Posted by: Tobias | October 4, 2008

Late night ethics question

I actually stayed up all night last night to watch the battle of the veeps debate between Palin and Biden and heard Palin say something quite curious on the issue of climate change:

IFILL: Governor, I’m happy to talk to you in this next section about energy issues. Let’s talk about climate change. What is true and what is false about what we have heard, read, discussed, debated about the causes of climate change?

PALIN: Yes. Well, as the nation’s only Arctic state and being the governor of that state, Alaska feels and sees impacts of climate change more so than any other state. And we know that it’s real.

I’m not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet.

I’d be very intersted in what sort of evidence Palin would muster in support of her claim that part of the 0.7 degree increase in global average temperature has been due to “cyclical temperature changes”, but let us assume ad arguendo that she is correct and let us further assume that the temperature would continue to rise for entirely natural reasons over the course of this century.

My question is this: What ethical difference would this make? I would suppose that as long as at least part of the warming is anthropogenic (man-made) and as long as we think we can keep warming from running out of control (i.e. as long as nature alone doesn’t push us over the brink), the case for doing something about it is pretty much unchanged.



  1. What she meant probably was that climate-change was generally a natural thing, and that one would (therefore?) not need to worry about it running out of control.

    Of course you’re right: as soon as there is a man-made component, which leads to the risk of global warming running out of control, the consequences do not depend on how large this component is relative to the cyclical component.

  2. Well, she probably could have made her point more succinctly, but she clearly seems to imply that there is a human component (“There is something to be said also for man’s activities”).

    But let’s take this even further: Suppose (again, ad arguendo) that global warming were an entirely natural phenomenon. Would this be a reason for inaction? I would think not. Given the misery that substantial warming will cause humanity no matter its causes, I would claim that there is just as strong a moral case to be made to stop this from happening.

    Of course, capping CO2 emissions would be pretty non-sensical if CO2 weren’t responsible for the warming, but we know for a fact that other methods such as various forms of geoengineering (whether it’s injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere or using space-based mirrors to deflect sun-light) would probably work if, say, solar irradiation cycles were responsible. But this is already a discussion of methods rather than the moral aim.

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