A Philosopher and a Climate Scientist Walk into a Bar (to Give a Talk on Climate Change)

November 29, 2017

How we should act on climate change is not simply a question of science, but also one of values. When discussing climate change policy, it is not enough for us to draw on the science alone, we also need to discuss the values which inform whether we should act on that science.

For scientists, discussing values often feels a little outside of their realm of expertise and comfort – a grey area in terms of what a scientist’s proper role should be. On the other hand, for philosophers working on climate change, even though we often try to use scientific results to inform our analyses, climate science is a little outside of our expertise. Our capstone project was a way to step into that grey area and figure out how to combine science and values to critically discuss climate policy.

Admittedly, we’re both fans of climate scientists who put their values on the line, and even get arrested for the sake of the climate, like Jim Hansen or even UW’s own Lucas Zeppetello. However, we figured that getting arrested was probably not going to fulfill the capstone requirements. As such, we went with a little less of a radical strategy to combine climate science and values, by forming a collaboration between Karl, the climate scientist, and Alex, the philosopher.

Together we went around to schools and community colleges in King County discussing climate science, policy and ethics. We presented on both the potential future impacts of climate change in Washington State, and discussed one major potential way Washingtonians could help avoid those impacts, and take moral leadership on climate action: by acting on climate change and voting on the first carbon tax ballot initiative in the United States, Initiative 732.

I-732 was a Washington State ballot initiative that aimed to help curb climate change, by putting a gradually rising tax on fossil fuels according to the amount of carbon pollution they emit. The revenue gained by the tax would then go to: a) reduce Washington’s  deeply regressive sales tax; b) fund and expand a low-income family tax credit; and c) dedicate a small portion of its revenue to help manufacturers deal with the increased costs that the carbon tax would impose on them.

Our talk started off with Karl discussing projections of the potential future impacts that climate change could have on Washington. He drew on his own work, that of the Climate Impacts Group and others. Being a hydrologist, Karl placed significant focus on the impacts that climate change would have on Washington’s snowpack, and through it the impact of climate change on Washingtonians. His talk demonstrated both how vulnerable snow is to warming temperatures, and how vital this natural resource is to Washington State, given its centrality to agriculture, wildfire control, energy production, and broader economic growth.

Moving from the potential climate impacts on Washington State, Alex went on to discuss how I-732 could help Washington reduce emissions, thus helping prevent some of the impacts Karl discussed. He gave an overview of the projected impacts the initiative would have on the economy, taxes and greenhouse gas emissions. Alex connected the carbon taxes projected emission reductions both to Washington State’s emissions reductions goals, and the global carbon budget – the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the world can emit while still having a likely chance of limiting global warming to a certain temperature threshold. Alex argued that Washington has a moral imperative to play a leadership role on climate change, given its own large greenhouse gas emissions footprint, and its position within the U.S. -“the world’s wealthiest nation and largest historical greenhouse gas emitter“.

Admittedly, we were both pretty strong supporters of I-732, which made the professional academic communication side of the talk a little tricky, even for a philosopher steeped in discussion of values. To navigate this trickiness, and not seem like we were covert activists simply giving a pitch for a policy, we were clear with our audience that we supported the policy. To provide further balance, we also discussed many of the criticisms that had been leveled against I-732.

As the survey results from our capstone project indicate, for the most part, our frankness about our own support for the policy seemed to sit well with our audiences. Their feedback was overwhelmingly positive, although for a very slim minority of our audience, we were apparently a little “smug” and “biased”, an important reminder to us to maintain humility when discussing with those we disagree with. However, overall the audience seemed to really appreciate the interdisciplinary approach we brought to this issue, and our willingness to bridge science, economics, policy and philosophy.

If you’re interested in digging more into the feedback we got from the presentation, Alex wrote up a report on the presentation incorporating the results from a pre- and post-presentation survey we administered with help of Angela Davis-Unger from the UW Office of Educational Assessment. The graphically summarized results from that survey are available here. We also have a copy of our slides available here.

As for that carbon tax initiative, despite noble efforts from grassroots activists across the state, unfortunately it did not pass. Alex, who was heavily involved with the initiative, wrote some lessons on why it didn’t pass here. With I-732 not passing, Washington State has a way to go on climate mitigation policy, and is far behind on reducing emissions in line with its fair share of global efforts. With another, differently designed, carbon price set to potentially go on the ballot in 2018, we hope that the lessons learned from I-732 (and our presentation) can be put to good use in informing the next carbon tax initiative.

Oh, in case you were wondering about the title of this blog, one of the favorite times we gave our presentation was at Peddler Brewery, as part of the Climate Science on Tap discussions organized by Cascadia Climate Action. The punchline to the title, is that the collaboration between a climate scientist and a philosopher went really well, and we’d definitely recommend such partnerships to other PCC graduate students, especially if you can secure Prof Dargan Frierson singing climate songs on his mandolin as an opening act.

Karl Lapo earned his PhD from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences in June, his research focuses on the land-atmosphere interface, especially as it relates to snow.

Alex Lenferna is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Philosophy. His research focuses on the ethics of climate change. He completed this project as part of the Graduate Certificate on Climate Science.