Emergency ethics are required for our rapidly warming planet

[This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 24th of August as https://www.irishtimes.com/environment/climate-crisis/2023/08/24/emergency-ethics-required-for-our-rapidly-warming-planet/]

The dictionary definition of an emergency is an event that is sudden or unexpected that requires fast action in order to avoid harmful results. If governments had acted 30 years ago when climate science was already categorically linking the burning of fossil fuels with the accumulation of warming gases in the atmosphere, perhaps we would not be in an emergency now.

The reality is that many of them are still not taking climate breakdown seriously, are backtracking on previous commitments or simply pandering to the fossil fuel industry and other special interests.

Had Ireland acted promptly all those decades ago, we would have had the chance to phase out fossil fuels and harmful land-use practices gradually, rather than the abrupt transition we now face. But we didn’t, and now we have less than seven years to halve our climate impact at a time of population and energy demand growth. This failure means we are now in an actual emergency, the kind that should pull out all the stops. But there is nothing in the sensory landscape to tell you this.

Acting as though we were in a climate emergency would see the Government intervene in radical ways in the energy system and in energy markets to drive down the use of fossil fuels and ramp up the deployment of renewables under a declining carbon budget. A near-term cap on fossil fuels would also require some effective and fair mechanism to share energy resources equitably, such as tradable energy quotas. This could involve market-based instruments or regulation, or a combination of both.

But our legal frameworks (and I don’t just mean planning laws) make this very difficult to do. Energy markets are structured to maximise competition and a secure supply, not emission reductions. Market actors enjoy property rights that support the expectation that they can continue with business as usual. Climate risks are to a large extent socialised and thus a problem for the general population and our political institutions, not for individual enterprise

And there is a long-standing neoliberal tradition of the state taking a technology-neutral stance towards the consumption of energy and relying on price signals (also known as carbon tax) to deter fossil fuel use. The problem is that carbon prices are never high enough to push demand down, and understandably, no government wants to make energy unaffordable.

As a result, energy policies incentivise what are actually incumbent industries to techno-fix their way out of the climate crisis (with, for example, carbon. capture and storage, biomethane and hydrogen) instead of shifting to a new renewables-based paradigm. These measures are also slow and incrementalist (which is why corporations love to talk about their net zero goals instead of their 2030 targets), when we need fast results.

Less than three years ago, we experienced a public health emergency. Yet the pandemic is fast becoming a distant memory and important lessons are being ignored. Writing in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, climate policy researchers in the UK found that we need a “social mandate” to ensure that low carbon behaviours remain in the long term, and that science and public deliberation play an important role in informing this process.

A recent disaster in the US city of Philadelphia is another case in point. The I-95, an important interstate overpass, collapsed at a critical point due to a tanker explosion earlier this summer. To speed up the repairs, Governor Josh Shapiro signed a proclamation of a disaster emergency to release federal funding and bypass the normal tendering and permitting procedures. By cutting “red tape” as Shapiro called it, he could ensure that all hands were on deck to repair the section of road, which would normally take months to rebuild. With teams (all unionised) working around the clock, the overpass was open for traffic within a record 12 days.

Acting in an emergency requires high-level co-ordination with speed and resources. But disruptive interventions can only be legitimate with high levels of social consent and solidarity. The I-95 disaster might not be the best parallel for the climate emergency but it does teach us one thing, which is that measures to waive the law must be taken within the law. Shapiro was acting in an exceptional and urgent situation, but his powers were not absolute or indefinite.

There are core principles at the heart of all emergency responses. Preparedness should evolve as lawful institutional responses and drastic measures that curtail certain rights must be done in a proportionate manner, and without sacrificing human rights or equality. At the community level, effective mutual aid requires pre-existing community agreements, a culture of solidarity and what Alexis de Tocqueville termed “habits of the heart” to guide us in what actions to perform in a crisis.

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