Henry Shue

Deadly Delays, Saving Opportunities

Creating a More Dangerous World?


1.      Overview

         a.      Given our relatively recent understanding of climate change (=CC) question has changed

         b.      Question not about our preferences

                   i.       Not: How much would we like to spend to slow CC?

         c.      Question about the vulnerabilities of others

                   i.       How little are we in decency permitted to spend given difficulties and risks of difficulties we are likely to expose current and future people

                   ii.      We are creating for people in future a more dangerous world

                   iii.     Note: These people are vulnerable to us and can’t protect themselves against consequences of our decisions on their lives


2.      Descriptions of fossil fuel economy

         a.      “Tech primitive energy regime based on setting fire to fossil fuels”

         b.      Antiquated and corrosive fossil-fuel regime

         c.      That “vomits” greenhouse gases (=GHG) into the atmosphere



4.      Risk (definition) = seriousness of possible loss times the likelihood of that loss occurring


5.      Three points about risk and CC

6.      One: Not everything is uncertain

         a.      Threatening changes in climate already occurring

                   i.       Misleading to talk as if CC is all risk and nothing happened yet

                   ii.      Changed patterns of rainfall and storm intensity, resulting in flooding and drought

                   iii.     Some islands nations in south Pacific well into process of being submerged by rising sea levels

         b.      Unless virtually all understanding of climate is misguided, other changes practically certain

                   i.       Sea level rise significantly (volume increase due to temperature rise) and amazingly rapid melting of Arctic/Greenland ice–both adds water directly and reduces reflectivity of snow–which leads to further warming

         c.      Tobacco company analogy  

                   i.       Coal and oil companies who claim connection between carbon combustion and bad climate is uncertain like the tobacco companies that claimed connection between smoking and bad health uncertain–neither connection is uncertain

7.      Two: Imposing risk on others very different morally than imposing risk on oneself

         a.      Might be reasonable to choose a risk for onself and not reasonable to impose on others

                   i.       Force others to mountain climb?

         b.      Extremely important that we are imposing risks on others who will inherit it a birth


8.      **Three: Cases where one must act decisively, even with uncertainty (and CC is one of these)

         a.      When risk beyond a minimal (threshold) level of likelihood, its exact probability need not be known for action to be required

9.      Three conditions for decisive action in uncertainty

         a.      One: Magnitude of possible loss is massive

         b.      Two: Likelihood of loss significant (passed a threshold level), even if no precise probability can be specified

                   i.       Because mechanism by which losses occur is well understood

                            (1)    This is required to avoid reacting to every imaginable threat; e.g., all oxygen on earth burst into flame cause a disaster, but we know of no mechanism by which it could happen

                   ii.      Because conditions for functioning of the mechanism are accumulating/appearing

                   iii.     Because we know the mechanism and see its conditions being put in place, we conclude the probability is significant despite not being able to calculate it

         c.      Three: Prevention costs are not excessive

                   i.       Relative to magnitude of possible loss

                            (1)    E.g., A cost excessive for preventing one additional destructive hurricane per year might not be excessive to prevent flooding of scores of works major cities from seal level rise

                   ii.      Considering other demands on those resources

                            (1)    If costs of combating CC meant that we didn’t spend the $ we needed to prevent the 18 million people who yearly die of starvation from so doing–then we should not spend $ on CC

                                      (a)     But of course these need not compete

10.    When these 3 conditions met, robust action required

         a.      Doing nothing or calling for further research (instead) is morally irresponsible

11.    Argument:

         a.      Because magnitude of loss so serious, only acceptable probability is as close to zero as possible–assuming costs to do this not inordinate

         b.      Some losses utterly intolerable

                   i.       Massive deprivations of necessities to which people have rights

         c.      So we must push the probability as close to zero as we can


12.    That something is uncertain (no calculable probability) does not suggest that its objective probability (if known) would be small

         a.      Illusion: If we can not see what probability is, it must be small

                   i.       We cannot see the probability because it is too small to see, so it must be really tiny

         b.      Totally groundless; things can be invisible for reasons other than being small

13.    Might have independent evidence that a likelihood is either large or small, w/o being able to calculate the probability

         a.      If we understand the mechanism that could lead to the losses

         b.      The conditions for its taking place are starting to accumulate



15.    One: Possible losses are massive

         a.      Agricultural ecosystems on which world’s food depends are threatened by rapid weather changes (and world’s poor particularly vulnerable as rich will drive up price of food)

         b.      Massive relocations of populations from low-lying shores inundated by rising sea levels

16.    Two: Precise probability of these losses is unknown, but their likelihood is significant

         a.      Because mechanism by which they will occur is well understood

                   i.       We understand how burning fossil fuels can lead to climate change

                   ii.      We understand how CC can lead to human misery

         b.      Conditions for its functioning falling into place

17.    Three: Costs of preventing these losses not excessive (given magnitude of possible losses and other demands on resources)

         a.      Costs to prevent CC are moderate, though not insignificant (“cost could be modest if well managed and begun promptly”)

                   i.       First are economically and politically profitable “no regrets” measures that eliminate current costly energy waste and improve living standards and reduce dependence on Middle East Dictatorships and lessening defense budget

                   ii.      Next we get rid of “frivolous preferences, life-shortening luxuries, and pointless indulgences”

                            (1)    Much of our current GHG emissions serve worthy, even essential or admirable goals

                            (2)    But substantial portions of it result from thoughtlessness, laziness and wastefulness

                            (3)    Serve purposes that are opulent, frivolous or pointless

                            (4)    We are fee to engage in certain amount of frivolity and pointless joy as long as no serious harm is caused to others

                            (5)    Not worried about low-emission frivolity only high-emission frivolity

         b.      Delay exacerbates problem/costs:

                   i.       Longer we continue to make problem worse by using fossil fuel energy and not switching to alternative sources, more painful the next measurers will have to be

                   ii.      Delay will not make necessary transition less painful, but only shift it off us onto others

         c.      We are in absolutely no danger of overshooting and simply need to make a serious beginning



         a.      Four aspects

19.    One: Creating danger not simply failing to prevent it

         a.      Failing to act on CC is not “sin of omission” but sin of commission–it is not doing nothing

         b.      Not simply failing to protect future generations, but making their lives more difficult and dangerous

                   i.       Since CC is human-caused and not naturally occurring

         c.      We are undermining the env conditions to which humans successfully adapted

         d.      We are inflicting danger onto people who are vulnerable to us and to whom we are invulnerable

                   i.       They are at our mercy, we are out of their reach

20.    Two: Endangering additional generations

         a.      Failing to deal with climate change inflicts danger on additional generations that would have been spared

         b.      Not just our grandchildren who will suffer from CC already committed to, but the great-great-great grandchildren will now also suffer–they can be spared if we act sooner

21.    Three: Creating additional dangers

         a.      Failing to act does not simply make env for human life more threatening

         b.      But unnecessarily creating opportunities for it to become significantly more dangerous

                   i.       E.g., by creating positive feedbacks that otherwise would not have occurred

                            (1)    Thawing the Arctic tundra will release massive amounts of Methane (far more powerful GHG than CO2)

         c.      Wrong to put additional risks on future when they are avoidable and cost only mild inconvenience, manageable difficulty, leave us merely rich and not super-rich

22.    Four: Creating Desperate Dangers

         a.      Ignoring CC is unnecessarily creating opportunities for catastrophic dangers

                   i.       Contribute to turning severe problems into literally insoluble problems

         b.      Unnecessary imposing a risk of uncontrollable change–change that people can neither steer nor stop–like creating a highly contagious fatal disease w/o a cure and leaving it for future generations

         c.      Runaway climate possible in future as it has been actual in past

                   i.       If climate change crosses a threshold, something devastating to humans could happen

                   ii.      Our current century probably safe from most extreme possibilities

                            (1)    IPCC 2007: Abrupt CC like collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rapid loss of Greenland Ice Sheet or large-scale changes of ocean circulation not considered likely in 21st century, but these changes become increasingly likely as the perturbation of climate progresses

                   iii.     Shue argues his condition that the conditions for the mechanism to start working are already accumulating does not apply to these most severe events.....


23.    Innocence and defenselessness of those on whom we place risk

         a.      Did not cause or contribute to the problem

         b.      Can’t defend themselves against it (can’t stop us from creating that risk), though they can try to cope with it

         c.      We are inflicting damage or risk of damage on the innocent and defenseless

         d.      Far worse than just neglecting to protect rights

         e.      Like reckless dropping bombs w/o knowing or caring whom they might hit


24.    MOST ESSENTIAL PRECAUTION (p.155) (here)


25.    Peak level of carbon concentration in atmosphere (kept at tolerable levels)

26.    If burn all fossil fuel under surface of earth, atmospheric concentration of CO2 will quadruple

27.    Business as usual misleading packaged as “preservation of diversity” in energy sources

28.    Way to keep carbon out of atmosphere is either

         a.      Leave it underground

         b.      Burn it only after effective carbon sequestration techniques are developed

29.    Opposition is sharp: What is good for those who want all the carbon extracted and burned is bad for the climate and the other 99.999 percent of humanity

30.    Waiting for price to rise until fossil fuels become noncompetitive greatly risks/guarantees that too much carbon will be injected into atmosphere before price rises cuts demand

31.    “The friends of fossil fuel–the carbon peddlers–have joined the enemies of humanity”

32.    Political and physical inertia

         a.      Can’t change energy regime overnight because super-rich who own and distribute fossil fuels have powerful political friends and articulate intellectual defenders

                   i.       Politics guarantees that high carbon emissions will continue for some time

         b.      Climate system has enormous inertia once moving in particular direction

                   i.       “Only with complete elimination of emissions can atmospheric CO2 levels be stabilized at a constant level”


33.    Need to get to a sustainable level of CO2 emission

         a.      A level compatible with the climate humans evolved in adaptation to

34.    Can’t wait until gas (or coal, god forbid) runs out

35.    Can’t wait for prices to rise so high stop using fossil fuels

36.    But ASAP and leave as much carbon as possible in ground (where it is harmless) or burn it only after we learn how to sequester CO2 for a very long time


37.    If people of the future inherit an atmospheric concentration 3 times pre-industrial levels and an entrenched fossil fuel energy regime (digging coal and pumping oil)–they are screwed


38.    Human history a downfall from present?

         a.      If we allow the continuing acceleration of a steady deteriorating climate, today’s youth or perhaps even the adult generation, could turn out to have had it as good as it gets


39.    Doesn’t want to lay a guilt trip on present generation

40.    We have an opportunity for a “Legacy of Security”

         a.      Because of remarkable ingenuity of scientists of today, and invaluable understanding of dynamics of planet’s climate system

         b.      We are in a position to provide vital protection to people in future who otherwise would find it impossible to protect themselves

         c.      Can leave them a legacy of security instead of a legacy of danger


41.    Bottom line:

         a.      Do not leave your descendants in avoidable danger

                   i.       Provide them with security

                   ii.      Create energy regime that will leave as much as possible carbon out of circulation (that does not vomit GHGs into the sky)

                            (1)    We must not allow much more carbon under soil and sea to be injected into atmosphere

         b.      We can have all we need economically an much of what we want but do not need while moving away from fossil fuels to alternative energy

                   i.       No vital interest are at stake for those of us who do not own coal and oil

         c.      Let us seize the opportunity to bequeath this magnificent gift of protection against vulnerability


42.    Worry: The positive line Shue takes at end to avoid laying a negative guilt trip on people ignores his own point that we are not saving future generations for some problem, giving them a gift, but stopping our assault on them.                     

Questions Shue, Creating a More Dangerous World

1.         Risk is a function of two factors, according to Shue. What are they?

2.         What is Shue’s tobacco company analogy and do you think it a fair comparison?

3.         Shue argues that when three conditions are met, one has an obligation to act even with uncertainty. What are those conditions? Explain them in detail. (Hint: There are 3 conditions and the 2nd has two important dimensions to it and so does the 3rd.) Apply this argument to CC. Do you agree it is a good argument?

4.         Evaluate: That something is uncertain (has no calculable probability) suggest that its objective probability is likely to be small.

5.         Explain why Shue thinks the cost of preventing losses due to CC are not excessive. Do you agree with him?

6.         Identify the four ways failing to act on climate change involves massive losses.

7.         Evaluate from your own and Shue’s perspective: If we fail to act on climate change we are guilty of a sin of omission (not a sin of commission); we are guilty of failing to stop a more dangerous world from coming into existence.

8.         What does Shue mean by “desperate dangers” of CC? Does he think there is evidence that such dangers will come about in this century?

9.         What is it about future people that makes Shue think it especially problematic for us to create dangers for them?

10.       Does Shue imagine any conditions under which he believes it would be permissible to burn almost all the carbon that is now stored in fossil fuels?

11.       At the end of his paper, Shue argues that we should present our obligations concerning CC as providing the future with a “legacy of security” a magnificent gift. I worried that this was not compatible with his point about how failing to address CC was not a sin of omission, but a sin of commission. Explain the tension between these two ideas