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.

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