Monday, February 23, 2009

More on Valuation

I have been thinking more about how the attitude toward climate risk in the Developing World and the Developed World may drive disagreement going forward. I live in a pretty stable world. Day to day life is quite regular. Disruption is minimal. Not just that, where disruption occurs, life is stable under such perturbation unless it was extreme – which to date it has not been. (I have been in no serious car accidents, nor had serious disease and so on.) For me the calculus of cost and benefit for a 550 or 650 ppm world is negative. Climate change is driven by energy use which is tied to economic growth. I am well off enough that marginal growth does not yield much incremental benefit. Instead, I’d prefer to avoid the increase in potential disruption to my life that such climate change may risk. But now consider my counterpart – a poor person in a Developing Country. His day to day life is filled with disruptions to regularity – uncertainty in food supply, health, energy (if any) and so on. He lives on a knife edge - with little resilience to minor perturbations. You might think he should disfavor the increased risk that climate change would bring more than I would. But that is not obviously the case. For if climate change is driven by his increased energy use as a result of his increased economic growth he may be better off. For notice two things: the same marginal gain to me which is small relative to my income may be huge to him relative to his income. And that improvement may render him more resilient to the effects of climate change than he would have been – poorer in a lower ppm world. But not just that, his increased income will not just increase his resilience in the face of the effects of climate change but across all the other existing disruptive forces in his life.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Soft Support

We just completed the second phase of a poll in New Jersey supported by PSEG on attitudes toward global warming policy. In an earlier poll we had been struck by the high degree of support for more government action. That is confirmed in these results. 66% believe the Federal government should play a major role in combating global warming. We find dramatic results when it comes to specific policy - 84% of respondents believe utility companies should be forced to use more renewable sources of energy and 80% of respondents support mandating higher energy conservation standard in new buildings and renovations – even though only 58% of respondents believe global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by human activity! That is the good news. The bad news is the drop in support when such policies are framed in terms of costs to the respondents themselves. Support for increasing energy from renewable sources drops to 49% when it is associated with 20% increase in utility prices. And support for higher building standards drops to 65% if it were to entail a 10% increase in the costs of construction. Most telling, only 17% would support the use of gas taxes to discourage driving. These results underscore how “soft” support for these policies is and how much work needs to be done to consolidate such support before such policies begin to bite.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Where does talk about rights get you? A climate talk I listened to last week began from a familiar starting point in arguing for the obligations of the Developed World to the rest: rights. Citing the Declaration of Human Rights, the claim was that humans have a right to life, liberty and justice, but also food security, housing, economic well being and … . The contrast here is between what philosophers call negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights arise out of what are sometimes called duties of non-interference. I have a duty not to interfere with your freedom of speech for example. Positive rights are duties I have to do things for you – like a duty to provide you with food. Philosophy is pretty good at generating an account of negative rights. One way to do that is to start with the idea that the benefits of cooperative living bring us into inevitable conflict with each other as we live cheek by jowl. It is in all of our interests to limit the kinds of interferences that can arise under these circumstances. The idea is to maximize our own freedom consistent with rendering the same to others. But none of that generates a duty for any of us to do things for each other. A duty not to drown you is different from a duty to save you if you are drowning. We may collectively arrive at such a positive duty. But it does not flow out of the negative duty. Note that rights here don’t come at the beginning of these arguments, they come at the end. They are the conclusions of arguments not premises. So what about a right to things like food security, housing, economic well being and so on? Of what arguments are these the conclusions? I am not saying there are no such arguments. Just that they need to be provided. You can’t get these rights by just stamping your foot. The beauty of negative rights is that you can get them out of nothing. That is because they arise out of a mutual interest in restraining our behavior. By parallel reasoning, positive rights might come out of our having a mutual interest in assuming obligations. I am not saying you can’t do that. But maybe that is not necessary in the area of climate. Anthropogenic climate change is an effect of our actions. Those effects are visited on some more than others and on many who are not agents of those actions. Why don’t these actions violate duties of non-interference? Leave aside the thorny question of whether we have such duties toward Nature. (Moral philosophy falls very much in the domain of human affairs and we have difficulty extending it except to other agents. It is easy to think of extending it to non-human agents. The problem is of thinking of Nature as an agent.) Why doesn’t the Developed World’s action violate duties of non-interference toward the Developing World? Suppose you and I share a well. I foul it, or take all the water. I have done something unfair. I owe you something. Did I violate some duty of non-interference? If so, toward what? Your right to the water? Then we are back to positive rights even if now it does not generate a duty for me to render something to you. But where does your right to water come from? If there is no water, can you stamp your foot and demand it? From whom? What seems more plausible to say IF there is water, you and I have a right to an equal share to it. (Again this leaves Nature and the problem of rights talk toward it out of the picture.) At least in understanding our obligations toward each other, a prima facie principle of equal share is all we need. The Developed World’s historic obligation does not need to be derived from positing all sorts of rights. The Declaration of Human Rights is in the end a political statement not a philosophical one. The philosophical grounding is simpler to finesse.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Attitudes in China

Here is an interesting and somewhat hopeful (edited) report about climate attitudes in China - in a report by Li Jing of China Daily published lat last year. I am of two minds about this and previous such survey results ... they seem too good to be true, especially when compared to attitudes in more developed countries. Could it be, that the respondents are not as spoiled as those in Developing countries and have less in hand to loose or give up? Or could it be that the sample is urban and educated and not really representative of the whole population?

A recent survey released by the Climate Group, a British-based not-for- profit environmental organization, and Beijing Consumers Association, shows that up to 69 percent of Chinese consumers are willing to change their lifestyles in order to help with global efforts to combat climate change.
The survey, conducted by TNS, a market research company, and Lippincott, a consulting firm on branding strategy, interviewed about 1,000 consumers in 14 major Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
About 99 percent of consumers interviewed said they are aware of the threat the world is facing as a result of the global warming.
"With the rapid development of China's economy and improvement of people's living standards, Chinese consumers have become more concerned about their behaviors' impact on the environment," says Zhang Ming, general secretary of Beijing Consumers Association.
About 50 percent of the consumers interviewed said they are willing to spend more time in the efforts to fight the global warming, and 29 percent say they would like to pay more.
Among all the measurements, energy saving is one of the key solutions consumers could think of, the survey shows.
Consumers say they would like to do as much as they can to save energy through changing their commuting methods, for instance, avoiding using private cars and relying more on public transportation.
Changing habits in using household electricity and heating to save more energy are also feasible choices for them to address the global warming issue.