Category Archives: Security

Why divest from fossil fuels?

Campaigns at universities especially can benefit from this document, prepared for the University of Toronto:

The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment: Update, by

Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer

Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes

Climate change and Dick Cheney logic

There is a certain odd sense in which the ethics of dealing with climate change resemble the doctrine former American Vice President Dick Cheney supported toward terrorism.

Cheney thought that the possibility of terrorists gaining control of weapons of mass destruction was so worrisome that it was worth undertaking enormous efforts – and making considerable sacrifices – to stop it. The basic moral logic behind this is that it is unjust for an innocent person to die in a terrorist attack, and that governments should take action to prevent such injustices from occurring.

The biggest problem with this strategy may be the ways in which the same sorts of activities that could help to prevent terrorist attacks also have sharply negative and corrosive effects on society at large. They include things like torture, constant surveillance of everybody, unchecked authority for the security services, and so on. Doing these things probably reduces the odds of terrorism, at least in the short term, but also ends up making society rather worse.

The moral logic of dealing with climate change is similar to this Cheney terrorist logic insofar as it also recognizes that innocent people suffer an injustice when they are harmed or killed because of dangerous climate change. Climate change is also a problem that governments can take action to mitigate.

Rather happily, the kind of actions this involve tend to be things that have positive secondary effects. The key action required to prevent dangerous climate change is the abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. In addition to limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere, moving beyond fossil fuels promises to reduce geopolitical tensions by limiting the economic importance of volatile regions like the Middle East (which would also reduce the temptation for outside powers to meddle in those regions). It would also reduce the level of toxic air pollution in the atmosphere, and involve the spread of more efficient technologies in areas like buildings and transport. Moving away from fossil fuels also avoids the land destruction, habitat loss, and water pollution that accompanies activities like hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil sands production.

When it comes to climate change, we have the opportunity to stave off a substantial injustice while achieving other desirable outcomes at the same time. Hopefully, those opportunities will be seized.

Dealing with daredevils

The situation of those who are pushing for stronger action to combat climate change today seems a bit akin to the situation of paramedics watching a daredevil prepare for an insane stunt.

In the case of the daredevil, the stunt might be trying to jump across a canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle. In the case of the world today, it consists of burning a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuels, increasing the risk of catastrophic or runaway climate change.

The ideal option

In both cases, it is good advice to call off the whole thing. The daredevil risks plunging to his death (and I use the male pronoun advisedly here), being blown up by rockets, and so on. The world risks melting the icecaps, turning the sea to acid, severely disrupting global agriculture, dramatically increasing sea levels, and so on.

In both cases, the people with the power to choose the future course of action are unconcerned about the risks and keen to plow ahead forward despite them.

Fallback options

So where are we left, as paramedics/concerned citizens? Our fallback option is to do what we can to reduce the seriousness of the risks associated with the reckless course of action that has been chosen.

Paramedics can make sure they are prepared to deal with horrible burns and broken bones. They can carefully check the rockets on the motorcycle, and make sure they have plenty of the right sort of blood available for transfusions.

Those concerned about climate change can perform similar operations. We can try to improve the world’s resilience, when it comes to any radical changes that may occur in the future. This includes everything from trying to improve international cooperation to stockpiling potentially useful seeds to researching geoengineering techniques.

One big difference between the daredevil biker situation and the daredevil climate-alterer situation is that the man on the rocket bike is only really putting himself in peril. By contrast, all our our fates are connected to the choices of those now heedlessly digging up and burning fossil fuels. Rather than being like a crazed solitary motorcyclist, they are like the crazed driver of a bus which we are all riding. It would be nice to be able to convince them to behave in a less insane way. Failing that, we should be doing all we can to prepare for the likely consequences of their insanity.

Why care about 2100?

I know it sounds obscure and Klingon to say it, but protecting future generations from climate change is a matter of honour.

As far as scientists can tell, climate change is the most serious major threat facing people a couple of hundred years from now – worse than nuclear proliferation, worse than other environmental problems. If the icesheets really start melting, they will have major problems. How many times in history have dozens of major cities been moved?

At the same time, we have the technology now to stop climate change by abandoning fossil fuels over the span of a few decades. It will be expensive to do that, but it will bring other advantages. Fewer people will die from air pollution. We won’t need to import fuel from dangerous places or produce it in incredibly destructive ways like the oil sands.

It will probably use up a lot of land, but it seems possible that it can be made to work in a way that is fair for all of humanity, with everybody living in comfort.

We are lucky that we live in this generation – the one that will start to pay the cost of decarbonization. That is far preferable to being part of the generation when the actual warming of the planet peaks after all the lags kick in.

Expensive oil in a weak global economy

Despite ongoing global economic weakness, oil prices are back over $100 per barrel, driven partly by concern about unrest in the Middle East.

People condemn renewable forms of energy for being expensive and unreliable. Increasingly, the same is true of fossil fuels. In addition, fossil fuel reserves are inevitably dwindling. As oil, gas, and coal become harder to come by, they will become more costly and more unreliable in supply. By contrast, as renewable forms of energy are further developed and deployed, they will become cheaper and more reliable.

So, which is the smarter bet for the global economy in the long run?

The military and coal-to-liquids

You can make liquid fuels like gasoline, kerosene, and diesel out of all sorts of things by using the Fisher-Tropsh process. This is what Germany and Japan did during the second world war, when they had their access to imported oil curtailed.

Potentially, this could be good news for the climate. If we harvest biomass in a low-carbon way, then turn it into fuel in a low-carbon way, we could make biofuels suitable for use in aircraft and other vehicles in a way that is low- or even zero-carbon overall.

Unfortunately, a more likely application of the technology is coal-to-liquids (CTL). We might use the Fisher-Tropsch process to turn the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous fuel into forms that are valuable, convenient, and perfect for warming the planet.

In his latest column, Robert Rapier describes the risk that the armed forces of the United States Navy will turn to CTL in a major way, as oil becomes increasingly costly and expensive to acquire. The U.S. Air Force is also considering the technology.

The last thing the world needs is the ability to turn coal into more convenient types of fuel. That would lead to the burning of even more fossil fuels, which would in turn cause even more warming. And we are already committing ourselves to a dangerously large amount.

Using violence to stop climate change

I remember the Oxford philosopher and ethicist Henry Shue once suggesting in passing that the level of risk associated with allowing climate change to proceed unchecked could potentially justify the use of force against those who refuse to curb their emissions.

Of course, there is a massive gulf between something being potentially justified and it being a good idea. In particular, I think it is absolutely foolish for people to consider using violence to try and encourage climate change mitigation or political change. Doing so would further brand the environmental movement as a bunch of dangerous radicals – rather than the only group within society that is taking the right of future generations to live in a stable and hospitable climate seriously.

For those without power, non-violence resistance seems enormously more likely to succeed. By all means, consider chaining yourself to the railroad tracks that run to a coal-fired power plant, painting slogans on smoke stacks, or engaging in other acts of civil disobedience. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking that things like kidnapping or arson can possibly help the cause. Don’t develop a ‘Che Guevara complex‘.

Eventually, I do think the threat or use of violence will be involved in climate change mitigation, but it will not be a case of the weak pressing the strong to change their behaviour. At some point, things will get bad enough that climate change denial will be obviously incorrect from the perspective of almost everyone. There will also be some point at which the world’s most powerful states recognize that their own prosperity – indeed their own survival – requires stopping catastrophic or runaway climate change. At that point, states like the United States and China will be saying: “Climate change is terrifying, so we have decarbonized our economies. Get on board, Qatar and Alberta, or we will bomb you to hell.”

Imperialism and Moral Obligation: (not) Apologizing for Crimes Against Humanity

Milan keeps telling me that we should not confuse the problem of climate change with every single other issue the left concerns itself with – both because of the fear of climate activism being discredited through its association with other issues about which there may actually be two sides, and because it misses the transcendental nature of climate change with respect to other tragedies: if we don’t have a climate, there is no world in which we can fight for justice. And that’s fair enough – one might imagine an alternative version of Al Gore’s “Mmmm I’d just like to have some of those gold bars” with a scale whose pretence is to weigh the entire planet against the precariousness of migrant workers, or the suffering of populations directly caused by US aggression. I’ve responded to these points mostly by attempting to show that democratization of some sort seems the most promising possibility for passing climate mitigation.

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Zizek and the paradoxical position of activism today

Activism today seems caught in a stalemate with itself. While the Battle of Seattle founded a generation of direct-action, anti-organizational chaotic intervention against neo-liberal world government meetings, they’ve failed to gain mass public support. For reasons which have been understood for decades, the media is excellent at not getting messages through which are damaging to corporate power in general, media organizations themselves being private tyrannies. And since liberals are scared to death of any acts which might provoke disorder (they are followers of Burke rather than Rousseau), there is little hope in convincing them through rational argument (although I’ll continue to try). But on the other hand, purely peaceful protests seem increasingly ineffective, and geared towards the personal satisfaction of those involved, rather than social or political transformation. Zizek holds something like this position with regards the 2003 anti-war in Iraq rallies:

The massive demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq back in 2003 were exemplary of a strange symbiotic relationship, parasitism even, between power and the anti-war protesters. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protestors saved their beautiful souls – they had made it clear that they did not agree with the government’s policy on Iraq – while those in power could calmly accept it, even profit from it: not only did the protests do nothing to prevent the (already decided upon) attack on Iraq, paradoxically, they even provided additional legitimaization for it, best rendered by none of than George Bush, whose reaction to the mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London was: “You see, this is what we are fighting for: so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!”

Quite clearly, Bush had no interest in allowing the popular demonstration to affect his government’s policy. The public are allowed to have their say precisely because their say is meaningless. Compare this to a dictatorship – this kind of huge public display is not allowed (and is in fact violently suppressed), not because a dictator hates free speech, but because in that context free speech is actually a danger to his power. In the US, the overwhelming mores of civil obedience means the state does not have to worry that such a huge public demonstration will move towards the kind of insurrection which would enable actually changing the government’s policy.

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