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.


Guillermo Vargas said...

What do you mean when you write:

"given current carbon use, no historically based allocation system would seem to leave the West with a viable allocation."

Would you please explain in some detail? Thanks.

Martin Bunzl said...

If you want a reply you need to post with a non-anonymous address. MB