Category Archives: Security

Which ethical systems can we tolerate?

Once again, the issue of morality has arisen in a discussion on my blog.

Contemplating it, it seems to me that there are two general types of moral systems that can exist in our world. There are (1) the whole range of moral systems which can be in place elsewhere, without really affecting us, and then there are (2) those that can fundamentally affect the kind of world we and our descendants will live in.

Universal human rights

The conventional notion of human rights doesn’t give much importance to this distinction. It tells us that we should be appalled about the murder of journalists in Russia, the virtual enslavement of women in many Islamic countries, and the torture of political prisoners in Myanmar. We should object to these things even in cases where they do not affect the lives of anyone who we know.

There are many reasons why this point of view is admirable, and has the potential to help create a better world. The recognition that everybody is human, and that this carries with it some sort of universal moral standing, seems far preferable to the idea that some people are sub-human, and thus not worthy of any moral consideration. That being said, in situations of extreme difficulty, it is natural enough that we will stop worrying about the human rights of people in distant places, and become almost exclusively concerned with the welfare of those around us. That shift may not be admirable, but it is the kind of thing that can be recognized as a general practical necessity.

Dealing with menacing ideologies

Within the second set of value systems – those that do affect us – there is a further sub-division. Specifically, there is a division between value systems that are deeply threatening to us and those that are not. For European nations in the interwar period, both German fascism and Soviet communism were deeply threatening. For First Nations groups in many parts of the world, value systems based around the extermination of traditional languages and cultures were deeply threatening. Today, given the threat from climate change, value systems that permit the unlimited burning of fossil fuels are deeply threatening to everybody, though many people have yet to really internalize this.

As a result, we cannot simply permit such ethical perspectives to continue operating unchecked. Challenging them is both an ethical and a practical necessity. That means challenging domestic political ideologies in developed states that deny the need to deal with climate change. It also means challenging the actions of foreign governments and entities that continue to advance the world towards destabilization and ruin. Ultimately, that will probably mean intervening in the ability of the places like West Virginia, Alberta, and Saudi Arabia to burn or sell the dangerous fossil fuels they possess.

None of this will be easy, but denying the fact that climate change policy-making is fundamentally bound up with ethical issues simply obscures what needs to be done, without making success any easier.

Don’t Ignite the Lignite

Quite unintentionally, deficiencies in the quality of my video camera and the lighting of the establishment where this was filmed have made this video more anonymous than I planned. It has a bit of a ‘witness protection program’ vibe. My apologies about the annoying feedback in the audio.

At the same time, it lays out my current views on climate change and how to deal with it in just five minutes:

Obviously, it requires many simplifications to put that amount of information into a five minute movie. Even so, I think it is a fair reflection of my current thoughts, at least insofar as I would format them for an event of this type.

It would be very interesting to know what I am wrong about.

It would also be interesting to know which (if any) messages seem to be well conveyed.

The slides and speaking notes are also available:

The Shtokman gas field

The Shtokman gas field, located in the Barents Sea, 600km off the Arctic coast, is the embodiment of unconventional gas. Russia’s Gazprom, Norway’s StatoilHydro, and France’s Total are planning to collaborate to access the field, which is the farthest offshore and most ice-exposed of any ever slated for exploitation. The prize they are after is an estimated four trillion cubic metres of natural gas, the second largest field in the world, and enough to provide for Europe’s current level of gas usage for fifty years.

The plan to extract it is to use a ship-shaped floating platform capable of facing towards incoming ice, which will also be broken up by accompanying icebreakers. In the event of ice too heavy to manage, the platform will be able to disconnect from the undersea well and move out of the way. From the platform, a 600km pipeline would have to run to shore. If you want confirmation that the world is running out of cheap and easily-accessible fossil fuels, you need look no further than projects like this. The risk and capital costs they involve are tremendous, and evidence that companies are now attracted by reserves that would once have been written off as too remote and technically difficult to access.

Of course, when it comes to climate change, it is the total quantity of fossil fuels burned that matters. Giving Europe another fifty years of gas will inevitably add to those cumulative emissions. Indirectly, it will also perpetuate the fossil-fuel-powered status quo, delaying the deployment of renewable low-carbon options. Finally, continued dependence on Russian-controlled gas deepens Europe’s geopolitical vulnerability. As long as Europe depends on Russia to keep people from freezing in the winter, they will be unable to effectively criticize its increasing authoritarianism or aspirations for regional control over former Warsaw Pact states. Those Eastern European states, in turn, face an increased risk of Russian dominance.

Fossil fuels and the resource curse

Territorial disputes over fossil fuel resources are not at all uncommon. In Iraq, Mosul and Kirkuk are contested because of the oil fields around them. The East China Sea has been the location for multiple disputes over gas, between Japan and China. The Spartley Islands in the South China Sea are disputed over largely because of fossil fuel resources, as may become the case with the Falkland Islands again. Allegations of horizontal drilling into Iraqi oilfields provided the pretext for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Likewise, Nigeria’s Delta State is a hotbed of conflict. And so on, and so on, around the world.

While a world that is not dependent on fossil fuels is a long way off, it is worth mentioning that a reduction in the bitterness of such conflicts is a likely outcome from states replacing their fossil-fuel-driven energy systems with those based around renewable and zero-carbon forms of energy. Even if states that produce oil and gas continue to use it, diminished demand from other states would reduce prices and thus the incentive to go after all available fossil fuel reserves. Without billions of dollars in investment from international oil and gas firms, many of these resources would stay underground where they can induce neither conflict nor climate change. By making fossil fuels less valuable compared to other resources, decarbonization could help to reduce the harm done by the ‘resource curse‘ – the idea that rich stocks of natural resources can make states prone to corruption, conflict, and mismanagement.

None of this is to say that there is a clear and direct link between the move towards renewable power and decreased conflicts over resources. Indeed, there may even be conflicts over new kinds of resources as new forms of energy grow in prominence. Still, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that the transition of the global economy towards carbon neutrality could help draw some of the venom out from these conflicts and allow people to focus their attention on less self-destructive undertakings. That would be all the more welcome, given the extent to which stresses from climate change may exacerbate conflicts in other parts of the world.