Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Made In Opposition to Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Value The Harms That Will Be Caused by Doing Nothing.

I. Introduction

This post is one of a series of entries that has looked at ethical problems with cost arguments made in opposition to the adoption of climate change legislation and policies.

As we have seen in prior ClimateEthics’ posts, 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 proposed climate change legislation can’t be afforded by the public. This post is one of a series that identifies ethical problems with these cost arguments made against the adoption of climate change policies and legislation.

In the entry entitled Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens, ClimateEthics explained how cost arguments were often deeply ethically problematic because they ignored duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or are vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts in the future.

In an entry entitled Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs< ClimateEthics explained why cost arguments were also ethically flawed because they often:

(a) ignore the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world, and thereby are inconsistent with theories of distributive justice; and

(b) implicitly rely on “preference utilitarianism,” a justification for non-action on climate change that is ethically flawed when applied to climate change for several reasons.

In another recent post entitled recent post, ClimateEthics explained why costs arguments could not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions led to human rights violations Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations,

This post now looks at how cost-benefit arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are also often ethically problematic because they fail to accurately identify the full damages of doing nothing on climate change.

The failure to adequately deal with the full costs of doing nothing stems from two problems with how the values of the benefits of taking action are calculated.

First cost arguments fail to fully identify all potential harms and damages from climate change.

Second cost arguments usually discount the values of future benefits to be experienced from climate change, an approach which raises numerous ethical problems.

This post looks at ethical issues that arise because of the failure to fully identify and appropriately value all potential damages and harms that will be avoided if climate change policies and programs are enacted. A later post will look at the problems of discounting future benefits.

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Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.

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What Needs To Be Done To Assure That Ethical Principles Guide Climate Change Policy Making: A Look At The Bridge at The End OF The World

I. Introduction.

Every once in a while a book is published that goes to heart of issues examined in ClimateEthics This is a review of such a book. This post reviews The Bridge At The End Of The World, Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis To Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. (Speth 2008)

Although this new book examines the causes of an unfolding failure to protect the environment on a matter of a number of global environmental issues, this book makes a major contribution to many issues that have been of interest to ClimateEthics. It is a provocative book, but in the best sense of the word. It is a compelling exhortation to look deeper and more critically at the institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas structuring and defining global environmental controversies-matters that for the most part have gone unchallenged by civil society including environmental groups.
According to Speth, it is the current form of capitalism and its influence on governing institutions that it has that is most responsible for global environmental deterioration. If Speth is right, the dominant ideas shaping our environmental discourses must be confronted if there is any hope of moving away from the approaching environmental abyss.

Speth’s new book is a clearly written, exhaustively researched, courageous, and compelling description of why the global environment has continued to deteriorate despite forty years during which the modern environmental movement has risen. Seeing a huge failure to make progress on protecting the global environment after almost four decades, Speth explains that in this book he is attempting to go deeper than he has before to examine the root causes of the growing global environmental crisis.

Speth’s conclusions are remarkable coming from someone who has been called an “insider’s insider.” Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, member and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President during the Carter administration, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, founder of the World Resources Institute, a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and now a professor at Vermont Law School. There are few people in the United States that have been in a better position to diagnose the worlds environmental problems and their causes.

Because Speth so forcibly attributes the causes of the daunting global environmental crises to an out-of-control global capitalism, given his background as a very well connected Washington insider, the books conclusions are an astonishing lightening bolt that illuminates both the nature and causes of the environmental abyss the world is facing. That this book has come from the dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with high-level ties to some of the most respected environmental institutions is astonishing.
The main idea of this book is that there is no hope of solving the world’s major growing environmental and social problems unless there is much more robust government intervention in global economic markets. Although Speth in the end is not completely anti-market-he is very strongly critical of market failures and the hegemony of market ideas. Speth wants to keep a place for markets, but believes governments must keep markets in their place.

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Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs

I. Introduction

Economic analysis of climate change issues can help policy makers in many ways including identification of the least costly methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how to structure incentives to encourage society’s maximum reduction of carbon footprints. Without 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 are found, the more hope there is to reduce climate change’s immense menace. Yet there are ethical limits to the use of some economic arguments frequently made in opposition to proposed government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of some environmental regulatory programs can help identify proposed market regulatory interventions whose costs significantly outweigh environmental benefits. Yet CBA of some government environmental programs including climate change emissions reduction strategies often ignore serious ethical limitations on the use of this tool to guide climate change policy.

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