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Environmental ethics

Climate change is killing people. By the hundreds of thousands. Right now.

That's one of the conclusions of an analysis conducted by the Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank founded by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, as reported in The Guardian. Other conclusions include that:

- annual economic losses, at present, are about $125 billion,

May 31, 2009
 

Climate change is killing people. By the hundreds of thousands. Right now.

That's one of the conclusions of an analysis conducted by the Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank founded by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, as reported in The Guardian. Other conclusions include that:

- annual economic losses, at present, are about $125 billion,

- within 20 years, annual deaths will approach a half-million,

- within 25 years, 20 million people will have been impoverished, 75 million will have been displaced, and 310 million will be suffering adverse health effects, and

- by 2030, economic losses (if things keep on as they've been going) will likely be about $340 billion annually.

Why is the death every year of 100 times as many people as were killed on 9/11 not front-page news around the world? Why is its cause still a subject of synthetic controversy and political posturing on both sides of the aisle? My cynical side somehow thinks that the answer might relate to the fact of location. According to the GHF's website, "the populations most gravely at risk are over half a billion people in some of the poorest areas that are also highly prone to climate change – in particular, the semi-arid dry land belt countries from the Sahara to the Middle East and Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South and South East Asia, and small island developing states ... Nearly 98% of the people seriously affected, 99% of all deaths from weather-related disasters and 90% of the total economic losses are now borne by developing countries ... But of the 12 countries considered least at risk ... all but one are industrially developed."

Kind of like the first rule of modern combat reporting ('never leave the city where the good bars are'), the first rule of modern economic/social reporting is that the societies and economies that rate coverage are the ones where the global media consortia are headquartered. The losses, illnesses and death are happening right now, but they're not happening right here. And they're not likely to, anytime soon. And if they get close ... what do you think border fences are for? (My cynical side again, but not without cause. Check out current high-dollar construction projects in the Middle-Eastern dictatorship/Emirate of your choice.)

In a sense, this is nothing new. Donald Brown, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science and Law and director of the Collaborative Program on Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State has been trying to convince academics and others that climate disruption is a moral issue for years. One of his major arguments has always been that the societies and individuals who have benefitted most from the activities which have triggered global climate change are the ones least immediately affected by it. Pretty much a recipe for what the lawyers and risk analysts call "moral hazard".

From my mis-spent youth, I remember a short story. My best guess is that it was from an episode of The Twilight Zone, but I have no visual image to corroborate that. It could have been from the script of a radio play, or a story in a pulp magazine, or even just something I heard about from a friend. What sticks with me is the germ of the story -- that a stranger shows up and offers to fulfill your fondest wish if will only push a button on a magic box. If you push the button, someone -- somewhere -- dies. It won't be you, it won't be a member of your family, it won't even be someone you've ever known or heard of. But it will be someone, and it will be because you pushed the button. The twist, of course, is that on the other side of the world, someone else -- someone you're not related to, who doesn't know you, and never heard of you -- might be getting offered exactly the same deal.

I'm guessing that my recollection is based on a TZ episode, because the story has such a Rod Serling feel and balance to it. Kind of like "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" meets sufficiently advanced technology (indistinguishable from magic).

So now, the question becomes whether we teach our students, our children, our society and ourselves to stop pushing that button.

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