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Introduction to Part II

ACTIVITIES YOU AND I engage in every day without thought—heating and cooling our homes, turning on the lights, taking a warm shower, commuting, eating—harm other people. These activities require energy.1 Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels. Using fossil fuels results in emissions of carbon dioxide, which will cause climate change. The harms from climate change will range from mild to possibly catastrophic. Many people’s livelihood, food supply, or place of living will be altered or destroyed. And many of the people causing the harms are wealthy or live in wealthy nations. Many of the victims will be poor.

Notwithstanding these harms, and notwithstanding more than twenty years of international negotiations to establish limits, emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise. Since the first major climate treaty, the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, annual emissions have gone up by more than a third.2 They show no sign of slowing. Developed nations overall have stabilized emissions but have not substantially reduced them. Fast developing nations have rapidly increased their energy use. As a result, their emissions have doubled in the period from 1992 to today. Extensive negotiations have managed to produce agreements to agree sometime down the road.

How should ethics help us evaluate these facts and help us to decide what to do? One view is that climate change is primarily an ethical problem. Climate change seems to raise many questions of ethics or justice, such as what are our duties to people who live in other countries or who live in the future, what is the just distribution of wealth, how should we divide global resources, and when, if ever, is it permissible to harm others. Under this view, ethics can tell you whether you can take that warm shower and have a cup of coffee tomorrow morning.

Many people take the view that climate change is primarily an ethical problem. My co-author and debating partner, Steven Gardiner, states simply “Climate change is an ethical issue.”3 It is, moreover, not sufficient to consider our own self-interest to determine how to address climate change. Gardiner argues:

The dominant reason for acting on climate change is not that it would make us better off. It is that not acting involves taking advantage of the poor, the future, and nature. We can hope that refraining from such exploitation is good (or at least not bad) for us, especially in terms of current lifestyles and those to which we aspire. But such hope is and should not be our primary ground for acting. After all, morally speaking, we must act in any case.4

Philosophers often go on to argue that climate policy has to take a particular form to meet ethical constraints. That is, not only does ethics help determine the values we should use in designing climate policy. It tells us which specific climate change policies are the right ones. Philosophers argue, for example, that climate policy must be designed to address distributive concerns, that climate policy must take into account past injustices, and that climate change policy must rely on ethics to determine who has the right to emit how much in the future.

For example, the philosopher Peter Singer argues that total emissions of greenhouse gases should be capped at one trillion tons of carbon, and that rights to emit up to this cap should be divided among countries on a per capita basis using population projections for the year 2050.5 The underlying theory is based on a theory of equality: all humans have an equal right to the atmosphere so allocating use on a per capita basis is required by justice.

Others have tried to find a numerical basis for allocating responsibility for past emissions. These calculations are motivated by notions of duties to avoid harming others and a corresponding obligation to compensate for any harm done in the past. Teams of scientists, in an attempt to support the philosophical arguments, have performed elaborate calculations of who owes whom what as if they were testifying as expert witnesses on damage valuations in a trial.6

Other philosophers are not quite this specific but still argue that the shape of climate policy should reflect particular ethical concerns. For example, many argue that to address distributive concerns, wealthy nations should have greater duties to reduce emissions than poor nations do.7 The Kyoto Protocol, as I write, the only climate treaty that imposes binding obligations to reduce emissions, reflects distributive concerns. It imposes binding caps on wealthy countries and no obligations whatsoever on anyone else.

These philosophers are mistaken. Mainstream philosophical claims about climate change suffer from serious and systematic flaws.8 The first is what I will call climate change blinders. We wear climate change blinders when we think that climate change policy is the tool we need to use to solve whatever ethical problem happens to be in front of us, forgetting that there are many tools and policies at our disposal.

An example is the widely held belief that climate change policy should be designed with distributive goals in mind. There are vast differences in wealth around the globe. People argue that climate policy should be designed to address this ethical problem. As a result, they recommend against choosing the lowest cost method of reducing emissions. Instead, wealthier nations should reduce more even if the costs of their reductions are higher than the costs of reductions found elsewhere. Wealthy nations can, after all, better afford these costs. Claims of this sort have led to policies such as the Kyoto Protocol in which wealthy nations have a binding obligation to reduce emissions while developing nations have no obligations whatsoever.9

There are, however, many ways to achieve distributive goals other than through a climate treaty. We might, for example, change trade policies, remove subsidies for domestic industries that hurt competing industries in developing countries, change the rules governing intellectual property, or provide free goods of various sorts—such as mosquito nets, vaccines, or chlorine to sterilize water. Perhaps helping to develop better governance structures or reducing corruption is the best way to help the poor. Microcredit, women’s rights, deworming, or indoor plumbing all might be central to that goal. We don’t know which, if any, of these policies is best. A great number of people have devoted their lives to finding solutions. Many approaches have been tried. Few have worked.

Philosophy can help us understand the value of improving the distribution of well-being, but it does not tell us that climate change policy is the best way or the necessary way to achieve this goal. By trying to redistribute within a climate change policy, we may be choosing a way of helping the poor that is more expensive and less effective than other forms of meeting distributive obligations. Moreover, by trying to redistribute within a climate change policy, we risk failing to achieve core climate change goals. Climate change blinders prevent us from seeing that other tools are available and that we should pick the combination of policies that best achieves our multiple goals. By focusing on climate change and ignoring the broader policy context, the arguments risk producing policies that fail to achieve any of their stated goals in an effective manner.

The second flaw with many ethical arguments about climate change is that they often produce recommendations which violate basic feasibility constraints. An example is the commonly made proposal to divide the atmosphere into equal portions and to distribute those portions in the form of rights to emit carbon dioxide equally among the world’s population—creating equal per capita emissions rights. Singer’s proposal, mentioned above, is an example. The approach seems ethically appealing because it treats all humans equally. The atmosphere, some say, is a common resource of all humans. Allocating the right to use it equally is, one might think, a minimal requirement of justice. An American should not have the right to emit more than a Brazilian or Bangladeshi because of the mere happenstance of birth.

This approach, however, is completely infeasible. The size of the immediate wealth transfers would exceed the transfers that are currently made from rich to poor countries by several orders of magnitude. If done in the manner that analysts propose—hand out tradable permits to people or countries and let them sell them for cash—the transfers would be done without any sort of controls on the use of the money, controls which are now and have always been required. Yet philosophers ignore such problems. Peter Singer, a proponent of this approach, goes so far as to argue that the equal per capita approach is suitable as a political compromise without attempting to give a single historical example of voluntary transfers of this magnitude. The policy recommendation is utopian in the bad sense of the word.

Perhaps Singer and others take the view that we should determine what is right entirely without regard to whether it is feasible. If ethics requires men to behave like angels, that is what is required even if nobody can meet that goal. If the wealthy countries have to give vast sums to other countries as part of a climate treaty to be ethical, it does not matter that they would never do this. It is still required. Failing to meet ethical demands does not diminish the demands.

Another view is that philosophy should not stray too far, if at all, beyond feasibility constraints if it is to be helpful in telling us what to do. Climate change is an urgent problem. We need to find solutions that will work. Claims based on ethics that ignore basic feasibility constraints are at best idle chatter, and at worst, divert our attention from actual solutions.

The claim that ethics should be limited by feasibility, taken too far, chafes. Ethics tells us what we ought to do. It is, by its nature, demanding. If we can just refuse to do what is required by ethics, claiming it is infeasible, ethics is empty. I won’t stop my fist from moving in the direction of your nose. Therefore, I have no ethical obligation not to assault you.

A serious look at how ethics and ethically informed policies operate, however, shows that feasibility is central.10 Consider the design of a progressive tax system. A progressive tax system improves the distribution of income, reducing inequality and improving welfare. It is ethically desirable. To pursue this goal, we could design a tax system that ignores feasibility constraints in which people are told to reveal their income and pay taxes on that income without audits or sanctions and without considering the effects of the tax system on incentives to work and save. Ideally, tax rates on high levels of income would be at or near 100%, paid voluntarily. Ethics must be demanding. But of course, nobody would comply. The system is infeasible and would not improve anyone’s welfare. Designing a tax system that pursues the ethical goal of improving the distribution of resources requires understanding what is feasible and what is not. Designing policies that comply with feasibility constraints produces better, more ethical results, than ignoring them and making idle demands.

Philosophers outside of the climate change context understand this, and use feasibility constraints when considering the design of political institutions. For example, John Rawls, in Political Liberalism, argues that a conception of justice must be capable of forming the basis of a stable society.11 A stable society is one that is “willingly and freely supported by at least a substantial majority of its politically active citizens.” Thomas Nagel argues that “the motivations that are morally required of us must be practically and psychologically possible, otherwise our political theory will be utopian in the bad sense.12 Elizabeth Anderson forcefully argues for affirmative action because of the infeasibility of a truly color-blind society.13

How tight the feasibility limits should be will depend on the context and there are no hard and fast rules. If ethics is not demanding at all, it can achieve nothing, but if it is utopian, it is not helpful in designing policies, policies that are urgently needed in the case of climate change.

Nations are the principle actors in climate change and feasibility constraints have particular force when we are considering actions taken by nations. States have not historically been willing to enter into treaties that they expect will make them substantially worse off so that they can help other nations or people.14 Treaties are the result of negotiations between governments trying to obtain particular benefits through mutual exchange.

This is self-evidently true about run-of-the-mill treaties such as treaties governing taxes, embassies, communication standards, overflight agreements, and the like. It is also true for the closest analogy to a climate treaty, the Montreal Protocol, where nations agreed to reduce the emissions of ozone depleting chemicals to limit the size of the ozone hole. The United States approached Europe for treaty negotiations only after the United States determined that unilateral action would be in its interest.15 Developing nations are paid to comply, so it was in their self-interest as well.

Even human rights treaties are not an exception to the pursuit of national self-interest. These treaties did not require liberal democracies to change their behavior either because they were already in compliance or, where the treaties might have required a change in behavior, nations issued reservations to excuse them from taking on additional obligations. Authoritarian states entered into the treaties in return for bribes or in response to threats. They mostly ignored the treaties, regardless, so there were benefits and no cost. Transitional states may be the only exception: some of them might have changed their behavior in response to human rights treaties in a way that might seem to be against their interest. According to the empirical research, however, those states entered into human rights treaties because liberal governments then in power wanted to lock in liberal rights.16 The treaties were in the perceived self-interest of the signatory governments.

Nations sometimes make mistakes and end up with treaties that harm rather than benefit them. Not every nation always achieves its own desired end. Nevertheless, nations consistently pursue their perceived self-i nterest. Ethical arguments that ask wealthy nations to enter into treaties that systematically make them worse off violate basic feasibility constraints. They are akin to designing an “ethical” tax system based on people voluntarily handing over vast portions of their wealth. Better results will be achieved by paying attention to feasibility.

To establish these claims, chapter 7 will analyze three types of arguments from ethics that have been made regarding climate policy: claims based on theories of distributive justice which conclude that climate policy needs to take the distribution of income, wealth, or other items of value, into account; claims based on theories of corrective justice which conclude that climate policy needs to be adjusted for past wrongful emissions; and claims based on theories of equality which conclude that rights to emit carbon dioxide need to be allocated equally to all people. I will show that each of these theories suffers from climate change blinders and violates basic feasibility constraints.

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