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Under Discussion: Global Warming and the Right to Risk Wrong

photograph of industrial chimney stacks polluting air over natural landscape

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

There is an increasing call to use climate engineering as a solution to global warming. Rather than simply try to decarbonize the economy, some think we should work to develop new technology that will allow us to prevent global warming even while fossil fuels are used. Some think we can use carbon sequestration to leech carbon out of the atmosphere even as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Others think that even if carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere, we can counteract the greenhouse effect by reflecting more sunlight away from earth. (For a great introduction to the questions surrounding climate engineering check out this great episode: Pushkin podcast Brave New Planet.)

Some support the use of climate engineering because they think the global coordination required for decarbonization is politically unfeasible; some because they think global warming is already too far gone and we need to buy time; and some because they think the real costs to decarbonization are too high.

There are, of course, also compelling objections to climate engineering. In particular, many worry about the inevitable unintended consequences of messing with the environment even more to fix our initial mistake (remember the old lady who swallowed a fly?). (Though for myself, I think it unlikely that the negative impacts of carefully studied intentional environmental intervention are as bad as the uncoordinated and unintended effects of carbon industrialization.)

However, I don’t want to spend this post investigating the prospects of climate engineering. I’m not nearly expert enough to do that. Instead, I want to talk about an odd sort of moral obstacle to climate engineering.

Here is a simple question: who has the right to run a massive program to change the earth’s climate? Would it be right, for instance, for the United States to unilaterally decide that the risks of global warming are great enough that it justifies a massive cloud seeding project? Any such decision will affect every other country, but of course the citizens of those other countries do not get a vote in U.S. politics (you might worry, then, that this is profoundly undemocratic because those deeply affected by a policy should have a say in its shaping, for an overview to these questions of democracy see Robert Goodin’s paper on the ‘all affected interests’ principle). So perhaps the United Nations should make the decision? But, of course, many nations are not voting members of the UN, nor is the UN a particularly democratic institution.

Even if geoengineering is the right solution to climate change, it is not altogether clear who should be the one to make that final determination? If I, Marshall, personally decide climate engineering is the way to go, and also come into a lot of money, then do I have the moral right to change the climate for everyone else (even if I’m trying to counteract what was already a negative artificial change). Or to make the scenario more realistic, if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided it was time to act unilaterally, would it be right for them to do so?

Now, here is where things get puzzling. How could we have had the power to mess up the environment, and yet not be morally empowered to fix it?

There are two possibilities here. One, it might be that countries were acting wrongly when they messed up the environment. Perhaps we are all blameworthy for the amount we have contributed to global warming; but just because we did damage does not mean we are thereby entitled to find our own way to clean it up.

Second, it might be that actually many did not act wrongly in using carbon. There is something of a collective action problem here. Perhaps each person only produced a small amount of carbon, such that no one person really impacted the climate of anyone else.  It is only in aggregate that the bad effect occurred. However, we cannot fix the climate in a similarly disaggregated way. It might be that each of us could plant some trees, but it would require systematic and careful coordination to adopt a more aggressive climate engineering strategy (and no one has the right to act as the global enforcement coordinator).

Global warming, then, is an instance of an annoying type of moral problem. Sometimes we do things which could be fixed, but which we are not morally empowered to fix. Sometimes we say something cruel and want to apologize, but the person we hurt wants nothing to do with us and we have no right to impose on them even to apologize.  Sometimes we spill stuff on a carpet in a party, and the host waves us out of the way and insists that they will fix the problem. Sometimes we do wrong things, things we’d like to make up for, but which we cannot make up for acting on our own. While often unfortunate, it remains a fascinating problem.

The Capitol Coup and the Rhetoric of Essentialist Exceptionalism

photograph of a burning tire with the feet of a crowd of protestors in the background

On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, disrupting Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college win for a few hours. Law enforcmenet deployed tear gas in the Capitol Rotunda, and at least four people died; one woman was shot and killed. It was a deeply depressing spectacle that underscored two facts: that millions of Americans live in an alternative reality in which President Trump, the nemesis of shadowy, rootless “globalists” and other vaguely Semitic “swamp-dwellers,” won a second term in a landslide; and that Trump himself, pathologically fixated on his electoral loss, will gladly incite violence against his own government in order to cling to power.

Even as it was happening, media commentators registered their bewilderment that something like this was happening here, and not some other place — Iraq, maybe, or perhaps (as CNN’s Jake Tapper imagined) Bogotá. The by now well-worn cliché that it was something that might happen in a “banana republic” was trotted out. Echoing these sentiments, in his remarks on that day, President-elect Biden said that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America.”

There is, I think, a deep connection between the commentators’ surprise and Biden’s rhetoric. Many people in this country seem to subscribe to a metaphysics of America, or of American political culture, that is essentialist in that it says that there is something that the culture essentially or truly is — that there are qualities which define America and without which America as we know it would not exist. Usually, the outlines of this conception of America’s essence are drawn by exclusion: by saying what America is not. Thus, Biden tells us that the “true” America is not whatever-it-is that the Capitol insurrection represents — probably that it is not violent or lawless. Other invocations of America’s essence have claimed that America is essentially liberal or conservative, or essentially tolerant. In general, we can say that American essentialism defines what America is in terms of what the one doing the defining thinks it ought to be. Frequently combined with this claim about America’s essence is the idea that this essence is exceptional; that America has a unique essence that distinguishes it from other countries. Thus, those who hold to American essentialism often define America not only by what it is not, but they suggest that what it is not is what other countries are. 

Put these two beliefs together — that America has an essence, and that this essence is unique — and you can readily explain why it should seem shocking or unbelievable that something like the Capitol coup occurred. If America is essentially not what, say, Iraq is — violent, lawless, prone to coup attempts — then what happened at the Capitol is almost unthinkable.

But American essentialist exceptionalism is doubly untrue. First, even if America’s political culture had an essence, it would be implausible to claim that this essence is peaceful or law-abiding. Since its founding, America has been the site of extreme political violence. Periods of relative peace have, if anything, been the exception, not the rule. Second, it is simply implausible to think that political cultures have essences. What makes this particular political culture American is simply that it is comprised of the political beliefs and practices of citizens of the United States, a particular political entity. Those beliefs and practices can (and have) changed dramatically over time and yet remain American. 

Defenders of the rhetoric of essentialist exceptionalism might call on Plato or Government-House utilitarians for support, arguing that even if untrue it is a “noble lie” that helps bind the political community together. On this view, saying that America is essentially good motivates its citizens to love it, thus making it more likely that they will help preserve it across time.

However, we must balance this benefit against the costs, which in my view are considerable. First, the exceptionalist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism encourages Americans to view the political cultures and systems of other countries with unthinking disdain. That disdain was on full display in commentators’ casual invocation of Iraq, Ukraine, and other countries as examples of places where a Capitol coup would somehow be more appropriate. In fact, Americans likely have much to learn from the struggles of other democracies.

Second, the essentialist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism may encourage complacency about America’s prospects: if America is essentially democratic, non-violent, tolerant, law-abiding, and so on, then the acts of individual political actors seem to matter less in the scheme of things — it just can’t happen here. Put another way: if in some sense we already are what we ought to be, then what’s the point in struggling to achieve our ideals? It is perhaps just this sort of complacency that was at play in the acts of the Republican congressmen and -women who chose to contest Biden’s electoral win, or the failure of the Capitol police to anticipate the possibility that Trump supporters might assault the building. Now the costs of that complacency are available for all to witness.

Third, the idea that there is a true America can easily be hijacked to serve nefarious political ends. Instead of arguing that American political culture is essentially tolerant, liberal, and democratic, some on the far right believe that it is essentially white, Christian, and patriarchal. Thus, the belief in American essentialism can motivate the exclusion of many members of actual American society as fundamentally “alien” to the culture.

The best course, then, is to jettison both our essentialism and our exceptionalism. There simply is no “true” America, and there are no qualities, good or bad, which define our political culture for all time. There are only the beliefs and practices of Americans in their roles as citizens, jurors, office-holders, and the like; and whether these beliefs and practices are, on the whole, good or bad depends upon the choices of each and all of us.

International Sanctions: A War of Their Own?

"North Korea - Pyongyang" by (stephan) liscened under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

In the current political climate, it is hard to avoid the topic regarding sanctions. The United States has been recently revising the sanctions it has placed on different countries in the past few years, such as North Korea, Russia, and Cuba. Economic sanctions are penalties or blockades against a targeted country, and are a “foreign policy tool” used when diplomatic relations aren’t as effective as intended. These sanctions can take many forms, such as tariffs, embargos, quotas and asset freezes.

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Defending Normative Governance: A Matter of Language

It is a time-tested notion of politics that the delivery matters just as much as, perhaps more than, the message. It is also a notion that feels painfully appropriate to describe our current times, as the country prepares to inaugurate a former reality show star to its highest office. In light of Donald Trump’s ascendence, and in preparation for the days to come, those looking to rein in the President-elect’s most unethical tendencies are approaching this lesson with fresh eyes.

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Trump and the Latin American Left: Strange Bedfellows

Back in July, during the Republican National Convention, some strange images circulated on the internet. Some tough-looking, blue eyed, blond cowboys, held signs with the curious phrase, “Latinos para Trump.” Obviously, something was not right about these pictures. Although Latinos are an ethnicity and not a race, and there are plenty of blue-eyed, blond Latinos, those holding the signs just didn’t look like the conventional Latino one would expect to find in the United States.

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