Monday, January 28, 2008

Beware of Philosophers!

A lot of people assume that there are some deep ethical issues involved in considering climate change - the sort of issues that call for an expert consultation. It reminds me of the early days of medical ethics when philosophers had beepers and doctors would call them in for emergency consults. Then as now, I worried that as the philosopher worried about all the considerations and all the possibilities, the patient died! Philosophers mostly traffic in undermining our sense of certainty – at its best, to echo Bertrand Russell, we substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty. We don’t do especially well when presented with hesitation in search certainty! Beware of philosophers! We will just end up creating more hesitation. Take our obligations to future generations. That we have such obligations may seem screamingly obvious. But in fact the idea is rife with problems since those future generations don’t exist and might not exist given our current actions. Destroy the planet and there will be no future generations to which we failed in our obligations. Now hold on! That can’t be right. And of course it isn’t. But it turns out to be much harder than one might think to apply the language of rights and obligations to potential beings than actual ones. This turns out to be a really interesting philosophical problem. But resolving it is not really important for the problem at hand. To think otherwise is to misapply the standard of precision of philosophy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Does History Matter?

Let's assume my last post is correct - ignoring the historic, current and prospective output of the "North", the "South" is on track to put out enough carbon output to reach 450 ppm by 2060. Suppose the "South" says, we won't do that, we just want our fair share of what is left - what can still be put into the atmosphere responsibly. Then what is its fair share? In One World, Peter Singer (Yale 2004) argues that there are a variety of principles of fairness that could be defended as the best one to take when it comes to deciding on allocations of greenhouse gas allowances to save the planet (43). He opts for what he terms the simplest – an equal per capita allocation for future entitlements based on population growth as projected to 2050 with a cap and trade system to allow the West to make up for its needs beyond its allocation. Such a principle may be simple, but it also ignores past outputs which created most of the accumulated gasses. Singer thinks that responsibility for these cases should not be demanded before the date at which the West became aware of their damaging effects , but that still leaves the West with responsibility for creating a lot of the problem. And even if we, living now, bear no responsibility for the actions of our forbearers, we surely benefit from their actions more than others. I don’t think that generates a terribly strong moral basis for taking history into account, and that is what I suppose prompts Singer to argue for a purely forward looking allocation based on a presentist notion of fairness. But is the reason to do so that really that it is simpler? I don’t think that is really what is at issue. Instead what is at issue is that given current carbon use, no historically based allocation system would seem to leave the West with a viable allocation. But just as in the presentist case, the obvious way to respond to this would be to invoke a cap and trade principle that would make the West responsible to simply buy allocations to cover all of its prospective energy needs rather than what would be needed starting with a presentist per capita allocation. So in the end the only difference between the implementation of an historical allocation and a presentist allocation is the amount of allocations the West would have to buy.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Carbon Output and the Rest of the World

On March 13th 2001 President Bush declared: “I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India. [It is an] … ineffective means of addressing global climate change concerns.”

While on April 20th 2007, India’s UN Ambassador “… told the developed nations that the main responsibility for taking action to lessen the threat of climate change rests with them …, while efforts to impose greenhouse gas commitments on developing nations would ‘simply adversely impact’ their prospects of growth.”

Now David Wheeler and Kevin Ummel of the Center for Global Development ( have produced a provocative report that projects carbon output from the “South” (Asia (excluding Japan and the FSU), Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands) alone will exceed safe limits (450ppm) by 2060 ignoring all historic and future contributions from the North! The projection assumes an A1F1 IPCC scenario of fossil-intensive, rapid economic growth coupled with low population growth along with no emission reductions.

You can download their full report from:
full report

Monday, January 7, 2008

Reflections on Hedge Trimmers and Hummers

Many people have posted comments here and on other sites about my call to ban hedge trimmers and Hummers. And most are not happy about the idea - taking me to task for being weak willed and/or opposing the free market. I salute those who are stronger willed than I am. But I think more are like me than them. Our weak wills are not however a function of lack of moral fiber but, as I argued, a much more subtle feature of our make up that leads us to overweight the present over the future and the concrete over the abstract. As to the free market, I am struck by the selectivity of such complaints. Nearly everyone supports restricting the free market when it comes to product safety. But I think the more important issue is this: the complaints sidestep the central point I was making. We don't come to the market with a set of fixed and stable preferences that we seek to maximize. A striking experiment worth noting is this: William Kunst-Wilson and Robert Zajonc (Kunst-Wilson, William and Robert Zajonc (1980), “Affective Discrimination of Stimuli That Cannot Be Recognized”, Science 207: 557-558) have shown than familiarity of the most innocuous nature can produce a preference bias. Subjects were exposed for 1 millisecond to each member of a set of 10 irregular octagons. The 1 millisecond exposure length had previously been established to be too short to produce anything better than chance results in a recognition memory test in which the subjects were asked to discriminate the previously exposed stimuli from novel ones. However, when subjects were asked to make pair-wise preference judgments between random pairings of the previously exposed stimuli and novel ones (both of which were irregular octagons), a statistically significant preference for the previously exposed stimuli was demonstrated. (16 if 24 subjects preferred the old stimuli to the novel ones but only 5 of the 24 recognized them.) Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc used this data to argue that we have the capacity to make judgments non-cognitively and their research has become central to a debate about whether cognitive representation is necessary condition for emotional responses to stimuli. The conclusion I want to draw is different: how mere familiarity affects preferences and does so without our even knowing it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ulysses and the Hedge Trimmer

As published in The Washington Post , January 1, 2008; A11

UPS delivered my hedge trimmer a few weeks ago. Actually, it is not just a hedge trimmer but has interchangeable heads so that it can trim grass, mow down brush and cut small tree limbs. The whole thing was a steal: $359. As I powered it up, I felt mild pangs of guilt -- the two-cycle contraption uses a mixture of oil and gas to cool the engine as well as fuel it, which makes it not just copiously smelly but also a behemoth when it comes to producing carbon dioxide.
If you think that is bad, so do I -- especially since I could have bought a slightly more expensive four-cycle model that does not require mixing the oil and gas. And I know better. But my knowledge did not translate into action. I knew I was doing wrong. I even agonized about doing wrong. But it did not stop me.
My weakness, what Aristotle called "akrasia," is something Ulysses knew a lot about when he instructed his crew to tie him to the mast when they passed the Sirens. Me, I need to be tied up going to Home Depot. We're not talking just about garden tools. I have also suffered from akrasia when it comes to my car. My car gets 40 miles per gallon but is not a Prius -- it is a dirty, used diesel. I couldn't resist the initial low price and the promise of ongoing savings.
On and on it goes. I spend most of my waking hours worrying about how to reduce my output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet my behavior seems to march to a different drummer. I need to get the best deal. For me, not the world. When it comes to what counts as the best deal, my values don't get incorporated into the calculation. I am attuned only to price. And I don't think I am alone in this.
Fine, you say. Big deal. The solution is obvious: We adjust the price to make the "right thing" priced right for me. But here is another problem -- when it comes to pricing I am totally irrational. Offer me two washing machines, one that is more expensive now but more efficient over its lifetime, and hence cheaper in the long run, and I'll choose the one that is cheaper now. I can do the calculation in my head using a formula of the discounted value of future savings to see how much they are worth in present-day dollars. But behavioral economists would say my actual discounting is hyperbolic. In the end, all I care about is the deal today. The sad truth is that if you want me to buy the more efficient machine, you will have to give me a subsidy upfront to make it no more expensive than the inefficient one.
No problem, you might say. We don't need to waste money on subsidies; we can just create a tax to make the washing machines' prices equivalent, the same for the prices of the diesel and the Prius, and the two-cycle trimmer and the four-cycle version, and so on. Then you will step into line.
But there is another problem. I like Hummers. Not the really big Hummer I, but the more demure Hummer II. I like its boxy design and its commanding presence on the road. I secretly desire to command the road. Here I am not irrational, just retrograde when it comes to my preferences. And if my preferences are strong enough and my wallet is large enough, no tax is going to make me give up my Hummer for a Prius.
I am not alone in loving Hummers. An effective tax will have to take into account all variety of Hummer lovers, the strength of their preferences and the size of their wallets.
I say: Better not to tempt me in the first place. Take the Hummers away. Don't clutter my world with things I should not have. Don't dangle them in front of me, creating desire, only to then try to have me renounce them. Just ban the damn two-cycle hedge trimmer and let me be done with the matter.