Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

four corners monument


by Benjamin Hale

Benjamin HaleEarlier this fall the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $400,000 joint grant to me and several of my colleagues at Northern Arizona University and the University of Montana. With this support we aim to develop educational resources for U.S. graduate students to address questions at the intersection of ethics, public policy, and environmental science. There are many interesting pedagogical features of the grant, but most of the CU portion—which totals approximately $100,000—will go to funding a smaller, self-contained research project directed by me and facilitated by two of my graduate students, Alex Lee and Adam Hermans.

The CU-Boulder team plans to produce approximately twelve 5-10 minute video episodes designed to call attention to important ethical questions underlying the climate debate. These videos will highlight the scientific, policy, and human dimensions of regionally important environmental issues, each with a connection to climate change. Our team will restrict issues under investigation primarily to the four corners area of the Western United States and will draw material from interviews with and publications by faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Northern Arizona University, including local CU-based experts. The videos will be sufficiently short enough to leave time for in-class discussion. Given the regional relevance of the videos, the issues under consideration will be meaningful to the students. By introducing ethical questions through relevant scenarios and concrete cases, including the testimony of stakeholders and visual illustrations of the scientific and philosophical factors in play, students and others will hopefully be drawn into deliberative engagement with instructors and classmates.

Consider, for instance, the complex questions associated with “change,” which we will discuss in our first episode. On one hand, change is simple. It’s the descriptive Δ, a measure of difference over time. In the climate discussion, we’re concerned with how the climate will change. But on the other hand, change has a normative dimension as well. As the universe changes, actors within that universe must change in response. So the question for the actor is what to change in response to this observed or anticipated Δ. Certainly actors can change passively, by way of “being changed,” as they might be battered around like a ship at sea. But they can also change by taking a hand in this change. Maybe the appropriate response is to change their behavior—as when it begins to rain one changes into galoshes. Or perhaps it is to keep their behavior but to change their objectives—as one might decide to arrive at the party wet. Or perhaps it is yet more complicated than simply changing behavior or objectives. Maybe responding to change will involve changing one’s values—as one might shift to appreciate the state of being wet; or perhaps instead change one’s beliefs about what it is to be wet—as Londoners have a different sense of wetness than Tucsonans. Likewise, we’ll need to change something vital about our lives in order to respond to climate change. In our first episode, we’ll use changes in the ski industry to cover some of the normative dimensions of change in hopes of illustrating clearly how climate change is much more than merely a descriptive observation.

What follows in the remaining eleven episodes will be discussions of other important normative questions coupled with familiar descriptive climate issues. We’ll look at the question of resource extraction to discuss the fungibility and substitutability of value. We’ll touch on the Colorado River compact to explore standard commons questions, particularly with an eye toward clarifying what is so allegedly tragic about the tragedy of the commons. We’ll discuss assisted colonization to make sense of the question of moral reparation. We’ll look at the question of epistemic uncertainty, vagueness, and indeterminacy through the lens of the pine beetle epidemic. We’ll explore obligations to future generations by watching natural and non-natural objects deteriorate over time. We’ll also explore the possibility of counterfactual beneficiaries and the prospect that environmental damages aren’t neatly characterizable as harms to specific persons, which actually poses an enormous challenge to climate activism. The videos will be made available on a public website, along with suggested reading lists and questions, for integration into classes at NAU, Colorado, and elsewhere.

Benjamin Hale, Ph.D.
Center for Science & Technology Policy Research