Category Archives: Ethics

Warnings ignored

I wonder if one day words like these will be written about climate change:

In his preface to the 1921 edition of The War in the Air, [H.G.] Wells wrote of World War I (still able to call it, then, the Great War): “The great catastrophe marched upon us in daylight. But everybody thought that somebody else would stop it before it really arrived. Behind that great catastrophe march others today.” In the preface to the 1941 edition, he could only add: “Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to the preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’ (The italics are mine.)”

Gibson, William. Distrust that Particular Flavor. p.207 (harcover)

Canada does not have the right to develop the oil sands

The entire debate about oil sands development in Canada seems to centre around the question: “Is this good for us?” It includes aspects like the water and air pollution produced by the oil sands, the economic impact of oil sands development, the significance of the oil sands to federal-provincial relations, and similar such matters.

While that question is obviously a valid one worth discussing, it is also important to realize that it isn’t the end of the debate. Two more important questions are: “Are the oil sands good for the world as a whole?” and: “Does Canada have the right to keep developing the oil sands?”

I think the answer to both of these questions is clearly ‘no’. There is every indication that climate change is extremely dangerous. There is also every indication that once an industry develops in Canada, politicians will never have the guts to shut it down, no matter how obviously harmful it has become. Finally, there is the enormous size of the carbon reserve in the oil sands.

Canada is now deciding whether to spend additional billions developing the capability to add an enormous amount of extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is at a time when the atmosphere already contains a dangerous amount of the gas – so much so that entire low-lying nations are being threatened with destruction because of sea level rise. Canada does not have the right to force climate change on the rest of the world; by extension, Canada does not have the right to develop the oil sands, and must work to substantially diminish the quantity of greenhouse gas pollution it generates.

Extra votes for the young

By all indications, the choices we are making about climate change and energy now have the effect of selling out the interests of future generations, in exchange for greater wealth during the next few years. This connects to the central conflict of interest created by climate change: the disjoint between the interests of those who burn fossil fuels and those who suffer from the pollution that behaviour creates. All indications from the political system suggest that people will continue to undermine the interests of their own children and grandchildren, where doing so is personally financially beneficial to them.

Earlier, I brought up a radical proposal to align the interests of the elite with those of future generations. Unfortunately, no such proposal has any chance of success, because elites are highly influential and members of future generations are nothing but powerless victims.

Perhaps one way reduce the strength of the intergenerational conflict of interest is to adjust the voting system so that those who will experience more of the consequences of climate change have more of an ability to vote. Specifically, votes could be weighted so that those of younger people count for a bit more while those of older people count for less.

Each person could start with one guaranteed vote. Younger people could then be credited with additional partial votes, to represent their greater personal interest in the choices being made today. If we assume that people in Canada live to be about 80, that means someone who is 50 today is likely to live until about 2042. Somebody who is 20 today, by contrast, is likely to live until 2072. The amount of climate change experienced by the 20-year-old is likely to be substantially greater. They will also live longer with the consequences of all the other related choices we made: from designing electricity and transport infrastructure to managing conflict internationally.

One way to implement this idea would be to give everyone 1 vote, plus an additional 1/100th of a vote for every year they are likely to live (based on the simplification that everyone will live to be about 80). Someone who is 20 would therefore get their 1 vote, plus 0.6 additional votes to represent how long they will be on the planet. Someone who is 70 would only get 1 vote plus 0.1 additional votes.

Usually, the older someone gets, the worse the alignment is between their interests and the interests of society as a whole. (This is obvious in areas like health care, where those who are dying have every interest in unlimited public funding being devoted to keeping them alive.) Actually, this is a more general problem. An employee who knows he will be quitting in two weeks has little or no interest in the long-term health of the company. A tourist who is leaving a country in a couple of days has little interest in its long term health. Those who have little time left on the planet have every personal reason to support the pillage of the natural world, if it means their remaining time will be more prosperous and comfortable.

The young, by contrast, will be forced to live with the choices we make, right or wrong. If we do too little about climate change, they will suffer from all of the effects of that choice. Similarly, if we actually end up doing too much about climate change – scrapping too much fossil fuel infrastructure and building too much renewable energy capacity – it is the young people of today who will live poorer lives because of it.

The idea of weighing votes by age, even if it is philosophically and ethically defensible, is probably politically impossible. Older people are richer and more involved in the political process. They seriously outgun young people who are struggling to develop personal financial security and who are largely uninterested in voting. It may also be faulty to assume that young people will vote with their own long-term interests in mind. They may prove just as narrowly self-interested as older people have been. Instead of seeing policies developed that will encourage the emergence of a decent world for everyone in 2050 or 2100, they may just support policies that make the world of 2012 a little bit better for them personally.

Oil sands buyers and sellers

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Portia describes how the quality of mercy is twice blessed: “[i]t blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

The oil sands are like the moral opposite of mercy – it is unethical to produce them, and unethical to consume them. It is unethical for the oil companies to dig up and sell such fuels, given what we know about climate change, and it is unethical for the buyers to purchase the fuels, largely for the same reason. Both buyers and sellers are complicit in a pattern of action that sells out future generations, in exchange for profits and cheaper fuels today. They are all knowingly imposing harm upon people all over the world, either in exchange for profits or in exchange for the benefit of using cheap fossil fuels.

In time, the oil sands industry may come to be seen as much like the asbestos industry: companies that push what they know to be a dangerous and harmful product, just because it is in their self interest to do so. Even worse, the companies do everything in their power to keep their industry unregulated. They fund phoney ‘grassroots’ groups that argue that the oil sands are wonderful, they run misleading advertising campaigns, they make campaign contributions to politicians, they make misleading claims about jobs, etc.

Strategies for stopping Gateway #1: The Hecate Strait

As Gerald Butts explained in The Globe and Mail, one of the biggest environmental risks associated with the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is the stream of supertankers that would carry oil from Kitimat out to the Pacific: “At Kitimat, toxic diluted bitumen would be loaded onto supersized tankers. Each year, more than 200 would travel through narrow fjords and into some of the world’s most treacherous seas”.

These tankers would flow through the treacherous Hecate Strait – a dangerous maritime environment located far away from equipment that would be required in the event of a major spill. It’s also an area of considerable natural beauty and ecological importance.

It seems like a convincing case to be made that building the Northern Gateway pipeline creates an unacceptable marine oil spill risk – and that is just one of a great many arguments against the project.

Engineer speaks out against Keystone XL pipeline

Mike Klink, a former pipeline inspector with Bechtel, has publicly spoken out about the shoddy construction he saw on the original Keystone pipeline and what that means about the risks arising from the proposed Keystone XL expansion:

I am not an environmentalist, but as a civil engineer and an inspector for TransCanada during the construction of the first Keystone pipeline, I’ve had an uncomfortable front-row seat to the disaster that Keystone XL could bring about all along its pathway.

When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job – but people along the Keystone XL pathway have a lot more to lose if this project moves forward with the same shoddy work.

What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.

I shared these concerns with my bosses, who communicated them to the bigwigs at TransCanada, but nothing changed. TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields.

TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year – what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?

Klink says he is speaking out because his children have encouraged him to do the right thing.

Monbiot on libertarianism and ecology

British journalist George Monbiot has written a good explanation of why the political philosophy of libertarianism is undermined by the reality of the ecological interdependence of all people:

The owners of coal-burning power stations in the UK have not obtained the consent of everyone who owns a lake or a forest in Sweden to deposit acid rain there. So their emissions, in the libertarian worldview, should be regarded as a form of trespass on the property of Swedish landowners. Nor have they received the consent of the people of this country to allow mercury and other heavy metals to enter our bloodstreams, which means that they are intruding upon our property in the form of our bodies.

Nor have they – or airports, oil companies or car manufacturers – obtained the consent of all those it will affect to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, altering global temperatures and – through rising sea levels, droughts, storms and other impacts – damaging the property of many people.

I have written about this before: The death of libertarianism.

See also: Why conservatives should love carbon taxes