Today’s post on ethics is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
The debate over global warming is typically presented (admittedly simplistically) as a debate between two factions.
One faction is the, “OMG, we are all going to die if we don’t stop global warming now!” faction.
They are opposed by the, “Warming, schwarming, we have nothing to worry about or, if there is, there’s nothing we can do about it,” faction.
This is the wrong frame. It is like me deciding for you if a movie is worth going to and, on the basis of my decision, dictating whether you will or will not see the movie. Agents who insist on this type of power are still governed by the fact that they act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs, and will dictate you movie-watching activities accordingly.
The question should be, “Who should pay those costs?”
An agent goes to the gas station and purchase $40 worth of gas. She gives the clerk a $20 bill and a card that allows the clerk to draw the other $20 out of some random bank account. It simply picks an account at random and subtracts the cost from it.
One of the consequences of this is that agents will end up buying a lot more gas then they would have if they had to pay the whole price. They will purchase gas that has a $40 total cost that provides the agents with only $25 worth of benefit. Overall, people are worse off.
Generally, agents have reason to object to such a system. While this agent is buying gas and draining the bank accounts of others, other people are also buying gas and taking the money out of his account. If this threat is relatively equal – if his chance of losing $20 to somebody else’s trivial purpose is comparable to his taking $20 from others for his trivial purposes, where money is the only measure of his concern, he has a self-interested in ending the practice. He will have to give up the $40 purchase of gas that has a value to him of $25 (for which he realizing $5 of increased benefit), but he will save the $20 that others drain from his account. And the $20 savings is greater than the $5 lost benefit.
But what happens when the community of gas buyers is much smaller than the community of account holders? In this case, the gas buyers will tend to benefit, inflicting much greater costs on those who cannot buy gas. They will be taking more out of the accounts of others then they will be losing as a result of the purchases made by others.
What happens if the community of gas buyers is smaller because they tend to be relatively wealthier? In this case, you have a wealth transfer scheme whereby those with money are able to force the poor to pay huge (relative) costs for trivial benefits. The $20 drain is taken from the poor so that the wealthy can acquire $5 worth of benefit.
What happens where the costs are not paid in terms in cash withdrawn from accounts, but in the value of land and other property, or the value of the health of those affected, or even the value of the lives lost? Well, in this case, the relatively wealthy will have a way to obtain their $5 worth of benefits by forcing the relatively poor to sacrifice the value of their land, property, health, and life.
What happens when the political apparatus is such that only the relatively wealthy are given a vote in the decision-making process, while the relatively poor have absolutely no power in the legislatures that are making these decisions? Well, in this case, we can expect the political process to favor the small benefit to the relatively wealthy over the exceptional costs of the trivially poor.
This is what I see in the global warming debate. I see relatively wealthy people (in global terms, where billions live on less than $100 per month) inflicting huge costs on others in terms of the destruction of their life, health, and property, for the sake of activities they would abandon as trivial if not for the fact that they are able to push the costs onto others – and, for the most part – others who have no voice in the decisions that affect them.
Of course, the people who are being asked to pay those costs have an incentive in trivializing those costs, while such a system also gives others an incentive to claim themselves to be among the harmed (and entitled to compensation) when they are not harmed, or to exaggerate the value of the harms inflicted on them. While this is a serious problem, it is a problem in all matters of this type and provides no reason to treat the issue of global warming any differently. This is a serious problem that demands that institutions be created that at least have some hope at getting at the facts of the matter. It is not an argument for ignoring the issue and allowing the relatively wealthy to impose costs on the relatively poor at will.
If I may, I would like to take a moment to examine the specific claim that inspired these comments. It is the claim – which I have heard from more than one source – that sea-level rise will happen so slowly that the costs will be trivial. There will be more than enough time for people to migrate to higher ground. It is not as if a huge tsunami is going to hit and, in a matter of minutes, the sea-level is going to rise by a certain height.
This is not a realistic view of the situation.
What is going to happen with a three-foot rise in sea-level is that a house that, at one time would have been one foot above the high-water mark when a hurricane comes ashore will suffer the destruction of two feet of water instead.
An office building that would have had to stand up to the current of a three-foot current of water when a tsunami comes ashore (and might have withstood that current) will have to endure a six-foot current instead (and may fail).
A rogue wave that comes on shore after a winter storm at sea that would have splashed against a house will demolish it instead.
Water that would have, at one time, peaked two feet below the levee that is keeping the sea out of the city will instead flow over the top of (and perhaps destroy) the levee instead.
People can’t pick up their property and move it a few feet upstream as the sea level slowly rises. That property is going to stay put. It will be destroyed – not slowly as the water level creeps up one slow inch at a time, but rapidly when an extreme event destroys or damages what that same extreme event would have left untouched in the past.
Even if people are able to avoid these costs, avoidance is not free. A city can build higher and higher levees, but they have to pay to do so – and only if the geography allows it. This might be a bit difficult around places like Shanghai and Miami.
The possibility of cost avoidance is still one in which the relatively wealthy are obtaining relatively trivial benefits for themselves by forcing grater costs – the costs of avoidance – on others. A person might have an option to spend $10 to avoid a $20 drain on their bank account, but they would still suffer the $10 cost of avoidance by those who are imposing this cost to obtain a $5 benefit.
You’re telling the poor family in Bangladesh or Shanghai (and China is still a very poor country, relatively speaking) that all he and his family needs is to do is to move upstream – several tens of miles away in many cases. And is there empty land waiting for them up there? Or are you instead going to force crowding (and corresponding higher land prices) on the upstream population as you force migration on the downstream population?
They will stay in their property until that typhoon or cyclone or tsunami comes through and destroys it, and relief agencies gather up the survivors and relocate them, or aid them in relocating themselves.
We also have to consider the fact that, when it comes to paying the costs of avoidance, the relatively wealthy have more options than the relatively poor. You can tell somebody that, for the sake of (say) a $10 investment they avoid a $20 cost. However, what happens if they do not have $10 to invest? In that case, they are forced to suffer a $20 cost that a person with $10 to invest can avoid.
Perhaps the people who are causing the $20 worth of harm would rather pay $10 so that the people they affect can avoid those harms. However, that is not the option we are giving them. We are giving them the option to donate $10 to avoid harm as an act of charity, or keep the $10 in their own pocket and force those they harm to suffer the full cost. There seem to be a great many people who prefer keeping the $10 and forcing the full $20 cost on their victims.
Perhaps the users of fossil fuels will like to pay the lesser costs of helping the desperately poor avoid the greater costs of sea-level rise. However, the incentive now is not for them to pay either the lower cost of avoidance or the greater cost of actual harm. The options we give them today is to pay nothing or to pay the lesser cost of avoidance. In which case, many of them choose to pay nothing, and leave the greater harms actually suffered as a result for others to pay.
Keep in mind, I am using the $10 and $20 only for illustrative purposes. In fact, we are not talking about the loss of $10 or $20. We are talking about the potential destruction of life, health, and property by hundreds of millions of the most desperately poor.
This, then, is my approach to the question of global warming. I am not predicting what the total costs will be or whether it is more or less worthwhile to avoid those costs. I am simply arguing for the application of a principle that those who create the costs – whatever they are – should pay for it. Even if the costs turn out to be relatively minor, and the benefits worth the costs, those who obtain the benefits should be compensating those who suffer the loss for the harms done.
- Alonzo Fyfe