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The Ethical Nuclear Solution and the IPCC Report

WGIII_AR5_Cover_webThe IPCC report on mitigating climate change is now out and, it is, as you’d expect, a bone dry read considering how alarming it is. 

But one section that probably won’t get much attention is on ethical considerations when considering a world response to climate change. This is something that it would be good to see in legislation in general – it might forestall at least some obnoxiously partisan bills from emerging. This part of the report, is, if nothing else, a fascinating read, and nuclear energy, which is never mentioned, seems corrected fitted to such issues

The report says that some developed countries with heavy carbon emission output are expected to suffer relatively modest physical damage from projected climate change and some may even benefit from it. But some developing countries could experience significant physical damage from climate change while having no or little causal responsibility. How does policy develop that responds to this disparity? It’s not an easy question.

The report talks about moral justice, which strikes me as exceptionally tricky territory. We can think of instances in which the attitudes of modern society were applied to past events in order to achieve moral justice, but these often involved revised cultural norms that were highly contentious in their day – slavery, for example. But man-made climate change, as defined in the report, started occurring when the entire concept was unimaginable. If it has had consequences, they were unintended. And one intended consequence was the industrial revolution and the formation of modern societies.

That makes ideas like this tough to swallow:

The duty to make compensatory payments may fall on those who emit or benefit from wrongful emissions or who belong to a  community that produced such emissions.

Wrongful emissions? Since when? To whom? Now, remember, the report is summarizing the literature on the subject, not making specific recommendations (or accusations). The amount of time it spends on reparations suggests the weight the authors give it, but it is not explicit. (You could say it reflects the view of some impacted countries, but the report doesn’t address it from that angle.)

In any event, it would be a tough lift politically. And it creates a victim class in a way that seems unhelpful in addressing the issues. But the report does include much tougher lifts than reparation. Here’s a bit from its discussion of ethical methodologies:

The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted an index of GNH [Gross National Happiness] as a tool for assessing national welfare and planning development. According to this concept, happiness does not derive from consumption, but  rather from factors such as  the ability to live in harmony with nature. Thus, GNH is both a critique of, and an alternative to, the conventional global development model.

Bhutan is a landlocked country between India and China with a population of about 750,000. The Gross National Happiness index was devised in 1972 and is rooted in the Buddhist religion. Its elements, as developed over time, measure physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance between work and leisure; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality.

Appealing approach to balancing national interests or utter hooey? You decide. The IPCC certainly won’t. You can see how big a net was cast over ethical issues, but that it raises them at all is fascinating in itself.

The  IPCC aims to provide information that can be used by  governments and other agents when they are considering what they should do about climate change. The question of what they should do is a normative one, so the answer(s) rests implicitly or explicitly on ethical judgments. What will work for Bhutan may not work for the Czech Republic – or the United States – or Vanuatu. Here’s how the report puts it:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single‐best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives.

Which is why the United Nations is often better at describing issues than resolving them. Luckily, this is all description, and luckily, too, nuclear energy seems a good fit for what’s being described – it promotes development while not adding greenhouse gas emissions and it’s an area where developed countries can take a positive and proactive role in helping developing nations, well, develop. It’s not reparations, it’s resource development, but you can define it however you will.

This section of the IPCC report completely ignores energy types, but it seems to me key to the case for nuclear energy, especially in the developing world.


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