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2010 (32) Heft 1

Climate Change, Risk and Responsibility


Guest-Editor: Friedrich Breyer

Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

Global warming has arguably been the topic which has drawn the most attention both in the media and in academia and even in international politics over the first decade of the new millennium. Moreover, climate change is a typical field for interdisciplinary research: while natural scientists try to predict the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on average temperatures, climate events (such as floods, droughts and hurricanes) and sea-level rise over the next century and more, philosophers discuss the responsibility of the present generation for the living conditions of future generations as well as the responsibility of the developed nations for the plight of the less developed ones. Sociologists study public awareness of the long-term effects of present behaviour, economists try to develop efficient instruments for preventing future catastrophes without prohibitive costs, and political scientists study mechanisms of international coordination of climate protection activities, to name only a few popular research questions.

It is therefore timely that the foundation ‘Umwelt und Wohnen’ (‘Environment and Living’) at the University of Konstanz chose the title ‘Klima und Energie im Spannungsfeld von Risiko und Verantwortung’ (‘Climate and Energy in the Context of Risk and Responsibility’) for an interdisciplinary symposium which was held in Konstanz on June 19, 2009. Most of the papers presented are collected in this issue with several additional contributions from philosophy and sociology which fit well into the general topic helping to complete the picture.

The discussion is opened by the physicist Gerd F. Ganteför who advances the provocative thesis that a man-made population explosion is a much more urgent problem than the global warming scenario, and, since there is a negative correlation between per-capita income and fertility, that it is imperative to increase the per-capita GDP (gross domestic product) of the least developed countries. This in turn requires huge amounts of affordable energy which can only be provided by coal, natural gas, crude oil and uranium. Thus, in contrast to the political mainstream, the author is convinced that the wide-spread transition towards renewable energy sources will not solve the pressing problems of the 21st century.

In contrast to this sceptical view, many philosophers depart from the climate predictions of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and ask whether present generations have a responsibility to limit climate change to protect the living conditions of future generations. Notably Dieter Birnbacher studies the problem of global climate change from the point of view of distributive justice, both intra- and intergenerational. On the basis of a version of utilitarianism, he argues that the polluter-pays-principle should be applied to reduce emissions, whereas obligations of compensation should be ascribed according to the criterion of overall economic strength. Peter Rinderle challenges what he sees as the utilitarian hegemony in recent discussions on global climate change by defending the possibility of a contractualist alternative. Three principles of climate justice are suggested on this basis: a sufficiency principle securing basic human rights, a principle of justice giving each generation a right to realize its conception of justice, and a principle of reciprocity requiring us to take responsibility for the reception of benefits and the causation of harm. A more specific ethical problem involved in a possible climate change is addressed by Alexa Zellentin, namely the possible migration streams which might evolve as a consequence of whole areas such as island states in the Pacific Ocean becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. She argues that climate migration differs from other forms of migration in that entire communities will be forced to resettle elsewhere and she discusses conditions which would have to hold in host countries to preserve the dignity and self-respect of these communities.

One particular problem with predictions of climate change is their tremendous degree of uncertainty, even in the Knightian sense of an inability to name all possible events and to attach probabilities to them. Two contributions to this volume address the uncertainty issue. First, Gregor Betz starts from the Knightian distinction between deterministic, probabilistic and possibilistic foreknowledge, and discusses the latter in the context of the global climate. The question is raised how to justify possibilistic predictions including the identification of the worst case. Betz points at a methodological dilemma which emerges when possibilistic predictions are framed in traditional terms and argues for a new conceptual framework which distinguishes different types of possibility. Raffaela Hillerbrand aims to show that modeling complex systems inevitably involves non-propositional knowledge and thus the uncertainties associated with the corresponding model predictions cannot be fully quantified. This is exemplified by means of the climate system and climate modeling. The climate system is considered to be a system that is complex with respect to some features, while simple with respect to others. This distinction is of practical significance for political decision-making as it allows some climate predictions to be treated as (fairly) certain, while acknowledging high uncertainties with others.

While the former contributions are mainly concerned with the possible consequences of climate change, the following two sociological papers deal with environmentally sound behaviour which may help to prevent or at least postpone climate change. Axel Franzen and Dominikus Vogl use surveys to compare the development of environmental concern and mobility behaviour in Germany and Switzerland. They show that the proportion of survey participants who express concern about the state of the natural environment is high in both countries but has not increased during the last two decades despite the ongoing public debate about environmental issues. Furthermore, they show that the sizable reduction in gasoline consumption in both countries is due to rising gasoline prices rather than a change in attitudes. On a more general level, Ulf Liebe gives an overview of the theoretical approaches to explaining pro-environmental behavior. The author shows that the predominant theories in the field are the Theory of Planned Behavior (TOPB) and the Norm-Activation Theory (NAT). The author argues that further research would benefit from more standardization in empirical applications, from more competitive theory testing as opposed to integrative theory testing, and from an evaluation of approaches on theoretical grounds as opposed to focusing solely on empirical performance.

The last two contributions are concerned with practical policies towards climate change. Till Requate discusses German and European climate policy from an economic standpoint. In particular he studies the question of whether the instruments chosen by the EU and laid out in Germany’s environmental policy, notably the subsidization of renewable energy sources, are suitable for achieving the ambitious EU climate goals in an efficient manner. Requate argues that while the target of a 20 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions is feasible at a reasonable cost, derived targets such as a share of 20 per cent of renewable energy and 20 per cent efficiency increase are expensive and superfluous. The last paper by the political scientist Miranda Schreurs takes a closer look at the environmental policy of the most important player in the global climate game, the U.S.A. and asks what changes have occurred since Barrack Obama moved into the White House. Now, at least carbon dioxide is viewed as a pollutant, and Obama has raised fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, and targeted millions of dollars in spending for renewable energies, energy efficiency, and research related to climate change. Furthermore, Schreurs predicts that the United States will be more engaged in international environmental negotiations and implement a more active environmental programme in the future than it did during the past decade.


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