With the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that the proposed legislation can’t be afforded by the public.
Of course, not all cost arguments about climate change policies are irrelevant to enlightened climate change public policy. For instance, economists can often help decision-makers reduce greenhouse gas emissions to target levels at the lowest cost, create economic incentives that will most effectively achieve climate change protection goals, and help with questions about how to distribute climate change reduction burdens in society with the least disruption to human flourishing. Without a doubt, economic analyses of climate change reduction strategies are vital to finding the most efficient solutions to human-induced climate change’s immense threat. The more low-cost solutions to climate change that are found, the more hope there is to reduce climate change’s immense menace.
Yet many cost arguments in opposition to climate change policies are both ethically and factually flawed. This is not surprising as many of the arguments against climate change policies are often defensive moves by parties who are trying to protect themselves against a perceived reduction in their profits if climate change policies are enacted.(Oreskes and Conway. 2010) Climate change policies will clearly create economic winners and losers and those who perceive that their economic interests will be adversely affected have organized to attack climate change policies as being too costly. This is not to claim that all costs concerns about climate change policies are illegitimate but to suggest why so many cost arguments about climate change policies contain deeply problematic ethical assumptions.
As we shall see, cost arguments also sometimes raise ethical questions about which different ethical theories may reach different ethical conclusions. In these cases, spotting ethical issues can lead to disagreement about what ethics requires. Yet, the paper will identify ethical conclusions that can be made about some cost arguments that have a strong overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories. Philosopher John Rawls defined an overlapping consensus as a matter about which citizens support the same basic laws or justice outcomes for different reasons. (Rawls, 1987) For instance, both utilitarians and Kantians require the interests of people be considered regardless of where they live in the world, but reach these conclusions based upon different ethical theories. In cases where there is an overlapping consensus on ethical principles, different ethical theories support the same prescriptive guidance but for different reasons. This paper will identify some ethical conclusions that can be used to criticize some cost arguments about climate change that are supported by different ethical theories.
A third outcome of ethical issue spotting are matters about which there is disagreement on what ethics requires when different ethical theories are applied to the issues under consideration yet most ethical theories would condemn positions taken on these issues by some parties despite this disagreement about what ethics requires. In other words, some responses to climate change justified on the basis of cost are universally rejected by ethical theories despite disagreement on what perfect justice would require. In these cases, spotting ethical problems raised by these cost arguments can restrict alternatives about appropriate climate change policies to ethically acceptable options about the use of cost considerations in climate change policy.
Recent arguments made against US climate change legislation are typical of cost arguments that have been made in opposition to climate change policies in the United States for over 30 years.
For example, a comment made by US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in reaction to US House climate change legislation:
“The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch, or fill up their car–but that’s exactly what this bill would do.” (Trygstad, 2009).
Another typical example of common cost arguments made against climate change is the following statement about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on climate change, a proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under existing US air pollution law.
Virtually every concern heightened by the economic downturn, especially job losses, would be exacerbated under the ANPR. As with cap-and-trade legislation, the EPA’s suggested rulemaking would be poison to an already sick economy. But even in the best of economic times, this policy would likely end them. The estimated costs–close to $7 trillion dollars and 3 million manufacturing jobs lost–are staggering. So is the sweep of regulations that could severely affect nearly every major energy-using product from cars to lawnmowers, and a million or more businesses and buildings of all types. And all of this sacrifice is in order to make, at best, a minuscule contribution to an overstated environmental threat. (Lieberman, 2010)
There are often problems with these cost arguments that go beyond the ethical concerns discussed in this post. For instance, cost claims often: (a) include factual errors in calculating the costs and benefits of proposed climate change policies, (b) are based upon assumptions in the economic models on which the cost claims are based that ignore other potentially valid assumptions, (c) fail to consider costs that society would bear from inaction on climate change, and (d) include outright falsehoods.
An example of an outright falsehood is a claim recently made by Glen Beck, a US television personality, who informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that the Waxman-Markey US House of Representatives bill would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. There was no such study. (Krugman, 2009)
Despite these and other problems with cost arguments that need to be seriously considered to critically evaluate them, this paper focuses exclusively on ethical issues that often arise when cost arguments are made against climate change policies.
This is the second in a series of posts that have looked at the ethical limitations of cost arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to climate change policies. In a prior post, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2008/06/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs.html, ClimateEthics examined why cost-benefit analysis in which “cost” arguments did not consider how the “costs” of action were disaggregated from the “benefits” of taking action or which exclusively relied upon “preference utilitarianism” as the ethical justification for non-action are deeply ethically problematic.
This post looks at arguments that attempt to justify non-action based upon claims of excessive costs to one country alone. Future posts will examine other ethical problems with cost arguments such as; (a) The failure to see the ethical limitations on cost arguments when climate change creates human rights violations, (b) ethical limitations of exclusive use of ” willingness-to-pay.” as justification for non-action, (c) procedural justice problems with cost arguments, (d) ethical problems when cost arguments try to calculate the dollar value of harms avoided by climate change, and (e) ethical problems with discounting future generations.
Many of the cost arguments made against climate change are simply assertions that climate change policies are too costly. They do not explicitly compare costs of taking action against the benefits of taking action, the form of arguments made in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). To the extent that these arguments are based upon additional costs alone, serious ethical objections can be raised because, as we shall see, one may not do harm to others on the basis that it will be less costly to the one proposing the harm. For instance, it would be ethically problematic for a husband who owed child support to his ex-wife to refuse to give the support on the basis that he would like to use the money for a trip to Bermuda (Garvey 2008:98)
Although many objections to climate change policies are based upon cost alone, this and other posts will focus on CBAs as they more explicitly compare costs of climate change reduction strategies against the benefits to society of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
One can usually understand other kinds of cost arguments against climate change policies as implicitly taking the form of CBAs because even though they don’t explicitly compare the costs of climate change policies against the benefits of taking action, they usually can be understood to this implicitly do this.. That is, behind any objection against climate change policies that simply states that the policy costs too much is usually the unstated assumption that the benefits to society that would be obtained by the implementation of the policy are not worth it. Therefore, ethical analysis of CBA is also usually relevant to simple claims that the policy is too costly.
CBA is a generic term for a variety of techniques designed to allow decision-makers to determine in a rigorous way whether the payback from a program will be greater than the costs of implementing it. If costs of an environmental program are greater than environmental benefits produced by a program, according to mainstream CBA theory, the program should be abandoned. The economic justification for this use of CBA is the notion that society must decide how to spend its scarce resources and it should spend its money in the most efficient way possible. If money is spent by society on environmental protection programs that don’t produce an environmental payback that is greater in economic value than the cost of the program, it is a bad investment and should not be supported. (Shogren and Toman, 2000) This is so, according to CBA theory, because public money should be spent on programs that will produce the largest aggregate benefits. As we have seen in the prior post referenced above, the philosophical justification for this approach is often a form of utilitarianism sometimes referred to as “preference utilitarianism.”
II. The Ethical Duty Of Nations to All People, Not Just Citizens.
Proponents of CBAs often argue that governments should not take action to reduce greenhouse emissions if the cost to reduce emissions is greater than the value of climate change caused harms avoided because of the government action. Although CBA may be a very valuable tool for decision-makers who are trying to decide whether investment in a particular project will provide an adequate payoff compared to other projects or investments, CBA’s use for some environmental problems such as climate change can be ethically dubious, particularly when it is applied to environmental problems such as climate change where harms and benefits are significantly disaggregated. That is, climate change is a problem being caused by some people around the world who are often separated by significant time and space from those who are most vulnerable to a warming world. Therefore, the costs that CBAs seek to avoid often fall on different people than those who will benefit from climate change policies.
We now know with high levels of confidence, for instance, that greenhouse gas emissions coming from coal fired power plants in United States and China are already contributing to droughts in Africa and Australia, threatening polar bears and walruses in the arctic as sea ice melts, and endangering millions of people who live near rising seas in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Future climate change impacts threaten some of the poorest people around the world who do not live in high-emitting nations. That is, climate change harms and benefits are hugely disaggregated across time and geography. This separation between those causing climate change from those who are most threatened by it creates several ethical limitations on the use of CBAs as a guide to climate change policy.
One frequent justification for using CBAs as a guide to regulatory action is that if money is spent on a project that will return limited benefits compared to other projects that could return more benefits, then there is a lost opportunity to create greater human welfare. (Shogren and Toman, 2000). In economics an “opportunity cost” is the cost (sacrifice) incurred by choosing one option over an alternative one that may be equally desired. Thus, opportunity cost is the cost of pursuing one choice instead of another that could provide greater benefits. Yet in the case of climate change, there may be no “opportunity cost” experienced by many of those who are most vulnerable to a warming world and who would therefore benefit from GHG emissions reductions expenditures that are used by high greenhouse gas emitters for other projects. If, for instance, the United States decides not to spend one billion dollars on climate change reduction strategies because a CBA determines that this money will not return an equal or greater amount of benefits measured in dollars to the United States, then the CBA can act as justification for continuing behavior which harms others without their consent. In this case, if the United States chooses to invest in an alternative project such as health care for Americans with the one billion dollars, this alternative investment does not lead to greater benefits to those whom the United States is harming through its greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, the opportunity cost argument often does not work when harms and benefits are as geographically and temporally a disaggregated as they are in climate change.
In addition to the fact that the opportunity cost justification does not work for the use of CBAs as a guide to climate change policy formation, there are several ethical issues posed by climate change that flow from the fact that harms and benefits of climate change are so disaggregated across space and time that will be discussed in later portions of this paper. This section of the paper examines the conflict between CBAs used as a guide to public action on climate change and the obligations that all humans have to others to prevent harm.
Sometimes CBAs have been used to look at harms and benefits to the polluting country alone. For instance, when the Clinton administration was attacked with the charge that the Kyoto Protocol’s cost in the United State was too expensive compared to the benefits of programs in the United States, the US government simply developed an alternative analysis that looked at harms and benefits to the United States alone and showed lower costs to the United States than those on which the opponents of Kyoto were relying. (United States, 1998)
The Clinton administration’s defense of Kyoto ignored the benefits of U.S global warming programs to others outside the United States. Although the Clinton administration may have simply been attempting to refute arguments against Kyoto, its limited focus on costs and benefits to the United States alone is ethically troublesome. This is so because such an insular approach treats foreigners as if their US-caused injury is irrelevant to US obligations. Even if the costs of taking action under the Kyoto Protocol were very high to the United States, a fact disputed by many in the Clinton Administration, the United States has a strong ethical responsibility to prevent harm to others who neither consented to the harm nor benefited from US activities that cause harm. Given that the environmental harm from human-induced climate change could be catastrophic for some nations and will likely be grave for many of the poorest nations, the U.S.failure to consider the consequences of its activities on others is ethically problematic because it violates the ethical obligation to do no harm.
As we have seen above, arguments against climate change policies continue to be made on the basis of cost to the United States alone, in other words, on the basis of the U.S. self-interest without regard to duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others.
As we shall see, no mainstream ethical system would condone one nation causing great harm to another by using the excuse that the harming nation’s costs of reducing its harmful behavior are too high for its domestic economic welfare. As we shall see, ignoring the harm that could be caused to millions around the world by global warming is inconsistent with rights-and-duties-based ethical considerations as well as theories of distributive justice; in fact, it is a problem with all mainstream ethical theories.
One exception to the view that humans have obligations to others to prevent great harm might be a communitarian approach to global responsibilities. Some communitarians hold the position that humans have ethical obligations only to those who are in their community. (Harris, 2009: 29) As a consequence of this view, citizens of one country have no ethical obligations to citizens of another country and consequently the United States’ examination of cost and benefits to itself alone is consistent with a strong communitarian view.
According to communitarians, there is no duty in general to promote the common good, the good of other states, or individuals living in other states, because individual human beings do not have rights against any other states other then those in which they live. (Dower, 2007: 59)
In contrast to communitarians, cosmopolitans hold the view that people have duties to other people regardless of where they are situated. Cosmopolitans would strongly disagree with the notion that the U.S. or citizens of any country can deny their responsibilities to people anywhere. The cosmopolitan believes that:
• Human beings are the ultimate units of concern rather than family lines, tribes, ethnic, cultural, or religious communities, nations or states (the latter only indirectly);
• The obligations are to every individual human being equally-not merely to some subset of individuals, such as men, aristocrats, whites, Muslims. (Pogge, 2008 :175)
Although a respectable support for a communitarian view can be held for some human problems, strong ethical arguments can be made that a cosmopolitan approach to a problem like climate change is mandatory where the causal link between one’s behavior in one part of the world has such devastating consequences as climate changed does to life, health, security, and basic human needs of others around the world. In fact, a cosmopolitan ethic is compelled in the case of climate change because of the huge numbers of distant strangers that may be benefited or harmed, even destroyed or sustained, by the actions of some through their institutionalized action or inaction. (Harris, 2010:108)
The communitarian denial of responsibility to those who are not members of their community is deeply ethically problematic for human actions when there is a direct causal link between the actions of some people and significant harm inflicted on others. More and more, patterns of international trade, technology, and economic development have bound us into a single community, and given this new global community our moral thinking needs to change to reflect these new realities. (Jamieson, 2002: 306-307) When humans in one part of the world are harmed through the activities of people in other parts of the world, a strong case can be made that a communitarian ethic that denies responsibility simply because the victims are in other communities is ethically problematic. The communitarian claim that distinct communities have distinct ethical commitments can stand for some problems, but the communitarian argument that denies ethical responsibilities to others around the world regarding climate change since climate change entails a factually distinct global community with its own ethical requirements cannot stand given the increasingly global community that climate change affects.
The question of whether I should help the person I harmed is radically different then the question of whether I should help people who need charity because the most basic principle of equity in all cultures is do no harm. (Shue, 1999, 541) This is not to say that climate change policies cannot also be justified on the basis of charity alone, only that the causal connection between human activities and climate change harms makes the duty to those harmed fundamental.
Global interdependence created by economic globalization and transboundary environmental problems has created a situation in which national societies are neither self-contained nor self-sufficient and therefore a strong argument can be made that only a cosmopolitan approach to these problems passes ethical scrutiny (Harris 2010, 31)
Global citizenship, which involves commitment to a global ethic that transcends national borders “is morally as important as it has always been, and for practical purposes [such as climate change and other transboundary environmental problems] increasingly urgent too. (Attfield, 2003:1600)
For this reason, although a communitarian understanding of a citizen’s responsibility may be defensible for some human problems it is ethically troublesome for human-induced climate change.
All mainstream ethical theories assume that people have responsibilities to do no harm to any human being regardless of where they are located. For instance:
• Although utilitarians hold that the distribution of resources should be justified on the total amount of happiness (or utility) it produces measured by summing up the happiness experienced by individuals, classic utilitarian philosophers such as such as Jeremy Bentham and more contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer hold that people are simultaneously citizens of their own nations and of the world, with duties to seek the good of humankind in general.(Harris, 2010: 39-41 )
• According to deontological theories, such as those held by Immanuel Kant, all humans have obligations towards one another by virtue of their common humanity. (Harris, 2010: 41-43) The duty to others to prevent the kind of harms caused by climate change derives from the responsibility to treat all humans with respect. (O’Neill. 1996:103 )
• Those who ascribe to a theory of justice articulated by John Rawls that claim that public policy should be developed out of concern is for the least advantaged argue that, in the case of climate change, the poor, whose interests need to be considered, include poor people affected by climate change regardless of where they are located on the globe (Beitz, 1979: 151)
• As we shall see in later sections of this paper, under several international norms established by international law, nations have clear duties to prevent adverse climate change impacts in other countries including the widely accepted “no-harm” principle.
• As we shall also see, under various theories of distributive and retributive justice, persons who harm others must share the burdens of preventing harm to others and compensating others who have already been harmed.
From this it follows that nations and individuals have clear duties, responsibilities, and obligations to prevent harms to others and the notion that nations or individuals can base climate change responsibilities on the cost to themselves alone is deeply ethically flawed.
As a result CBAs must, at minimum, be calculated by disaggregating all costs and benefits to determine effects on different parts of the world at different times. If this were done, decision-makers would at least be able to consider their obligations to those who will be harmed most before making a decision based upon a CBA. Therefore at the very minimum, CBAs should expressly disaggregate harms and benefits: (i) within generations, (ii) over time, and (iii) according to the nature of the risk imposed, and (iv) geographically. With this disaggregated information, decision-makers need to consider other ethical issues raised by CBAs that are discussed in this paper, including the duty to prevent harm to others, to not violate the human rights of others, the obligation to allow those who will be adversely affected by climate change to participate in decisions that affect their vital interests, and the need to see uncertainties about the magnitude of harms and benefits as ethical questions in need of a response.
Cost arguments against climate change policies that don’t consider duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others are deeply and seriously flawed. Yet these arguments are made very frequently. As we have noted in ClimateEthics many times, neither politicians discussing climate change nor most politicians discussing climate change policies seem to be aware of the deep ethical problems with cost arguments about climate change policies that are very frequently made and appear to have obtained a lot of public traction at least in the US debate about climate change policies. This is another reason why citizens must turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
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