Monday, November 13, 2017

How can philosophy help us work through Climate Change?

One of my hopes during Climate Change is that philosophy will help us think through this situation rationally. Besides homing in on moral issues (which is a major component of Climate Change), one of the activities that philosophy offers us is well-thought-out guidelines on existence. What is the nature of reality and how should we respond to it now that we know that our life support system is warming rapidly?

Philosophy and the big picture

It is more likely that we’ll be able to address Climate Change when we all get an accurate picture of what’s going on. Philosophy can help us pull back and get a clearer picture of the whole, the big picture. The backdrop for Climate Change discussions is that we are living in a quickly warming world that threatens our existence. No longer are we living on a planet where we thrived for the last 10,000 years, that is, not a ‘normal’ world with a relatively stable climate. Climate Change isn’t simply an issue among many we need to address. If we don’t address Climate Change, it is quite likely we won’t be able to solve most of our other important problems.

When our leaders don’t or won’t comprehend the enormity of Climate Change, we are less likely to plan for our future on a scale and time frame that will matter.

Trump Ignores Climate Change. That’s Very Bad for Disaster Planners. When Hurricane Irma swept through the Florida Keys in September, it brought a vivid preview of the damage that climate change could inflict on the region in the decades ahead. The storm washed out two sections of the highway connecting the Keys, leaving residents stranded for days. With ocean levels rising around these low-lying islands, however, that interruption could end up seeming minor: By 2030, almost half the county’s roads could be affected by flooding. “We know that the water isn’t going away,” said Rhonda Haag, the sustainability director for Monroe County, which is preparing to elevate vulnerable roadways in the Keys. But the task is so costly, up to $7 million per mile of road, that the county may ultimately require outside help. (November 9, 2017) The New York Times [more on Climate Change in our area]

It is now becoming quite easy to locate expert analysis of the big picture on Climate Change. Briefly, our environment around the world will get warmer, ocean-front cities will be overwhelmed by rising seas, we’ll experience more extreme weather, some regions will have more drought, some more flooding, animals and plants (which are our ecosystems) will try desperately to adapt, and our public health will get worse. In a recent New York Times OP-ED, Radley Horton, Katharine Hayhoe, Robert Kopp and Sarah Doherty offer a brief overview of “The Climate Risks We Face”.

More robust and backed by twenty years of intense scrutiny by 13 branches of our government is the Climate Science Special Report Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), Volume I.  (Speculation abounds why Trump would allow such a profound study to be released when it so powerfully disagrees with his own inaccurate ideology, though the answer might be as simple as every president since Reagan has released these studies and Trump just didn’t want to look stupid.)

While the public must become aware of the big picture about Climate Change, we must also be aware that this big picture is not inevitable or static. It changes daily, though during our lifetimes it will lean more towards the worst-case scenarios described in climate studies the less we do to address it. What we once thought would be a slow and gradual process is turning out to be a rapidly evolving disaster. Benchmarks in warming are being passed far more frequently than experts thought—more extreme weather, dramatic changes at the poles, and yearly temperatures hotter than previous years. Included in this alarming litany is the human response to this crisis that ranges from realizing the need for urgent action to scornful dismissal and it’s all getting more divisive.

We must never lose sight that while opinions roil about Climate Change, this issue is like no other situation humanity has faced. (Our species has survived and even thrived in past climate changes but in our prehistoric past there weren’t 7 billion of us and our attendant infrastructures.) Even with nuclear war, someone needs to press a button to set things off. For humanity to succumb to Climate Change all we need do is nothing, just continue business as usual. 

Whatever stance, rhetoric, or discussion we choose to have about Climate Change, we are talking about it while our existence is being challenged. It’s like discussing where to go to dinner later while rolling downhill towards a steep cliff inside a barrel. At some point (soon I suspect) we should be trying to figure out how to stop the freaking barrel and get ourselves out of it.

Philosophy helping us focus on the details

Here’s a great discussion on fake scientific skepticism with a local Rochester, NY philosophy professor. It’s helpful to discuss and even argue about Climate Change because we need everyone engaged in
this crisis. But not all opinions are an honest discussion about the predicament of our age. How do you tell sense from nonsense? How do you distinguish between objective facts and sound bites pushing an anti-environmental agenda?

Climate Change Skepticism with Lawrence Torcello “How does corporate misinformation and partisan skepticism effect what we know about climate change? Lawrence Torcello is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Philosophy. His research focuses on social and political philosophy, democratic theory, and climate justice.” (November 2, 2017 Why We Argue)

Also, philosophy can help us clarify the arguments surrounding this issue. Not the kind of arguments that some folks think are an opportunity for angry quarrels ending with people throwing stuff at each other. Rather arguments can and should be an honest exchange of strongly held opinions guided by a respect for each other and the facts. What elements are necessary for useful disagreements that offer solutions? For an interesting discussion with an expert on the value of good arguments and the destructiveness of bad arguments, check this out:

Good and bad arguments with Trudy Govier Trudy Govier is Emerita Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Her research is focused on the nature of argumentation and questions concerning social trust, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She is also the author of a highly influential informal logic text, A Practical Study of Argument (7th edition, Cengage), as well as Forgiveness and Revenge (Routledge 2002) and Victims and Victimhood (Broadview 2015). (June 28, 2017 Why We Argue)

At this point in time

November 6th began the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany. After twenty years of climate talks, we finally got to a point where almost all nations agreed that Climate Change is happening, and we need to address it.

Here’s an excellent encapsulation of the goals of the COP23 Climate Change summit in Bonn for those of us with challenged media only capable of pandering to the public’s immediate interests.

The COP23 climate change summit in Bonn and why it matters Halting dangerous global warming means putting the landmark Paris agreement into practice – without the US – and tackling the divisive issue of compensation What is happening? The world’s nations are meeting for the 23rd annual “conference of the parties”(COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which aims to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, ie halt global warming. It is taking place in Bonn, Germany from 6-17 November. Why does it matter? Climate change is already significantly increasing the likelihood of extreme weather, from heatwaves to floods. But without sharp cuts to global carbon emissions, we can expect “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” for billions of people and the natural world. The landmark Paris agreement at COP21in 2015 delivered the first truly global deal to tackle climate change, but national action needs to be significantly toughened to meet to goal of keeping global temperature rise to well below 2C, and 1.5C if possible. All the science, and the battering that extreme weather has inflicted this year from floods in India and Nigeria to hurricanes in the Caribbean and wildfires in the US and Europe, indicates that global emissions need to start falling urgently – in the next few years. The Paris agreement set out principles, but not the details, with one diplomat likening it to having a brilliant new smartphone but no operating system. The Bonn meeting will be vital in building the rules that will enable the Paris deal to work. (November 5, 2017) The Guardian [more on Climate Change in our area]

This week’s revelation that the US becomes the only holdout for working with the world to address Climate Change makes it more difficult to keep focused on the big picture. For, what is happening right now is likely to have profound effects on our ability to predict how Climate Change will unfold and how to adjust our response. What will be the repercussions—economically, politically, and environmentally—of the second largest polluter deciding to back out of the Paris Accord? What will be the outcome of efforts of those in the US who believe we should stay in the Paris Acord and are willing to put massive efforts and money behind their position? In other words, have US efforts to stay with the Paris Accord been trumped by climate deniers? Many think not.  

Advancing the U.S. Nonfederal Movement to Support the Paris Agreement Since the current U.S. administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, state, local, and private-sector leaders across the United States have created a landscape of climate initiatives and alliances to demonstrate that the country remains largely committed to the global fight against climate change. To date, the U.S. nonfederal climate movement has focused on pledges to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to support the Paris Agreement. Given that the movement represents a significant percentage of the U.S. economy and population, these pledges have provided international assurance that the second-largest emitter will continue its pivot toward clean energy—even as the White House pursues an anti-climate agenda. (see text box for a taxonomy of the U.S. nonfederal climate movement) (November 6, 2017) Center for American Progress [more on Climate Change in our area]

But we don’t know if we are in a holding pattern, or if we have rendered it game over by insuring tipping points just as our window of opportunity to avoid the worse consequences of Climate Change closes. [See part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), “Potential Surprises: Compound Extremes and Tipping Elements”]

The present discourse on Climate Change is dreadful given that our biggest impediment to addressing this crisis is our collective attitude. The technical, social, economic, psychological, political, and other solutions being offered by optimists might work if given a chance. Perhaps an honest argument, in the best sense of the term used by philosophy, would help us move towards adaptation and maybe even mitigation, where we tamp down greenhouse gas emissions to a level that doesn’t bake our future.

I believe philosophy’s role is to accurately describe our world and our place in it. Our world has changed radically since philosophy as a discipline began back in Greece. But philosophy has spawned science, fine-tuned religious thought, stimulated economic systems, and many more systems of thought over the millennia. It is now philosophy’s job to describe this new, warmer Climate Change world that threatens our ability to survive. What lessons can we pull from the ancients and present philosophers that will guide us through the wormhole of Climate Change, where we must get ourselves and our progeny though this existential crisis, so we can continue the other big ideas our species produced?

Time passes.


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