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Scientific American and Climate Change I: Distributional Ethics



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Well, if you’re one of the nine people still reading after that header, prepare for a nerd-ride through the snow.

The cover article in the current Scientific American claims to be a guide to the perplexed for thinking through a difficult question: How do we weigh the costs of ameliorating climate change today versus the potential benefits that this will create for future generations? Unfortunately, it is rhetoric from front to back.

A big issue when considering investments intended to reduce the potential effects of climate change is that the current residents of the U.S., Europe, and a handful of other developed countries who would grossly disproportionately bear the current costs of such investments have a somewhat distant relationship with the people who will receive the benefit — disproportionately people not yet born in countries near the equator.

There are two fairly hairy issues intertwined in this question that can be stated generally as: (1) the ethics of considering harms that person A causes to person B, and (2) comparing the value of a dollar today to the value of the expectation of a dollar tomorrow. This post tries to take on the first of these, and a follow-up post tries to take on the second.

The Scientific American article poses the overall question as:

If the world is to do something about climate change, some people — chiefly the better-off among the current generation — will have to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to save future generations from the possibility of a bleak existence in a hotter world.
Note that the author, Oxford Professor John Broome, makes the huge assumption that the only way for us to assist these future generations is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. He assumes away any possible efforts to recycle atmospheric carbon or execute other geo-engineering approaches, or invest in adaptive engineering solutions, or simply to grow wealth fast enough to offset the negative impacts of climate change.

Broome goes on to cite “the elementary moral principle that . . . whenever you cause harm, you should normally compensate the victim.” He then applies this to global warming, saying of developed world carbon emissions that “ . . . the elementary moral principle I mentioned tells us we should try to stop doing it and compensate the people we harm.” (As an aside, it seems to me that his own principle indicates that we should feel free to continue doing it as long as we compensate those who are harmed). He next uses the following homey metaphor to illustrate that we must consider the victim’s interests:

Suppose you calculate that the benefit to you and your friends of partying until dawn exceeds the harm done to your neighbor by keeping her awake all night. It does not follow that you should hold your party.

Metaphors applied to the specific ethical question of carbon emissions often employ some version of the thought-experiment of polluting my neighbor’s yard. But what’s buried in this kind of familiar example is that most people reading this live in a world of legally defined rights and obligations enforced by courts, police, and ultimately the monopoly on large-scale force held by the government in the form of the army.

But nation-states and societies don’t live in anything like this relationship to one another. It seems to me that a better analogy would be that of a large number of clans living in somewhat overlapping and disputed areas of a primitive forest. Over centuries almost all clans have had massive feuds with almost all other clans. There are constant low-level skirmishes, as well as alliances through marriage or simple treaties. Some of these clans tend to be more peaceful and trade a lot with their neighbors, while others tend to be more bellicose. Some clans have enslaved others, and fortunes have risen and fallen through time. At some point, one clan figures out how to use fire to make things. They become much, much wealthier than any clan has ever been. All of these fires create soot pollution that threatens to reduce crop yields for other clans. On the other hand, inevitably, knowledge of how to use fire also becomes available to the other clans through imitation. The people who live in this forest, as a whole, become much wealthier than they would have been had the original clan never figured out how to use fire in this way. Is it obvious to you that the original clan has an absolute ethical obligation to either stop using fire or develop new technology that burns without soot? It’s not obvious to me.

But let’s leave the world of analogies, and consider the actual world in which we live.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that UN consensus forecasts for expected global warming occur. The end of the world would not be nigh. Under a reasonable set of assumptions for economic and population growth, over the next one to two hundred years, the world should get several degrees hotter. On average, this is projected to reduce global GDP by about 1 to 5 percent sometime in the 22nd century. This is projected to be very costly for some parts of the world, and less so for others.

This is driven partially by elemental facts of geography. If it’s cold where I live, things may actually get better if the climate gets a little hotter: more varieties of crops become available, growing seasons lengthen, transportation generally becomes cheaper, tourism becomes more appealing and so on. If it’s already hot where I live, the reverse dynamic applies. Further, if I live in a low-lying area near water, rises in sea levels are a much bigger deal than if I live on a mountain.

The level of economic development where I live matters a lot, too. A wealthier country can spend money to adapt — by doing things like building levees and improving air conditioning — that a poorer country can’t do. Additionally, if I am dependent on outdoor activities like farming for my livelihood, climate changes matter a lot more than if I am an accountant.

While most people in the world would be negatively impacted to some extent if global warming reduces global economic output by between 1 and 5 percent, it would be a much bigger problem for a rice farmer in coastal Bangladesh than for a dental hygienist in Denver. Broadly speaking, there is a large belt of poor geographies near the equator that would bear a big part of the impact.

Now, I believe that we do have a moral duty to the less fortunate generally, and at a national level, to less fortunate countries. There is excellent evidence that the developed world as a whole agrees with me, in that basically every country in the developed world has a large foreign aid budget, private contributions to international charities and so on. In very broad terms, these societies vote to transfer a large absolute amount of wealth to less developed countries, but they are not willing to impoverish themselves, and do not demonstrate a belief that global incomes should be anything like equalized through wealth transfers. Whether you view this level of generosity as a tribute to human goodness or an indictment of human selfishness, I think that it forms an empirical measurement of willingness to assist. We might call this the assistance baseline.

In the event of a major disaster, such as the Asian Tsunami of 2004, willingness to give rises, sometimes dramatically, but always within the broad boundaries that I describe above. We can this level of willingness to assist, the disaster baseline.

Imagine a thought experiment: a huge meteor strikes Bangladesh, causing massive flooding and devastation, but has no effect anywhere else. What do you think would be the reaction of the developed world? If history is any guide, there would be a large international mobilization. The U.S. government would provide direct financial assistance, and the U.S. military would provide immediate sea lift, air lift, and other technical support. European governments would provide aid, probably on a per-capita basis larger than that of the U.S.; private aid from Europe would also be large, though somewhat less than the U.S. on a per-capita basis. India would provide manpower, and receive financial support form the U.S., Europe, and Japan. China would likely try to participate for various reasons, and so on. When all was said and done, the residents of Bangladesh would still be poorer than those in the developed world, and worse off than if there had been no such meteor strike, but much better off than if there had been no assistance after the disaster. No developing-world government or citizen caused the meteor strike, so the mixed motivations of charity and self-interest that motivated this assistance were not due to any moral duty created by causing the meteor strike.

Imagine, as a modification to this thought experiment, that the meteor had not yet struck Earth, but that an absolute scientific certainty existed that it was six months from striking Bangladesh with effects limited entirely to Bangladesh as per the first thought experiment. I believe that the reaction would be very similar, in broad outlines, to that described in the first thought experiment. Differences would likely be a rush of the population of Bangladesh to the borders, pressure on India from the U.S. and Europe to accept refugees, supported by payments, and so on. Nonetheless, assistance would be at the disaster baseline.

If this projected disaster were not a meteor strike, but were instead AGW, for which we do bear some causal responsibility, do we have a duty to do more than we would in this thought experiment? The argument, then, of those who say we have a moral duty to assist the developing world in dealing with the effects of AGW is more precisely that we have an incremental moral duty, over and above the disaster baseline, attributable to the fact the developed world cased the problem.

There is clearly something to this, but consider the broader history. For the vast majority of human existence, almost everybody lived at the subsistence level. Then, suddenly, within the past several hundred years, large numbers of people started getting a lot richer. This started with Europe and its offshoots, but is now spreading to many other parts of the world.

This process was started by the West (i.e., the historical polluters). Europe and the U.S. didn’t steal this wealth from oppressed colonies; they invented a new way of organizing society that allows new wealth to be created. Along with all that CO2 the West put in the air, it also invented polio vaccine, the limited liability corporation, the high-efficiency power turbine, and so on. While the West made a ton of money selling these things to what we now call developing countries, there were and are huge externalities because inevitably a lot of this knowledge leaks. The West invented the basic tools for increasing wealth that the successful parts of the developing world are now using to escape poverty, and incidentally emit more carbon. Consider the accumulated carbon emissions as part of the R&D cost.

How does one balance the costs and benefits that have been imposed on the rest of the world? There is no practical way to calculate this, and it is inherently loaded with all kinds of subjective moral judgments, but ask yourself this question: Would you rather be born at the median income level in Bangladesh today or at the median income level in Bangladesh in the alternative world where the entire Northern Hemisphere had never escaped life at the subsistence level. That is, to live in a world of lower carbon emissions, but no Western science, none of the economic development inside Bangladesh that has occurred because of the West’s development, no hospitals, no foreign aid, no meaningful chance of ever changing your life? For me (but not necessarily for everyone), the answer is obvious.

Of course, anybody who has taken Moral Philosophy 101 can fine-grain this analysis. Some obvious questions include:

  • “Since those in the developing world didn’t choose this set of trade-offs, but had it forced upon them without consent, does this create some moral duty?”
  • “Why does some guy working at Wal-Mart in Des Moines somehow owe money to a farmer living in Paraguay because some third guy built a textile mill in South Carolina in 1936?”
  • “OK, if the current residents of the U.S. owe money to the current residents of Tanzania because people living in U.S. today gain a disproportionate share of the benefits created by the 19th century industrialization of Great Britain which created a lot of emissions, then what about all the other good things I get that I didn’t create just because I happen to have been born in Los Angeles in 1975 – why do we isolate this one item?”
  • “But wait a minute, I think that the Nazis were pretty bad, so shouldn’t people living in Germany today have to pay everyone living in Russia, the Ukraine, and really basically everywhere but Japan, Italy and Switzerland, money?”
  • “Hey, why are we even considering this at the level of countries instead of individuals anyway?”
  • Etc., etc., etc.

This is a Rawlsian wilderness of mirrors. The search for this sort of cosmic justice has never formed the political foundation of a workable village, never mind global village. At the level of practical international politics, it is the kind of argument that sounds good at a faculty colloquium, but won’t, and shouldn’t, ever be the basis for real policy.

If you’re interested in yet further reading on this subject, Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein’s paper on Climate Change Justice, reaches very similar conclusions.

Jim Manzi is the CEO of an applied artificial-intelligence software company.



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