Monday, May 31, 2010

A coalition of the willing?

Despairing of coordinated international action a la Copenhagen, Thomas Hale and Scott Moore call for those who are ready, to simply move - be they governments, sub-national states, corporations or even individuals. (See Chinadialogue .)It is an engaging idea because it appeals to the frustration of the willing not wanting to be held hostage to the unwilling. I am all for unilateral action, but only if it creates conditions to win over the unwilling. Otherwise, such actions have no chance of making a dent in the problem of greenhouse gas output. Meaningful voluntary action will only work if big players act unilaterally, and that is what makes the need for U.S. climate legislation so important. If the United States joins Europe in enacting serious legislation, they remove the risk to others who may fear that if they were to act unilaterally they would lose a competitive advantage. Moreover, action by the United States and Europe to impose import tariffs, on those who do not join them, could create a stick that goes along with the carrot. Whether such a stick could be wielded without starting a trade war remains an unresolved issue in this scenario.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Smoking and Seat Belts

I used to smoke and I enjoyed doing so very much. I gave up because my doctor told me it might kill me. ‘Might’ was enough to convince me that the pleasure did not outweigh the risks. For all I know it may turn out that his warnings were misplaced. Maybe the correlation between smoking and disease will turn out to be spurious. The result of a common cause. But the uncertainty gets swamped out by the costs of being right. The cost of death to me is high. High enough that even if there is only a small chance of my doctor being right, I want to avoid it. And the cost of avoiding it, foregoing the pleasure, pales in comparison to that: s < p.d That is to say, the forgone pleasure of smoking (s) is less than (<) the probability of smoking causing my death (p) time (.) the cost of my death (d). I used not to wear seat belts. I found them too much of a bother to fuss with and I disliked the way the chafed on my shoulder. I started wearing them because of published data about the superior survival rates of those wearing seat belts in crashes. The data was enough to convince me to put up with the bother of wearing seat belts even though I was not sure of their reliability. For all I know, those who wear seat belts are more cautious that those who don’t. So here too the correlation might be spurious. But here to the cost of death is high and swamps out such considerations. s < p.d where now ‘s’ stands for the foregone convenience of not wearing seat belts. As things go with smoking and seat belts, why do they not also go when it comes to climate change? Here ‘s’ is the cost of significantly reducing greenhouse gas output. ‘p’ is the probability of climate change caused by such output and ‘d’ is the cost of such climate change. If there is a non-zero chance of catastrophic climate change, of ecological collapse, then even if that chance is low, the costs will be so high that p.d will still be high, high enough to outweigh the costs of avoiding it however low the value of p.

Monday, May 17, 2010


The Kerry-Lieberman bill is far from perfect. But it does not matter. Given the current horizon of polictical possiblity, anything that can be passed is bound to be too weak. And given the indeterminacies of measurement and growth of carbon output, current goal setting is a shot in the dark. None of that matters. What matters is that we put in place a framework and mechanism that can be adjusted over time as our knowledge improves. What also matters is that the United States take unilateral action that can be used as a political lever on others to take action as well - most especially China.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Chinese energy demand

As China moves toward higher consumption and a switch to heavier industrial production, The New York Times reports that: “Even as China has set ambitious goals for itself in clean-energy production and reduction of global warming gases, the country’s surging demand for power from oil and coal has led to the largest six-month increase in the tonnage of human generated greenhouse gases ever by a single country.” Why coal? Because it constitutes 94% of China’s energy resources. Wind production may have doubled, but, as the Times reports, it still only constitutes 2% of electricity production. More troubling still, "China’s National Bureau of Statistics has begun a comprehensive revision of all of the country’s energy statistics for the last 10 years, restating them with more of the details commonly available in other countries’ data. Western experts also expect the revision to show that China has been using even more energy and releasing even more greenhouse gases than previously thought. Revising the data now runs the risk that other countries will distrust the results and demand greater international monitoring of any future pledges by China. If the National Bureau of Statistics revises up the 2005 data more than recent data, for example, then China might appear to have met its target at the end of this year for a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency.” For more see: May 6, 2010
China’s Energy Use Threatens Goals on Warming

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.”