Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Values in the climate change debate

An interesting editorial can be found here. One particularly interesting point they make is about the moral dimension to the problem:
Without mitigation, rising global temperatures are expected to cause ferocious hurricanes, tornadoes and floods; spawn heat waves, drought and famine; and prompt the spread of disease-carrying insects.

Middle- and upper-class families will hop in their cars to seek refuge from storms. They'll vaccinate their children and find good health care. They'll buy air conditioners. The poor, lacking resources to adapt, will disproportionately suffer and die.

Global warming isn't just an environmental debate. It's also about social and racial justice.
If you read the various blogs, many opposed to action will make the argument that addressing AGW is too economically damaging. My experience is that many of these people are so married to the economics of the problem that they don't even recognize that there exist different ways to look at the problem. In fact, the decision to take a cost-benefit view is itself a moral choices --- and one that is debatable.

My view is that some balance needs to be achieved: costs and benefits need to be considered, but so do the issues of social justice and fairness. Only by doing this can we obtain a socially and economically optimal solution to this problem.

17 comments:

David Graves said...

I will hazard a guess that your post will engender a good deal of criticism as being fuzzy feel-good thinking that plays into the hands of the nanny-state advocates. However, I agree with your assessment.

David Graves said...

The position of many of the conservative Christians on the recent Bill Moyers special on PBS would suggest your position may have agreement from unexpected quarters.

Paul Higgins said...

It is a widely held misconception that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require economic sacrifice. It’s true that paying to reduce emissions might be costly and that public expenditures might be better used for other things like health care or education. But there is an alternative to government spending: reduce emissions by charging a fee to pollute. It turns out that implementing a pollution fee would be expected to improve the economy.

Individuals and private companies get nearly all the benefits from using energy but don’t pay for the costs for the changes in climate that result. Instead, those costs will be paid by everyone as temperatures increase, sea levels rise, and precipitation patterns shift. That’s a bad situation for the economy because we’re all subsidizing each other’s pollution. As a result, we would, as a group, be better off if we had to pay for it when we do pollute. Of course, there will still be winners and losers even when the overall economic benefits exceed the costs.

George Landis said...

Ah yes, social justice and fairness, next you will be lecturing us on: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. What actually is your education in Dr. D? Science, or philosiphy, or political systems? It seems you have had a near death experience with capitalism and have embraced a failed economic and social system from last century. Pity.

Dano said...

Thank you Andrew for the op-ed. I find it fascinating that some eschew social justice, despite our forefathers dying in wars - some on our soil - to ensure we have some.

Best,

D

Acteon said...

Since when is social justice and fairness outdated? At least we know where you're coming from now. Reminds me of the comment I heard after the disaster in New Orleans. That those poor people who could not get out simply didn't work hard enough. if they did they would surely be rich and have a nice car...

If only I could live in such a simple universe. Must be nice.

Same of course goes for Africa, Bangladesh, et, etc... They just need to work a bit harder and all problems will be solved...

EliRabett said...

A real problem with economic analysis is that it discounts things that happen in the future and fully costs things that you do now in anticipation

Anonymous said...

Now you understand why people who believe the term "social justice" to be an oxymoron are sceptical of the benefit of slowing climate change.

George Landis said...

I guess this topic is about values, so let me try and explain what I am saying, so as not to be mistaken for Attilla the Hun. First of all, the terms "social justice" and "fairness" are extemely vague and totally subjective. When a liberal uses them they mean one thing, when a conservative, something different. You cannot communicate using these type of terms, as the devil is hiding in all the details and these are the real issue, not vague, sophistic, politically correct words without distinctions. My forefathers fought on both sides of the Civil War (War Between the States), and they died thinking they were all fighting for fairness and social justice, as they defined it. My father fought the Nazis and communists, and again, both sides had a different view of these terms. I fought the communists, and those guys also had different views than I on the terms, and after the war the ambitious and intelligent ones fled to America and have helped populate high school valedictorian ranks with their gifted children in distinct over-representation to their population as a whole. Meanwhile their home country had 25 years of political genocide and an intellectual and economic vacuum.

My point is that until there are specific actions and policies associated with these vague terms, there is no understanding or agreement possible, I could easily nod yes that I want those things, but I know what you liberals are thinking, and I don't agree. And though I don't think social justice to be an oxymoron, I do not think there is much benefit to fighting mother nature in a vain and homocentric quest to control the climate. I see much downside and no upside.

Andrew Dessler said...

George-

I agree that "social justice" etc. are ambiguous terms and that you need specific proposals before you can really debate them. My point here is simply that there are values beyond economic costs and benefits that should be considered. Looking at climate change exclusively in terms of dollars gained and lost misses a moral perspective that is, in my personal opinion, crucial.

Regards

George Landis said...

I totally agree Dr. D, a moral perspective on any political policy action that is contemplated that produces winners and losers is crucial. However, who's moral perspective you use is also crucial, and subject to interpretation, debate, and disagreement, as they are and will be radically different in today's society. And if you think AGW is controversial, try to get everyone to agree as to the moral perspective.

Bill F said...

I see "social justice" when it comes to large disadvantaged populations living in primitive conditions through the eyes of a story a former professor told us once. He spent a fair amount of his early career advising engineers building dams in Turkey. He gave us an example of the typical situation before and after the construction of each dam:

Before the dam was built, there would be something like 50,000 people living in a valley scratching out a living at the deepest level of poverty, without electricity or clean water to drink and with high levels of disease and malnutrition. After the dam was built and a stable supply of fresh water and electric power was provided, the valley would have a population of about 100,000 people clinging to survival and barely scratching out a living at the deepest depths of poverty. By providing the water and electricity, they didn't make any individual's life better, they simply made it possible for more individuals to survive at the same level of poverty, disease, and malnutrition.

With that story in mind, when I listen to people tell me that I need to spend alot of money to help a large disadvantaged population, while I am generally moved and want to help, I also examine the planned response very carefully to see if it will really help the individual or if will simply change the carrying capacity of the region. With that in mind, think about our response to the famine in Ethiopia in the early 1980s. The region is routinely wracked by drought on a predictable pattern. Instead of removing people from the area and settling them in an area with a more stable and predictable agricultural climate, we trucked tons and tons of food into the middle of the desert to help insure that as many people as possible survived into the next rainy period so that they could breed and create an even larger population to be affected by the next drought. I am not saying we shouldn't have fed the starving population, but I think we could have gone about it in a way that would have brought about a long-lasting change in the habits of the afflicted population so that they wouldn't repeat the same cycle over again.

In terms of climate change, while it is fashionable to invoke images of Katrina and rave about the terrible storms and floods that will allegedly become more frequent if global warming continues, the reality is that the populations that are subject to danger from that are already at risk from floods, hurricanes, droughts, etc. So by trying to control climate change, we are not preventing a danger, we are simply making it less likely by some modeled statistical percentage. If we instead, went to those populations we believe to be at risk, and helped them change their practices so as to minimize risk from ALL storms, droughts, and floods, then whether or not we are able to affect climate change with our actions or not, we will have made the population at risk safer. THAT is social justice...trying to do something with our emissions that may create a statistically significant decrease in the risk 50 years from now is a feel good measure designed to limit our future guilt. Doing something right now to help them cope with the risk they face tomorrow and next year is REAL action to help people who need it.

George Landis said...

Extremely well said Bill, that is exactly the point here between liberal and conservatives views of fairness and social justice, giving a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish and loaning him the money for his boat.

Bill F said...

The worst thing you can do to a man is give him a boat! The happiest two days in any boat owner's life are the day he or she buys the boat and the day they sell it!

George Landis said...

Very true Bill about that, I also felt that about the many motorycles I have owned over the years, but somehow you just keep wanting one!

Pity Dr. D is giving up on this blog, the new one requires registration and thus an open invitation to spam you to death, sorry, not for me.

Dano said...

George, there's so much fuzzy bunny environmentalism over there for you to dudgeon on about that it will be worth it to register.

Do what everyone does and get a hotmail/yahoo addy for registration and pound away at the näive tree huggers. It'll be fun.

Best,

D

evan from OZ said...

the profesionals said it would happen and the scientists have no reason to hold bias, we are all hypicrits and take things for granted so lets do the right thing money means nothing in the scale of this problem so why take the chance? This old school mentality by capitalist leeders that economics comes first is incredible. I'm a Plumber from Australia and i'm no treehugger but from the FACTS i see i'm not close off becoming one. Put a big tax on polution and let our free for all society deal with the rest, only when there's money to be made will they find away.