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Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention

David Henderson/OJO Images

Our global environment has many problems. If the high volume of carbon emission is one, the low level of intellectual engagement with some of the major environmental challenges is surely another. There are, of course, many engaging and well-researched studies of particular environmental problems such as global warming, and we have good reason to be appreciative of that. And yet some of the foundational issues have remained unresolved—indeed, unaddressed.

I would like to comment on two quite different, but ultimately related, areas of neglected environmental analyses that demand immediate attention. The first is the general problem of not having anything like an overall normative framework, involving ethics as well as science, that could serve as the basis of debates and discussions on policy recommendations. Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge. The second is a much more specific problem: the failure to develop a framework for assessing the comparative costs of different sources of energy (from fossil fuels and nuclear power to solar and renewable energy), inclusive of the externalities involved, which can take many different forms. (By externalities, I mean the consequences that operate outside the market and that market prices do not reflect, such as the release of pollutants into the air, of effluents into rivers and public water supplies, of radiation into the atmosphere.) One of the externalities—the evil effects of carbon emission—has received enormous attention, which in its context is a very good thing, but there are other externalities that also demand our urgent attention. These include the growing danger from the rapidly increasing use of nuclear energy—in China and India especially, where the use of nuclear energy is gathering momentum and large expansions are being planned, but also elsewhere. The dangers of nuclear energy have received astonishingly little systematic attention in scientific and policy discussions. Environmental thinking has to be multi-directional rather than single-focused, even if the focus is something as important as the climatic threats from carbon emissions.

Not only is the large issue of making reasoned estimates of the externalities—including probabilistic evaluation—of energy production and energy use largely neglected, but the lack of a normative framework also contributes to ignoring the benefits from greater energy use on which the lives of billions of deprived people in the world depend. Since the emphasis on cutting emissions, if necessary by lesser energy use, has become an almost universal position among environmentalists, I shall begin by noting some persistent biases in thinking about the benefits and penalties of energy use in different forms in the contemporary world.

First, the recent focus of energy thinking has been particularly concentrated on the ways and means of reducing carbon emissions and, linked with that, cutting down energy use, rather than taking energy use as essential for conquering poverty and seeing the environmental challenge within a more comprehensive understanding. There would appear to be an insufficient recognition in global discussion of the need for increased power in the poorer countries. In India, for example, about a third of the people do not have any power connection at all. Making it easier to produce energy with better environmental correlates (and greater efficiency of energy use) may be a contribution not just to environmental planning, but also to making it possible for a great many deprived people to lead a fuller and freer life. 

Second, there is insufficient recognition of an empirical fact that at first glance may seem rather trivial, but which has much greater importance than may be immediately recognized. Many areas of the world where poverty is common are also particularly sunny and offer hugely underappreciated opportunities for the generation and use of solar power, if the scientific and engineering problems of using this source of energy—including the development of cheaper storage of seasonally variable power—are adequately addressed. The availability of a strong sun, of which Bangladesh and India and much of Africa get a great deal more than does Europe (which is currently the center of environmental activism in the world), makes it possible for many of the poorer areas on the globe to use a gigantic supply of energy, if environmentally sound ways of harnessing, storing, and utilizing solar energy can be developed. This could benefit some countries with fewer known stocks of fossil fuels (such as large parts of sub-Saharan Africa). It could also benefit other countries where some fossil-fuel sources are abundant (such as coal in India), but where the use of these resources has to be restricted because of their impact on climate change.

Third, with the growing recognition of the dangers of global pollution from fossil fuels, the attractions of nuclear power have been quite strong in recent years. The scientific community has been particularly drawn to the enticements of nuclear power, but they have a strong hold on global policymakers as well. For example, the World Bank lumps together nuclear with solar and other renewable sources of energy in its presentation of data for “clean energy” for the world: “Clean energy is noncarbohydrate energy that does not produce carbon dioxide when generated. It includes hydropower and nuclear, geothermal, and solar power, among others.”

The climatic implications of reliance on nuclear energy are indeed enormously better than the continued—and accelerating—use of fossil fuels. Yet threats from the side-effects of energy production and use do not come only through climate change. Nuclear power also has extremely strong negative “externalities” of very different kinds. There are penalties and perils that are not included in the evaluation at market prices of the costs of nuclear power, thereby making that alternative appear to be much cheaper than it actually is from a fuller social point of view.

Energy evaluation as a part of environmental planning demands much more extensive and probing accounting of costs—it demands that we take note of the various possible consequences of different sources of energy. A proper accounting of externalities in energy production will require new research techniques, since the consequences will often have considerable uncertainties, and probability estimates cannot be derived on the basis of observed frequencies from the past (since there may not be much past to guide us). Without going into the challenges of uncertainty-inclusive evaluation more fully here, I should point to the understanding that there are many different ways of speculating on usable estimates of probabilities, within intervals of values, that allow us to reason about ranges of comparative costs. The alternative of ignoring the accounting of externalities in cost comparisons, including those of nuclear energy, amounts in effect to assuming that the probability of anything untoward happening can be taken to be negligible. And in the case of nuclear energy, that is a disastrous assumption.

There are at least five different kinds of externalities that add significantly to the social costs of nuclear power: the possibly huge effects of nuclear accidents (as in Chernobyl and Fukushima); the risks of terrorism and sabotage (a strong possibility in countries such as India); the consequences of possible nuclear theft (a potential everywhere, but particularly strong in less well-guarded plants); the difficulties in safely disposing of nuclear waste (which will grow over time cumulatively and possibly quite swiftly if the world comes to rely more and more on nuclear power); and nuclear reactions that may be set off if and when a nuclear power plant is bombed or blasted with conventional weapons in a conventional war, or even in a rather limited local skirmish. Each of these externalities carries possibilities of huge adversities both to human life and to the ecosystems around us. Even with the tiny probabilities of each of these dangers, the sum of the five, multiplied by the growing number of nuclear enterprises, tends to produce sizable overall probabilities. Estimates of probable harm (from terrible to catastrophic) could be gigantic. Nuclear power is, in any case, quite expensive even in conventional terms, and if, in addition, the expected disvalue (or “disutility”) of externalities is added to the costs of power production, the sum-total would begin to move up very substantially.

Lily Padula 

It is unlikely that in the near future fossil-fuel use can be eliminated by nuclear power, though the picture could change in the long run. But the dangers of nuclear accident, sabotage, or theft can become very large even before nuclear power comes anywhere close to replacing coal, oil, and other fossil fuels across the world. Moreover, to the extent that more safeguards are put into the basic design of nuclear power production and supply, the costs of nuclear energy will also become significantly larger even in conventional terms.

An alternative that seemed very small in possible use only a few years ago, but which is coming into more and more serious consideration now, is renewable power through using solar energy, wind power, and the power of waves. Recently the costs of these renewable sources of energy, particularly solar, have been falling very fast—quite a bit faster than was expected. This has happened rapidly in China, helped by technological innovations but also by governmental subsidies to the solar-panel industry. This has influenced the costs and benefits of solar energy outside China as well—quite substantially, for example, in India, mainly through the cheaper costs of imported Chinese solar panels. America and Europe have tended to keep out the cheaper—and heavily subsidized—Chinese panels mainly in the interest of their respective “domestic” solar-panel industries. Questions can certainly be raised about the quality and the durability of the cheaper Chinese panels, but the comparison has to be done without a protectionist bias.

There are many other issues to be faced in coming to rely more on renewable energy, including the costs of storage to integrate the time pattern of energy use with the time pattern of energy production dependent on natural circumstances, such as seasonal as well as daily variations of sunny times. The scientific possibility of cutting down storage costs requires much more investigation—and much greater public support for scientific and engineering research.

It is not my contention that these problems are easy to investigate and to solve. There are empirical gaps in our knowledge as well as analytical difficulties in dealing with the evaluation of uncertainty. But the same problem is present in the analysis of global warming as well, and the recent works on estimating global dangers from emissions from fossil fuels have moved inescapably in the direction of having to take note of uncertainty, particularly the low but non-negligible probabilities of totally catastrophic consequences from climate change (the problem of the so-called “fat tail” in the probability distribution of dangers from global warming).

The comparison between the two sources of energy—nuclear power and renewable power from sun, wind, and wave—requires urgent evaluation, with special attention to their respective consequences on human lives and well-being, as well as concerns about ecosystems. The need to go beyond unidirectional thinking about the environment is extremely strong right now. We must radically broaden the priorities of environmental planning and of energy-related scientific research in view of these empirical and evaluative concerns. Even as I turn now to examine the ingredients of a broadly normative framework for environmental evaluation, we need to pay particular attention to these specific issues, both for their immediate importance and for their relevance for normative evaluation in an inclusive framework.

A normative framework for environmental evaluation would have many requirements. Among them, it has to have both evaluative soundness and the possibility of informed application and reasoned public use. The issues that have to be considered in developing an applicable normative framework must include politics and public reasoning, science and epistemology, and ethics. I shall take up these different, but interrelated, engagements in turn.

The politics and public reasoning about our environmental threats involve perhaps the most difficult set of problems to be addressed. Even though scientific evidence on the fragility of the environment has been growing, the politics of environmental understanding has often been running defiantly against accepting the scientific readings, particularly in the United States, and it seems to have got almost completely trapped in bitter disputes between Republicans and Democrats.

Yet the problem goes beyond political partisanship and polarization. The bulk of the American population seems basically unconvinced that the threat is large enough to warrant any great sacrifices today on the part of the present population. Even as President Obama is gathering enough traction for trying to impose strong constraints on allowable emissions, particularly affecting older plants and factories, Democratic candidates in some states are reputed to be getting ready to dissociate themselves from Obama’s initiative, moving closer to the Republican position as the next elections get closer. There has been a serious failure in communicating the results of scientific analysis and in involving the general public in informed ethical reasoning, especially in the United States. Of course America is not the whole world, but public understanding and policy-making in the United States are important not only because it is such a big polluter, but also because the willingness of other countries to make sacrifices today would be hard to arrange if Americans go on polluting the environment with little attempt to restrain themselves.

There has been a lot of research on climate change in recent years, and the science of our vulnerability to global warming and other changes associated with massive, continuing, and increasing emissions is as clear today as scientific prognostication can plausibly be. If this is an area where the primary challenge may be seen as communication rather than basic science, it is not so in considering threats to the environment coming from other directions. As was said earlier, sustained scrutiny of making extensive use of nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuels has barely started. There is a huge necessity for probing research on the rational assessment of externality-inclusive costs of production and use of energy from different sources.

If there are many scientific issues to be addressed, the task is not any easier on the ethical side. The moral and political issues involved in this type of environmental decision involve complexity of different kinds, but perhaps the most immediate problem arises from the involvement of different generations in any decision involved. The need for concerted action for “our common future” was powerfully outlined more than a quarter century ago in a pioneering manifesto, prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Gro Brundtland, formerly the prime minister of Norway and later the director-general of the World Health Organization. The Brundtland report defined sustainable development as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Even though I shall presently argue that we have to go beyond Brundtland’s pioneering move, we must first recognize how intellectually transformative that move has been. Sustainable development has become the ruling theme in much of the environmental literature, and this is surely a huge element of social progress. Even in terms of public communication, the Brundtland formula has had quite remarkable success in many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, and various international congresses and conferences have been held with a basic sympathy for Brundtland’s visionary approach. At the political level there is still some concerted resistance to acknowledging the challenge of sustainability, but there is a large body of informed and influential people across the world who are ready to go along with the kind of ethics of fairness that Brundtland has been advocating.

It might be thought that if we were to take a strictly anthropocentric perspective on the question of the environment, then we need not go beyond human living standards, and can be sensibly concerned with ecosystems only to the extent that they affect our own lives. But this temptingly simple conclusion is by no means obvious or clear-cut, mainly because we human beings do not only have needs. We also have values and priorities, about which we can reason. To say that worrying about other species is none of our business is not ethical reasoning, but a refusal to engage in ethical reasoning. The contrast between our needs and our chosen priorities has been a subject of discussion over centuries, including the medieval distinction between “agents” and “patients” in the conceptualization of humanity—between those who think, decide and act, and those who only hope to be treated well by circumstances. It is hard to see how environmental thinking, which has many different aspects, can be reduced to a concern only with human living standards, given the other concerns we may very reasonably have.

There is a need for greater clarity in deciding on how to think ethically about the environmental challenges in the contemporary world. Focusing on human freedom—including our freedom to think about what responsibilities we have—along with our interest in our own quality of life can help in this understanding, and shed light not only on the demands of sustainable development, but also on the content and relevance of what we can identify as “environmental issues.”

The environment is sometimes seen—simplistically, I believe—as the “state of nature,” including such measures as the extent of forest cover, the depth of the ground water table, the number of living species, and so on. It is tempting to go from there to the conclusion that the best environmental planning is one of least interference, of leaving nature alone—that the urgent need is for inaction, rather than for actions that may be best supported by reasoning. This approach is deeply defective for at least two important reasons.

First, the environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the process of development may have destructive consequences (and this is very important to understand and to address), it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live. Indeed, our power to intervene, with reason and effectiveness, can be substantially enhanced by the process of development itself. For example, greater female education and women’s employment can help to reduce fertility rates drastically, which in the long run can reduce the pressure on environmental destruction, including global warming and the decimation of natural habitats. Similarly, the spread of school education and improvements in its quality can make us more environmentally conscious. Better communication and a more active and a better informed media can enhance our awareness of the need for environment-oriented thinking. It is easy to find many other examples of interconnection. In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental efforts.

Second, it is not surprising that environmental sustainability has typically been defined in terms of the preservation and the enhancement of the quality of human life. Brundtland’s own formula defines “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Robert Solow has extended this approach in a powerful way, integrating the sequential roles of different generations in terms of a comprehensive and easily understandable formula woven around the idea of living standards, whereby we want to make sure that future generations can enjoy living standards no lower than ours, and also allow them to ensure that their own successor generations have similar opportunities to live and provide for the future. There is a lot of wisdom in this understanding, but we must enrich it further by moving from the valuation of needs-fulfillment and human living standards to the valuing of human freedom—taking a broader view of our humanity, and not seeing ourselves just as “patients.”

Consider our responsibility toward the species that are threatened with destruction. We may attach importance to the preservation of these species not merely because the presence of these species in the world may sometimes enhance our own living standards. A person may judge that we ought to do what we can to ensure the preservation of some threatened animal species, say, the Himalayan Quail, and there would be no contradiction if the person were to say: “My living standards would be largely, indeed completely, unaffected by the presence or absence of Himalayan Quails. I have in fact never even seen one. But I do strongly believe that we should not let those quails become extinct, for reasons that go much beyond maintaining human living standards.”

This is where Gautama Buddha’s argument, presented in Sutta Nipata, becomes directly and immediately relevant. He argued that a mother has a responsibility toward her child not merely because she has generated her, but also because she can do many things for the child that the child cannot itself do. It is this “power to make a difference,” Buddha argued, that generates a corresponding responsibility, and the need to ask: what should we do? Buddha went on to argue that human beings, for these reasons, have some responsibility toward animals precisely because we have such power over their lives.

In the environmental context it can be argued that since we are enormously more powerful than other species, we have some responsibility toward these species that links closely with this asymmetry of power. We can have many reasons for our conservation efforts, not all of which need be parasitic on our own living standards (or need-fulfillment), and some of which may turn precisely on our sense of values and on our acknowledgment of our reasons for taking fiduciary responsibility for other creatures on whose lives we can have a powerful influence.

It is important to bring about a very substantial broadening of the existing norms of environmental policy analysis, by using a more comprehensive approach, with good science and an adequately responsible ethics. Let me propose four such broadenings of our vision. First, if the fulfillment of our human existence lies not merely in our living standards and need-fulfillment, but also in the freedoms that we enjoy, then the idea of sustainable development has to be correspondingly reformulated to take us beyond the advances in reasoning that we have already received from the pioneering work of Brundtland and Solow. We must think not just about sustaining the fulfillment of our needs, but more largely about sustaining, and extending, our freedoms (including, of course, the freedom to meet our own needs, but going well beyond that). The sustaining of ecosystems and the preservation of species can be given new grounds by the recognition of human beings as reflective agents rather than as passive patients. Thus recharacterized, the idea of sustainable development can be broadened from the formulations proposed by Brundtland and Solow to encompass the preservation and expansion of the substantive freedoms and capabilities of people today without compromising the capability of future generations to have similar or more freedoms. This broader way of seeing sustainable development can accommodate our concerns—and our anxieties—about the fragility of some of the ecosystems that surround us.

The second broadening concerns the extension of public reasoning from the tendency to appeal to people’s self-interest to explicit recognition of the need to take into account the interests—and the freedoms—of future generations. We must use the freedom we have to reason about our priorities and our responsibilities. Many changes have occurred in the past by the force of new reasoning, whether it be the unacceptability of slavery or untouchability, or the need for social safety nets for the underprivileged, or the right to medical attention seen as a social entitlement for all. The battles have not been easy, and the one on sustainable development will need engagement and political commitment.

The third broadening is the need for the enlargement of scientific focus from mere avoidance of dangers to the positive possibilities of enhancing human choices and freedoms, and for avoiding the biases in environmental thinking that have come from an overconcentration on the richer parts of humanity, and the comparative neglect of research that can expand the generation, storage, and efficient use of environmentally safe energy, particularly in poorer countries, including those in the tropics. In thinking about expanding human freedom today and sustaining it in the future, we have to take fuller note of the need for greater energy use for a large number of deprived people in the world. Even if carbon emissions had not been such a big problem, the case for rapid development of the economic use of solar power would be important for many of the poorer parts of the globe in a way that the richer world, particularly affluent but sun-starved Europe, may not readily see. The focus has to be shifted from single-minded concentration on reducing emissions to a broader understanding of the range of needs of people and the demands that come from expanding and sustaining their substantive freedoms to live reasonably good lives (for which, of course, emission control would importantly figure among other concerns).

Finally, as far as the avoidance of dangers is concerned, there is an urgent need for moving from any one-dimensional priority to facing the multifaceted threats that environmental dangers pose. It is odd, for example, that the possible negative effects of nuclear energy have figured much more in public fear than in scientific attempts to provide an assessment—it would have to be probabilistic—of the ranges of values within which those negative effects can be placed. If there is need for more politics and public reasoning (including on global warming) based on scientific evidence, there is also a strong need for more scientific and epistemic research on the different types of environmental threats that we face, including the likely results of increasing nuclear use across the world. This will take us well beyond global warming. Our scientific priorities as well as our ethical commitments demand more—and multi-directional—engagement. Global warming, extremely important as it undoubtedly is, has to be seen as one part of a much larger picture of worrying threats as well as positive possibilities.