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Excusable Ignorance

The first objection claims that past polluters were excusably ignorant. They neither intended nor foresaw the effects of their behavior, and so ought not to be blamed, and cannot be held liable. As Todd Stern put it at the Copenhagen meeting: “I actually completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations or anything of the like. For most of the two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon.”28

One problem is that such claims are factually dubious. Most starkly, in 1965 the Johnson administration issued a report to Congress that concluded:

Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. The CO2 produced by this combustion is being injected into the atmosphere; about half of it remains there. The estimated recoverable reserves of fossil fuels are sufficient to produce nearly a 200% increase in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.29

The report made a number of specific claims about the scientific evidence and implications:

Pollutants have altered on a global scale the carbon dioxide content of the air.30

... the data show, clearly and conclusively, that from 19581963, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere increased by 1.36%.31

We can conclude with fair assurance that at the present time fossil fuels are the only source of CO2 being added to the ocean- atmosphere-biosphere system.32

By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate ... 33

With a 25% increase in atmospheric CO2, the average temperature near the earth’s surface could increase from 0.6 to 4.0 degrees C, depending on the behavior of the atmospheric water vapor content ... A doubling of CO2 in the air, which would happen if a little more than half of the fossil fuel reserves were consumed, would have about three times the effect of a twenty-five percent increase [i.e., 1.8-12.0°C].34

In a special message to Congress, President Johnson drew out three implications. First, he declared that climate change was already occurring, and fossil fuel use was a key cause: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” Second, he asserted that climate change is global problem with political implications: “Large-scale pollution of air ... is no respecter of political boundaries, and its effects extend far beyond those who cause it.” Third, he warned that the serious time-lags implied that early, anticipatory action was needed: “The longer we wait to act, the greater the dangers and the larger the problem.”35

In summary, by 1965 there was high-level political awareness (and concern) about the existence, magnitude, and timing of the climate threat. This casts significant doubt on the “blissfully ignorant” and “relatively recent phenomena” claims, as well as the 1990 benchmark. Still I do not advocate simply adopting an earlier “threshold” of knowledge. Instead, in my view, a better approach would be to embrace a more sophisticated historical understanding that acknowledges an evolution of awareness over time. This should include accepting increasing responsibility for decisions not to act, especially when these involve calculated gambles about the level of risk. One advantage of such an approach would be to diffuse some of the unfortunate political attention placed on disputing alleged “all-or-nothing” scientific thresholds for knowledge (such as the 1990 benchmark).36

Aside from history, the ignorance defense also faces theoretical difficulties. To begin with, it is worth distinguishing blame from responsibility. Though we do not usually blame those ignorant of what they do, we often hold them accountable. Hence, showing that blame is inappropriate is insufficient to dismiss past emissions. Moreover, the three presumptive arguments provide reasons for holding the ignorant accountable in this case.

First, consider causal responsibility. If I accidentally break something of yours, we usually think that I have some obligation to fix it, even if I was ignorant that my behavior was dangerous, and perhaps even if I could not have known. It remains true that I broke it, and in many contexts that is sufficient. After all, if I am not to fix it, who will? Even if it is not completely fair that I bear the burden, it is often at least less unfair than leaving you to bear it alone.

Interestingly, this may hold even if it was not really me who did it. Suppose my dog escapes into your yard, and digs up your vegetable patch. Suppose I have done everything that could reasonably be expected to prevent this (e.g. installed a perfectly good fence, which she has tunneled underneath). I am not usually to blame for the damage to your vegetables. Nevertheless, I am accountable. Even though I have acted perfectly responsibly, she is still my dog, and I have to bear the burdens of her activity. Part of what one takes on when one has a dog is these kinds of responsibilities. Perhaps something similar is true of citizenship.

Second, consider fair access. Suppose that I unwittingly deprive you of your share of something and benefit from doing so. Isn’t it natural to think that I should step in to help when the problem is discovered? For example, suppose that everyone in the office chips in to order pizza for lunch. You have to dash out for a meeting, and so leave your slices in the refrigerator. I (having already eaten mine) discover and eat yours because I assume that they must be going spare. You return to find that you now don’t have any lunch. Is this simply your problem? Usually, we don’t think so. Even though I didn’t realize at the time that I was taking your pizza, this does not mean that

I have no special obligations. The fact that I ate your lunch remains morally relevant.

Third, according to the general practice argument, we must consider all of the effects, direct and indirect, of endorsing a system where the ignorant are not held liable for their actions. One concern is the creation of perverse incentives, especially around information. For instance, if I am liable only if I know, then other things being equal it is better for me to remain ignorant. This encourages phenomena such as “turning a blind eye,” self-deception, and cultivated ignorance. Similarly, if liability requires public endorsement of the relevant facts, then I have incentives to spread disinformation in order to protect myself from liability.37 Other things being equal, this seems likely to lead to bad results, especially as a long-run strategy for global environmental affairs. Notably, in the context of rapidly escalating global environmental change, establishing a “blissful ignorance” precedent may well turn out to be one of the worse outcomes of the current policy debacle.

 
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