Friday, 30 March 2007

Ethics and Climate Change

The Ethics of Climate Chaos

Glenn Albrecht PhD


The scientific evidence for climate change is now overwhelming. Almost every day we hear news of yet another study that documents the actual changes to our formerly predictable weather patterns and biophysical processes. We all now see and read about the economic, health, psychological and ecological impacts of the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes such as Katrina and Larry. There are places on earth where climate change is happening so rapidly that people have new words to describe the shock of change in what was once a reasonably reliable and predictable context. The Inuit of the Arctic have applied a word, uggianaqtuq’ (pronounced OOG-gi-a-nak-took) which has connotations of a “friend acting strangely” or unpredictable behaviour to the way climate change is impacting on their culture[i]. Our world is indeed beginning to act in strange ways but what is even stranger is that in the face of such change, we are not acting quickly enough to counter the prospect of catastrophic risk to all future activity in our economies and our cultures. We can expect new epidemics of illness, physical and mental, in the face of such devastating change. I have created the concept of solastalgia to capture the 'uggianaqtug' in the English language.

You might have thought that the ethics of actually changing the global climate would have been on the top of the agenda in all of the recent talkfests on long-term energy policy. After all, what is at stake with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is the future environmental security of all beings on the planet and in particular, the ability of humans to cope with massive but largely unpredictable changes to every aspect of their lives.

In a world operating under complex and unstable conditions, adaptation to the impending changes will be largely impossible because all current forms of planning are based on data and predictions linked to the past. However, in the brave new world, there will be many surprise events in the emergence of complex non-linear complex systems acting under new factors driving their evolution. Such system unpredictability will render useless many of the institutions and methodologies created to manage risk in our economic systems. The institution of insurance, for example, will be one of the first to fail as actuarial analysis fails to cope with evolving non-linear systems in the form of an array hugely damaging unnatural events. In a world characterised by chaos, all that was friendly and familiar will become strange to us and the Inuit will be seen as prescient.

The ethical issues of climate chaos are quite clear and can been understood within the principles of sustainability developed over the last 20 years in the international community. A key ethical issue is equity or the distribution of benefits and burdens of climate change. The intragenerational ethics of climate change is highlighted by the fact that some human communities have already had their lives directly and negatively affected by rising sea levels and melting glaciers. In the Pacific, low lying, inhabited islands are being inundated by the sea, leading to the world’s first climate chaos refugees. As suggested above, in the Arctic, melting permafrost and glacier retreat have already made life difficult for the Inuit people as they can no longer rely on a foundation of solid ice for safe travel, secure buildings and for sources of traditional food such as seals. The people of Himalayan countries such as Bhutan have already experienced catastrophic floods from glacial lakes that form, then burst under the rising flow of glacial melt water. These floods destroy in-stream hydro-electric power generation and the lights go out in Bhutan.

In both the Arctic and the Antarctic, impacts on biodiversity have now been documented with sea ice melt causing Polar Bear habitat to shrink and more snow causing negative impacts on Caribou and Moose. Antarctica is also experiencing major changes with Krill, the foundation of the food chain, in severe decline with flow on effects to populations of fish, seals, penguins, and whales further up the food chain. The world over, there is mounting evidence that as warming occurs, biodiversity or the variety of life, is rapidly disappearing. The extinction of frog species has now been linked to warming and many other species including the Mountain Pygmy Possum of Australia are under similar threat. Biodiversity can be considered under the umbrella of interspecies equity in the here and now, so we already have major lapses in ethical obligations to species other than ourselves.

If we add the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, wild fires and droughts on humans, domesticated animals and wildlife, then another layer of huge impacts has already been imposed on current generations. In Australia, the extreme hot temperatures will see increasing deaths from heat stress in humans and animals (e.g., cattle) and most recently in January 2006, poultry.

The potential impacts of climate chaos that we are imposing on future generations of humans are so great that one would have thought that leaders of countries such as the USA and Australia who profess ‘civilised’, Christian values would have them at the top of their agendas. But no, the prospect of escalating warming delivering epidemics of infectious diseases, catastrophic failure of agricultural systems, failure of fresh water supplies, massive coastal damage due to storm and tidal inundation and other unpredictable changes as a result of climate chaos has not yet bothered them.

Although the concept of intergenerational equity might seem abstract to some, to deliver into the hands of future children and grandchildren a world that will be in major and prolonged crisis is not a difficult ethical issue to contemplate. It is simply unacceptable to sit on our seats of power, board or conference tables and deliberately do nothing or too little to give children an experience of a beautiful, secure and predictable future world. After all, a major reason why we work so hard and burn so much energy is … to give our children a better world to live in.

The level of scientific knowledge we have about climate chaos issues has reached the point for urgent and extensive action. Right now, we have firm scientific evidence that global warming has been escalating since the industrial revolution, that it is linked to historically unprecedented increases in the levels of carbon dioxide and other human produced gases in the atmosphere, that the sea level is rising at twice the rate of the previous one hundred and fifty years and that it is the human industrial activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels that is responsible for all of the above. In response to all of the information documented about the possibility of irreversable climate chaos, the immediate need to drastically curtail or even cease the mining and burning of coal and oil should be on our agendas. At the very least, ramping-up our commitment to clean, renewable energy in all of its forms should be an international priority.

Even if evidence of the effects of climate chaos was not available to us, the application of another foundation of sustainability ethics, the precautionary principle, or the idea that we ought to minimise risk or possible harm to current and future generations before actual scientific proof of harm is before us, should be on top of political and policy agendas. Failure to consider and fully implement the precautionary principle through the Kyoto framework or any other multilateral government agreement marks the current generation of political leaders and climate sceptics as standing on ethically thinning ice. As the temperature and the sea level rises, the climate sceptics, along with the glaciers, are in retreat (rapidly!).

Politicians and many business leaders in Australia and the USA in particular have used national and international forums to make Faustian bargains with the future in an effort to achieve the impossible goal of infinite economic growth in a finite world. The tragedy of climate chaos represents a failure to seek long overdue reconciliation of human life within the limits of planet earth. It is to be hoped that the purveyors of the hubris of infinite growth will burn forever in an even hotter climate than the rest of us.

[i] IOL, Effects of climate change seen in the Arctic,
(accessed 11/09/2006) See also:

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Risk Free Energy

Risk Free Energy: Reframing the Energy Debate

Glenn Albrecht PhD

Now that the ‘inconvenient truth’ about global warming is out and the climate sceptics are retreating almost as fast as ice sheets and glaciers, we are faced with a new and important issue … what do we do next with respect to global warming and our energy needs?

After the failure of governments to take global warming and climate chaos seriously, we need a new frame through which we can consider our options. Risk Free Energy (RFE) can provide us with a new frame to see our energy future.

In the past, political and industry leaders, particularly in the USA and Australia attempted to frame the debates about the enhanced greenhouse effect and global warming around the issues of ‘change’ and ‘uncertainty’. The preferred discussion was about climate ‘change’, as change is natural, not always bad and might even be good for us. We parroted the mantra that reducing carbon dioxide levels would destroy jobs and that certainty in the economy was more important than the scientific uncertainty of climate change.

The twin frames of ‘change’ and ‘uncertainty’ that dominated the debate for over a decade ensured that the public remained ignorant about the importance of global warming and enabled business-as-usual in the form of increasing greenhouse gas emissions from big coal and big oil. But reality has trumped spin and the world now shows clear signs of major and rapid change as a result of global warming. The tide and the temperature are rising.

In response, political parties and big business have advocated ‘clean coal’ and ‘zero emissions’ nuclear power as key solutions to our warming problem. The use of the words ‘clean’ and ‘zero’ in relation to coal and nuclear energy give the appearance of security and safety.

However, clean coal is at best an oxymoron and at worst a filthy lie. The open cut mining of coal is one of the most destructive activities undertaken on the face of the earth. It creates massive and permanent damage to regional landscapes wherever it is undertaken. The burning of coal pollutes big time and it is not just carbon dioxide that we should be concerned about; millions of tonnes of highly toxic chemicals spew out of the chimney stacks of coal-fired power stations world-wide.

The capture and storage underground or undersea of carbon dioxide (geosequestration) is a high risk ‘solution’ to the problem of carbon dioxide pollution. It will be at least twenty years before new power stations are operating with connections to this untested technology. Meanwhile, another 20 years of additional carbon emissions would have been added to the earth’s atmosphere.

More pointedly, there can be no guarantee that the stored carbon dioxide would remain ‘safe’ for the indefinite future. Should huge volumes of stored carbon be released by geological instability, the warming problem will massively and suddenly escalate. Carbon geosequestration is yet another form of Russian roulette with the future. The fact is, concentrated carbon dioxide buried in the ground is potentially toxic and dangerous for all time.

The nuclear energy option promoted as clean and zero emissions is another example of false framing. A nuclear power plant is hugely costly to build, carbon intensive in its construction phase, limited by 50 year uranium supplies, not fail-safe and is open to the ever present danger of human fallibility. There is no solution to the problem of intractable nuclear waste and plutonium is highly dangerous for 20,000 years. The use of refined uranium in weapons and the possibility that they will be used by terrorists is inviting Armageddon. It is simply too risky to allow nuclear proliferation; nuclear energy is a dangerous dead-end in the energy debate.

To avoid further imposition of risk on the citizens of planet earth we need a new frame to evaluate our energy options. Both coal and nuclear energy are high risk options for our future. By contrast, genuine contenders for a sustainable energy future must satisfy all of us that they present no short or long term risk to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. If RFE fails, it will be a safe fail; if humans display characteristic fallibility and make big mistakes, the fall-out will be inconsequential and the sources of such risk free energy must be renewable and freely available to all. In short, RFE is the new frame that must allow evaluation of all energy options into the future … we must ask not only if it is really clean, but is it safe?