Monday, January 25, 2010

Does Nature have rights?

Writing about historical carbon output, like most philosophers, I worry about who has done what, who is owed and who owes, whether ignorance matters or not, and so on. But in all of this debate there is an embarrassing silence about “Nature”. As we worry about what (if anything) the Developed World owes the Developing World, a fair division of the pie seems still to only involve “us”. As I have posted here before, one reason for that is that we don’t have room in our moral discourse for things like Nature – because, as it were they are things and not people. “People” here need not mean just humans. In fact a humans can cease to be a person (if they are brain damaged enough) and, if there are Martians, that in itself ought not to prevent them being people (if nonetheless rather different from people we have encountered to date). If this is sounding like a non-standard use of the term ‘people’ it is. I am using the term to apply to anything that ought to be treated as having a claim to moral standing. What you need to have to underwrite such a claim is where the philosophical trouble starts. Is it a point of view? Something like it is to be you? These notions impose pretty strong standards to meet – perhaps sentience. And so on that account, both Nature and most of the things that make it up, don’t qualify. On the other hand, if we weaken the condition on moral standing to having interests in some vaguely objective sense (say reproduction and survival) then stones don’t have standing but flees do. Hold on! Does a flee really care if it is eaten or not? And that pushes us back into the arms of a condition of standing that it is likely that only we can satisfy. But Stone’s wonderful article “Should Trees have Standing?”, reprinted in a book of his essays with the same title, takes a radically different tack to break this impasse. Begin with the Law not Philosophy he argues – and take legal rules as nothing more than rules, not as rules that express underlying moral principles. Then ask if those rules can be plausibly applied to things that do not have interests of their own. The key move in this is the model of guardianship. Consider a profoundly brain damaged child for whom a guardian is appointed to speak on the child’s behalf, to represent the child’s interests. Now the philosopher wants to say, “Wait a minute! What if the child has no interests. What if the child is so brain damaged that it (literally) has no point of view?” Stone’s argument is that this does not matter from the point of view of the law. All that matters is what the law decrees. “…. what the legal rules touching on the ward provide”. And if those rules can accommodate the guardianship of trees, so much the better. Is this anything more than legal sophistry? Does it carry any philosophical weight? Here is why I think it does – Stone’s argument is embedded in a much broader conception of the relationship of ethics and the law. The law, he argues, develops by extension and in doing so, it offers us a social mechanism to develop our account of ethics as well.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On Lomborg

A reader asked my view of Bjorn Lomberg. Lomberg argues vigorously for the view that the cost of mitigating climate change would be better spent on other programs for the benefit of the poor. All other things being equal, eradicating malaria will produce more good than avoiding climate change as it were – at least when it comes to spending today’s dollars. The argument assumes a number of things: 1. That we have fixed resources so there is a choice. 2. That if the money were not to go to climate mitigation it would go for the benefit of the poor. 3. That even if putting off the mitigation of climate change increases the cost of mitigation and adaption in terms of today’s dollars, the lower cost of future dollars (and technology) will more than offset that. My reaction to this line of argument is fourfold: 1. I don’t think our resources are fixed and I think it is na├»ve politically to think that money is fungible in any case. 2. Our inaction now effect not just the costs of future action but also the probability of some climate effects that once they occur cannot be undone. These include extinctions but more significantly ice melts. 3. If we proceed on a business as usual way, we will exhaust a 450ppm CO2 budget by 2050. That would mean proceeding with zero net carbon emissions from then on which is totally implausible. 4. Like most projections in climate, Lomberg pays too little attention to the effects of climate change on GDP growth itself as opposed to the effect of climate mitigation. My skepticism is different from Lomberg’s in the following way: in projections of the cost of mitigation, economic growth is set as an externality derived from business as usual models. The projection then simply assume the availability of “green” energy whatever the economic growth is set at in the models. The cost comparison is then between the cost of economic growth by green as opposed to fossil fuel. This sidesteps the question of the availability of such green energy at the level and on a timetable consistent with the projected rate of economic growth. My colleagues and I are beginning to look at this most closely in a case study of China’s economic and energy needs between now and 2030.

Monday, January 11, 2010

China's stand

Cao Haili’s interesting post on ChinaDialogue - When China said “no” – deserves close attention. It is reposted at
As Haili reports: Besides the rift between China and the United States over measuring, reporting and verification (MRV), the cited evidence of China’s “wrecking” behaviour was its firm opposition to inclusion of the target of global emissions reduction of 50% on 1990 levels by 2050, with developed nations making cuts of 80%. The reason for China’s opposition was simple: it would restrict China’s development. Given the country’s rate of development and its economic and energy structure, the target would be a tough one for it to reach. Lu Xuedu, a Chinese delegate and deputy director of the National Climate Center, pointed out that global carbon emissions in 1990 were 21 billion tonnes, so a 50% cut by 2050 would mean emissions of 10.5 billion tonnes. In 2005, China emitted 6 billion tonnes of carbon. If the current rate of development continues, those 10.5 billion tonnes might not be enough for China alone, let alone the rest of the world.

There is some hyperbole in Lu’s comment – nobody, not even China, expects it to continue to grow at its current rate for the next 40 years. As a maturing economy it is bound to be lower than the current 8-10% rate and more likely in the 5-7% range. Its energy intensity is also bound to improve as well as its economy undergoes maturation. That is not to say that China’s planned rate of growth and associated energy needs are self-evidently compatible. But as Einstein said in a different context, “god is in the details”.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Citizens or Consumers?

We spend far too much time worrying about how to change energy behavior of individuals – although we know full well that the energy savings under individual control are modest. Market forces and national policy set the range of choices that individuals have and significant change means operating at that level. As such, it is action as citizens not consumers that need attention. Action here means voting – voting to support politicians who implement climate friendly policies or at least acquiescing to such policies. Ed Maibach (of George Mason) writes that with regard to climate change, “Our data, however, shows that even among the one segment of Americans who are truly committed to addressing climate change, they are vastly more likely to be responding as consumers than as citizens.” It is common to think that, notwithstanding the limited direct energy savings of individual action, the real payoff is that such a focus set one on the path to citizen support of policy. But is there actually any evidence to support this view?