Choosing a Moral Framework on Climate Change

December 16, 2007

I’ve previously suggested that there exists a group of people who view climate change primarily as a moral problem, not an economic one. Being able to say what kind of problem climate change is has a tremendous impact on one’s analysis. If we believe that climate change is bad in itself or a symptom of something that is bad in itself, that suggests a different solution than if we are only worried about the possible negative consequences of climate change. If it were an economic problem, a problem of consequences, then the solution would be straightforward: choose the policy whose costs equal its benefits. Making climate change a deontological problem makes determining the “optimal policy” a much more complicated procedure.

Even the most vehement advocates of action against climate change make claims that we are “destroying the planet” only as hyperbole. No one really believes that if we continue on our current course, the result will be a Waterworld-esque apocalype, in which there is no inhabitable land at all. The changes that the planet will undergo may be massive, but they aren’t that massive.

The kinds of changes people expect basically come down to a shift in what lands are usable for certain purposes (e.g. agriculture, human habitation). The types of costs suggested by such a shift are costs in relocation, property, and human life; all these costs, however, are measurable, and none are really mind-boggling. People may have to live somewhere else, but they will still have somewhere to live. Food may have to be grown in different areas than it is grown now, but it will still be possible to grow enough food for everyone (before disputing this, recall Malthus’s prediction in 1800 that population growth would lead to widespread famine in Europe).

The point is, there’s no reason to believe that climate change is a fundamentally different problem, economically, than any other we have encountered in the past. Economics assumes limited, but not direly limited, resources, and its models are useful for examining situations where those conditions prevail. I am not convinced that there is a relevant difference between climate change and any other problem which makes climate change not susceptible to economic analysis.

Ultimately, the conclusion you reach about how we ought to deal with climate change depends on the moral framework you have chosen. Using utilitarian cost/benefit analysis, you’ll get one answer. Accept (say) the anarchist’s position, and start by saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with modern life, and you’ll get a very different answer.


3 Responses to “Choosing a Moral Framework on Climate Change”

  1. lichanos Says:

    I agree with your basic idea, and it bothers me that ethical/philosophical problems are often posed as scientific questions of fact by environmentalists (of whom I AM one.) This leads to confusing politics and science, and much hyperbole in the media.

    There are, however, more than two choices here, and I certainly don’t agree with your utilitarian-anarchist dichotomy. Perhaps you were just being provocative.

    The fact is, like evolution, the deep forces of history are driven by populations, not individuals, and we can’t really control it very well. No country is going to embrace voluntary flat-line economic growth, unless we figure out how to maintain wealth AND radically reduce population. So, we are stuck with adapting to climate change in some form.

    Of course, this leaves aside the scientific question of the validity of the “warmers'” claims. I have my doubts about a position that is based on computer models and little else. Nevertheless, their position is plausible, and that’s enough of a basis for policy.

  2. amelo14 Says:

    Found your post quite an interesting read. Agree with lichanos in that the dichotomy you propose leaves too many options aside. The other options include, the Heideggerian approach and the Aristotelian approach.

    As for your words:

    “I am not convinced that there is a relevant difference between climate change and any other problem which makes climate change not susceptible to economic analysis.”

    There seems to me to be a false dichotomy in your analysis of human affairs; on the one hand, the economic, and on the other, the ethical. However, if in fact human beings are ethical beings by nature, then the dichotomy you propose seems to be very reductive. For even deciding that the economic analysis is the most basic and useful approach may be seen itself as an ethical decision. In this respect, as well, what is truly lacking in your post is a greater concern with the question as a political issue. The political —which means more that just government—- might turn out to be that area in between anarchy and economics which may provide the most realistic options for the environment.

    Once again, great post.


  3. Thomas Says:

    A list of points:

    1) I like your carbon tax idea! Given the gravity of the issue, I’d vote for anyone who advocated it. (The most long standing and prominent proponent of a similar policy is, of course, Ralph Nader.) I thought you were a libertarian, where do you get off preaching a sensible federal tax policy? :p

    2) If you really, really think that all we’re talking about in terms of costs can be pared down to “relocation, property, and human life” then I strongly suggest you re-watch the Al Gore movie (fast forwarding through the parts where he talks about his own life/ethics if you so choose.) He talks about the fundamental challenge (at worst) or radical change (at best) to ecosystems that support every aspect of human life and society.

    3) That having been said, clarion calls about the end of the world are nothing new and have always turned out to be false. You are quite right in pointing out that the world will not end, which is to say that human life will persist and the bio-mass that is the planet is not at risk.

    4)I *do* think that your micro-economic cost/benefit analysis model, though carefully and thoroughly clarified in previous posts, is inadequate to grasp all the implications of this particular problem. The simple version of my reason for this is that the effects are global and unpredictable. Thus you can’t enumerate all the costs. The complex reason has to do with the following:

    5) Capitalism rests upon the strange (no less strange for being pervasive) idea that we are entitled to more wealth output than we have provided labor input. Burning fossil fuels is the supreme expression of this idea; a way of getting something for nothing. The sustainability of this process, its relationship to the ecosystem that supports us, and the production of waste is considered to be irrelevant. This is the same ideological blind-spot which has allowed for capitalist development and dominance; now it’s making itself manifest. From my perspective, if you insist on choosing a “moral framework” for climate change, it should incorporate the necessity for re-evaluating capitalist philosophy.

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