbon is a local pollutant and a global warming pollutant at the same time; it can have an impact on the health of local populations as well as on the global climate system. Important for its political and cultural role, larger particles of black carbon can be seen by the naked eye and is culturally classified as “dirty” or an impurity, except when it is on grilled or baked foods in moderate amounts. Black carbon is emitted by older diesel engines as well as by open coal and wood fires. The former can be retrofitted or phased out and the latter are mostly located in the developing world or in the heating systems at the periphery of the industrialized world. While black carbon contributes to global warming substantially, no major inconveniences or tradeoffs for middle-class Americans are involved if there is a gradual phase-out of black carbon emitting technologies. On the other hand, cultural and food practices in many parts of the developing world may be transformed through the use of special stoves and cookers that avoid soot from open fires. If such a transformation of food practices were required in the developed world, the inconvenience would spur more political resistance in the US.

Pollutant or Excess Emissions?

The legal framework for regulating emissions in the US and in most countries involved declaring a gas or emittant a (criteria) pollutant and then regulating that pollutant with the aim to reduce or eliminate emissions of it into the atmosphere from within the jurisdiction of the regulating agency. With most pollutants we project that in a “state of nature” or at least natural “health” there would be no regular or substantial emissions of that chemical into the atmosphere. Some of these pollutants are synthetic and never occur in nature. The goal of regulation will be the eventual elimination of the emission of that chemical into air or water though practical concerns may mean a period of time when that emission is allowed but penalized via a tax or other mechanism like cap and trade.

Earth's temperature has varied wildly over the past billion years but human civilizations have only emerged in a period of relative temperature stability called the Holocene period of the last 10,000 years.  We are still within the Holocene range but as the graph indicates temperatures are skyrocketing due to excess emissions of greenhouse gases in the last 200 years.

Earth's temperature has varied widely over the past billion years but human civilizations have only emerged in a period of relative temperature stability called the Holocene period of the last 10,000 years. We are still within the Holocene range but as the graph indicates temperatures are skyrocketing due to excess emissions of greenhouse gases in the last 200 years.

With three of the global warming gases, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, the distinction between a classic pollutant and non-pollutant breaks down. Those who resist action on climate change have used the “reductio ad absurdum” (taking to the extreme) argument by claiming that regulators want to stifle natural processes by regulating these naturally occurring gases. To be absolutely clear and to counter the reductio argument, emissions regulations might need to be changed to allow for rules that govern “excess emissions” of naturally occurring gases. The instruments of emissions control could be the same with the likelihood that a tax or pricing mechanism would be a more likely mechanism than outright prohibitions on certain activities. However one could conceive of, for instance, a prohibition like a moratorium on new coal plants as conceivable within the “excess emissions” definition, given that the coal plant sends fossil carbon into the atmosphere, leading to an excess concentration of the gas.

For the purpose of this argument I will use the verb “pollute” to describe “emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in excess of the natural cycle of emission and absorption”. We as a species will need to re-create the balance that allows us to enjoy the Holocene climate for generations to come by reducing the excess emissions of these natural gases, while curbing entirely the synthetic warming gases. A legal framework that recognizes the distinction between “toxic pollutant” and “imbalance” may help. On the other hand, rising levels of carbonic acid, dissolved carbon dioxide, has virtually a toxic effect on sea fauna and flora, so there is always a gray area. What can be agreed upon is that both categories as the EPA ruling states, “endanger public health”.

Freedom and Fossil Fuel Use 

BBC documentarian Adam Curtis has produced one of the more profound and interesting ruminations on the concept of liberty in post-War US and British politics in his 2007 documentary "The Trap".  Curtis highlights the key role that Isaiah Berlin's work has had on both ends of the political spectrum over the past several decades.

BBC documentarian Adam Curtis has produced one of the more profound and interesting works on the concept of liberty in post-War US and British politics in his 2007 documentary "The Trap". Curtis highlights the key role that Isaiah Berlin's work has had on both ends of the political spectrum over the past several decades.

Freedom and liberty have in recent years become to be defined as what conservative philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty” or freedom from constraint or coercion. Politically dominant or highly influential in the US and Britain over the past three decades, conservatives fearing experiments in government from the left have promoted the idea that freedom can only be defined as an absence of government intervention and other perceived restraints on the individual that are not from their perspective, customary. Berlin and other conservatives remained fearful of “positive liberty” or freedom to have things like shelter, a job, or healthcare, i.e. positive goods. Conservatives have come to attribute almost every political and economic ill to governments committed to providing positive liberties in some form or other.

The focus on negative liberty has led to a general conservative blind spot regarding the pre-conditions for people actually to experience freedom in their daily lives. The role that individual and overall social wealth play in liberty have generally been detached from calls for more liberty from things like taxes and regulation of business. The monocular focus on negative liberty doesn’t often lead to questions about whether reducing regulations or lowering taxes may or may not increase liberty for a majority of the population or even be necessarily good for business. There are signs that some new conservatives are moderating this position, in part because of political losses in the last few years as well as the intellectual dead end to which any polemic can lead.

In discussions of climate change and individual liberty, often what is advertised as negative liberty actually rests on a very specific kind of positive liberty, the freedom to continue to use fossil fuels. While these appeals are wrapped in the language of freedom from constraint by opposing government anti-GHG pollution regulations, the “positive liberty” of fossil fuel use makes possible a lot of individual and family autonomy, i.e. negative liberty, in its most easily recognizable physical sense of mobility. Additionally fossil fuel use, either subsidized directly or indirectly, enables many goods to be less expensive, subsidizing further consumption. The typical suburb and rural area requires a large fossil fuel budget per person, more per capita than people in urban areas which of course are also ultimately dependent on fossil fuels. In suburbs and exurbs, people and families of even modest means can live in relatively large homes in relative isolation from one another if they like and travel long distances for leisure or work, especially as North Americans are paying only a fraction of the true cost of fossil fuels.

American cities in an era of cheap fossil fuels have been designed to emphasize the negative freedoms of relative autonomy from neighbors and the community at large.  While many have found this escape from "other people" to be a compelling vision, it requires the support of a largely unseen infrastructure and takes advantage of multiple "externalities".

American cities in an era of cheap fossil fuels have been designed to emphasize the negative freedoms of relative autonomy from neighbors and the community at large. While many have found this escape from "other people" to be a compelling vision, it requires the support of a largely unseen infrastructure and takes advantage of multiple "free" environmental externalities.

Even if we accept the public definition of freedom as promoted by those who resist climate regulation which obscures the support of negative liberty by positive liberties, government institutions and intervention becomes necessary when one person’s liberty of either the negative or positive variety impinges upon that of another in any society larger than a small village. The idea that there is unlimited space for everybody to pursue infinite physical mobility and very high level of consumption in an unrestricted manner without bumping up against the rights and liberties of others is an assertion with little basis in reality given the limited resources of the earth. Conservative social critic Andrew Bacevich calls Ronald Reagan, still one of the role models of the current political Right, the “prophet of profligacy”, for his contribution to uniting conservative ideology to untrammeled consumerism. A criminal and a civil legal system that even conservatives agree is an absolute necessity is needed to adjudicate disputes and apportion rights to resources upon which many have claims. The exclusive emphasis on negative liberty that one finds in some political discourses can then be viewed as an extreme polemic or emotional cri de coeur rather than a position that can be maintained as a complete philosophy or, at least, a philosophy of governing.

While there are obviously many ways in which the fossil fuel dependent lifestyle of the middle classes in North America, parts of Europe and the wealthy in most areas of the world is not generalizable to the majority of the world’s population, climate change is the first conclusive, quantifiable limiting case for the notion that one can extend fossil-fuel driven negative liberty indefinitely. The increasing precision of scientific models of how human emissions of GHG’s degrade the atmosphere and climate for almost everyone provides a clear practical limit to promotion of the fossil-fueled lifestyle. The need then for governments to in some way adjudicate or even resolve this conflict between the freedoms of all the people on the world is clearly called for, despite the flight from new rules that the political Right prefers.

The interesting and hopeful sign that there can be cooperation between Right and the Center-Left in the US Senate on black carbon still does not erase the threat that greenhouse gas regulation would seem to pose to the cosmology of the current group of global warming minimizers and deniers. A recognition that our atmosphere has a limited capacity to absorb our emissions is a concrete reminder that there are limits to a culture of negative liberty fueled by profligate consumption of fossil fuels.

Intergenerational Conflict

Not only does consumption by the few of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb emissions strain our ethical common sense, but a similar pre-emptive consumption of that capacity by (a small segment of) the present generation that in all likelihood endangers future generations is unthinkable from almost any traditional sense of right and wrong. Given the risk of runaway climate change, something denied or doubted by the advocates of unlimited negative liberty fueled by fossil fuels, the likelihood of impinging on the liberty of future generations is increased enormously. To maintain a marginally ethical self-image in the mind of those who hold fast to “business as usual” seems to require the denial of the probability and/or the effects of runaway warming on future generations.

Can Utilitarian Ethics Justify Inaction on Climate Change?

18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a deontologist in the area of ethics, believed that moral acts are always motivated by a sense of duty rather than by what he called "inclination".  Inclination means approximately that you do something because you "feel like it".  The utilitarian focus on pleasure and pain lives in the world of inclination rather than duty.

18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a deontologist in the area of ethics, believed that moral acts are always motivated by a sense of duty rather than by what he called "inclination". Inclination means approximately that you do something because you "feel like it". The utilitarian focus on pleasure and pain emphasizes the world of inclination rather than duty.

There are two competing frameworks in Western ethics, one called deontology and the other consequentialism, of which utilitarianism is the most famous example. In deontology, you apply pre-determined principles or rules of Good and Evil to various ethical dilemmas. Deontological ethical systems are put into motion by people acting out of a sense of duty (“deon-” is Greek for duty) to others or to internalized principles of the Good or to prevent Evil. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, rather than rely on pre-determined notions of what is the Good, attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number; the Good is what turns out well for as many as possible. No ethical system in the real world is purely deontological or purely utilitarian but there are clear tendencies towards one or the other in a given ethical decision-making process and within various cultural traditions.

Close to conventional morality and the basis for our legal system, a deontological ethics that accounts for evidence of anthropogenic global warming can offer little help to those who choose inaction on the climate; duty to self, to others and to future generations would mandate action to prevent the upcoming manmade catastrophe. Utilitarian ethics sometimes can offer alternative explanations that may justify what upon appearance within the deontological framework seem to be narrow or purely self-interested behaviors. In this case, if we choose a limited-scope utilitarian ethics that casts doubt on the likelihood or the severity of catastrophic climate change, it may be possible to say at this particular point in time that we maximize worldwide pleasure and minimize pain by using fossil fuels without restraint. This justification would require in our minds freezing current and past conditions as likely to continue into the future indefinitely. If longer timeframes and foreseeable harm predicted by scientific models are allowed into our utilitarian calculations of pleasure and pain, support for inaction on climate will no longer find ethical support in a utilitarian ethics given the future pain inflicted by a transformation of the biosphere that is no longer conducive to ours and related species.

More individualized in its structure, utilitarian ethics is more sympathetic to the higher valuation placed on negative liberty that one finds on the political Right even though historically utilitarianism cannot be seen as entirely the province of one end or the other of the political spectrum. Utilitarian ethical arguments are built individual by individual as pleasure and pain are in the end subjective; deontology’s emphasis on duty implies that larger social goals independent of their pleasure or pain effects take precedence over an individual’s subjective valuations of pleasure and pain.

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Comments»

1. James Gray - May 11, 2009

Kant, a deontologist, could say, “Could everyone pollute the way you do? (No. We would no longer exist to do it.) If not, don’t do it at all!” Additionally, we would have every reason to have a law against it for that reason. It might actually be a little too harsh.

Pollution has already had harmful effects to many. (Global warming has already caused hurricanes, and pollution kills millions by giving them cancer.) The amount of money made by selling a car might be lower than the cost given to society through the harmful effects and medical bills. Sounds like utilitarianism can do a good job at encouraging the insanity to end.

Long-term goals should also be possible with Utilitarianism. To smoke a cigarette to get momentary pleasure would certainly not be justified. In the same way smoking our way through life using cars isn’t going to be justified if it leads to too many harmful effects.

Michael Hoexter - May 11, 2009

James,Thank you for your comment.
I agree that Kant would have little patience with our polluting ways, at
least wearing his hat as an ethicist. I think though that to reduce
deontology to a virtue ethics(i.e. “be (as an individual) carbon neutral
now”) is a simplification. As I try to outline in the second part of my
post, if you account for the effects of social life and social context,
dutiful moral action might involve using some of the less-polluting fossil
fuels to build the non-polluting infrastructure that we need.
However, I think your account of utilitarianism is sensitized to the harms
rather than the pleasures associated with current fossil fuel use. I
believe if you take a utilitarianism that accounts for the probably future
harms of fossil fuel use including the health impacts of local pollution as
well as the current and growing future climate harms, this type of
utilitarianism will also come to the conclusion that we need to act to stop
our dependence on fossil fuels. It depends then on the time scope and I
think a sober accounting of our current attachment to the pleasures that
fossil fuel use affords.

James Gray - May 11, 2009

Even if polluting give us intense amounts of pleasure, how could that override all the harm its doing and will continue to do in the future? Especially when you consider that so many people are going to die.

How much pleasure do we get from burning fossil fuels? The pleasure is little more than profit. We can simply accomplish the same goals without polluting the earth. Do we need gas for cars? No. Do we need cars? Only in a society that becomes dependent on them.

Why the profit doesn’t count much towards pleasure: Corporations want to pollute to make money, but they are costing society a lot of money. If Corporations had to pay for the harm (by being sued and held accountable and so forth), then would it still be profitable?

I don’t know if this helps, but contemporary utilitarians are usually interested in desire-satisfaction and so forth rather than pleasure.

2. ana - March 15, 2011

all of our actions have an impact on our planet
our existence alone requires an endless cycle of
resource consumption waste production that has
gone awry I am angry and sad that most of us are
willingly ignorant and insensitive to the the
destruction We are all responsible

3. NotJustAnotherNumber (@ntjstnthrnmbr) - May 8, 2014

Great article. Few questions.
I’m trying to focus on the duty vs the maximization of pleasure here.
Would a deontologist oppose pollution out of duty to purity of air/water/etc?
..or is the duty instead, to protect one’s right to pollute?
The utilitarian view would depend on the results of a calculation between the pleasure of fossil fuel use vs future harm, which is hard/impossible to quantify/agree on. How does one balance these two, in a way everyone can agree in?


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