Morality and fossil fuel reserves

by Milan on March 16, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics

Legally and historically, the right to exploit resources has belonged to those who have legal or political control over the territory they occupy. When it comes to fossil fuel resources, in a world increasingly altered by climate change, it seems to me that the moral circumstances for such right holders have changed. While they could once have claimed that there was no evidence of their extractive activities providing harm on a global scale to present and future generations, climate science has now clearly shown that all incremental fossil fuel burning will increase the level of climate change the world will experience, with all the harm, dislocation, and death likely to accompany that.

The old dictum about your right to swing your fist ending where my nose begins seems appropriate here. The legal obligation of states to consider the global environmental commons is recognized in international law. In an advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice held that:

The environment is not an abstraction but represents the living space, the quality of life and the very health of human beings, including generations unborn. The existence of the general obligation of states to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction and control respect the environment of other states or of areas beyond national control is now part of the corpus of international law relating to the environment.

In an ideal world, perhaps resource holders would accept that their past profits were an unjustified windfall, defensible only because of our prior ignorance about climate change. Pragmatically, however, most people feel as though having undertaken an activity in the past entitles them to keep doing it. Obviously, this is unacceptable if humanity is going to deal with the problem of climate change.

The pragmatic solution seems to be providing some compensation for those who will lose out on hypothetical wealth, due to the need to keep fossil fuels underground. Such compensation, however, should be recognized as a pragmatic mechanism for achieving carbon neutality more quickly, not as a recognition that the resource holders had a pre-existing right to extract every burnable molecule at hand, regardless of the consequences for others. As such, it seems legitimate to restrict such compensation to being used in ways that advance the necessary global transition to carbon neutrality. For instance, by funding re-training programs or the establishment of low-carbon enterprises. That holds the possibility of achieving necessary emissions reductions, while at least blunting opposition in regions dependent on fossil fuel resources.

All that said, we cannot expect the prospect of reasonable compensation to secure support for climate change mitigation in the regions most economically dependent on fossil fuels. It is hard to imagine oilfield workers in Fort McMurray or Riyadh happily abandoning their right to extract fossil fuels, just because there is a program to train them to make solar panels instead.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 17, 2010 at 9:15 am

“the right to exploit resources has belonged to those who have legal or political control over the territory they occupy.”

I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true. In Canada, you don’t de facto own the contents under the ground you occupy, which is why if oil is discovered on your farm, you can’t decide not to let the oil companies drill.

If I’m right – then the fact that land property has been distinguished from resource exploitation rights gives us a good model to get rid of resource exploitation rights.

Tristan March 17, 2010 at 9:25 am

“In an ideal world, perhaps resource holders would accept that their past profits were an unjustified windfall, defensible only because of our prior ignorance about climate change.”

Ideal? In an Ideal world, past resource exploiters would pay reparations. But, I don’t think this is a productive sense of “ideal” – ideals are things to aim for, not things to bracket off as not possible. Their not-being-possible doesn’t mean they are not to be aimed for. If they do not produce good results by being aimed for, their are not good ideals. Coming up with the right climate/climate-justice ideals) is a serious problem which we should be working on.

More and more I find myself in agreement with Gore about civil disobedience. Perhaps the right model is to, like he says, protest the opening of new power plants – but not only this – also the opening of any new oil or gas lines (to serve more tar sands). And, as education is improved, protest trains shipping coal, and then the last one would be oil tankers/trains/trucks.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 9:33 am

the right to exploit resources has belonged to those who have legal or political control over the territory they occupy

Domestic legal arrangements vary, and there are special cases, but states generally have the right to exploit resources in their territory.

Some special cases include migratory fish stocks, treatment of semi-enclosed seas, geostationary orbits, etc.

Within states, all sorts of different arrangements exist regarding land ownership, resource titles, royalties, etc.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 9:35 am

Perhaps the right model is to, like he says, protest the opening of new power plants – but not only this – also the opening of any new oil or gas lines (to serve more tar sands). And, as education is improved, protest trains shipping coal, and then the last one would be oil tankers/trains/trucks.

People should definitely protesting new coal plants (including things like the World Bank funding a giant new one in South Africa) and the extraction of unconventional oil and gas.

Unfortunately, most influential people really don’t understand the issue.

Tristan March 17, 2010 at 11:35 am

It would be an interesting test for the current media/public relations system to have to deal with protestors stopping coal trains. Would they be able to entirely demonize them for hurting the economy, etc…? Is the argument that the burning of coal is destroying the world too weak?

If the coverage was someone from the coal industry, someone from the RCMP, and Gore or Hansen, I think Gore or Hansen would have a good shot at coming out favorably on top.

Or perhaps we should pursue citizens arrests of coal and petro chemical executives for criminal negligence?

Milan March 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

Hansen was arrested protesting mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.

There are many other examples of anti-coal activism. Hansen endorsed the March 2 protest at the (coal-fired) Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C. He has also testified on behalf of people put on trial for acts of civil disobedience, such as interfering with fossil fuel extraction rights royalty options.

Milan March 17, 2010 at 11:42 am
Milan March 17, 2010 at 11:57 am

This is also worth a look:

Fossil fuel phase out
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A fossil fuel phase-out is transport electrification, decommissioning of operating fossil fuel-fired power plants and prevention of the construction of new fossil-fuel-fired power stations. The purpose of this is to decrease the high concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, which are the scientific consensus for the cause of climate change. The energy vectors concerned are oil, gas and coal.

. March 19, 2010 at 2:16 pm

“Legally, estate holders [in England] were free to dig up whatever coal was located on their land without concern that the crown would lay claim to it. This was not true across the channel, where European monarchs often claimed minerals found on private land. In England though, under the Forest Charter, signed in 1217 just after the Magna Carta, the crown had already yielded to estate owners the ownership of whatever wood or peat was on their land, and coal fell into the same category. Although the crown still claimed ownership of precious metals found on any land in the realm, this humble and possibly manure-smeared fuel was beneath its notice.”

Freese, Barbara. Coal: A Human History. p.23 (hardcover)

Milan March 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm

The reason why it may have been “manure-smeared” was because some people thought coal was a form of living vegetation and that such fertilizer would help it grow.

. April 7, 2010 at 9:56 am

“The decline and tentative rebirth of the Pierhead is a telling stand-in for the story of Wales itself. A country of 2.9 million people, part of the United Kingdom, Wales was one of the first places to rise in the industrial revolution. Then it was one of the first to see its fossil fuel–based economy bottom out. Over the last decade, its government has invested heavily in clean-energy technologies, trying to cultivate a job base built on innovation rather than on mining and burning its natural resources.”

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