Restraint in fossil fuel production

by Milan on October 14, 2010

in Climate change, Economics, Ethics

The total amount of fossil fuels burned by humanity is the most important factor that will determine how much warming the Earth experiences in the decades and centuries ahead. If we are to avoid temperature increase of over 2°C, which there is a growing international consensus would be ‘dangerous‘, most of the world’s remaining coal, oil, and gas will need to be left underground.

What then of the entities with legal title to those resources? Some are owned by governments, some by the people who own the land above them, some by First Nations groups, etc. It seems to me that there are three perspectives on the question of leaving them buried:

  1. Voluntary: This is a scenario where the owner of the fossil fuel resource recognizes how burning the fuels will harm innocent people all over the world, so they voluntarily commit themselves to leaving the resources unusued. I am not sure if this has ever happened, at least in response to concerns about climate change. If so, please add a comment about where.
  2. Compensated: In this scenario, the resource owner offers to leave the fuels buried and unburned in exchange for some sort of compensation. The compensation could theoretically be at a level smaller or greater than the profits that would result from selling the fuels. This is what Ecuador is trying to do in the Yasuní rainforest park.
  3. Obligated: In this scenario, it is determined by some authority that resource owners do not have the right to extract the fuels they nominally own, because of the harm that would impose on others. In a less restrictive scenario, resource owners could be obligated to buy permits before they could extract the resources they own.

To me, the second and third possibilities seem the most promising. Community, government, or business leaders who suggest voluntary and uncompensated restraint are likely to be unpopular, especially when their communities suffer from poverty or temporary economic hardship.

By contrast, compensated restraint offers a situation that can be portrayed as ‘win-win’. The moral situation is a bit more complex, however. Arguably, this situation is a kind of extortion. The resource owner is using the threat of climate change harms to extort funds from the potential victims of those harms. The victims may be better off paying the fee than suffering the harms, but the same is true of ‘protection’ money paid to the Mafia, in exchange for them not breaking all your shop’s windows. That being said, compensated restraint does seem like a promising option from a pragmatic perspective.

Obligatory restraint is probably the most politically difficult sort to put into effect, despite arguably being supported by the strongest moral case. The implied right to pollute is a deeply entrenched idea. That being said, there have been some legal and regulatory victories, in which claims about having the right to undertake activities harmful to others have been rejected. The creation of some sort of permit system could also reduce the level of political difficulty in imposing a resource-use regime that incorporates obligatory restraint.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

Another factor that bears thinking about is the morally arbitrary distribution of fossil fuel resources. While there are geological and biological processes that have determined where such fuels are abundant and where they are rare, it isn’t clear to me that there is any real reason why governments that happen to control territory above fossil fuel reserves have an unlimited right to determine how those resources are used – particularly given the harms their use imposes on other people and groups.

Of course, a government deriving a big share of tax revenue from oil, gas, and coal will fight tooth and nail to defend the claim that the fuels under their land are theirs to do with as they wish.

One moral case that does have a bit of traction is based on ignorance and historical trends. Places with abundant coal – for instance – invested heavily in coal-based infrastructure before they were aware of the existence and threatening character of climate change. A strong case can be made for them to be given time to adjust, now that everybody knows that burning those fuels is deeply harmful. That being said, the world’s current legal regimes strongly defend the rights of resource owners to dig up and sell these fuels as they wish. There is little danger of them being immediately ordered to stop. As such, adjustment time is being provided based on the sheer length of time it is taking for the legal and political systems to take climate change into account.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:09 am

What about co-operation? What about pressure from non-state authorities?

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:13 am

Those still fall within the taxonomy I laid out.

Co-operation could be voluntary, or done for compensation. Non-state authorities could be obeyed voluntarily, for compensation, or because they have some basis for obligatory control.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

“Voluntary: This is a scenario where the owner of the fossil fuel resource recognizes how burning the fuels will harm innocent people all over the world, so they voluntarily commit themselves to leaving the resources unusued. I am not sure if this has ever happened, at least in response to concerns about climate change. If so, please add a comment about where.”

The way you have set this up is fallacious, and serves to discount all land-based resistance which is not motivated by the most abstract theory. In essence, you have over-determined the conditions such that they do not actually include all the avenues by which the end (not burning fossil fuels) might be attained. And in fact, you have effectively discounted land-based resistance as a possible tactic because it is motivated by local, not global concerns – even though it can have the same end result: not burning fossil fuels. If all you are concerned about is the fact the fuel isn’t burnt, then the motive for the voluntary not-burning is irrelevant. The stopping of the mine or oil sands project need not be motivated by concern for the climate in order to count as a voluntary leaving of carbon in the ground. The conditions for voluntary leaving-buried of coal, oil and non conventional oil is simply that the fuel is left in the ground, and that this leaving is not externally motivated through compensation or force.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

That’s a good point.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 11:26 am

“Non-state authorities could be obeyed voluntarily, for compensation, or because they have some basis for obligatory control.”

Non-state authorities could resist and threaten the stability of the state, and the security of climate criminals. Non-state authorities do not act universally, but tactically. In fact, the notion of “authority” when referring to the extra-state use of force is a misnomer – authority is the use of power or force, but resistance is only the use of force. “Power” differs from “force” in the sense that power smooths over differences, and encourages acceptance of the status quo. Force challenges the status quo, disrupts the order of things, wakes people up. This is the logic of the black bloc – to force the state to use force, and hope that force might disrupt the smooth application of power. It turns out to be a bad idea, but that’s not a problem with the theory, but with the specific conditions in which the tactic is employed. The same tactic could be employed against climate criminals to force the state to use force to protect those who directly cause and benefit from the burning of fossil fuels, at the expense of difficult to measure disasters in the future. This use of force could threaten the state’s power – weaken the moral authority which is essential to the smooth and constant everyday belief in the rightness of the status quo. In other words, it could force the state to respond to the crime being committed against the future.

Yaakov October 14, 2010 at 12:12 pm

Tristan, you’re really talking about terrorism (which can either be direct violence or the realistic threat of violence). Challenging the moral authority of the State is not likely to be supported by the majority of its citizens, and while people may speak out against brutality in the use of force by the State, they mostly recognize the legitimacy of the use of force. The same cannot be said for non-state actors–the whole point of the system of government that we have is that the State has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Threatening or using violent means to accomplish temporary goals can be fairly effective, despite morally bankrupting the people or organization engaging in these tactics. It can start a war, it can lead to the loss of faith in the leadership of a government, and it can at least temporarily remove an area from control by the government if it has enough funding and firepower. What it can’t do is permanently enforce any changes. The use of force to protect land will either lead to the government offering a deal that would expire at some point in the future (or be reneged on when the terrorist group becomes too weak to strap up again), the violent use of force by the state to regain control (which, again, might piss people off if it’s brutal enough, but that would AT MOST lead to a change in leadership–not wholesale abandonment of the idea of a state-mediated monopoly on the use of force), or (very hypothetically) by the supplanting of the government by the terrorists/”resistance”.

The problem in the last case is that it isn’t really a solution–you end up with a government exerting its control over the area in question (additionally, this tends to fail the vast majority of the time). While the new power structure might temporarily stick to its initial principles, it doesn’t permanently solve the problem of having to keep these fossil fuels in the ground forever–eventually, the new State will have to pursue one of the other avenues in dealing with this problem.

Milan, as a side note–how permanent would this have to be? You point out that global warming is likely to take place over the course of decades or centuries–would there be a way to incrementally use the remaining resources in a manner that would keep global warming within some kind of non-catastrophic bounds? It would be difficult to convince people to permanently give up on the resources at their disposal, but would probably be feasible to establish a system in which very restrained extraction of the resources is rewarded with an increasing compensation for estimated remaining fossil fuels over time. You could, in theory, scale this so that people would be encouraged to extract at a rate that would leave the vast majority of resources untouched for a long time (like a century). In the intervening time you would have a chance to attack atmospheric carbon levels from a number of avenues, or develop carbonless energy systems that would eventually make the fossil fuels obsolete (I realize that this is a compensatory system like the one you described above, I just have a hard time believing that people will accept “never”).

Milan October 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Yaakov,

The extent to which the timing of emissions matters is a complicated question.

One CO2 is added to the atmosphere, some of it gets dissolved into the ocean. That process continues until the ocean and atmosphere are in equilibrium. In the long run, this process isn’t affected by the timing of emissions. The world emits X gigatonnes of carbon, and some fraction ends up in the air and some fraction in the ocean.

What stretching out emissions could do is reduce the peak concentration reached. That could be important for preventing positive feedbacks from kicking in as strongly as they could. For instance, forests drying out and burning or Arctic permafrost releasing methane.

Across very long timescales, the weathering of rock removes CO2 from the air. If humanity wants to stop anthropogenic climate change, we need to cut our emissions to at or below this level. That requires cutting them to a very small fraction of where they are now.

Ultimately, I think we will reach a point in which there is no longer any need or desire to use fossil fuels. Once we have a global economy based on zero-carbon and renewable forms of energy, people will be unwilling to tolerate the toxic and climate-altering emissions that accompany fossil fuel use.

In short, the obligation to leave fossil fuels unburned basically applies forever. The climate in which human civilization emerged had conditions that were defined to a large extent by large amounts of carbon being locked up in coal, oil, and gas reserves. The more of that carbon that stays locked away, the more similar future climates will be to those in which human civiization emerged. As such, the recipe for climatic stability depends fundamentally on leaving many fuels unburned forever.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Oh, there is one possible way to make burning fossil fuels compatible with climatic stability: we could use plants or machines to capture CO2 directly from the air and then bury the CO2 using carbon capture and storage technology.

The trouble is, CCS is really expensive. It is unlikely that it would make sense to burn coal, capture the CO2 from air, compress, and bury it. Doing so would likely cost more and use more energy than producing the power we want using concentrating solar, wind, etc.

James Hansen has been making a related point. He argues that capturing and burying one tonne of carbon is likely to cost $200 to $500. At that cost level, it makes more sense not to burn the fossil fuel in the first place, for most applications.

Two possible exceptions are air travel and vehicles in remote areas. There, the energy density of fossil fuels might justify the expense of capturing and burying emissions elsewhere.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

“The same cannot be said for non-state actors–the whole point of the system of government that we have is that the State has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.”

Descriptively, the state never has a “monopoly” on the use of force – at best it has stories everyone believes which legitimate its use of force and de-legitimize the use of force by others. But, if you know anything about terrorism, you know that non state actors can only pursue violence against a state in a sustained manner if there is popular support for violence. The IRA was largely subscription based – it was only because people were willing to financially support the armed struggle against the British Army at the RUC that they won significant victories, and in the end achieved an imperfect but serious settlement of their grievances. The same mass support for violence against “the state” (which internationally means the US and whoever happens to agree with it) is the real support that Jihad extremists, insofar as the threat is real, relies on. If they really were “extremists” and not advancing a mainstream position which is agreed with by a lot of people in the region, then they would simply not be able to operate.

“Terrorism”, although I think the word itself is highly ideological (because it inscribes itself only to non-state actors – we are not meant to see the bombing of hiroshima as “terrorism”), is actually feasible only when the story the state tells us about its monopoly on violence breaks down.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 1:30 pm

The moral and practical authority of the state can certainly be challenged in ways that are not terrorism. Non-violent resistance is a key example.

Also, while it isn’t really related to the main issue under discussion here, it may be worth pointing out that lone wolf terrorism (a) is not rare and (b) doesn’t require popular support.

Individuals and small groups can execute successful terrorist attacks using limited resources and no community support. Obvious examples are Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski.

Even the September 11th attacks only involved a couple of dozen people and a fairly modest budget. The fact that terrorists launch a successful attack does not provide evidence that their cause enjoys popular support.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 1:56 pm

“Individuals and small groups can execute successful terrorist attacks using limited resources and no community support. Obvious examples are Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski.”

Were these “successful”? What evaluative paradigm do you use to evaluate the success of an attack. If you use any paradigm other than the one used by those carrying it out, I think the notion of “success” becomes meaningless. Actions are carried out from particular perspectives, and they reach out towards certain goals. The goal of terrorism is never the violence itself, or the fear that results from the violence – that fear is always directed towards some goal.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm

“Even the September 11th attacks only involved a couple of dozen people and a fairly modest budget. The fact that terrorists launch a successful attack does not provide evidence that their cause enjoys popular support.”

What were the motivations behind the attacks? What grievances motivated them? Who else shares these grievances?

Milan October 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm

But, if you know anything about terrorism, you know that non state actors can only pursue violence against a state in a sustained manner if there is popular support for violence.

Theodore Kaczynski conducted attacks for nearly 20 years.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

“The moral and practical authority of the state can certainly be challenged in ways that are not terrorism. Non-violent resistance is a key example.”

Nothing I said discounts this. In fact, non-violent resistance, if it elicits the same violent repression, is far more powerful at weakening public support for the state repression of dissidents. Serious advocates of non-violence point out that practitioners of non violence should be as willing to expose themselves to violence as those who advocate violence. To advocate violence when non-violence has not been radically pursued is to romanticize armed struggle rather than think critically about tactics.

But, at the same time, there is to encourage society in general to think more carefully about what constitutes “violence” – and differentiate between property violence and violence against persons. Property violence only “feels” as violent to us as the electrocution of a deaf man, the firing of less-lethal rounds point blank at protestors, or holding dozens in small cells for up to 48 hours with rancid water, unsanitary conditions and insufficient food because of the moral degeneration we have undergone through un-thoughtful adherence to dominant social narratives.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I was responding to this claim:

Tristan, you’re really talking about terrorism (which can either be direct violence or the realistic threat of violence).

I agree that non-state authorities can agitate for policy change (and more radical things) by means that are not violent. Further, not all violence is terrorism.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm

“Theodore Kaczynski conducted attacks for nearly 20 years.”

Do his actions event count as “terrorism”? He certainly was pursuing some agenda, but his actions were so un–aimed, so incoherent that I think it’s paying too much respect to his campaign to call it “terrorist”.

Regardless – we would all improve our intellectual level if we stopped using the term “terrorism”. Terrorism is just a catch all term for the directed non-state use of violence. But, in reality, there are all sorts of different ways violence is used, both by states and by non-state actors, and we should think carefully about these classifications to make sure our thinking makes the world clearer, not more confused.

When a non-state group pursues an armed campaign directed at a particular policy or set of policies being pursued by a state actor, that is an “armed struggle” or “armed conflict”.

If we make a priori moral judgements about the legitimacy of illegitimacy of actors based on the fact they are state-actors or not, we are not morally serious.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm

This is all pretty secondary to the question of getting fossil fuel owners to restrain themselves in extracting, selling, or burning their property.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 4:52 pm

The state, if it is to continue to have legitimacy, must avert climate change. To the extent that it fails in this basic need, its stories should be disintegrated and reformed.

Milan October 14, 2010 at 5:04 pm

The legitimacy of the state ultimately derives from the fact that its existence improves the welfare of people. It helps to prevent the emergence of prisoner’s dilemmas, and reduces their severity where they still arise.

To accomplish that goal, in relation to climate change, there needs to be broader acceptance of the argument that since emissions cause harm, the state can legitimately restrict the use of fossil fuels by individuals and firms.

At the global level, it is likely that it will eventually be necessary for groups of states to put pressure on states that continue to allow unlimited burning. Once the European Unions of the world have committed themselves to decarbonization, there will almost certainly be a fight to clean up the Saudia Arabias of the world, along with the Albertas and West Virginias.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 5:24 pm

“To accomplish that goal, in relation to climate change, there needs to be broader acceptance of the argument that since emissions cause harm, the state can legitimately restrict the use of fossil fuels by individuals and firms.”

Fine. But you need to define clearly what “broad acceptance” means. It does not mean a high level of popular opinion – public opinion clearly does not matter.

Tristan October 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm

“The legitimacy of the state ultimately derives from the fact that its existence improves the welfare of people. It helps to prevent the emergence of prisoner’s dilemmas, and reduces their severity where they still arise.”

Something like this argument is found in John Finnis’ “Natural Law and Natural Rights”(1980)

“The ultimate basis of a ruler’s authority is the fact that he has the opportunity and thus the responsibility, of furthering the common good by stipulating solutions to a community’s co-ordination problems.”

This has an interesting result:

“…a ruler’s use of authority is radically defective if he exploits his opportunities by making stipulations intended by him not for the common good but for his own or his friends’ or party’s or faction’s advantage, or out of malice for some person or group.”

We might wonder what this means for “party politics”.

The way Finnis deals with the question of whether one is obliged to follow unjust laws is interesting. It’s divided into four senses, but the interesting one concerns the question of whether an unjust law creates a moral obligation “in the way just law of itself does”. Finnis’ solution is to turn the question around:

“the ruler has, very strictly speaking, no right to be obeyed….if he uses his authority to make stipulations against the common good…those stipulations altogether lack the authority they would otherwise have by virtue of being his.”

In other words, the ruler’s authority stems both from his/her position as ruler, which is a position to benefit the common good. But, the moral authority only derives from that possibility (promoting the common good). So, when the common good is violated – no moral authority at all is present in the decree. There are other reasons why one might be obligated to obey the unjust law, but they follow from contingent facts about the law lawlessness can create social degeneration which also goes against the common good. No general principles can be set for what to do when the ruler pursues something against the common good – sometimes it would be good to bring the law into contempt (i.e. if one lived under a fascist or racist government).

Milan October 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

How problematic do you think the ‘extortion’ aspect of compensated restraint is? Agreeing to pay people not to do harmful things may produce better outcomes than not doing so, but it also seems to implicitly endorse the view that they have the right to do those harmful things in the first place.

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