philosophical ideas for environmental problem solving

THE GLOBAL WARMING WOLF IS REAL

Thoughts by ALEX LEE and ALEX HAMILTON

originally written for THE REVELATOR

“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” tells the tale of a boy whose warning of danger is met with disbelief because of past lies. The familiar moral of this story is honesty — don’t lie, or one day you won’t be believed when it’s really important.

That ancient fable has modern relevance to climate change, about which we know at least two things: First, global warming is largely responsible for acute disasters — drought, superstorms, extinction and more. Second, without immediate action, those disasters will only worsen. We know that climate scientists are not “crying wolf.” So why is that what so many people hear?

The response to the boy’s claims holds an often overlooked second lesson of the wolf fable: We let past events cloud our assessment of novel warnings, even if a wolf really is at the gate. Climate change is here, it’s dangerous, and if we don’t address the threat we’re in trouble. But when you’re told that fact over and over again, it’s easiest to become apathetic, fatigued and disillusioned — we continue to disbelieve or disregard the warning while the wolf draws blood.


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EXTINCTION IS A PROBLEM, NOT ESA PETITIONS

Thoughts by ALEX LEE and LEE BRANN

Suppose a police department faces a crime epidemic and a corresponding unprecedented number of 911 calls. They decide the solution to all their problems is to unplug the phone. Ridiculous, right? A bill introduced to Congress last month by Arkansas Representative Bruce Westerman threatens to “unplug the phone” for the Endangered Species Act (ESA) --- even as we are in the midst of an unprecedented extinction crisis.

The ‘Providing ESA Timing Improvements That Increase Opportunities for Non-listing Act’ (PETITION ACT, H.R. 6255) proposes that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a backlog of petitions for considering species as endangered of threatened, they simply prohibit review of new petitions and forgo all mandated timelines for species consideration.

We face an extinction problem, not a petition problem.

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 PRIOR CONCEPTION AND INUIT KNOWLEDGE IN A CHANGING WORLD

Thoughts by CHRIS DUNN

Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska is an inland village of barely more than 300 people on a low pass in the Brooks Range. Well above the Arctic Circle, this frigid, treeless mountain range is North America’s northernmost, and the highest mountain range in the Arctic. I lived in the village for one month in the summer of 2016 to find out from residents, mostly indigenous Nunamiut Iñupiat, what kinds of changes they were noticing that may be a product of climate change. Their observations, I believed, should be valuable since most of them have spent their entire lives living and traveling across the surrounding landscape. The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the earth and thus climate change is having a disproportionate impact on the people of this region. The village is surrounded by a national park, and due to a complex set of laws and policies, only certain forms of access, such as snowmachine, are permitted inside the park for hunting, fishing, and gathering. Thus, changing climate conditions may have been altering resident’s subsistence access to the park. It was up to me to find out.

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SEE THE IDITAROD WHILE YOU STILL CAN

Thoughts by Chris Dunn

Here in Colorado, ski season is booming...well it should be. This year's snowfall has been disappointing, and future predictions for Rocky Mountain snow pack in this area is grim. Meanwhile, the Winter Olympics are in full swing in South Korea, but on our present course, most of the cities that have hosted them in the past will not be able to do so in the warmer future we are creating. The good news is that organizations like Protect Our Winters are already working to lobby policy makers to curb greenhouse gas emissions so that there will be a future for quality skiing in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states like Utah.

Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice set a new winter record low this January for average extent. This follows a general trend of declining sea ice in the Arctic, but this is becoming more evident in winter months. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth. This is due to the complex interactions of changing ocean currents, receding sea ice, and ice-albedo feedbacks—all ultimately driven primarily by greenhouse gas emissions.

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RECREATION, PUBLIC LANDS, AND FREEDOM

Thoughts by ALEX LEE

I am a skier, climber, hiker, and wonderer of the outdoors; public lands are part of my soul.

Land protected by federal designation is being stripped of protection in an unprecedented series of actions by President Trump and the Republican held Senate. The past four days have seen massive degradation for two National Monuments in the Southwest and the nation’s largest National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The 17th century philosopher John Locke said that a person can come to own land by mixing the land’s potential with their own labor. Recreation in the outdoors can certainly be hard work swimming in the potential of nature, but I think Locke had it backwards: by mixing our labor with the land, we give part of ourselves to it.

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RETHINKING THE RIGHTS OF SPECIES

THOUGHTS BY LEE BRANN

 

One of the most fundamental and enduring tenets of the global conservation movement is the idea that species have a right to exist. For some species advocates, this is the bedrock ethical principle on which their commitment to conservation is built. Because species have a right to exist, it follows that human beings, the most potent possible force behind species annihilation or species preservation, bear some obligation to honor and uphold that right.

Mere existence, however, sets an extremely low bar in terms of human obligations to species.

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CONSERVATION BEYOND CONSEQUENTIALISM

Thoughts by ALEX LEE, JORDAN KINCAID, AND ADAM AMIR

 

A current Center for Biological Diversity call-to-action declares: “Tell Trump: There is No Safe Drilling in the Arctic.” The call aims to stop a Hilcorp effort to construct an artificial island and drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. If the “Liberty Project” moves forward, the Arctic environment could be forever altered. Dangers of a spill loom catastrophic; development would fragment the land. The payoff would also be huge: local economies would grow and domestic energy security would advance. To the extent that possible outcomes are predictable, they are likely to be both good and bad. But are possible outcomes the only guide for decision making?

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WHAT THE HELL IS ‘BEST AVAILABLE SCIENCE’?

Thoughts by LEE BRANN

Seeming to embrace the immense value of science to environmental decision making, many of our prevailing conservation statutes, agencies, and policies explicitly demand that decisions concerning wildlife and endangered species be informed solely by the ‘best available science.’ The ‘best available science’ is, in theory, at the heart of crucial determinations like endangered species listing decisions, critical habitat designations, and biological assessments.

Surprisingly, however, this catchy and seemingly innocuous phrase is a wellspring of controversy and complications. No human being on Earth can definitively explain what ‘best available science’ means. In fact, we can’t even define any one of those three words in isolation.

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A WILDER PLANET?

Thoughts by CHRIS DUNN

Our world is quickly and perhaps irreversibly, at least in the foreseeable future, becoming significantly less wild, with or without successful climate negotiations in Paris. Allow me to attempt a brief definition of the term and briefly summarize my position.

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CLIMATE CHANGE, THE ESA, AND THE FATE OF SPECIES

Thoughts by LEE BRANN

Some Troubling Decisions on Endangered Species by US Department of Interior

Many species advocates are understandably dismayed by the October 4 Department of Interior decision to deny federal protection for twenty-five seemingly deserving species under consideration for listing as ‘Endangered.’ Many of these species – including the Pacific Walrus, Florida Keys mole skink, and Bicknell’s Thrush – are thought to be extremely vulnerable to climate change, but will be deprived of federal protection nonetheless.

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IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT WE CALL “CLIMATE CHANGE”

Thoughts by JORDAN KINCAID

Alex Lee recently wrote that “the term ‘climate change’ isn’t working anymore” because “most people don’t understand what the term climate means.” Generally, he argues, people confuse “climate” with “weather,” “climate” is too scientific of a term, and “climate change” doesn’t really reflect the “acute environmental crisis” people actually experience; we should stick with “global warming” because floods, hurricanes, higher temperatures, wildfires, and the like, are directly tied to heat. People will better connect with “global warming” because it’s easier to understand than the broader, more nuanced idea of “climate change.”

This is a fairly common hypothesis. Essentially, the argument is that people tend to not be science-literate enough to make the term “climate change” rhetorically effective; most people know too little about science or lack the capacity to assess scientific information necessary to get a firm grip on the real risks at hand. If we take it at face value, we essentially have two options: improve public science education, or play rhetorically to science illiteracy. It seems that Lee would have us do the latter.

In truth, however, this is a false choice based on a false hypothesis.

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DRILLING IN THE ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE: BAD CONSEQUENCES, BUT WORSE REASONS

Thoughts by ALEX LEE

Close to 20 million acres of northeast Alaska became the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in 1980. Before that, it was a federally protected area; calls for the preservation of this area go back to at least the 1950s.

ANWR is not a ‘range,’ as Congressman Don Young if fond of saying, but a ‘refuge,’ set aside as a sanctuary for nature. This area is also the calving grounds for the massive Porcupine Caribou heard and home to a vibrant ecosystem.

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SAVE THE WALRUS, BUT NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF NATIVE PEOPLE

Thoughts by ALEX LEE 

As the icy arctic thaws, animals reliant on sea ice are at a greater risk of extinction – plain and simple. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently leading a charge to protect the Pacific Walrus from such a fate by listing them as ‘endangered.’ However, efforts to protect these animals often come with an unintended cost tacked onto the bill and paid for by native communities who depend on these animals as an essential component of culture, tradition, and food security.

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Say tuned for short posts touching on philosophy in the world of environmental problems and problem solving. We will be uploading fun stories, interesting thoughts, and tidbits of philosophy soon!