Thursday, June 28, 2007

Deaths From Global Warming

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing a consensus of the world's scientists, drought will kill hundreds of millions of people and will displace 1 to 2 billion people during this century, unless we act dramatically to slow global warming.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently pointed out that the genocide in Darfur is caused partly by global warming. Before the drought in east Africa, black farmers welcomed Arab herdsmen to their lands, where they grazed their herds and shared the wells. Fighting broke out between these two groups only when there was not enough food and water for all.

There are two articles in today's New York Times about the same subject.

The first says a new UN report has found that tens of millions of people have already left their lands to flee drought caused by global warming, and 50 million people are at risk of displacement in the next 10 years.

The second, a column by Nicholas Kristof named "Our Gas Guzzlers, Their Lives," talks about the shrunken lakes that he saw in Africa and says that crop yields in some countries could be cut in half by 2020 because of drought caused by global warming.

To put the predicted hundreds of millions of deaths in perspective, consider that Hitler killed 6 million people in the holocaust. Imagine this holocaust every year, year after year, for 50 to 100 years - that is what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that we are causing.

It is by far the greatest suffering that has ever happened in human history -- but despite record gas prices, Americans are expected to flock to the roads for the usual Fourth of July pleasure driving.


Blogger John Savage said...


Articles such as Kristof’s give the environmental movement a bad name in middle America. If we phrase our opposition to gas-guzzling only in such altruistic terms, it will probably fall on deaf ears. I’ve argued many times that America has lost most of whatever it had in the way of an ascetic tradition, so that now everything has to be phrased in terms of maximizing freedom. I wouldn’t say I approve of that trend, but it’s what we have to work with, or else find a vigorous rationale for turning back the trend.

This is also one of the reasons I prefer a traditionalist preservationism over a rationalist one. It’s obvious that religion provides a foundation for asceticism of a certain variety, whereas I don’t see what liberal environmentalists can appeal to, when it comes to justifying asceticism. I’d wager that the need for a foundation for self-restraint probably causes many liberal environmentalists to want to make environmentalism itself into a religion. At times, environmentalists have managed a sort of syncretism between Christianity and non-Western belief systems that place a greater emphasis on protecting nature. Maybe this sort of new religion has promise, but even so, it would most likely uphold traditional values in most areas if it were to resonate with a majority of Americans. Its support for nature would certainly be expressed in something other than rationalistic terms.

My take on why the Kristof article is a strategic blunder is at

I’m particularly interested in the moral question of how we can attribute culpability for certain deaths as loosely as both you and Kristof do, when we know Africa is unlikely to be a peaceful paradise with or without global warming.

Good to see you posting! I hope your work is coming along nicely.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Actually, many traditionalists do say ethics can be based on reason. That is the doctrine of the Catholic church, which got it from Thomas Aquinas, who got it from Aristotle. I am working on a book named Ethics: What We Still Know After a Skeptical Age, which says that modern philosophy was wrong to reject this classical natural law ethics.

Americans may not be big on altruism, as you say, but if the average American walked out of his front door and saw someone being brutally beaten and murdered on the street in front of his house, he would be shocked. Likewise, Americans will be shocked when they realize the enormity of the suffering caused by global warming.

I think that you must recognize basic moral facts (eg, that it is wrong to cause needless suffering and death to innocent people) before you can develop a coherent moral theory - just as you must recognize basic facts of arithmetic (eg, 2+2=4) before you can develop number theory.

Those basic moral facts will be staring us in the face soon.

You might be right that Kristof, the Secretary General of the UN, and I are premature in attributing the deaths caused by drought in Africa to global warming; it is always hard to tell whether a specific climate change is a natural fluctuation or part of a larger trend.

But the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, representing a consensus of the world's scientists, has evaluated the facts about climate change and predicted that, unless we act dramatically to slow it, global warming will reduce food production enough to cause the death of hundreds of millions of people.

At some point, the connection will be so clear that no one will deny it.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John.

2:49 PM  

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