Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Climate Change Fairness?

I earlier summarized some of the main political and ethical points of dealing with climate change. One central political dispute is, of course, the participation of China and India and other large developing nations in any future climate change regime. The dispute centers on conflicting notions of fairness.

The US (and now the G-8) maintains that it is unfair for rapidly growing greenhouse gas emitters - China and India - not to be part of the international environmental regime. It worries, of course, about US economic standing vis-a-vis China in particular, but the more reasonable case is that China and India should not exacerbate the problem while other countries attempt to mitigate climate change (notwithstanding the fact that very little has indeed been done to date by the developed nations). China and India maintain, rightly, that the problem was created by countries such as the US and that developing nations should not have to pay economically for a problem created by countries that have reaped the economic benefits of pollution. In the earlier post, I put the matter as follows:
  • that the US views ratification of Kyoto as not in its national interests. This position assumes that a) national interests are synonymous with economic interests; b) that there is no technological alternative for economic growth [also a value assumption] to increasing emissions; and c) that only national interests matter when it comes to climate change.
  • that developing countries excluded from the first round of Kyoto should have been included, especially China and India, along with the developed Annex I countries...
...The basic argument from the developing nations is that, given the disproportional emissions on the part of the industrialized countries - which are a direct result of industrialization or modernization of their economies - to call for regulation on emissions from developing nations is to unfairly disadvantage their own industrialization or economic growth. In other words, it is a luxury to have modernized economically, while producing the majority of emissions, and now demand of economically developing nations that they reel in emissions (and thus, by implication, halt their economic growth or experiment with new technologies, something which the US in particular has been wont to do). This is, of course, not perceived to be in developing countries' economic interests by those countries.
Peter Singer in a recent essay summarizes the matter similarly:
China, India, and other developing nations, have a point – or rather, three points. First, if we apply the principle “You broke it, you fix it,” then the developed nations have to take responsibility for our “broken” atmosphere, which can no longer absorb more greenhouse gases without the world’s climate changing. Second, even if we wipe the slate clean and forget about who caused the problem, it remains true that the typical US resident is responsible for about six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the typical Chinese, and as much as 18 times more than the average Indian. Third, the richer nations are better able than less well-off nations to absorb the costs of fixing the problem without causing serious harm to their populations.

But it is also true that if China and India continue to increase their output of greenhouse gases, they will eventually undo all the good that would be achieved by deep emissions cuts in the industrialized nations. This year or next, China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter – on a national, rather than a per capita basis, of course. In 25 years, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, China’s emissions could be double those of the US, Europe, and Japan combined.

Now, most environmental issues involve questions of justice. When an environmental problem is created as a by-product of economic activity, not only are the costs usually externalized when evaluating the benefits of that economic activity, but the by-product has to go somewhere and ends up affecting someone. This is most clearly illustrated in environmental justice cases of toxic waste disposal - toxic waste generally tends to gravitate miraculously (since few claim it to be policy) to poor neighborhoods or poor countries.

In the case of climate change, everyone is potentially affected in multiple, complex ways from immediate effects of coastal or small-island flooding, for example, to long-term indirect economic losses, for example. But some - the industrialized nations - have contributed far more to the problem than developing nations, and some - poor nations, generally - will be more drastically affected than the industrialized nations. This puts the whole climate change regime framework on an unfair footing in the first place. Again, the issue is fairness or justice. Singer has a proposal:

...there is a solution that is both fair and practical:

  • Establish the total amount of greenhouse gases that we can allow to be emitted without causing the earth’s average temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the point beyond which climate change could become extremely dangerous.
  • Divide that total by the world’s population, thus calculating what each person’s share of the total is.
  • Allocate to each country a greenhouse gas emissions quota equal to the country’s population, multiplied by the per person share.
  • Finally, allow countries that need a higher quota to buy it from those that emit less than their quota.

The fairness of giving every person on earth an equal share of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions is difficult to deny. Why should anyone have a greater entitlement than others to use the earth’s atmosphere?

But, in addition to being fair, this scheme also has practical benefits. It would give developing nations a strong incentive to accept mandatory quotas, because if they can keep their per capita emissions low, they will have excess emissions rights to sell to the industrialized nations. The rich countries will benefit, too, because they will be able to choose their preferred mix of reducing emissions and buying up emissions rights from developing nations.

I think that this is perhaps the best we can do, at least in terms of an argument from fairness. But it requires the all-important factor that individual states commit to, first, acknowledging climate change as a serious problem that demands efforts from all countries and, second, accepting the climate change problem as currently grave enough to require a change in national policies today rather than tomorrow. Furthermore, it requires that individual states view the issue as a matter of fairness in the first place.

Now, here's the rub: I don't think there is enough pressure at this point for individual states, especially the United States, to take up the seriousness of the argument from fairness. Much of US federal policy is dictated by "national interest" (and, remember, this is almost always determined by particular economic interests), and the current administration is too beholden to a world-view that is so constricted it's a dot. There are already plenty of economic incentives to enter into climate change mitigation, but these seem to have made little dent in US federal policy or foreign policy, at least not relative to the gravity of the climate change problem. There are those in the US who look at climate change exclusively in terms of the damage caused to the national economy and geography and then suggest that the US can rather inexpensively adapt. That is the limit of the ethical claim for these people.

The key issue is that taking up a proposal like Singer's requires that we view the world in terms of more fully taking responsibility for our own actions, especially when those actions cause harm to others. It requires that we view non-citizens more fully in moral terms. But US policy - whether environmental, humanitarian or whatever - seems to me today to be concerned principally with US self-interest. Note how the US often demands of other countries things that it itself has no intention of doing (on, say, nuclear energy policy and proliferation). The ethics of self interest is the most primitive and unimaginative of ethical thinking. Much of our thinking about politics, economics, and so on remains at the normative level of self interest, whether individual or national. This is a cognitive framework for continual morally stunted policy.


MT said...

I could stop being self-interested any time I want and have almost done so many times. The issue is: What's in it for me?

helmut said...


MT said...

I'm in. Singer's proposal is so sensible it's obvious. Anyway, the U.S. should have signed Kyoto. Especially given the current administration's attitude that we're only playing with Monopoly money anyway, there's no excuse not to do the right thing.

O.K. now, what do you got? It better not be any of that bulk-bin candy-corn crap. Make it some Caillebotte (no paintings either, wise guy)