Emissions Equity

The anthropogenic global warming (AGW) debate has increasingly recognized a common-sense fact about the effects of higher temperatures: we’re not all entirely in the same boat together.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that UN consensus forecasts for expected global warming occur. The end of the world would not be nigh. Under a reasonable set of assumptions for economic and population growth, over the next one to two hundred years the world should get several degrees hotter. On average, this is projected to reduce global GDP by about 1 – 5% by sometime in the 22nd century. This is projected to be very costly for some parts of the world, and less so for others.

This is driven partially by elemental facts of geography. If it’s cold where I live, things may actually get better if the climate gets a little hotter: more varieties of crops become available, growing seasons lengthen, transportation generally becomes cheaper, tourism becomes more appealing and so on. If it’s already hot where I live, the reverse dynamic applies. Further, if I live in a low-lying area near water, rises in sea levels are a much bigger deal than if I live on a mountain.

The level of economic development where I live matters a lot too. A wealthier country can spend money to adapt, by doing things like building levees and improving air conditioning, than can a poorer country. Additionally, if I am dependent on outdoor activities like farming for my livelihood, climate changes matter a lot more than if I am an accountant.

While most people in the world would be negatively impacted to some extent if global warming reduces global economic output by 1 – 5%, it would be a much bigger problem for a rice farmer in coastal Bangladesh than for a dental hygienist in Denver. Broadly speaking, there is a large belt of poor geographies near the equator that would bear a big part of the impact.

The reaction to this observation by those who advocate massive interventions to mitigate global warming through emissions abatement, whether through carbon taxes, cap-and-trade or other regulatory mechanisms, has been somewhat varied. The primary approach has been to ignore it. Since so many of the natural opponents of regulation have foolishly treated AGW as a hoax, advocates have been able to get away with this by operating at a very high rhetorical plane. Once the debate moves on to consider the facts, as I think has begun to happen, this is no longer tenable. One argument then deployed by advocates is to dispute the premise: to argue that such apocalyptic devastation will result from AGW that we are all imperiled. This requires, however, rejecting the UN IPCC consensus forecasts, which is highly problematic for many obvious reasons that I have covered elsewhere. The second approach has been to argue that we in the developed world have a moral duty to prevent those in the developing world from bearing the brunt of a problem that we created. In plain English, the theory is that “we made the mess, so we should clean it up”.

Now, I believe that we do have a moral duty to the less fortunate generally, and at a national level, to less fortunate countries in particular. There is excellent evidence that the developed world as a whole agrees with me, in that basically every country in the developed world has a large foreign aid budget, private contributions to international charities and so on. In very broad terms, these societies vote to transfer a large absolute amount of wealth to less developed countries, but they are not willing to impoverish themselves, and do not demonstrate a belief that global incomes should be anything like equalized through wealth transfers. Whether you view this level of generosity as a tribute to human goodness or an indictment of human selfishness, I think that it forms an empirical measurement of willingness to assist. We might call this the assistance baseline.

In the event of a major disaster, such as the Asian Tsunami of 2004, willingness to give rises, sometimes dramatically, but always within the broad boundaries that I describe above. We can this level of willingness to assist, the disaster baseline.

Imagine a thought experiment: a huge meteor strikes Bangladesh, causing massive flooding and devastation, but has no effect anywhere else. What do you think would be the reaction of the developed world? If history is any guide, there would be a large international mobilization. The US government would provide direct financial assistance, and the US military would provide immediate sea lift, air lift and other technical support. European governments would provide aid, probably on a per capita basis larger than that of the US; private aid from Europe would also be large, though probably somewhat less than the US on a per capita basis. India would provide manpower, and receive financial support form the US, Europe and Japan. China would likely try to participate for various reasons, and so on. When all was said and done, the residents of Bangladesh would still be poorer than those in the developed world, and worse off than if there had been no such meteor strike, but much better off than if there had been no assistance after the disaster. No developing world government or citizen caused the meteor strike, so the mixed motivations of charity and self-interest that motivated this assistance were not due to any moral duty created by causing the meteor strike.

Imagine, as a modification to this thought experiment, that the meteor had not yet struck Earth, but that an absolute scientific certainty existed that it was six months from striking Bangladesh with effects limited entirely to Bangladesh as per the first thought experiment. I believe that the reaction would be very similar, in broad outlines, to that described in the first thought experiment. Differences would likely be a rush of the population of Bangladesh to the borders, pressure on India from the US and Europe to accept refugees, supported by payments, and so on. Nonetheless, assistance would be at the disaster baseline.

If this projected disaster were not a meteor strike, but were instead AGW, for which we do bear some causal responsibility, do we have a duty to do more than we would in this thought experiment? The argument, then, of those who say we have a moral duty to assist the developing world in dealing with the effects of AGW is more precisely that we have an incremental moral duty, over and above the disaster baseline, attributable to the fact the developed world cased the problem.

There is clearly something to this, but consider the broader history. For the vast majority of human existence, almost everybody lived at the subsistence level. Then, suddenly, within the past several hundred years, large numbers of people started getting a lot richer. This started with Europe and its offshoots, but is now spreading to many other parts of the world.

This process was started by the West (i.e., the historical polluters). Europe and the US didn’t steal this wealth from oppressed colonies; they invented a new way of organizing society that allows new wealth to be created. Along with all that CO2 the West put in the air, it also invented polio vaccine, the limited liability corporation, the high-efficiency power turbine and so on. While the West made a ton of money selling these things to what we now call developing countries, there were and are huge externalities because inevitably a lot of this knowledge leaks. The West invented the basic tools for increasing wealth that the successful parts of the developing world are now using to escape poverty, and incidentally emit more carbon. Consider the accumulated carbon emissions as part of the R&D cost.

How does one balance the costs and benefits that have been imposed on the rest of the world? There is no practical way to calculate this, and it is inherently loaded with all kinds of subjective moral judgments, but ask yourself this question: would you rather be born at the median income level in Bangladesh today or at the median income level in Bangladesh in the alternative world where the entire Northern Hemisphere had never escaped life at the subsistence level. That is, to live in a world of lower carbon emissions, but no Western science, none of the economic development inside Bangladesh that would not have occurred had the West not developed, no hospitals, no foreign aid, no meaningful chance of ever changing your life? For me (but not necessarily for everyone), the answer is obvious.

Of course, anybody who has taken Moral Philosophy 101 can fine-grain this analysis. Some obvious questions include:

• “Since those in the developing world didn’t choose this set of trade-offs, but had it forced upon them without consent, does this create some moral duty?”

• “Why does some guy working at Wal-Mart in Des Moines somehow owe money to a farmer living in Paraguay because some third guy built a textile mill in South Carolina in 1936?”

• “OK, if the current residents of the US owe money to the current residents of Tanzania because people living in US today gain a disproportionate share of the benefits created by the 19th century industrialization of Great Britain which created a lot of emissions, then what about all the other good things I get that I didn’t create just because I happen to have been born in Los Angeles in 1975 – why do we isolate this one item?”

• “But wait a minute, I think that the Nazis were pretty bad, so shouldn’t people living in Germany today have to pay everyone living in Russia, the Ukraine, and really basically everywhere but Japan, Italy and Switzerland, money?”

• “Hey, why are we even considering this at the level of countries instead of individuals anyway?”

• Etc., etc., etc.

This is a Rawlsian wilderness of mirrors. The search for this sort of cosmic justice has never formed the political foundation of a workable village, never mind global village. At the level of practical international politics, it is the kind of argument that sounds good at a faculty colloquium, but won’t, and shouldn’t, ever be the basis for real policy.