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Ethics in the SPM

My own chief concern in Berlin was just three paragraphs of the SPM that were explicitly about ethics. The SPM contains virtually no other mention of ethics. I reproduce here the version of those paragraphs that finally emerged (the bold headings are in the original):

Issues of equity, justice, and fairness arise with respect to mitigation and adaptation. Countries’ past and future contributions to the accumulation of GHGs [greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere are different, and countries also face varying challenges and circumstances, and have different capacities to address mitigation and adaptation. The evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective cooperation.

Many areas of climate policy-making involve value judgements and ethical considerations. These areas range from the question of how much mitigation is needed to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system to choices among specific policies for mitigation or adaptation. Social, economic and ethical analyses may be used to inform value judgements and may take into account values of various sorts, including human wellbeing, cultural values and non-human values.

Among other methods, economic evaluation is commonly used to inform climate policy design. Practical tools for economic assessment include cost-benefit analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, multicriteria analysis and expected utility theory. The limitations of these tools are well-documented. Ethical theories based on social welfare functions imply that distributional weights, which take account of the different value of money to different people, should be applied to monetary measures of benefits and harms. Whereas distributional weighting has not frequently been applied for comparing the effects of climate policies on different people at a single time, it is standard practice, in the form of discounting, for comparing the effects at different times.

(IPCC, 2014a, p. 5)

The first of these paragraphs is the feeble remnant of the disputed paragraph on justice. It is not empty. Indeed it is a major concession on the part of several countries to acknowledge that justice is at stake in determining the different responsibilities of governments toward climate change. It even recognizes that past emissions count, which the US has tried to deny. The second paragraph recognizes that climate change is an ethical matter, and that the academic discipline of ethics can contribute to determining what ought to be done about climate change. These two paragraphs are small beginnings, but it is an advance on the part of the IPCC simply to recognize that philosophical issues and philosophy as a discipline have a place in decision-making about climate change.

The third paragraph is more substantive. It is the one I am most proud of. It went through the contact group without much trouble. Perhaps this is because it is rather technical, and the delegates may not have been clear on what it means. It says that the standard methods of cost-benefit analysis used by economists are not justified by ethical theory. The weighing of costs and benefits should apply ‘distributional weights,’ which adjust for the different values of money to different people. Costs and benefits are initially measured in money, but money is worth less to rich people than to poor people. So in assessing the value of policies, the money of the rich should be down-weighted. Standardly, economists do not make this adjustment among contemporary people. As the last sentence of the paragraph points out, they do make it between different times; this is their most common theoretical argument for discounting future goods. So not only is their practice wrong; it is inconsistent.

Recognizing the need for weighting makes a great difference. By and large, the benefits of emitting greenhouse gases accrue mostly to the world’s rich and the costs are borne mostly by the poor. The benefits of reducing emissions accrue mostly to the poor and the costs mostly to the rich. In evaluating means of reducing emissions, taking account of the different values of money to different people will shift weight from the costs to the benefits. It promotes the reduction of emissions.

This is scarcely a conclusion of philosophy rather than of good economics, or even of good sense. But the SPM is only a list of points, so it inevitably has no room for substantial philosophy. Remember that, because of the IPCC’s extraordinary approval procedure, anything that appears in the SPM has been accepted by every country in the world, or at least by every country that sent delegates to the approval session. So every country has agreed that the standard economists’ methods of valuation are mistaken. I think this is notable.

Moreover, the countries took note of it. The words of the SPM acquire a special authority in subsequent international negotiations on climate change. This was brought home to me at the approval session for the Synthesis Report, which I attended some months later in Copenhagen. I carried some text from the SPM of WG3 through to the Synthesis Report. But because the text was a compromise made in the political atmosphere of the contact group, I was not happy with the prose. I tried to improve it. However, a Saudi delegate in Copenhagen noticed the textual changes and insisted on restoring the original wording, because that was what had been agreed in Berlin. I had my own prose quoted back to me. The Berlin text had acquired an immutable authority.

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