Recent book reviews — April 2014

This month I focused on books related to the ethics of climate change, to finish my survey of the literature in relation to my personal plan for improving my carbon footprint. These books were helpful and inspiring. Thank you to all these thoughtful authors!


Title: Climate Change — Picturing the Science
Author: Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

Climate Change — Picturing the Science is a fantastic overview of the science underpinning climate change, both what we know (anthropogenic climate change is real and serious) and what remains uncertain (how a warming atmosphere will affect rainfall in a specific region). Climate Change is a series of articles buttressed by photographs that elucidate the topics. Both the writing and images are very good. Having read the most recent World Bank and IPCC reports, a few of the numbers in 2009-published Climate Change now look slightly dated, but the book is important reading for at least a while longer.


Title: The Ethics of Climate Change — Right and wrong in a warming world
Author: James Garvey
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

Hoping to test the thinking behind an upcoming personal-CO2-reduction plan, I’ve focused my reading recently on climate change and my role in it. Garvey makes an extremely compelling case for institutional and personal action in this short and well-written book. After laying out a summary of our scientific understanding of the problem, The Ethics of Climate Change explores the issues in five chapters; “Right and Wrong”, “Responsibility”, “Doing Nothing”, “Doing Something”, and “Individual Choices”. The writing is clear, concise, and relevant to the non-academic, lay-philosopher. I came away fully certain I must improve my own consumption habits on moral and ethical grounds. Inspiring reading.


Title: The Sixth Extinction — An unnatural history
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

After seeing an interview with the author on The Daily Show, I placed a hold on this book at the library. After a few months of half-excited/half-anxious waiting, The Sixth Extinction arrived. I devoured it in three days, reading with a mix of fascination and dismay. The book lays out just how severe humanity’s impact has been on the environment, and just how dire the situation will become with business-as-usual climate change. Kolbert explains how the scale of our impact on the environment qualifies the current era as the sixth major extinction in the history of life of earth, with extinctions occurring at 10,000 times the background rate. She tells heartbreaking tales of tireless biologists working to save the last known Panamanian golden frogs and the Hawaiian crows. She tells how we have witnessed and facilitated the extinction of countless animals, like the great auk, whose final two survivors were strangled by hunters.

The last people to see great auks alive were around a dozen Icelanders who made the trip to Eldey by rowboat. They set out one evening in June 1844… With some difficulty, three of the men managed to clamber ashore… By this point the island’s total auk population, probably never very numerous, appears to have consisted of a single pair of birds and one egg. On catching sight of the humans, the birds tried to run, but they were too slow. Within minutes, the Icelanders had captured the auks and strangled them. …

… The pair of birds that had been killed in that outing, they discovered, had been sold to a dealer for the equivalent of about nine pounds. The birds’ innards had been sent to the Royal Museum in Copenhagen; no one could say what had happened to the skins. (Subsequent detective work has traced the skin of the female to an auk now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.)

The whole of the book is similarly captivating and terrifying. Highly recommended.


Title: A Perfect Moral Storm
Author: Stephen M. Gardiner
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4.5 stars

Wow, this is a fantastic book. It’s long and deep, and it took me a while to be won over. But by the end I felt so thankful for having read it.

Gardiner explains why climate change is so intractable, and how the global scope of the problem, the intergenerational effects of climate change, and our lack of a robust political theory, results in complacency and inaction. With clear and precise language and well-devised analogies, Gardiner guides the reader through understanding spurious arguments and the other various threats to our ambition to act morally.

I came away feeling much better prepared to understand the challenges that I face as an individual and our policy makers face in a larger societal context. I am inspired to live up to the level of morality that Gardiner posits. Very highly recommended!

… I take a perfect storm to involve the unusual intersection of a number of serious, and mutually reinforcing, problems, which creates an unusual and perhaps unprecedented challenge. …

… The first storm is global. Its key feature is that the world’s most affluent nations, and especially the rich within those nations, have considerable power to shape what is done, and to do so in ways which favor their own concerns, especially over those of the world’s poorer nations, and poor people within those nations.

The second storm is intergenerational. Its key feature is that the current generation has similar, but more pronounced, asymmetric power over the prospects of future generations…

The third storm is theoretical. … it would be nice if we had robust general theories to guide us. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In particular, existing theories are extremely underdeveloped in many of the relevant areas, including intergenerational ethics, international justice, scientific uncertainty, and the human relationship to animals and the rest of nature. This not only complicates the task of behaving well, but also renders us more vulnerable to the first two storms.

… the problem posed by the perfect moral storm is that nature becomes a vehicle through which injustice is visited on other people. It facilitates the exploitation of the poor by the rich in the global storm, and of the future by the present in the intergenerational storm.

… the threat of moral corruption reveals another sense in which climate change may be a “perfect” moral storm. Its complexity may turn out to be perfectly convenient for us, the current generation, and indeed for each successor generation as it comes to occupy our position. For one thing, it provides each generation with the cover under which it can seem to be taking the issue seriously – by negotiating weak and largely substanceless global accords, for example, and then heralding them as great achievements — when really it is simply exploiting its temporal position. … all of this can occur without the exploiting generation actually having to acknowledge that this is what it is doing. If it can avoid the appearance of overtly selfish (or self-absorbed) behavior, an earlier generation can take advantage of the future without the unpleasantness of admitting it — either to others, or, perhaps more importantly, to itself.

The claim that a limited coalition of countries could effectively address climate change is… deeply misleading. Combating climate change requires the cooperation of at least all countries of significant size.

The fact that the tragedy of the commons analysis obscures many issues of fairness is of independent importance in the perfect moral storm. We should notice that a focus on that model facilitates the neglect of considerations that would, other things being equal, impose stronger burdens on the better off. At first glance, it is unfair for any agreement to ignore the diproportionately large contributions of the rich to causing the problem, the greater vulnerability of the world’s poor to its worst impacts, and the issue of aiding and compensating its victims.

Abrupt climate change may actually increase each generation’s incentive to consume dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, and may even cause at least some generations to have a moral license to do so.

The shift in focus from acts to rules to characters raises a worry mentioned earlier. If utilitarianism merely reforms itself in response to any serious objection — molding itself to whatever trouble comes from the world or from other theories, but only when that trouble comes first — then it seems unduly reactive. This threatens its ability to play one of the main roles we might expect of a political theory, that of guiding us towards good social systems. If the approach is also oblivious, opaque, and evasive, this worry becomes even more serious.

The fourth standard criticism of CBA [cost benefit analysis] is that it rests on a fundamental confusion. In a classic work, Mark Sagoff argues that when conventional CBA attempts to reduce all issues of value to matters of preference as measured by market prices, it is guilty of a “category mistake.” It confuses mere preferences, whose significance might perhaps be measured in terms of the intensity with which they are held, with values, whose import is usually understood in terms of the reasons that underlie them. Just as we should not evaluate mathematical claims (such as 2 + 2 = 4) by asking how strongly mathematicians feel about them, and in particular how much they would be willing to pay for the rest of us to accept them, so (Sagoff says) we should not evaluate ethical claims in these ways.

In a perfect moral storm, we (the current generation and especially the relatively affluent) are ethically vulnerable. Not only is it the case that we can pass the buck onto the poor, the future, and nature, but we face strong temptations to do so. … even if we initially accept that we face a serious moral challenge, our resolve remains vulnerable to corrupt mechanisms of persuasion. One especially serious threat is corruption that prevents us from even seeing the problem in the right way. … Serious moral agents strive to protect themselves against rationalization, self-deception, and moral manipulation.

… climate scientists frequently claim that pursuing geoengineering represents a kind of blindness, a failure on the part of humanity to address the underlying problem. … Gavin Schmidt offers the analogy of a small boat being deliberately and dangerously rocked by one of its passengers. Another traveler offers to use his knowledge of chaotic dynamics to try to counterbalance the first, but admits that he needs huge informational resources to do so, cannot guarantee success, and may make things worse. Schmidt concludes: “So is the answer to a known and increasing human influence on climate an ever more elaborate system to control the climate? Or should the person rocking the boat just sit down?

The first [objection] asserts that past polluters were ignorant of the adverse affects of their emissions, and so ought not to be blamed. … The ignorance objection initially seems compelling but turns out to be much more complicated when pressed. … Though it is true that we do not usually blame those ignorant of what they do, still we often hold them responsible.

… suppose that everyone in the office chips in to order pizza for lunch. You have to dash out for a meeting, and so leave your slices in the refrigerator. I (having already eaten my slices) discover and eat yours because I assume that they must be going spare. You return to find that you now don’t have any lunch. Is this simply your problem? We don’t usually think so. Even though I didn’t realize at the time that I was taking your pizza, this does not mean I have no special obligations. The fact that I ate your lunch remains morally relevant.

…Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, asserted:

“Anything above 1.5 degrees, the Maldives and many small islands and low-lying islands would vanish. It is for this reason that we tried very hard during the course of the last two days to have 1.5 degrees in the document. I am so sorry that this was blatantly obstructed by big-emitting countries.”

And Lumumba Stanislaus Di-aping, the Head of the G-77 group of developing countries went so far as to declare:

“[The draft text] asks Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries. It is a solution based on values, the very same values in our opinion that funnelled six million people in Europe into furnaces.”

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