Clare Palmer, Does Nature Matter?

The Place of the Nonhuman in the Ethics of Climate Change



2.      Climate change ethics usually deals with anthropocentric issues of justice between people, nations, future generations

3.      Palmer concerned with nonanthropocentric ethical issues climate change poses due to impact on nonhumans (independent of effect on people)

4.      Will CC really harm nature? Do natural systems face a crisis of immense proportions?

5.      Her conclusion: CC does raise ethical problems in nonhuman context, they are more restricted in scope and more complex than might have thought



7.      Assumptions

         a.      Nature can be of direct moral concern

         b.      Type of concern limited to “moral considerability”

                   i.       Being has interests matter directly, prima facie wrong to frustrate them

         c.      Four possible objects of direct moral concern toward nature

                   i.       Species

                   ii.      Ecosystems

                   iii.     Nonconscious organisms

                   iv.     Conscious organisms

         d.      Palmer will assume all four have morally important interests, but she believes that actually only conscious organisms do


8.      Five key distinctions/issues/questions

9.      1): Harm vs change

         a.      Only morally problematic thing on this approach is harm (setback of interests)

         b.      For many of these entities, unclear what their interests are

         c.      How harming them is different from simply changing them

10.    2): CC might be productive (and not just destructive)

         a.      CC might bring new things/beings into existence might not have otherwise existed

11.    3): Numbers questions : CC might affect #s of beings, or kinds of beings, beings with different complexity/psychological sophistication

12.    4): Non-identity questions: If CC brings into existence beings that otherwise would not have existed, can it harm them?

13.    5): Uncertainties: Effects of CC on nonhuman world significantly uncertain (don’t know temperature tolerance of many species; will CC lead to more or fewer psychologically complex beings?)



15.    CC already affected some species

         a.      Some are already more and some less abundant and widely distributed

         b.      Some changed

                   i.       E.g., US birds are smaller in size and weight and have shorter wings than 50 years ago (populations constant)

         c.      Some may have already gone extinct

16.    Future CC will clearly significantly effect range, habitat and survival of many more species

         a.      “Medium confidence that 20-30% of species assessed likely to be at increased risk of extinction if temps rise 1.2-2.5 C”

         b.      Though lots of uncertainty (e.g., speed of CC, its interaction with other factors of extinction such as habitat loss), CC will drive some species extinct

                   i.       Current rates of species loss are greater than rates of species evolution

                   ii.      So fewer species overall will exist

                   iii.     So seems relatively straightforward way CC harms nature

                   iv.     Especially if you value biodiversity!

                   v.      Not clear Palmer does. She ask on 278: “Other things being equal, would it be better if there were more species in world rather than fewer?” (Is the answer “of course?”)

17.    What in interest of a species?

         a.      Not to become extinct?

         b.      Problem cases

                   i.       What if for species to continue to exist, all individuals in it would have to have lives not worth living (huge suffering)

                            (1)    Still in interest of species to exist even if not in interests of any of the members of species who would ever live?

                            (2)    Case of California Condor

                   ii.      Do species have interest in speciation? Would it be in species interest to come under adaptation pressure that leads to decline in population but also increases likelihood that it will speciate before it becomes extinct

18.    Implications for morality of CC on species depend on if take deontological or consequential (e.g., utilitarian) moral theory

         a.      Deontological: Do not harm others (species)

                   i.       Can’t weigh harms to one species against benefits to another

         b.      Consequential: Maximize flourishing of species interests

                   i.       By promoting flourishing of existing species

                   ii.      Or by creating new species

                   iii.     Promoting speciation

                   iv.     But since not plausible climate change (=CC) will overall promote flourishing of species, even on consequential grounds CC seems morally problematic

                            (1)    Some will benefit, more will lose as speciation won’t keep pace with extinction

19.    CC good for some (weedy?) species and bad for others

         a.      Good for generalists, tolerant of wide ranges of temperatures, resilient to extreme weather events, not dependent on specific env cues for breeding, disperse and colonize easily, and generally flourish in changed climate

                   i.       These are “weedy species”

                   ii.      Like American dog tick, primary vector of Rocky Mountain spotted fever

20.    Wild lettuce example: From consequential perspective might be better to reintroduce a wild species, now extinct (say from seeds in seed bank, like recently reintroduced Malheur wild lettuce into Oregon) rather than expend substantial resources to prevent a currently existing endangered species from becoming extinct.

         a.      What is wrong with this?

         b.      Assumes all species of equal value? Is this plausible?

                   i.       A species of lettuce plant is not equal to species black rhinoceros

         c.      Even if the species driven to extinction is another type of wild lettuce, better to save it than bring back an extinct species

         d.      Are species replaceable as this argument assumes?



22.    CC already affecting ES

         a.      Arctic and antarctic ecosystems dependent on sea ice

         b.      Leafing, migration and egg laying in birds also happening earlier

23.    CC will lead to more extreme weather events, floods, fires and these will have significant impact on ecosystems

24.    Some ES will change nature altogether: coastal ecosystems likely to become part of marine ecosystems

         a.      Clear case of harming an ES would be destroying it

         b.      Dam flooding entire grassland ES

25.    Much more frequently CC likely to push ES to develop in one way and not another

         a.      Some species do well, others not, and ES will have new species composition

26.    Why see this “push” or change as harm (setting back interests)?

27.    ES are pushed and changed by nature all the time and develop new species composition

         a.      ES characterized by change, unpredictability, disturbance and so on

28.    Are human caused changes to ES worse? Perhaps because not normal and large scale.

         a.      More dramatic and less typical/normal? Different in scale?

         b.      Do humans affect ES more quickly, more comprehensively, and more permanently than the natural fluctuations of regular disturbance regimes?

         c.      Callicott: What is wrong with human effects on ES is we disturb them at abnormal spatial and temporal scales

29.    Exceedingly rapid CC change occurred naturally in past

         a.      12000 years ago, in 50 years very quick cooling and rapid warming in Europe and North America, some CC globally

         b.      “½ warming North Atlantic warming since last ice age achieved in only a decade (and affected climate globally too)

         c.      Palmer claims that “on long time scale appropriate in thinking about cc these rapid changes are not abnormal either”

         d.      If it only happens every 10,000 years or so, this seems pretty abnormal on a human time scale.

         e.      But in any case why would abnormal changes be bad and normal changes good?

30.    Still even if rapid CC is normal, given that caused by humans and harms ecosystems, it is morally problematic

         a.      A human set fire that destroys ecosystems is a problem, even though fire is normal in (some) ecosystems


31.    Main problem is distinguishing harm to ecosystems from change

         a.      Harm example: sudden bleaching of coral reef, leading to loss of corals and ecosystem functions

         b.      Only change example: slow extension of forest into what was previously tundra ecosystem

32.    Ecosystem processes can be maintained in systems very different from one’s we have now

         a.      Idea here is that destroying ecosystem processes (nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation) might be seen as harm

         b.      Pantropical forest example: Could imagine a “pantropical forest (one covering all the tropical regions of the earth where now the incredibly diverse rainforests are) with all same 40 or so tree species, the same introduced insect, bird and mammal species–and having ‘acceptable ecosystem processes’ yet having only a tiny fraction of tropical biodiversity”

                   i.       2.5 acres of rainforest now sometimes have 750 tree species

         c.      This is one reason that biodiversity itself should be valued as a conservation goal and why CC that reduces it should be seen as morally problematic

33.    Difficulty in determining boundary and identity of particular ecosystems make it hard to determine ES harm and distinguish it from change



35.    People find the notion of harming an organisms, especially sentient ones, much easier to understand and defend.


36.    Numbers of organisms: How will CC affect numbers of organisms?

         a.      Might make fewer organism live in some ES

                   i.       From some consequentialist perspectives this is bad

                   ii.      E.g., marine ecosystems affected by ocean acidification

                   iii.     E.g., desertified land areas

         b.      Might increase # of organisms in others

                   i.       Recent warmer/wetter weather in UK doubled the # of invertebrate soil organisms (reduced diversity)

         c.      Doesn’t think we can expect CC to decrease # of organisms

         d.      Total numbers argument not ethical concern for CC

         e.      Seems like at least in the short run, given that species have adapted to a given climate and that change is more likely to be harmful than good (note, this is not in general true, or necessarily true) it would lead to a loss of organisms numbers


37.    Simplification of organisms worry:

         a.      Simpler nonconscious organisms will come into being instead of more complex non-conscious or conscious ones and this is of ethical significance

         b.      Assumes some organisms have more value than others

         c.      World with simpler organisms is less valuable then world with more complex ones (and same number)

                   i.       Plausible: World with 10,000 beatle species less valuable than one with 10,000 mammal species.

         d.      Not clear empirical basis for this simplification worry:

                   i.       Some complex psychologically sophisticated species likely to go extinct

                   ii.      But climate change also provide conditions for expansion of range of other complex psychologically sophisticated species (potentially invasive ones)

                   iii.     In plant world more weedy species likely to dominate, but they are no less complex than native species they displace

         e.      This just shows that we need to consider the value of biodiversity!

         f.       We could solve the simplification worry/possible result by breeding more psychologically complex creatures to make up for wild one’s lost

                   i.       We already do with domesticated food animals

                   ii.      We could breed more of ourselves

                   iii.     Ignores wildness as has nothing to do with individual capacities lost

                   iv.     This just shows that need to consider wildness as an important env value.


38.    Harm to organisms

39.    Will CC harm nonconscious organisms? Not straightforwardly

         a.      Longer living ones (like trees), will struggle to stay alive and probably die sooner due to changes in temp, water availability, pests, extreme weather

         b.      Less clear what to say about short living organisms, for gradually shifting climate effects not likely to be felt (though floods, storms, fires would affect)

         c.      CC will benefit some organisms that do exist

         d.      CC will bring new organisms into existence not otherwise existed

                   i.       (Though so would have non-CC!)

         e.      Climate mitigation projects also kill organisms (solar panels covering landscapes)


         f.       Consequentialists could balance the deaths against the new lives, harms/benefits and ask if CC promote overall interests of organisms

                   i.       But deep uncertainty about what is likely in this regard

         g.      On deontological views (Paul Taylor principle of nonmaleficence) can’t offset deaths or harms by benefits to others

                   i.       So CC ethically problematic on this view


40.    Will CC harm conscious, sentient animals? Significant work needs to be done to show even this

         a.      Some animals harmed and killed: heat, lack of water/food melting ice, floods, disease, extreme weather

         b.      Some animals will be benefitted

                   i.       Reduce suffering, result in more food, warmth and better habitat, as allow them to move into new habitat

         c.      Consequentialist could allow that overall net pleasure/preference satisfaction be increased by CC

                   i.       That more brown rats and fewer American Pika, not relevant given equally sophisticated

         d.      Given that organisms adapted to a particular climate and then that climate changes, I’d assume more likely organisms be harmed than benefitted.

         e.      Same argument with humans

                   i.       So if deny it with organism wouldn’t you have to claim that with humans too we are as likely to be benefitted as harmed with CC? And that is not plausible.

         f.       Deontological/rights view: Can’t make up for animals killed by CC that CC helps or creates others.


41.    Non-identity problem shows hard to claim that CC will harm or infringe rights of beings that have not yet come into existence

         a.      While some individual animals are harmed in sense made worse off (the existent polar bear who finds it harder to fish as ice melts earlier)

         b.      Other individuals who are brought into existence by CC (armadillos show expand range north and have offspring otherwise not have existed) and then harmed by severe weather events–can’t say CC has worsened their lives like with polar bear (or violated their rights, or harmed them)

         c.      Still could be impersonally concerned at prospect of future world with more animal suffering due to CC

                   i.       Consequentialists could worry about this

         d.      Deep uncertainty if CC will cause more suffering of animals than it relieves

                   i.       We don’t whether more animals capable of suffering will ever live

                   ii.      This claim seems more plausible for future existing animals than for currently existing ones, though even for future animals, their parents will have adapted to a climate that no longer is present.



43.    Ethical implications of CC for nonhumans extremely unclear

44.    One reason is scientific: How climate will change and what affect it will have on species, ES and living things

45.    CC will have negative impacts, but also drive speciation, change some ES w/o destroying them, produce organisms that would otherwise not have existed, and promote flourishing of some species, ES and individual organisms



47.    Palmer only concerned with acts that frustrate morally important interests, that is, cause harm

         a.      If there are any wrongs that do not cause harm, she doesn’t address them

         b.      And only harm to these four types of entities is considered

                   i.       This ignores harm, degradation, loss of value to natural processes and geological features (like melting ice caps)

48.    Other considerations left out of this way of structuring moral issues about our treatment of nature

         a.      Biodiversity as an intrinsic value is not considered

         b.      Wildness, extent of nonhumanization of nature, as an intrinsic value not considered

         c.      Virtues like humility and avoiding arrogance toward nature, not considered

         d.      Jamieson’s Respect for Nature left out of consideration

         e.      Aesthetic values of nature not considered

         f.       I think the above 5 considerations are at least as important as nature’s morally considerable interests (which she considers)

         g.      It is true that some of what she says in this paper may have implications for these other values (and cause trouble for the idea that CC is going to negatively impact these values)

49.    Structures issue so that moral concern for nature is significantly undermined by Parfit’s non-identity point/argument

         a.      One way this approach is severely limited is that its specification of the what is morally important makes it problematic to explain what is morally problematic about bringing individuals into the world whose welfare is severely compromised compared to bringing individuals into the world with much higher levels of welfare.

         b.      She takes Parfit’s non-identity as a problem for showing how CC harms nature, whereas I take it as showing the problematically limited approach to morality she takes here.


50.    Ned’s letter on Palmer

         a.      The Palmer paper is good for teaching and raises some important issues (e.g., change vs harm to species/ecosystems). But it is fatally flawed if it is taken as a paper that shows that non-anthropocentric concerns are problematic reasons for objecting to climate change=CC. It does show problems with some ways of thinking why CC is trouble for nature, but it also finds examples of clear cases of harm but them downplays them to reach its conclusion that CC harms nature is a problematic idea. But the fundamental problem with the perspective of the paper (which is to only consider harm and only toward four types of entities) is that it ignores two absolutely key values of nature that CC threatens: Biodiversity and Wildness. She does say some things relevant to biodiversity, but there is no strong assumption that loss of biodiversity is a moral problem. And that assumption/belief is as central to env thought as any other. So too with wildness value, which she doesn’t address at all (other than to say she’s not going to talk about it). That’s why Dale’s paper is a good rebuttal: Respect for nature involves in part valuing nature for its lack of humanization and clearly climate change compromises that value. I thought the three pages Dale devotes to this topic where useful. I think his ways of explaining why wildness matters are the best out there. He’s done it 3 or 4 times (that I’ve read) and he always makes the arguments in very short passages and you always want him to say more. Each time I read another of the short passages, he’s got another few ideas that develop the notion. He needs to write a whole long paper on the topic.

         b.      Another couple of problems with Palmer: She ignores harm to geological entities and abiotic nature. And she sets up her worries about CC harming nature so that Parfit’s non-identity problem gives us the result that CC is unlikely to do wrong to the future. But Parfit and others who talk about his problem do not take it as showing we can’t do wrong regarding the future, but rather that we must conceptualize it some other way than harming future individuals (who are misbehavior helps create).

Questions on Palmer’s Does Nature Matter?

1.      What are Palmer’s assumptions about type of moral concern toward nature she addresses. What are the four entities for whom harm is considered?

2.      I suggested this approach leaves out a number of important moral concerns concerning nature. What are they? Do you agree?

3.      Explain how the harm/change distinction makes obligations toward ecosystems/species more difficult to determine.

4.      Explain some problems with understanding how we might harm species.

5.      Explain how our obligations to species might differ in a concrete case depending on whether we accept “deontological” (rights-based) ethical theory or a consequentialist ethical theory.

6.      What kind of species is climate change good for?

7.      Explain Palmer’s “wild lettuce” example and some problems with it.

8.      Why would changing an ecosystem be harming it? Are any changes of ecosystems clearly harms to it? Give an example. Now give an example of human influences on ecosystems that merely change them.

9.      Are human caused changes to ecosystems different than natural caused changes to ecosystems?

10.    According to Palmer can an ecosystem change drastically and continue to perform all the ecosystems functions that it did before? Use her “pantropical forest” example to explain her view.

11.    Does Palmer think that CC will decrease the total number of organisms on the planet and does she think this is a moral concern?

12.    Does Palmer believe that CC will lead to simpler organisms than now exist? How does she propose to respond to that possible problem?