Monday, May 3, 2010

Lucky gains

I have written about luck before in the context of the use of resources that everyone thought to be unlimited but turned out not to be so. Today I want to consider a different kind of luck. Geoengineeering harms and compensation: Suppose geoengineering were used to cool the planet and did so on average but was nonetheless expected to cause harm to some by making them worse off than by climate change alone. Should we differentiate between those made worse off from GAINS they made through climate change (eg Canadian farmers) versus those made worse off relative to LOSSES through climate change (eg Ugandan farmers )? If so how? Do law and morality come apart on this issue? Assume that as the world gets hotter, Canadian farmers’ crop yields increase by $x. Assume that as the world gets hotter, Ugandan farmers’ crop yields decrease by $y. When geoengineering is used to cool the planet, the Canadians’ crop yield decrease by $x as temperature is reduced. But assume that such reduction is not uniform worldwide and that in fact in some regions, temperature goes up and precipitation goes down as compared to the levels AFTER climate change. That is to say, for those regions geoengineering makes things worse not better. Thus, assume that fir Ugandan farmers, geoengineering produces a reduction in crop yield of $x. Empirical data and modeling data support this hypothetical for areas of sub-Saharan Africa and India due to changes in cloud cover as well as disruption of the monsoon cycle. The Canadians and the Ugandans suffer the identical loss due to geoengineering but for different reasons. The Canadians lose because their gains from climate change are offset as cooling takes place locally due to geoengineering. The Ugandans lose because their losses from climate change are made worse as heating takes place locally due to geonengineerering. Should there harms be given equal moral standing? Assume causal responsibility plays no role in differentiating between the two. The intended policy is to cool the planet. Such an intervention is global and since not all localities where affected by climate change to the same degree, the intervention is bound to have uneven effects. Still, there is a difference between uneven benefits of a policy and harms created by that policy. The Canadians suffer a loss as a consequence of the implementation of a policy not just less benefit than others. So do the Ugandans, but their loss is a direct harm created by an unintended effect of the implementation of the policy, not just a consequence of it being inherently uneven in its intended effects. But that seems to be a distinction that carries no moral weight. Another difference is this – judged relative to the post climate change environment, both the Canadians and the Ugandans suffer an equal loss. But judged relative to the pre climate change environment, only the Ugandans suffer a loss. But why should one basis for measuring loss count more than the other? So what grounds the idea that the Ugandans should be treated differently from the Canadians? That even though both have been harmed, that both have been made worse off, only the former has an entitlement? I say it is because the Canadians’ gain was “lucky” in the following way - suppose my tree blocks your view of the ocean. My tree falls down and you gain an ocean view. Now you try to stop me replanting a tree claiming it would deprive you of your gain. (Note: if I dally for generations in planting the tree you may indeed have an entitlement based on detrimental reliance.) Contrast that to the Ugandans – they are akin to my other neighbor on whose roof the tree fell. (And whose property I need access to to bring the new tree onto my property.) One way to ground this intuition is by way of an egalitarian conception of equity. As my colleague Larry Temkin writes: “Among equally deserving people, it is bad, because unfair, for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own.” “Luck” follows directly from this conception: “....luck egalitarians object when equally deserving people are unequally well off, but not when one person is worse off than another due to her own responsible choices, say to pursue a life of leisure or crime.”

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