The Moral Significance of 'Energy Security' and 'Climate Security'

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The Moral Significance of 'Energy Security' and 'Climate Security'

Hugh Dyer


This paper addresses the moral significance of 'energy security' and 'climate security' as recent terms in international discourse which may reflect a shift in the moral point of reference for essential assumptions about the structure of the international system. These new terms invoke consideration of a global moral community in which individual responsibility is an important consideration, but more radically, they potentially extend the scope of moral community beyond the current generation (in respect of intergenerational equity and futurity) and beyond the human agent (in respect of ecological concern). While there is likely to be some tension between the intended meanings of the two terms, and even incoherence, the normative weight of setting these issues in a 'security' context may amount to both cause and effect of an underlying moral turn. In representing such shifts at the levels of morality, these recent security terms can be seen as reflecting more than mere instrumental adjustment to practical challenges within the framework of existing moral conceptions and commitments, and hence within the framework of the existing international system – even if such radical potential is not likely to be immediately acknowledged by the policy communities that espouse these terms. The paper will attempt to provide conceptual clarity within the burgeoning 'security' lexicon by analysis of the key terms in relation to an 'eco-logical security' perspective, informed by discourses in which these security terms are deployed.

Dr. H.C. Dyer

School of Politics & International Studies (POLIS)

University of Leeds LS2 9JT U.K.

Paper presented at

WISC 2nd Global International Studies Conference,

‘What keeps us apart, what keeps us together?

International Order, Justice, Values’

Ljubljana, Slovenia, 26th-28th July 2008

083 Morality and International Politics 1: Towards a New Normativity

TC14 Thursday 2:30-4:00 PM

Chair: Chris Brown


This paper addresses the moral significance of 'energy security' and 'climate security' as terms in recent discourse which may reflect a shift in the moral point of reference for assumptions about the structure of the international system. These new terms indicate a sense of urgency and importance about these issues, as well as some confusion. The discourse is merely representative of political games afoot, rather than a fixed foundation; we’re concerned to know our way around these emerging politics, and an anti-foundational perspective on the constructive effects of language as social practice is helpful in that regard. If ‘constructive’ in respect of grammar, this argument is not specifically ‘constructivist’ in its assumptions about the security of the real versus the represented (Zehfuss, 2002: 259-263). The overall objective is to provide conceptual clarity within the burgeoning 'security' lexicon by analysis of the key terms in relation to an 'eco-logical security' perspective, informed by discourses in which these security terms are deployed. To this end, the paper explores the relationship between climate security and energy security – which demands they be treated as a strategic pair, but does not ensure that they are complementary as opposed to contradictory pursuits, nor that policy is internally coherent. The discussion may underwrite further assessment of the policy positions of actors with critical roles in setting the global agenda (where incoherence and competing political priorities undermines coordinated, consistent policy), and may help identify opportunities for encouraging social action and promoting behavioural change.

Determining the significance of these new terms is difficult, partly because of the complexities endemic to the subject matter in each case (compounded by their inter-relationships), and also because the context of their significance is potentially very broad. Whether this significance proves to be predominantly moral, political, economic or social in the end is either difficult to judge or an unimportant distinction (or both), depending perhaps on the disciplinary perspectives of ethics, politics, economics or sociology. What does seem rather more clear is that in the end this is about ‘us’ and our future (including future generations of us), among all the other possible constructions of moral agency, political and economic actors, or social formations – whatever the complications of distinguishing between the individual and the collective in these contexts, there doesn’t seem much room for thinking in terms of ‘them’ since all are implicated in the play of these issues. This suggests structural change of the sort that Linklater (1998) argues is driven by globalization towards greater cosmopolitanism, though perhaps conditioned by Rengger’s (1998; 632) observation that it requires ‘a commitment to the inevitably plural, contextual sense of the moral universe’. While these new ‘security’ terms reflect currently visible energy and climate impacts, their significance runs deeper. This paper takes it for granted that the current system isn't working, and energy shortage and climate change and social disruption aren't going away; certainly there’s some cause for insecurity in that realisation, but also some motivation for fundamental change.

Concepts: 'energy security' and 'climate security' in discourse

‘Security’, for energy and climate as well, must mean something like stability and absence of danger. What conditions are to be stabilized and what is endangered are, of course, the assumptions underlying any notion of security. Here, the assumptions seem to be that energy supply and climate change should be stabilized, and that shortages and rapid change endanger everything from individual livelihoods to the global political economy.

The discourse around the key terms will allow insight into the nature of the ‘moral community’ of energy and climate. These new terms invoke consideration of a global moral community in which individual responsibility is an important consideration, but more radically, they potentially extend the scope of moral community beyond the current generation (in respect of intergenerational equity and futurity) and beyond the human agent (in respect of ecological concern). While the two issue areas of energy and climate have received individual attention, the notion of 'security' attached to either of them is relatively novel and introduces a different intellectual and policy orientation which has not yet been thoroughly explored. Beyond this novelty is the connection between the two issues, which has also been raised recently (e.g. by WWF, the UK government, an Oxford High-Level Taskforce, Chatham House, think-tank E3G, and academic journals such as 'China and World Economy'). For example, in pointing to these interconnected issues it is noted that 'in the future energy security will be almost as important as defence to our national security', while at the same time there are also ‘ambitious goals for climate security and international development’ such that ‘an aggressively single-minded pursuit of energy security will compromise these other goals’ (Oxford High-Level Taskforce, 2007).

The introduction to their report claims that ‘present UK policy is a hotchpotch of measures unlikely to deliver’. This seems to be a very clear indication of policy incoherence in at least one significant actor in these issue areas.

Even as these two issues are identified with one another, it is typically with a focus on either energy security, or climate security, and mention of associated climate change issues or energy issues, without considering the implications of the terminology, the hidden tension behind policy, or the altogether absent discussion of inevitable reductions in consumptive lifestyle expectations and declining or altered economic growth. This calls attention to contradictory and complementary aspects of energy 'security' and climate 'security' as strategic goals, and the coherence of policy in these areas. It raises a challenge to address the unspoken requirements to make sacrifices in terms of consumption and/or to absorb costs in terms of mitigation, if both objectives are to be pursued in a coordinated manner and within a relevant timescale.

The ‘security’ content of the debates can, of course, be accessed from the traditional field of military-political security such that the underlying characteristics of energy and climate issues are stripped down to potential consequences in terms of conflict. For example, a NATO view on energy security represents the conventional political-military strategic orientation which continues to dominate debates about security, and so illustrates commonly held conceptions of the nature of the issue and implied responses to it:

All modern developed economies are dependent upon an abundant supply of energy both in terms of guaranteed supplies and stable prices…Today, the tightness in the global oil market and recent price increases, not to mention the threat of terrorist attacks against critical infrastructure, have once again made energy security an issue of strategic importance (Shea, 2006).

The vulnerabilities identified in this perspective include lines of communication and transportation, internal developments of importance to the global economy, difficulty of increasing supplies or finding new energy resources to ‘cope with rising demand, particularly from China and India’, loss of overall production due to under-investment, state-controlled oil production (80% of all oil assets state owned), and a lack of spare capacity making even small decreases in supply significant as North America and Europe are dependent on imported energy.

Thus energy and climate issues may be conveniently linked to traditional notions of security where that suits political purposes, in ignorance of Deudney’s argument that organised violence as a traditional threat and source of insecurity is not analytically comparable to environmental threats (Deudney, 1990, pp. 461ff; Deudney, 1991, pp. 22-28). At the same time, the economic threats (so now ‘economic security’) are increasingly obvious and as these are a central focus of national interests, what could previously be described as ‘low politics’ issues of economy and social welfare increasingly move into the ‘high politics’ category previously occupied by military-political concerns. Pirages and De Geest indicate that environmental politics ‘emerged from its initial incarnation in the arena of "low politics" and is rapidly becoming a "high politics" concern’ (Pirages and De Geest, 2003). So it has now become commonplace to identify energy and its climate corollary as significant issues: ‘Energy policy is one of the most important strategic issues facing the Government over the next ten years, for both security and environmental reasons’. It is equally commonplace to note the poor state of coordinated planning in respect of these challenges: ‘There’s scant evidence so far of ministers getting it right’ (Outlook, The Independent, 13 May 2008, p37).

Security concepts, and the issues to which they refer, tend to hinge on estimates of relative importance giving rise to ‘urgency’ or ‘emergency’. Of course, we might note that one person’s sense of emergency is not always shared by others (consider the sign often found on administrative desks: ‘Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part’). Yet, it is commonplace in organisational contexts that the urgent displaces the important. To some extent this explains the political force of security concepts, as they underwrite claims for priority. In this way, daily struggles for survival, or dignity, are not captured by an understanding of security which focuses on a single iteration of threat or cataclysm – though the prospect of a sudden fall from a position of relative privilege to a position of daily struggle might well be seen as a security issue by the privileged. What determines ‘security’ is how, and by whom, issues are classified as either important or urgent, or both.

It may well be that some common morality determines what is agreed to be fundamentally important, in general principle (say, human rights, whether political or economic), and yet this may be displaced by claims for urgency in respect of less fundamental, less important, more specific and less principled concerns (say, security of particular governments or of economic privilege, etc). This is the significance of a shift to the ‘high politics’ of security. As long as limited and specific issues are classified as urgent (i.e. as security issues) long-term planning for important issues will be overshadowed and unattended. Even when important issues occasionally surface in the urgent category in the form of natural, economic, or political disasters (a tsunami, typhoon or earthquake; famine, hyperinflation, general loss of liquidity in a ‘credit crunch’, or even a defaulting sovereign debtor; a Kosovo, Rwanda or Darfur), these may be set aside as humanitarian or ‘private’ issues which are exempt from normal national or international security considerations. Only recently, and tentatively, has the importance of humanitarian issues been raised in the security context of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, but still with little sense of urgency evident.

It is quite possible that priority and urgency is assigned on a completely ad hoc basis by the specific interests implicated in particular events, though this is still rare or diffuse enough to have little impact on general concepts of security (if somewhat more on national security doctrines) – or more to the point, states are still able to define any threat to their interests in national security terms. The conventional connection between national interest and power politics permits the characterisation of some important long-term issues such as nuclear proliferation as being security issues, but only to the extent that these are presented as being potentially urgent, immediate threats. The presentation is of the essence here – the ‘war on terror’ being an instructive, and deeply flawed, case in point. Etzioni, for an example of rethinking such issues, has recently made a pragmatic communitarian case for ‘primacy of life’ as the focus and priority of security (Etzioni, 2007), and the priority of such security over democracy (in US foreign policy), which is indeed hard to argue against in these simple terms, though this doesn’t seem to address the conditions of life beyond individual corporal security (sensible starting point that it is) – it is ‘short on explicit discussion of sociological and political theory’ (Kleykamp, 2008).

Certainly longer-term issues which few deny are important (environmental degradation, poverty and underdevelopment, lack of human rights), and yet don’t attract a sense of urgency, will be driven to the margins of the agenda.

How then, do the novel concepts of ‘energy security’ and ‘climate security’ find themselves in the mix of security concepts? Indeed, are they to be taken seriously as security concepts? They are less likely to be taken seriously in a conventional perspective, but more likely to be in a critical perspective, and perhaps most likely from a radical perspective – but this leaves us to ponder their appearance in mainstream discourse. Perhaps it is only the contribution to military and economic security concerns that attracts attention, though more radical insights are possible. Consider the notion of ‘biopolitical security’. Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics can be mapped onto a critical, radical, notion of security as surveillance, control and thus management of the human species. Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero, for example, note that the referent object of the biopolitics of security is ‘life’, which in turn is subject to modern developments in respect of population demographics, molecular biology, and digital virtual life (2008; 269). The modern freedom-security relationship thus described raises Foucault’s spectre that it may threaten itself, and ‘wager the life of the species on its own (bio) political strategies’ (Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero, 2008; 292)

Without necessarily adopting a radical critique, we can still test these new terms in familiar waters. How can concepts of ‘energy security’ and ‘climate security’ help us to appreciate longer-term issues of importance but as yet little apparent urgency? The ideological debates about ‘peak oil’, for example, seem to pit left and right in a struggle to define the level of urgency in the human (economic, social, political) relationship to petroleum, with the only common ground being acceptance that we currently inhabit a global petroleum-based economy. Those on the right appear to defend privileged interests in neo-liberal economic policies based on assumptions of plentiful petroleum, while those on the left purport to defend the interests of those who benefit less from the petroleum economy and have even more to lose if no preparation is made for a ‘low carbon economy’ (in the current jargon), let alone a ‘post-petroleum economy’.

Because of our petroleum-based economy there are, of course, direct connections between petroleum and other resource issues (including food) as well as the connection with climate change, and its implications in turn for other resources (including food). This is most apparent when high oil prices trigger a broader sense of insecurity around the prospect of another global recession.

Here, an attempt is made to situate the morality of these issues in a 'security' context, and vice versa – situating the security terms in a moral, political or social context. While there is likely to be some tension between the intended meanings of the terms ‘energy security’ and ‘climate security’, and even some incoherence, the normative weight of setting these issues in a 'security' context may amount to both cause and effect of an underlying moral turn. The moral obligation to provide security – an obligation of political authority, typically the state – is extended by ‘energy’ and ‘climate’ beyond traditional response-to-threat categories and practices of states; consequently the capacity of states to deliver such security is reduced, making room for other economic and social actors to exert influence.

As a commitment to energy and climate issues develops and establishes these as fundamental responsibilities of governance and fundamental rights of individuals, a new moral compact emerges; and a new political dispensation which the nature of these issues inevitably brings with it. In representing such shifts at the levels of morality, these recent security terms can be seen as reflecting more than mere instrumental adjustment to practical challenges within the framework of existing moral conceptions and commitments, and hence within the framework of the existing international system, but rather a deeper structural shift on a moral basis – even if such radical potential is not likely to be immediately acknowledged by the policy communities that espouse these terms. The nature of the issues requires rather too much management and governance, too much intervention (at a global or transnational level), for them to be addressed simply by tinkering with a neoliberal economy (though just possibly they might be by neoliberal institutions). Producers and consumers of oil are already beginning to coordinate action overtly (e.g. Saudi Arabia has agreed to increase production in the face of an energy price crisis, but calls on consumers to manage demand as well – reported widely, but see The Independent 16 June 2008), as energy markets themselves become a focus of government policy. Industrial states in the EU (E3G, 2007) are also coordinating energy policy, but must do so alongside climate policy which demands renewed attention (to address existing renewables targets, as well as the unanticipated side effects of biofuels – see, e.g.,The Guardian, 19 June 2008). This suggests that providing energy and climate security will take on the proportions of large scale planning (if short of ‘planned economies’) of the like required to address earlier systemic issues such as the great depression and post-war reconstruction, coinciding with new post-cold war circumstances including the peaceful rise of China, a reforming Russia, EU enlargement, evolving trade and development regimes, and other transborder challenges such as terrorism. So it is argued that appreciating the moral implications of these new ‘security’ concerns will give a better understanding of their implications for the emerging structural conditions of world politics.

To appreciate the moral significance of these emerging security concepts, it will be useful to expand on the moral context in which they emerge.

Energy: ethics and inequality

Initially, and perhaps finally, the moral context for energy is a matter of distributional justice as between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In terms of uneven development the distributional issues are familiar; in terms of intergenerational equity, the ‘have-nots’ may be future generations. Energy security, importantly, is generally presented as an issue of supply to which policy is expected to respond by ensuring secure access to ever greater supply to meet ever-growing demand. The broader distributional issues are, in typical fashion, buried beneath the limited (and by definition, exclusivist) policy priority of servicing national economies. These limitations may be addressed internally where equity is a consideration in national distribution, and could be notionally extended transnationally where there is economic integration (as in the EU) or interdependence (as in the globalized economy), though the usual pattern of agreement on the lowest common denominator and the lowest cost forms of cooperation still seems to apply. The distributional aspects of energy supply are thus determined as much by the structure of ‘state sovereignty’, and national authority structures of varying degrees of accountability, as by markets. Barnett suggests that energy security amounts simply to ‘the use of national power to secure supplies of affordable energy’ to support economic growth (Barnett, 2001; 35), and naturally ‘economic and energy security takes priority over environmental security’ (Barnett, 2001; 76). This gives some hint as to why energy and climate issues are forced into a conventional security framework. However, the long chains of energy production, supply, and demand are not conducive to national energy autonomy, and the relationship between states and markets is thus strained. This characteristic, interestingly, is shared by the transnational and global issue of climate change, which is also not amenable to a purely national strategy (whatever local initiatives might be taken). So, in considering a moral turn, it is such structural features that may be subject to some twisting as both states and markets are encompassed in wider social trends.

There is little doubt about the centrality of energy in our lives, and yet the implications of this obvious circumstance are perhaps too close to see clearly. Macfarlane (2007) calls it, simply, ’the issue of the 21st century’. Kimmins (2001; 31) makes a simple practical point about the centrality of energy in our endeavours and notes that ‘any consideration of the ethical aspects of these efforts will, therefore, involve an analysis of energy’. Interestingly, he speaks of a ‘universal vision’ in respect of energy ethics: all potential solutions to individual energy questions involve a social cost, an ethical dilemma and an impact on the way other problems are resolved. Thus, they can only be looked at within a broader consideration of the functioning of the world system of which energy is but one intimately woven component (Kimmins, 2001; 35). This is slightly at odds with the narrow national perspectives of state governments – e.g. in the UK, a minister recently said that future energy supply is ‘fundamental to our way of life and our national security’ (BBC, 26 June 2008). Kimmins also captures the intergeneration and forward-looking requirements for approaching energy policy in saying that ‘many ethical issues arise as a result of unequal access to energy and of the environmental repercussions’ and this requires ‘that we consider the consequences for future generations of satisfying the energy needs of the present’, while also pointing clearly to the long-term requirement for renewables: ‘The only question is how rapidly we should move to such sources and what mix should be used in various parts of the world over time’ (Kimmins, 2001; 37, 38).

As an illustration of discourse and debate, comments from a regional conference suggest at the outset that ‘ethics of energy’ required that people ‘have access to affordable and reliable supply of energy for their basic needs’ (UNESCO, 2007; 3). Just how such energy is supplied, however, remains an open question from the energy perspective in isolation – for example, nuclear energy is on the list of alternatives. As Shea notes, ‘tightness in the market has re-ignited the debate over alternative energy supplies such as biofuels or solar power not to mention a renewed interest in nuclear power’ (Shea, 2006). As we will see below biofuels present difficulties, and while support for the nuclear option comes from unlikely quarters (such as James Lovelock, of Gaia fame) it remains very controversial. Nuclear power raises significant issues for both the ecological and traditional security perspectives (for different reasons), whatever its short-term appeal as a panacea for addressing the twin challenge of energy and climate security. The UNESCO ethics report also raised doubts over privileging human interests, and advocated ‘harmony with nature’ (UNESCO, 2007; 3); one suspects that this meritorious view might stretch the credulity of policy makers – but given current energy practices, some stretching may be in order. It is noted that earlier negotiations indicated ‘objections of certain countries to the development of a potentially binding commitment on environmental ethics that might relate to economic issues’ (UNESCO, 2007; 4). It was questioned ‘whether we could really depoliticize choices about energy’, and indeed it does seem odd that it could be thought possible to ‘depoliticize’ an issue as central to the political-economy as energy, except from a purely technocratic perspective. However, the same speaker continued to rightly state that as ‘fossil fuel supplies were dwindling and climate change was accepted as a reality, clean renewable energies, like wind energy, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydropower, and photovoltaic were the way of the future’ (UNESCO, 2007; 5). As a practical matter, ‘a country’s energy mix really depended on the existing governance and the international sourcing or supply chain of energy’ and there is ‘already a large population in lesser developed countries who did not have good access to conventional technology such as electricity and fossil fuels’ (UNESCO, 2007; 8-9). This perspective appropriately challenges the notion that energy security is an issue of the future – it is clearly upon some of us now, and will bear more heavily on all of us soon. The report suggests this is ‘driving corporate leadership to synthesize their corporate social responsibilities with corporate strategies’ (UNESCO, 2007; 17). As there is still a considerable element of ‘greenwash’ in CSR claims, any such synthesis of social responsibility and strategy is as yet incomplete (though it might be more thoroughgoing when responsibilities to shareholders begin to equate to those to society at large). While more traditional security concerns are evident in talk of international conflict (UNESCO, 2007; 18), the working group on energy equity and human security noted that meeting energy needs (related to human rights) should ‘advance “human security” [and] be of global benefit by showing that sustainable ways are possible to meet basic needs… Human security is the ultimate goal surrounding the concept of energy equity’ (UNESCO, 2007; 22-23). The perspective of ‘human security’ is clearly and usefully linked to energy here, which informs wider debates about human security while challenging traditional state-centric notions of national security.

Baer, et al, identify the basic dilemma in noting that ‘there is no road to development, however conceived, that does not greatly improve access to energy services’, and yet there is ‘not enough “environmental space” for the still-poor to develop’. Hence the emergency situation requires ‘a wholesale reinvention of the global energy infrastructure on the basis of low-emission technologies’ (Baer et al, 2007: 23, 26). To the extent that this dilemma is now recognised in political discourse, there is already evidence of a moral turn and its structural implications.

Climate: equity & security

Climate represents inequities in respect of both the sources of its degradation and in the consequences of change. If ‘climate security’ is to be achieved, it would first have to be clear which aspect is to be secured – security for the existing sources of climate problems would not be conducive to security from the consequences of climate change, and of course human communities would experience the benefits or burdens of any such security according to their location in the ecological and/or industrial structure. Local vulnerabilities, livelihoods, and state roles in peacemaking are linked by Barnett and Adger (2007) in noting that ‘climate change increasingly undermines human security’. This makes the case for ‘climate security’ well enough, if limited by traditional state-centric concerns about violence. However, elsewhere Barnett (2001; 118) accepts that dealing with climate issues requires wide and deep structural reform. Clearly climate security is a significant issue for states, but it isn’t so clear that states can cope with this challenge using current systemic tools. More likely is that political actors will instead ‘reinforce their own definitions of "energy security" and "energy independence"’ (Poruban, 2008) which will be limited and instrumental. Nor is it clear that a security perspective in isolation will help to resolve the underlying issues – Singer (2006) points out that ‘climate change is an ethical issue, because it involves the distribution of a scarce resource’. The idea of ‘climate security’ may not even be readily accessible from the conventional economic perspective as critics question ‘its fundamental usefulness given some of the important but often implicit assumptions on which it is based’ (Toman, 2006). The underlying assumptions of our moral, political, economic, social systems do not yet appear to have fully internalized the weight and depth of the issues raised by climate, even as the ‘threat’ is appreciated. What is more, there is still some debate about the urgency of the problem; Lacy notes the realist views, and raises a pertinent query: ‘should we accept a hierarchy of security that places the threat of human-generated climate change into the safe-category of a Second-Order problem?’ (Lacy, 2005; 38)

In fact, the current state of affairs is even worse than previously anticipated, and given consistent reporting from reliable sources there can be little doubt about the trend in the carbon cycle. Recent data indicate CO2 levels ‘up almost 40% since the industrial revolution’ (NOAA, 2008), which reflects a 2007 study in which ‘scientists said the increase was 35% larger than they expected’ (The Guardian, 13 May 2008). There are obviously some limits to what can be done in a relevant time scale, and the little which can easily be done seems woefully inadequate. The Kyoto arrangements, shortly to be overtaken by whatever commitments may emerge from a post-Kyoto agreement, represent aspirations which turn out to be based on a limited appreciation of the scale of the challenge, and even so are partial in their application by both geographic region (Annex 1 countries) and economic sector. Consider that the world’s merchant shipping and air transport fleets, central to world trade, are so far exempt from limits on carbon emissions, and that a recent unpublished study indicates airlines release 20% more CO2 than previously estimated – while a risible statement from the aviation industry claimed that it is ‘a benchmark of environmental responsibility for others to follow’ (The Independent, 6 May 2008). Clearly, whatever ‘efficiency’ is achieved by technological means, total emissions continue to rise with production and consumption – it has been shown that Jevons’ nineteenth century paradox still applies: that efficiency first doesn’t give frugality second, but rather increased consumption; while frugality first can bring efficiency in response to scarcity (Polimeni, et al, 2008).

Even so, it isn’t clear that simple frugality in some locations will curtail global growth, given the power of consumption, so it may be necessary to both think and act globally (Alcott, 2008) to arrive at a global consensus on ‘sufficiency’ in which equity for locals or even individuals is central. Furthermore, if climate change will be ‘visited primarily on the globe's most vulnerable populations’ it follows that any ‘response to climate change that hopes to gain international legitimacy must take equity as a central organizing principle’ (Roberts, 2007). In this context it is appropriate to ask ‘who are the winners, and who the losers in climate change?’; as Sachs argues, equity in regard to fuel access ‘is about equality among nationswhile the consequent climate threats suggest that ‘fundamental rights might be violated’ (Sachs, W., 2007). If fundamental rights are the measure, this claim could be stronger – they have already been violated in myriad ways for some time – but agreement on fundamental rights let alone their realization in practice has a very patchy history. Baer et al note the disjoint but overlapping responsibilities of people and nations. In the context of ‘capacity to mitigate emissions in a global energy regime’ they say the main point is obvious: ‘Recognizing inequality within countries is as unavoidable as recognizing inequality between countries…If, that is, our goal is a burden-sharing system that actually makes ethical and political sense’ (Baer, et al, 2007: 31). They then argue that ‘the vast economic disparities within nations imply that responsibility must be conceived in a manner that recognizes the right to development as a right of individuals, not a right of countries’ (Baer, et al, 2007: 33). If ‘climate equity in this respect is about human rights’, then the ‘need for low-emission economies in the South and the North is therefore far more than a question of an appeal to morality; it is a core demand of cosmopolitan politics (Sachs, W., 2007). While this seems patently true, it is not so clear if cosmopolitan politics is a shared aspiration, even if planetary survival is. Climate equity is surely a political project, as much as a moral one (if there is any point in the distinction), and success in all other projects in all places may hinge upon its success. A sign of hope emerged in the Bali negotiations on a post-Kyoto consensus when the US was embarrassed into joining the consensus by the Papua New Guinea delegate (Newsvine, 2008) – an indication of how structural opportunities in discourse may allow a reversal of power dynamics.

Garvey identifies three sources for moral positions about climate: historically, ‘the industrialized world has done the most damage’; presently, ‘the West currently uses more than its fair share of the carbon sinks’; and in future, sustainability creates a general ‘obligation to leave a hospitable world’ behind (Garvey, 2008). Debates in the context of UNFCCC activities around the ethics of climate change reflect current concerns and perspectives arising within a framework of intergovernmental organisation, if typically at its margins (as a so-called ‘side-event’). The Buenos Aires Declaration mentions responsibility and fairness, as well as allocations, technology and of course uncertainty (EDCC, 2006; 8). An EDCC report builds on this, and links with Sachs’s positions on climate equity – ‘Facts about climate change and fundamental human rights provide the starting point for our ethical analysis (Sachs, 2006)’ – while providing examples of real impacts indicating that ‘it has become clear that climate change is already compromising rights to life, liberty and personal security’ (EDCC, 2006; 9). If ‘desertification, diminishing water supplies, and rising sea levels could contribute to 50 million refugees worldwide by the year 2010’ then who ‘bears responsibility for their displacement and for finding them a home? ( There are existing obligations, in so far as ‘nations of the world have express responsibility under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of equity to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system’ (

Gardiner notes that climate change involves the convergence of a set of global, intergenerational and theoretical problems. He argues that climate change is ‘a perfect moral storm’ which ‘makes us extremely vulnerable to moral corruption’ and identifies three characteristics of climate change that lead to this ‘storm’: dispersion of causes and effects; fragmentation of agency; institutional inadequacy (Gardiner, 2006; 397, 399-400). This leads him to suggest ‘there is a problem of corruption in the theoretical, as well as the practical, debate’ because a focus on political and technical problems of action by nation-states distracts from intergenerational obligations (Gardiner, 2006; 408-409). The link between climate and our energy habits demands ‘rethinking energy options to address climate change’ (McGowan, 2007), but these options are likely to be ones we don’t find convenient or haven’t taken seriously yet. There are structural assumptions (and corruptions) in our political, social, economic, and ecological field of vision which will have to be addressed, since the status quo offers little of merit for the long-term future and needs to be directly challenged.

To further test the ethical issues and political tensions raised by energy security and climate security, it’s worth considering one of the more recent and widespread responses to both (which also has a bearing on food security): biofuels.

The morality of biofuels

This is considerable controversy around biofuels as an alternative energy source, and this includes a clear moral dimension. Inevitably, the morality and the practicality of the situation are closely linked – if biofuels can relieve energy insecurities without creating other insecurities, then all’s well; if not then the controversy is well-founded. At present, it seems clear that the initial enthusiasm for biofuels has been dampened by several realizations, including the net energy/environment consequences, and the impact on food crops. As a result major actors concede that ‘current plans to vastly increase the amount of fuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel might need to be reconsidered’ in Europe (Greenpeace UK, 2008), and while US policy remains tied to political commitments on ethanol production (in 2007 Congress approved a fivefold increase in use of biofuels), all actors are facing opposition due to general awareness of the distortions created by this policy, ‘with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people’ (New York Times, 15 April 2008). Thus, ‘on the face of it, growing biofuels to support the car habit is a suicidal prospect... What is the morality in light of the growing numbers of mouths to feed?’ (Energy Bulletin, 16 April 2008). We might consider the irony that one solution to high food prices is higher food prices, since this stimulates production and distribution – but this hardly addresses underlying food security issues, or market distortions, nor does it address a petroleum intensive food system. Oddly, given the stakes involves, there has been a surprising lack of consideration for ecology and sustainability: ‘government agencies said nothing about the degradation of the soil, the nutrients that would be required’ nor indeed ‘about the ridiculously low Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), the heavy use of water and fossil fuels’ (Energy Bulletin, 16 April 2008). There are considerable political stakes involved. The EU Commission has had to reject claims that biofuels are a ‘crime against humanity’ (Agence France Press, 14 April 2008). The situation has prompted protests that ‘production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world's environment…. why on earth is the Government forcing us to use more of it?’ (The Independent, 15 April 2008), even while the relative significance of biofuels in the energy mix is as yet quite limited – ‘only 1% of transport fuels… Oil is still 40% of the global energy mix because of its domination of the transport sector’ (Shea, 2006). There is perhaps an underlying case for an entirely different food system – regardless of the specific fuel issues – which doesn’t rely so heavily on fuel in production and transportation (or provide so much, and so much choice, to so few) and is less sensitive to energy markets in that respect (see, e.g., Lang, 2004). The broader energy equity issues are thus only illustrated, rather than completely defined, by the controversy in which international NGOs are ‘warning the public about the environmental and humanitarian issues that they believe are posed by biofuels’ (Juge-Le Carrer, 2007), and an advisor is quoted as saying it is ‘unacceptable that poor people in developing countries should bear the cost of questionable attempts to cut emissions in Europe’ (Squatriglia, 2007).

In the longer term biofuels will figure in the mix of energy alternatives, once we work out how to do it properly – however the issues raised illustrate the moral consequences of energy security and climate security, particularly in respect of distributional justice. If there are questions about the ‘morality of industrial-scale biofuels development’ (Leng, 2008), there may yet be a way forward. For example, the situation in a relatively stable and self-sufficient developing country may underwrite a positive role for biofuels. One commentator, having noted environmental and food costs, was nevertheless ‘slightly disappointed that biofuels did not turn out to be the ‘lead sector’ for rural development’ (Creamer, 2008). This raised the issue of whether an uncritical transposition of arguments between domestic economies is inappropriate. A biofuels specialist, Fazel Moosa, argues that the food-versus-fuel debate in South Africa is illogical because commodity prices in this case are not determined within the national economy. So while there is a ‘real issue globally’, it is a ‘nondebate’ domestically because maize prices are determined elsewhere, and there is no shortage of potential agricultural land for biofuels that would compromise food security in that local context – ‘the key to making sense of these suggestions is for policymakers to re-evaluate biofuels through the prism of rural and industrial development rather than simply employing the somewhat populist food/fuel framework’ (Creamer, 2008). Thus, energy and climate security cannot be treated in isolation from socio-economic policy, let alone in isolation from one another; a holistic perspective is required to capture the complexity (see, for example, Simon Dalby’s arguments in Environmental Security, 2002).

Clearly biofuels can serve a range of purposes from substituting petroleum fuels to encouraging agricultural and rural development, but this diminishes the energy and climate security strategy implied in such initiatives, and completely undermines it if the net use of energy doesn’t actually reduce petroleum dependency and emissions. There are economic motives here, as even old-fashioned energy efficiency (‘negawatts’) could be significant for energy and climate alike (though the ‘rebound’ or ‘takeback’ effect of increased access and lower prices for fuel leading to greater consumption could cancel 26-37% of any gains - The Economist, 10 May 2008), but the ecological and moral motives seem somewhat distant, and the political coherence between energy security and climate security is thus weak. Rather than offering an unproblematic quick-fix or ‘free lunch’, contra Commoner’s (1971) fourth law of ecology, the biofuels debate clearly illustrates the moral dilemmas arising in this context.

One of the conceits to be abandoned is the presumption of our ability to exercise rational control over narrow areas of policy concern in ignorance of wider interconnectedness, complexity, and even chaos. This may also illustrate Commoner’s third law about the negative consequences of technological interventions in natural systems. This is not a counsel of despair, but rather an exhortation to avoid narrow, short-term, convenient and comfortably familiar policy solutions that avert our gaze from the broader picture – which indeed we may find distasteful, as things stand. Neither does this suggest that small-scale, locally relevant policy is inappropriate – on the contrary it is the most promising and likely (since it has already started) way forward, but it too must correspond to a broader logic (an eco-logic) at a global scale, and may still be thwarted by unattended failings in global political-economic structures. While the ‘configuration and context of business at the global level’ is transforming and there is ‘a growing need for sustainability coupled with growth’ there are ‘some tensions, however, between the imperatives for developing renewable and biofuel resources, and the imperatives for advertising and promoting high energy consumption luxury products’ [emphasis added] (UNESCO 2007; 17). Some tensions, no doubt, and yet those tensions will eventually resolve themselves one way or the other (for better or worse), and at this point it seems unlikely that they can resolve themselves in favour of a laissez-faire position with respect to political-economic structures and their underlying moral assumptions. The broader logic has been that of neo-liberal political economy (not to mention neo-con strategy), but the failures following from that logic must surely have brought that phase of policy into question – even if capitalism is adept at reinventing itself, it will have to reinvent itself in response to the twin challenges of energy and climate security and the equity issues embedded in them. Any serious effort to deal with climate change ‘requires wide and deep structural reform of contemporary high-energy societies’ (Barnett, 2001; 118).

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