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.