Available now


Order from Routledge at  http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781138793927/
Use code DC361 for a 20% discount.

(return to main page)               


not for quotation without permission

Table of Contents


Figures and Tables


Chapter One: Risk and the Perception of Risk

Chapter Two: The Cost of Extinction

Chapter Three: The Rights of Those Who Will not Be

Chapter Four: The Three Tropes of Climate Change

Chapter Five: The View from the Inside of Poverty

Chapter Six: Social Policy and Rational Action

Chapter Seven: The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited

Chapter Eight: Negotiations Gone Bad

Chapter Nine: Going it alone

Chapter Ten: What if it is too late?

Chapter Eleven: Fusion





There was a time when I thought it would be a mistake to have children. In the late 1970’s, the probability of large scale nuclear contamination of the world, sometime during the likely lifespan of the next generation, seemed high enough to make being born a dubious proposition.  What favor would it be to bring a child into world with the prospect of  a nuclear winter on the horizon?

And then everything changed. Suddenly, with detente and then the end of the USSR, the prospect of wholesale nuclear interchange evaporated. Yes, there was, and still is, a risk of local interchanges. Those would still have devastating effects for worldwide agricultural production for two decades (Robock and Toon, 2012) but they would not end all life. And so I had children. But  my sense of (relative) equanimity has been short lived. My nuclear fears  for my children have now been replaced by climate fears. Not for them, their children or even their grandchildren, but for the  generations that will follow.

But is  there any reason to think that climate change could have  catastrophic  consequences akin to a nuclear winter? James Hansen (2008) thinks there is. Hansen et al.’s (2005) modeling  suggests that amplifying feedbacks that can realize runaway scenarios in which the planet stabilizes in a (cold) state akin to Mars at -500C or a (hot) state akin to Venus at +4500C. In the Mars scenario, increasing surface albedo as the planet cools is the amplifying force. In the Venus scenario, increasing water vapor as the planet warms drives things. But there is a big difference between these two scenarios. Runaway cooling has happened before (most recently 640 million years ago) but is subject to change as weathering and rising atmospheric CO2 reverse the process. However Hansen argues that there is no such reversing process in the case of runaway heating, hence the potential for mass permanent extinction. 

The crisis of the nuclear and the crisis of climate, have something in common, beyond their overwhelming destructive potential. They not only both prompt a sense of utter  helplessness for us as individuals, a sense of something totally out of our control.  More than that, it is not just that there is a sense that they are out of our personal control, but that in the end that they are just not controllable, a sense that collective rational action is somehow beyond our reach.

If anything, the dissolution of the nuclear crisis underscores this sense. After all, it did not come about in any plan full way. There was no grand bargain. Instead, the world stumbled into a good outcome while dodging many bullets along the way. There was a sense that a bad outcome was much more likely than a good one. But if a bad outcome was more likely that a good one in the nuclear case, what is the balance between the good and the bad outcomes in the climate case? When the United States and the USSR faced each other with massive nuclear arsenals, the strategy of mutually assured destruction made for an all or none calculus by design. There would be peace or the apocalypse. But climate change is a more complicated matter. Even if Hansen’s Venus scenario is a possibility, it is only one of many possibilities, even if it is the worst of them. Our difficulty is that we don’t know the likely degree of climate change nor its cost. Policy questions about avoiding climate change thus involve decisions under uncertainty that are much more complex than those involving nuclear war.


One way to think about such decisions is to do our best to fix the value of both the likelihood of climate change and its cost. Such a project is far from straightforward because it not only touches on our epistemic limitations but also on assumptions about  the valuation of present costs versus future benefits. In Chapter One  I begin by contrasting making such decisions about avoiding climate change with the way we think about  decisions involving risk and benefits closer to home. An obvious difference would seem to be this. My decision not to smoke  involves a calculus of self-interest. The risks and benefits are mine. Avoiding climate change is a calculus between our interests now and those of others in future generations. While that may not make a difference when it comes to collective self-interest, I argue that it does when it comes to individual risk perception, which is crucial for support of government action for the collective good. Collective self-interest or not, when it comes to climate change, how are we to evaluate its risks and costs? In Chapter Two I examine an approach that seems to sidestep this challenge. Never mind what the chances of anthropogenic causes of climate change really are, or the likely costs. However small the chances are, if it is possible that climate change could produce catastrophic outcomes (à la Venus scenario), should we not avoid them, whatever the cost? On one variant of this argument, the cost of such an outcome would be infinite if we consider all of the future generations who would be deprived of existence, and so paying any price would seem “rational” as long as it is less than the cost of extinction. But what if the cost is not infinite, but merely very very high? (For after all, life on earth will end eventually, if only because the sun becomes a red giant.) Then the calculus  becomes much more complicated. How can I be sure the price to avoid extinction  is not more than the cost of extinction?  I defend the view that even though the costs of extinction are not infinite, they are high enough that we can effectively ignore this question. But to do so, I surely need to argue that we have an obligation to future generations of human beings.

The standard literature on future generations assumes there will be future beings but that their identities and numbers are a function of our actions today. But what if my actions now cause total human extinction in the future? Then whom have I wronged?  Constructing a philosophical framework to support the intuition that here too I have done wrong, even though I wronged no one, is the challenge I take on in Chapter Three. The attempt to do so lays the groundwork for a much more controversial project, to make sense of the idea that our actions can also wrong non-humans.

Whatever our obligations to others may be, if we have any, what then? In Chapters Four and Five I examine the question of how we should divide up those obligations. In contemporary political discourse the answer is quite simple, the problem of climate was caused by the Developed World and so it is up to the Developed World to solve the problem. Moreover, the common perception is that since clean energy is available, it is just a question of whether we are willing to pay the higher costs for using it and who should pay those costs. Whoever does pay, the interests of the Developing World and the Developed World are taken to be aligned in that we all lose in the face of climate change. As such, avoiding climate change trumps development for everyone, including the poor. And since the poor are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Developing World, so too, in the end, avoiding climate change will trump development in the Developing World.

But scratch the surface and none of this is as straightforward as it may seem at first blush. I argue that who did what, when, and who owes whom what is not only complicated morally but very dependent on where we stand in time. A few years from now, things will look very different because of the growing output of the Developing World.  So from where we look at things in time matters. The idea that clean energy can be had, but that it is only a matter of cost, not only makes assumptions about the availability of such energy but the rate at which the infrastructure to distribute it can be deployed in comparison to the rate of growth of energy demand. The idea that short term interests may, in fact, trump long term interests for the poor on the assumption that a clean energy supply cannot reconcile these two interests occupies much of Chapter Four. There I examine the problem very much looking from the outside in, even when it comes to judgments of rational choice. What happens if we look at the same choices from the inside out? In Chapter Five I examine how  the circumstances of poverty shape the perceived calculus of risk, and in doing so, further tip the balance in favor of the short term for better or worse.

But the poor are not alone in tipping this balance. As I argue in Chapter Six, another way this happens is the result of the how we approach the distribution of risk collectively through insurance and disaster relief programs,  and the way in which that affects the rationality of our decision making individually.

What if we look instead to our political leaders to save us from our individual, narrow, short-term interests? In Chapter Seven I examine the standard argument that, absent a comprehensive agreement,  the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons seems to cast doubt on how likely this is to happen. That is  the idea that some countries’ self-constraint will be exploited by others so there is no motivation for any country to show constraint, leading to disaster for all. But I argue that this is the wrong way to analyze the reluctance of countries to negotiate about climate, and indeed that the widespread belief that climate change is an instance of the Tragedy of the Commons limits our horizon of possibility.

In theory at least, some countries (notably China and the United States) are large enough in their share of the world economy that they could unilaterally implement policies that would force others to follow. In Chapter Eight I examine why it is that China and the United States have failed to do so and will likely continue to fail to do so if it means slowing economic growth. On the other hand, some economies are too small to implement policies on their own and force others to follow. Yet some of them (California and the United Kingdom) have nonetheless  chosen to implement such policies. In Chapter Nine I examine their reasons for doing so and ask whether theirs is a model that could be generalized to the rest of the world. At the risk of depriving the reader of a sense of suspense, the answer turns out to be that they likely could not be so generalized, in large part because they depend on the perceived advantages of being early adopters.

          Avoiding the risks of climate change through political leadership will only happened if it is achieved collectively. But that will only be possible if political leaders take a multi-generational view of interests and don’t set the discount rate on the future too high. Absent this I argue we will only be moved to act collectively  when the accumulated effects of climate change are clearly attributable to it and widely distributed enough in time and place to affect most of the globe. But by then, it may be too late to act without avoiding serious effects of climate change. What then, if anything, is to be done? In Chapter Ten I argue that this logic should drive us to take the need for air capture geoengineering seriously, despite its costs and potential risks.

Whether we act now by reducing carbon output or act later by attempting to remove it from the atmosphere presumes we are willing to act. The upshot of my argument is that we have a moral imperative to act, if not for our own species then for others. That may be the end of it when it comes to a philosophical argument. But in the last chapter I examine the interplay between ethics and psychology to examine why following such an imperative seems so hard.


In David Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary,  An Inconvenient Truth (for print version see Gore 2006), Al Gore shows a picture of the land in Tennessee on which he grew up:

You look at that river gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds; you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass. The mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet; it’s peaceful.


Gore speaks movingly about his desire not to see the land’s beauty ravaged by climate change. But in doing so, he allows the impression that all we need to do is to make a few changes  and the rest will be  business as usual. For us, and him on his land. Change my light bulbs. Drive less. Heat my house less. Fly less. The Sierra Club  gives me a list of ten things. I am advised to plant a tree in my garden. Others have longer to do lists for me. Puffing out its chest, Vanity Fair (Porter 2006) demands another forty things. (I should forgo preheating the oven.) Not to be outdone, the Palm Beach Post (Schwed 2007) offers ninety nine prescriptions! (Use a hand potato masher instead of an electric one.) George Marshall (2007, 135) says I ought not to think of any of this as a sacrifice. He says I will feel proud. My new life style “will be a statement of who I am – a smart aware person living in the 21st century.” 

Al Gore and me, standing shoulder to shoulder. Why am I so unmoved? I want to be moved. I want to move. Yet here I sit. Unmoved. My lethargy might be because I really don’t think my actions will make much of a difference. But I don’t think my voting makes a difference. Yet the same thought does not stop me voting. Of course I only have to vote once in a while, so it is an act of minimal inconvenience. Is it that what I am asked to do here is so  inconvenient and complicated?

If that is not bad enough, others demand even more of me. I need to change our whole outlook on life to save the planet. Gus Speth (2008) says I have to stop looking at nature as a means to my ends. I am too materialistic and too individualistic. Bill McKibben (2006) says I have to reintegrate human society and nature and foreswear anthropocentrism for a “biocentric” world view. I am told I should  embrace a humbler world. If I listen to Speth and McKibben, I need to turn my life upside down. Even if I wanted to do that, I don’t even know how to begin. The contours of my life are sown into a web of relations that makes such a change  hard to contemplate except as a fantasy. I give everything away, sever all ties, live in shack, tend my fields and collect firewood. Even if that is fine for some, it is not for me.

Al Gore whispers in my ear: “Ignore McKibben and Speth! They are naysayers and luddites. Walden Pond romantics! Stick with me. Together we can solve this problem. Yes, big changes are needed, but that does not mean our way of life has to change. All we need to do as a nation is  … to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. … When President John F. Kennedy challenged our nation to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, many people doubted we could accomplish that goal. But 8 years and 2 months later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon. … We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history. Our entire civilization depends upon us now embarking on a new journey of exploration and discovery. Our success depends on our willingness as a people to undertake this journey and to complete it within 10 years. Once again, we have an opportunity to take a giant leap for humankind." (This Gore quote and those that follow are partly fictional (in italics) and partly based on his speech given on July 17th 2008 at Constitution Hall Washington copy available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92638501, accessed May 16th 2011.)

Is it that simple? Merely a matter of will and our (American) ingenuity? Gore makes it seem almost un-American to wonder if there really is a technical solution merely waiting for the ambitious to grab. For him there is always a technical solution to every problem. That is what makes America America! And if my friends still die of cancer decades after a Kennedy-like moon program was declared to defeat it, we just have not tried hard enough. But if I am allowed to stamp my foot and command discovery or innovation, I too can solve any problem. And in the long run, no doubt we can solve the problem. But as Keynes reminded us, in the long run we are all dead.

Gore points his finger at me. “Maybe you didn’t listen to my speech carefully enough. I said we can solve this problem in 10 years. All we need to decide to do it do it!”

I don’t get it, don’t facts intrude? Where do we store the power for use at night when there is no wind or light? What about China and India’s rising energy needs? Gore casts a condescending eye on me.  “Of course there are those who will tell us this can't be done. Some of the voices we hear are the defenders of the status quo - the ones with a vested interest in perpetuating the current system, no matter how high a price the rest of us will have to pay. But even those who reap the profits of the carbon age have to recognize the inevitability of its demise. As one OPEC oil minister observed, ‘The Stone Age didn't end because of a shortage of stones.”’

Right. It ended because a more productive cost effective technology came along. Al Gore in his bully pulpit, stamping his foot can’t change the fact that that is just what we lack for now and the foreseeable future. “You know, if you had paid attention you would have heard me call for CO2 caps and revenue neutral taxes! It is all so simple.”

I affect a  professorial mien to add some gravitas to my brief. “China will move 240 million people from the country to the cities by 2025 and two thirds of its population will live in urban areas. City people in China use more than twice   the energy of country people. Over 400 million people in India population lack electricity. India’s national goal is to be 100% electrified by 2030 and its electrical demand is projected to grow five to six fold by 2050.” (Woetzel et al. 2009, Remme et al. 2011.)

 “Look, says Gore, “it is also essential that the United States rejoin the global community and lead efforts to secure … a global partnership that recognizes the necessity of addressing the threats of extreme poverty and disease as part of the world's agenda for solving the climate crisis.”



It all seems too easy. In India 68.7% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.[1] It just signed a 25 year contract to import 9 billion tons of coal annually from the United States.[2]

600 million of us got the life we have because of our industrial revolution which would not have been possible without energy to fuel it.  Between 1820 and 2004, United States primary energy consumption grew from .837 quadrillion  BTU to 100 quadrillion  BTU, even as energy consumption per real dollar of GDP fell over time: from 66,690 to 9,400 btu per dollar of GDP. (By comparison, China’s 2006 energy consumption was 13,799  BTU per real dollar of GDP (PPP).) (See: U.S. Energy Information Administration 2010 (a),(b),(c), Maddison 2007, 379.) Now 6 billion more want to improve their lives. Even if they don’t reach our standard of living, the numbers alone will drive the growth in energy demand, which is expected to increase by 45% in the next 20 years of which 70% will come from Developing World. (See Figures 2 and 3.)

Figure 2: World Energy Consumption 1990-2035


Figure 3: Developing and Developed World Energy Consumption 1990-2035

At the same time, renewable and nuclear energy cannot be expected to grow from current levels (7% of current total energy) to fill this demand. Looking just at electricity, the anticipated mix can be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: World Electrical Generation 2007-2035

And of course, electrical demand is only a portion of the source of the problem, as seen in Figures 5 and 6.




Figure 5: Emissions of CO2 by Sector and Fuel Type


Figure 1: 2006 Sources of CO2 Emissions. This figure illustrates sources of CO2 emissions for 2006. Fossil fuel combustion is by far the largest source of CO2 emissions, with 5,637.9 Tg CO2 Eq. The next largest source is non energy use of fuels, which accounts for 138 Tg CO2 Eq. The smallest source is Silicon Carbide Production and Consumption, which accounts for 0.2 Tg CO2 Eq. There is also a pie chart indicating that CO2 represents the majority, 84.8%, of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2006.

Figure 6: Sources of CO2 Emissions

But if that is not bad enough, there is an even worse scenario. Because household size is inversely correlated with household income, we cannot expect population to stabilize (at roughly 9 billion people) without such growth. (See for example Murdoch 1980.)

Either way then, we face increasing demand for energy. But ongoing population growth implies ongoing energy growth. As such, the only way to limit energy use in the long run  is to stabilize population. But the only way to stabilize population is through raising household income. And the only way to raise household income is through increased energy use. Short of a drastic reduction of population from current levels, the challenge of climate change is not simply whether or not we are willing to live simpler lives to avoid it. It is whether or not we can provide the needed energy for population levels to stabilize without producing damaging changes in the climate. As we will see, this is no trivial calculus when it comes to both considerations of both economics and of ethics. But, above all, it is a non-trivial calculus because of  our limited knowledge about the risks of climate change itself.

Thus the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC 2013 Technical Summary 50, 63)  AR5 Synthesis Report’s projections has a best estimate of a 3.7oC rise in global mean  temperature by the end of the 21st century, but a likely range between 2.60 and 4.80C  under the  “business as usual” scenario of  rapid economic growth in which fossil fuels  play a primary role (BAU), while on the same scenario, global sea level rise is projected to be between .45 and .81 meters with a best estimate of .62 meters. (See Table 1.)


Table 1: Projected Change in Global Mean Surface Air Temperature and Sea Level Rise

Beyond the end of this century the consequences of business as usual becomes even more stark with a projected range  between 3 – 12.60C over 1986-2005 average global mean surface temperature (IPCC 2013, Technical Summary, 60). (See Figure 7.)



Figure 7: Projected Global Annual Mean Surface Temperature by Scenario


Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2011) rightly claim that elimination of all doubt (in favor of certainty)  is not part and parcel of the scientific process and go on to tell the sorry talk about the misuse of appeals doubt in scientific policy debates. Oreskes and Conway think that scientific knowledge is created by a consensus of scientific opinion, a view which correctly makes such knowledge still revisable in the light of new evidence. But the problem is that policy cannot always afford to wait for such consensus to develop. Indeed, when it comes to climate change, while there may be scientific consensus on the role of humans in causing temperature changes over the last 100 years, looking forward, our models become more uncertain the further out we project into the future in an attempt to predict how much temperature change there will be. In this sense, demanding scientific consensus is no better a requirement than demanding the elimination of all doubt (unless it is consensus in favor of doubt itself). And whether the public accepts that there is scientific consensus about the causes of temperature changes in the past is irrelevant. What matters is on what basis we should decide on policy looking forward without much confidence about the severity of climate change in the future, not because of lack of consensus but because of the limitations of our current climate models. All of this is to say that doubt pervades our current climate science when it comes to confidence about the future. What stance should we take toward this uncertainty?

Now Oreskes and Conway would have us believe that we pay a high price for embracing doubt when it comes to rational decision making because “the outcome of a rational decision-theory analysis is that if your knowledge is uncertain, then your best option is generally to do nothing” (Oreskes and  Conway 2011, 267). If that were correct then we ought to do nothing about climate risk since uncertain is just what our knowledge of the severity of climate change is.   But Oreskes and Conway would also have us  believe that “[i]f we didn’t know that smoking was dangerous, but we did know that it gave us pleasure, we would surely decide to smoke, as millions of Americans did before the 1960s” (Oreskes and  Conway 2011, 267). That is surely wrong. Despite the deliberate corporate  attempts to fan doubts to undermine the evolving consensus about the risks of smoking that  that Oreskes and Conway detail in their book, we didn’t need to know that smoking was dangerous to make a rational decision that it was not worth the risk that it might be dangerous and that those risks outweighed the benefits.

Waiting for scientific knowledge, for scientific consensus, before making policy choices is not a luxury we always have. Instead, we often need to make policy decisions when our knowledge is uncertain, but it does not follow that under such circumstances our “best option is generally to do nothing,”  as Oreskes and Conway suggest (Oreskes and  Conway 2011, 267).

Your internist refers you to a specialist for a growth. The specialist recommends surgery and chemotherapy. You decide to get a second opinion. That specialist recommends just surgery. It turns out there is no consensus among specialists.  Or perhaps there is consensus about this: we just don’t know whether surgery and chemotherapy produces better results than surgery alone. What should you do? How should you decide? Common sense would suggest it is a matter of how much risk and pain from the chemotherapy itself you are willing to bear in case the addition of  it were to produce better results. You pay a premium to (perhaps) increase your probability of a cure. In buying insurance we pay a premium to offset the costs of untoward outcomes should they occur. Here we pay a premium to reduce the chance of untoward consequences from happening in the first place.  How to price the premium in either case is easy if we know both the risk and the cost of what we are trying to avoid. When we don’t, the choice is still easy when the premium is trivial. (For example, my doctor has  me  take a low dose aspirin pill once a day because there is some evidence that it might reduce the risk of a heart attack.) But calculating the correct price to pay for avoiding climate change (the premium) is  anything but trivial as our knowledge of the risks and costs of climate change are limited. How then to proceed?