Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Ethics and Global Climate Change

The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis - in the economy of nature but not political economy - and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory. I have three main concerns with this: i) climate change has displaced other important concerns, for example of the 1 billion people living in unacceptable poverty; ii) a fixation on global CO2 levels alone distracts from what we can practically do, and even from caring about other aspects of the environment that we want to protect; iii) the debate has induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in which otherwise sensible people have lost all sense of proportion and hope.

The science of climate change is not my target. It is clearly a fact that the world's regional climates are changing substantially and at unprecedented speed, and this is a result of greenhouse gases produced by human activity (in particular by the industrialisation of the West). Denying the science is just silly. But 'science' does not have the legitimacy or resources to tell us what we should do about climate change. We have to work that out for ourselves.

It is often said, and very plausibly, that climate change is difficult for human minds and our political institutions to grasp and act on because of its global scale and long-term and complex causal mechanisms. Stephen Gardiner has called it a 'perfect moral storm'. One way of dealing with such difficult problems is to moralise them. This seems to be the strategy currently favoured by mainstream environmentalists. Morality concerns strict but simple universal rules that everyone should follow without regard to personal situations or consequences - on the model of laws. On this model, one's carbon footprint is a crime (against the planet presumably) which one should feel guilty about and strive to mitigate. As of course are other people's carbon emissions: they deserve to be shamed or otherwise forced into submission by the righteous ones.

In trying to tackle climate change by directly dealing with the causal mechanism of CO2 levels we have framed the situation as an enormous collective action problem - how to persuade 7 billion people to adopt the new morality of carbon rationing (and prevent free-riding). Everyone who thinks this through recognises that it is impossible to realise without enormous government coercion (severe rationing along the lines of China's one-child policy). That requirement explains many climate change warriors' antipathy to democratic principles on this point - it seems easier to persuade all 200 governments to be adopt carbon authoritarianism than to persuade all those people individually (e.g. James Lovelock). However even the government coercion approach fails - see the failures of every inter-governmental treaty, from Kyoto to Copenhagen - and the reasons are obvious.

The moralisation approach undermines itself since it frames climate change narrowly in terms of righteousness. Inevitably deliberation about action gets bogged down in an interminable blame-game about what justice requires - who had their industrial revolution first, etc. Furthermore, the moral duties of different actors do not all point the same way: poor country governments have a clear and over-riding moral duty to help their citizens achieve the high quality of life which the West takes for granted, and which is inevitably energy (carbon) intensive. And then there is the practical economics: the world still has lots of coal, especially in the poor world, that can produce electricity at 3c per kwh (which renewables cannot possibly compete with without radical technological breakthroughs, even with the strongest moral rhetoric). No comprehensive global political solution to greenhouse gases is possible. We need to go back and think again.

The moralisation approach contrasts with a fuller ethical thinking in which values are considered and debated explicitly and openly. Righteousness simplifies but it doesn't try to understand. No-one emits carbon deliberately 'for fun', but rather we engage in activities which are more or less valuable to us - such as flying across the Atlantic to visit grandparents - which happen to emit carbon as a byproduct. To ignore the value of these human activities and see them instead as moral crimes is to do a violence to the very humanness of the lives (including those of future generations) that we are supposed to be so concerned about preserving. The single-minded focus on carbon reduction even distracts us from protecting other valuable parts of our environment, like the wilderness areas that would be industrialised with biofuel plantations, dams, and windmills. We need a broader ethical debate about what the consequences of climate change will be for what we humans have reason to value (e.g. polar bears - not that important; rising sea levels - very important) so that we can take really credible actions to protect them.

Perhaps surprisingly, such a fuller ethical analysis can benefit greatly from economic reasoning and tools [previously]. Economics is often supposed to be cold and heartless. But sometimes a hardnosed logistical approach is helpful, and economics is actually very good at addressing complex problems involving multiple agents with divergent interests that cannot all be satisfied i.e. our 'perfect moral storm' (as e.g. Bjorn Lomberg has pointed out). It uses quantitative methods to disaggregate the different causal mechanisms in play (such as different sources of CO2 equivalents) and different effects on social welfare (such as the impact of more frequent extreme weather on cities and agriculture). Then it constructs models focussing on the most significant mechanisms and uses the models to test alternative policy proposals for their costs and benefits to social welfare (including other things we value besides those related to climate). Its analysis suggests different packages of policy bundles (not only markets for carbon) that would follow from different values we assign to different aspects of social welfare, as well as incorporating the degree of uncertainty remaining in the science and politics of climate change.

This is an essentially pragmatic approach - breaking the 'end of the world' into human-sized and human-relevant problems and solutions and ordering them by their importance, feasibility and (opportunity) costs. It builds on the fact that while the central causal mechanism behind global climate change is greenhouse gas emissions (important to understanding and modelling the phenomenon itself), solutions need not directly engage with that causal mechanism in the short term. After all, it is the effects of climate change on the things we care about that is important, not some abstract CO2 molecule count. We do not need to fixate entirely on CO2 emissions when other options exist to mitigate the effects of climate change that actually concern us, and seem much cheaper and more effective. i.e. we can trade off some level of climate change we can live with against the excessive costs and implausibility of seeking to end all carbon emissions immediately. Piecemeal actions are easier to achieve and even at national and regional levels can be significant. For example, soot emissions from old-fashioned coal-burning power stations are particularly bad for climate change but relatively easy to regulate and mitigate.

In the longer term, the greenhouse gas build-up must be dealt with, of course, and that will have to be by technological advances that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as genetically modified algae and trees, while also reducing the carbon intensity of our high energy life-styles (for which we already have some existing technologies, such as nuclear power). Such innovations require no prior global agreement to set in train. A high price on carbon in a few large rich countries (preferably via a non-regressive carbon tax) supplemented with regulations where markets don't work (e.g. to force the construction industry to build more energy efficient buildings) and research subsidies would provide the necessary incentives. Nor do they require global agreement for take-up since they will be attractive on their own merits (clean, efficient, cheap).

The pragmatic approach does not depend on reaching an impossible global agreement on a perfect solution requiring moral or political coercion. Instead it offers feasible paths through the moral storm while respecting the existing interests and values of the human beings concerned. It is more democratic than the moralising approach because it works within our existing democratic institutions (no need for a 'global government') and offers transparent arguments within our present valuational framework (rather than requiring us to assume a new and narrow set of values). It is also fairer. While the moralists' orientation to stasis places excessive burdens on the world's poorest, the pragmatic approach naturally pushes the greatest obligations and costs onto those (rich governments) most able to act. There will of course be new humanitarian demands which the rich world must honour - e.g. from low-lying Bangladesh or the Maldives - but we already know how to build sea-walls and they're much cheaper than stopping the economy and much more likely to work.

At present too many supporters of tackling climate change are guilty of the same moral and cognitive melt-down in the face of its complexities that they accuse their detractors of. They are wrong to see the development of human freedoms and well-being as a distraction or even a threat to the world. They are wrong to fixate on an abstract and impossible problem (350 CO2 ppm) and seek a perfect solution without reference to wider ethical issues, and political and practical feasibility. They are wrong to give up so easily on democratic politics and human ingenuity and settle for retreating into the darkness of 'sustainability'. We best fulfil our duty to future generations by making this world a better place for all the people in it [previously]. Not by leaving them the world in the same exact state we found it, but by ensuring that we leave them all with possibilities enough and as good as we in the rich world have had for living good lives. If not better!

Update: I am delighted to discover that my opinions on this matter are worth debunking - check out the severe fisking this post receives over at Idiot Tracker. (Although, since I argue that rich countries should lead the way in combating climate change through carbon-pricing, regulation, and research, and provide poorer countries with aid for climate adaptation, I remain less certain of my right-wing libertarian credentials than this critic.)


  1. Brilliant commentary on a very complicated issue, thank you!

  2. Great article!!! I have only one question. How do I answer those who tell me that humans contribute only a very small percentage of the global climate change we experience today. How evolved is the science of climate change? Hypothetically, if today we still lived in a pre-industrial world, how serious of a threat would Bangladesh flooding be?

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. In my view, breaking the issue into human sized, human-relevant problems entails confronting abuses by powerful actors you don't really acknowledge here: those corporations and businesses that seek to entrench polluting technologies to the cost of societies and the world as a whole. An example from the U.S. would relate to the actions of, among others, some coal companies (see, for example, Paul Krugman: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/30/markets-can-be-very-very-wrong ). In Europe (if you accept an argument made by Greenpeace and others), VW allegedly stymies relatively modest improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and misleads the public.

  4. Thanks, Karen!

    Dan. No knockdown arguments I'm afraid. Science is fallible, but it is still the best means we have for grasping the facts of climate change. Second guessing by amateurs is just not credible, partly because it is so often self-serving (i.e. rationalisation of existing value judgements), but especially because it often lacks a proper sense of proportion. I posted on this earlier: Democracy is not a truth machine

    Caspar. Those are the same problems we encounter in financial regulation reform etc. so they aren't particular to climate change. Democratic politics certainly has the capacity to overcome such vested interests. In that effort it at least helps to know that there are feasible paths out of the problem, and that the choice is not the stark one of giving up our whole way of life or facing the end of the world.

  5. Reminders of the multi-faceted aspects of global climate change and its effects are useful and reinforces the importnat fact that amelioration of those effects will necessarily be multifaceted. I'm not sure, though, who the targets are who allegedly focus only on blanket "perfect" solutions of eliminating human-originated carbon emissions. I am not aware of any serious proposals to respond to the effects of global warming by giving up on "democratic politics and human ingenuity" or "stopping the economy." This is far from nuanced - indeed comes close to caricature rather than analysis. The reference to 350 ppm is misleading in this context, as that goal is significantly higher than current level (and thus does not entail ending emissions) and the level at which the science of global climate change indicates is a "tipping point" for extreme and deadly climate change. The only reference to extensive empirical and ethical work on resilience and sustainability is to identify those ideas as "dark" authoritarian extremes.

  6. David. I find such 'perfect' but impossible solutions proposed quite frequently by environmentalists and academic ethicists. Perhaps we move in different worlds.

    Since I have posted on sustainability elsewhere, I simply linked to that. But, in brief, sustainability should be considered in humanistic terms and avoid the fetishisation of either resources or Nature. And I think asking us to turn off the lights (Earth Day silliness) is literally to put humanity in the dark.

  7. I completely disagree with the article! If we had our grandparents living next door, or in the same home with us, then we don't need to fly "across the Atlantic to visit grandparents - which [the plane] happen to emit carbon as a byproduct", as the article says. We need to go back to our simple way of living, very slowly, starting right now, without taking any radical steps. A simple way of living has many other social benefits beyond helping to avoid an environmental disaster. The words 'guilt' and 'righteousness' could be put to good use again, but with new definitions. The West has already used this re-definition before and with great success.

  8. In fact, David, I think I see one of those extremists now.

    To Alan. It's one thing to have a sophisticated ethical position about the quality of modern living and try to persuade other people to your beliefs. But claiming that the world will end unless we turn into the kind of people you want is not a legitimate form of persuasion because it is false.

  9. I read something like this recently from British philosopher John Gray; but resigning oneself to the fact that some warming is inevitable isn't how you prevent a very possible worst case.

    This only makes sense if you ignore the worst case scenario, in which an unstoppable positive feedback loop occurs due to huge amounts of methane being freed from a northern permafrost thaw, as well as methane hydrates thawing on the ocean bottoms.

    The idea is to keep CO2 below a certain threshold where that hopefully does not occur. If you want to call that "obsessing about CO2", you need to understand where that concern comes from. This author doesn't seem to be aware that the "Venus Syndrome" is a very real possibility. What is the morality of knowingly allowing a runaway positive feedback loop?

  10. Touché. We may need different more sustainable ways of living in order not to deprive others (now or in the future) of material or spiritual well-being. But that's not at all the same as saying we must now live a particular brand of low impact life; that's no more a solution than blindly continuing our current course hoping that will automatically provide wealth and happiness indefinitely to everybody.

  11. 'Venus Syndrome'. If we were to focus consistently on extreme possibilities we would need to balance our expenditure on greenhouse gas emissions with preventing all the other extreme possibilities (nuclear war, asteroids, mega-pandemics, nanotechnology running amok......) Which would mean we wouldn't get much else done. Nor would we ever get around to such mundane moral priorities as bringing the billion destitute people on this planet into at least moderate prosperity and security. (Do environmentalist just find poor people too boring to care about? I sometimes wonder.)

    But in any case you are forgetting that heat, rather than CO2, is the problem. Geo-engineering offers several plausible means for slowing down the heat effects of emissions while our technology and politics catch up, and thus heading off the very worst case scenario. (Not that such measures are without their own risks and harms - but just because none of our options are ideal doesn't mean we shouldn't choose the relatively better ones.)

  12. Cheers, David. But I would add one further problem I have with the moralisation approach: because it eschews practicalities it often leads to questionable recommendations. For example, building entire new high speed train networks or shopping 'locally' are often more carbon intensive than present alternatives.

  13. Moralizing - "do as I say you should or you are a bad person" - is tiresome and ineffective. No; insofar as it diverts folks from working to understand and address an issue (like the consequences of global climate change based on current physical processes and the interdependence of human activities and global climate) it is dangerous. Perhaps immoral.

    Morality demands attention, analysis, and creativity to address those consequences; economic analysis is, as you say, part of that analysis as much as climatology and justice.

    The article seemed to me to conflate those concerned to address global climate change by (among other things) reducing the greenhouse effect with moralizing environmentalists (or maybe that term is redundant in your analysis, like air-breathing mammal). I tend to see them (perhaps I move in different circles as you suggest) as calling our attention to the interdependence of human well-being and climate, and the (moral) need to address potential negative feedback loop of human activity -> climate change -> reduced ability to support human needs.

  14. David. I'm all about the feasible paths to averting/mitigating the impacts of climate change on the things we humans care about. I'm sorry if my polemic on moralisers gave you the impression I was against environmentalism in general, rather than only when it becomes narrow-minded.

  15. Blah, blah, blah: "moral and cognitive melt-down in the face of its complexities"

    Those trying to stop highjackers on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania did not go into a philosophy debate about the "moral and cognitive melt down in face of complexities" etc. They took direct, strong, simple action.

    Earth is heading for disaster and some want to engage in a philosophy debate!

    It is time for direct, clear action to enable survival of some humans.

    There is so much bull on global warming, starting with the Deniers. I don't think humans are capable of effectively dealing with it and maybe we will all perish. Light out, folks.

  16. "Geo-engineering offers several plausible means.."

    They're not plausible yet if ever; and Venus syndrome would be extreme, but not an extreme possibility. Even if it had a small probability, the cost is everything we have.

    You're also assuming future knowledge about the cost of renewables compared to oil and coal; and you're not factoring externalities in your 3cents/kw-hr. number. You're also assuming plentiful supplies of oil and coal--that's another converging problem that has the same solution as the climate problem. You're also not thinking about the CO2 in the oceans breaking down the food chain. What's the morality of that?

    I also laughed at the immorality of not allowing someone to fly across the Atlantic to visit relatives. I grew up on the east coast with a mom from the west coast back in the day when it was very expensive to fly there. from my childhood into my young adulthood, she did it exactly once.

  17. Except coal-generated power does not cost 3 cents/kWh. Generating power with fossil fuels creates more damage than value-added. That's the conclusion, at least, of Yale economist William Nordhaus in a recent paper:

    Muller, Nicholas Z., Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. 2011. "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy." American Economic Review, 101(5): 1649–75.

    Coal-based power is worst of all. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that fossil fuel use causes damages of at least $120 B/yr to health and the environment:

    “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use”
    National Research Council, 2010

    We are all subsidizing fossil fuels by a huge amount through worse health and higher medical costs. People need to be educated about external costs, which are real even if they don't show up on one's monthly electricity bill. That doesn't mean developing countries shouldn't use it -- they desperately need more energy -- but it's a reason why rich countries should stop using it and develop (and subsidize) better methods.

  18. I guess I'm a little confused as to who you're arguing against. The mainstream enviro organizations I am familiar with don't carry out moralizing "shame campaigns." They spend most of their time and effort lobbying and organizing public support for exactly the "essentially pragmatic," economics-based program you advocate. A price on carbon, funding for R&D and adaptation funds to help out the third-world poor who will bear the burdens of a changing climate. Various groups use various tactics (which may or may not have a moralizing component), but the overall strategy is largely the same.

    These are not exactly radical new ideas. Every serious plan or analysis I've read has been kicking around some combination of these for a long time, so I'm not quite sure what is added to the discussion here...

  19. I appreciate the interesting perspective in this article. It reminds me of parallels with moralizing about working conditions and child labor in the developing world and our similar tendency to inappropriately apply our own moral standards to societies that are struggling to satisfy even the most basic human needs.

    However, I do have one gripe with the article. It resurrects the fallacy that coal power costs 3 cents per kWh. I don't think it was accurate when Peter Huber wrote it in 2009, and it certainly isn't accurate today. According to the EIA, coal comes in at around 9 cents per kWh compared to around 7 cents for natural gas. Regional supply factors can certainly shuffle this around, but it's a mistake to always think that coal means cheap energy

    The other often forgotten problem with coal is that even if you ignore carbon, its mercury and SO2 emissions make it a nasty energy source. Unlike the long-term and global impact of carbon, mercury and SO2 emissions tend to have more local and immediate impact.

  20. Tim. Thanks, I agree this is just common sense.

    Commenters on the real price of coal. My point is that unless the developed world can come up with feasible options to meet the developing world's energy needs we will not be able to persuade them to stop burning coal. On the other hand, the fact that burning coal causes immediate and local as well as long-term global problems - as you point out - means that there would be enthusiastic take-up of clean technologies if they made economic sense. i.e. no global agreement on regulation is required.

  21. In general, a carefully composed piece that is thoughtful on its face. At its root, however, it is just as simplistic [and naive] as the viewpoint it argues against. Ostensibly you argue that climate activists should not attempt to "shame" people into changing their behavior because it makes them cranky. At root, however, you are saying that the spectacular difficulty of reducing greenhouse gas emissions argues against doing anything at all. The rest of the post is just rationalization of this poor argument, mixed with your own tincture of shame.

    First- the fundamental issue is that some people are making decisions- conscious or unconscious, socially embedded or arbitrary- whose consequences are dire for many others who have no say in the decision. This is a basic issue of social justice, and to pretend that the only "pragmatic" solution is the one that doesn't inconvenience the world's power elite is essentially to argue that the issue should not be addressed at all. Which is what you are saying in this piece. "Stopping the economy" is hyperbole fit for Fox News.

    Second- whatever you say about ethics, "the effects of climate change" are going to be far harder to figure out than the basic facts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yes, the sea wall around the Maldives, but what about the flooding in South Asia? and the drought in Texas? Trying to address all of them piecemeal, say through a coordinated, global effort at flood control, famine alleviation, crop engineering, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, economic intervention, and etc. is in fact much more daunting than simply increasing the economic cost of carbon pollution so that people will do it less. It boggles my mind that you don't see that. The "geoengineering" refuge is intellectually bereft-- it's like saying genocide can be ameliorated through cloning. The effects of geoengineering schemes will be just as hard to predict and control as the effects of global warming.

    The "fuller ethical thinking / open debate" strategy is a canard in that engaging in it would not materially affect the "collective action problem" you introduce AT ALL-- how is a 6.7-billion-voice ethical debate going to lead to resolute action in any form?

    Finally, the Lomborgian "why worry about climate change when so many are in poverty!" just annoys me to no end-- to see why, replace "worry about climate change" with literally any other activity. It doesn't even rise to the level of an argument to say "we should not do x because a billion people are in poverty." You don't need a fictitious environmental movement to make you ashamed of making that statement because it's so embarrassing on its own.

    Climate change is not a problem of collective action-- it is a problem of willful ignorance. And you're not helping.

    I apologize for my tone. I guess my moralizing pragmatists are as your moralizing environmentalists. "Darkness of sustainability" my tuchus.

  22. Wow, Anonymous, apologizing for your tone and then still hitting send should tell you something. As an uneducated man, I've evolved from a boy who believed doctors and lawyers should not be questioned to a man who thought my bishop and US President should never be questioned... to a man who becomes more skeptical of "experts" every day. To be honest, your tone "frightens" me. Ever hear the Who's classic lyric: "..new boss, the same as the old boss". If science and reason and political prowess ultimately tip the scale in favor of the "extreme environmentalist movement", I just hope men like Chomsky are in power and not you, Anonymous. Even if you are right, your arrogance makes you part of the problem. It's counterproductive. Just an old country boy, who's father sent a letter to Nevada's lawmakers back in the early 60's, asking them to take littering more seriously. This same man took me and my brothers camping and fishing one week every summer in addition to several weekends throughout the year, ALL of my young life. He taught me to love nature, but seriously, why should I side with you to help preserve it? I am so tired of polarizing rhetoric such as you display in your comments here. Sorry for my tone. Smiles.

  23. Like Tim, I am wondering who is being "argued against". Greenpeace? 350.Org?

    In the main, "moralizing" environmentalism died out in the 1990s. "Cap and trade" was meant to bypass moralising by putting in place a free market mechanism to reduce emissions. Now it is derided as "Cap and Tax", and it seems to me the biggest moralisers are those who insist a tax, any tax, even one on a harmful substance, is immoral.

    What your article does not deal with is that the balance of moralisation has swung the other way.

    The quickest way to reduce emissions is a free market system that ensures carbon is paid for at its true price. And that includes future damage it will cause. There are even revenue-neutral taxes (i.e. the revenue collected goes to citizens rather than the government) but all are opposed by enemies of "big government".

    I know Bjorn Lomborg and others argue that technology alone can be the solution, and that it is just a matter of waiting until it saves us. But there are those, like Jim Hansen, also who say that the new technology will be too late and an increase in CO2 will have "locked in" a temperature rise that will change large regions of the planet for the worse. The nightmare scenario is a rise of 2.5C or over which would cause enormous dislocation.

    The weakness of your argument is that you do not take account of Hansen and his scenario. Can you risk him being wrong?


  24. Just to iterate: the weakness of the essay is that it assumes that technology creation and transfer is enough. That assumption may be wrong.

    To quote Hansen: The bigger problem is that people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work.

    See: http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110729_BabyLauren.pdf

  25. Anon 'I apologise for my tone'. You accuse me of promulgating wilful ignorance, but this is strange since what I am arguing for is including more information in our political decision-making. (Like political and practical constraints, and the other goals we have reason to value, such as ending world poverty.)

    To the last 2. I do include carbon pricing and regulation as part of our policy toolkit.

  26. "I do include carbon pricing and regulation as part of our policy toolkit. " Why?

    In a free market, is it moral for producers of fossils fuels to free-ride on an artificial price that does not include negative externalities? How can renewable energy technologies compete fairly if the playing pitch is tilted towards carbon-producing energy?

    I am not a "moraliser" either. And I profoundly hope that alternative technologies are ready in time before atmospheric carbon goes beyond control. However, there are those who deride the belief in timely techno-solutions as "believing in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy at the same time." I am certainly willing to consider nuclear energy as an interim solution.

    And this does not make me feel less uneasy: