28 October 2015

The Global Warming Crusade and Philosophy

Stephen Kershnar
The Climate Change Crusade and Philosophy
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
October 25, 2015

The 2015 United National Climate Change Conference is coming up in about a month. The conference aims to put a legally binding and universal agreement on global warming (that is, climate change). Manmade global warming (that is, climate change) refers to the claim that the climate system is warming and that it is caused, at least in part, by human activity. Among the solutions that various groups have suggested are taxing, regulating, or punishing people to reduce the use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). Other suggestions include reducing consumption and travel, moving to more efficient cars, buildings, and appliances, and promoting vegetarianism. If these goals are adopted, governments will likely pursue them through coercion.    

The scientific consensus is that that the earth’s surface and oceans are warming due to in part to the emission of greenhouse gases. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that it was more than 95% likely that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human activity is causing global warming. Various scientific models predict that in the 21st century, the global surface temperature is likely to rise anywhere from 0.5 to 8.6 °F, depending in part on how much greenhouse emission occurs. That there is manmade global warming is the consensus view of most, if not all, of the major scientific bodies.   

If these models are correct, the question becomes what, if anything, should be done about climate change. Among the possible responses are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, learning to live with its effects, and climate engineering. The American and European left want to reduce greenhouse emissions via higher taxes, more regulation, and various criminal punishments and civil fines. The philosophical problems that accompany these solutions are worth considering.    

First, policies that aim to lessen greenhouse emissions not to prevent harm from pollution-related harm today, but to combat global warming decades from now might not be the best use of charitable resources. One group (Copenhagen Consensus) tried to rank the effectiveness of various types of altruistic policies and found that lessening global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emission is not the most efficient type of altruistic spending. More good was done by other programs, such as ones that lessened malnutrition and hunger, combatted chronic and infectious diseases (such as malaria and HIV), and funded research and development for green technologies that combat climate change and increase agricultural productivity.

Even if manmade global warming is bad for mankind, this does not mean it should receive priority if there are more pressing problems. For example, if a dollar spent on reducing malnutrition or malaria does more good than reducing greenhouse gas emission, this should guide our spending of scarce charitable dollars.  

Second, at least in the near future, the costs of lessening greenhouse emissions through the left’s programs might exceed their benefits. Arguing in the New York Times in 2013, Bjorn Lomborg argues that in the near future, the increased use of coal and other fossil fuels is crucial to helping the poor in the third world escape poverty. He argues that over the last 30 years, China lifted 680 million people out of poverty in part by giving them access to more modern energy, mostly through the burning of coal. He notes that this resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but argued that this is a tradeoff many developing countries would welcome (for example, those in sub-Saharan Africa). Perhaps this is incorrect, but it is incumbent on environmentalists to show why.   

As a theoretical matter, the benefits of added wealth might exceed the costs of depletion. Consider this cartoonish example. For example, if depleting various natural resources allows the economy to expand at 5% rather than 0% for 25 years, the per capital income of the average American will go from $55,000 to $186,000 (in 2015 dollars). Future generations might do better with more wealth and technology than a pristine environment.  

Third, if a policy leads to the creation of different people than otherwise would be created, then the policy does not harm anyone. More than a decade ago a controversy erupted when a deaf lesbian couple intentionally had a deaf child by using the sperm of a man from a multi-generational deaf family. Their action did not harm anyone because there was no one whom they made worse off (leaving aside taxpayers). Their child would not have existed were he not (partially) deaf. Similarly, if the left’s changes in the economic system are large enough, this might affect the people who come into existence in the same way that industrialization, world wars, and the computer economy have a large effect on who reproduces with whom. If such a large effect occurs, then, over the long term, it is hard to see who would be harmed by large-scale greenhouse gas emissions. People are not harmed by the emissions if they would not have existed were the emissions not to have occurred. Whether the left’s programs are large enough to affect reproductive patterns is an empirical question.   

Fourth, even if greenhouse gas emissions make the world a better place, it is not clear we have a duty to make the world a better place. For example, it might well be that the world would be a better place if wealthier couples donated their money to famine-relief programs rather than going on European vacations, but they don’t have a duty to do so. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with happier and smarter couples having two children rather than five even though this makes the world worse because there are fewer happy people.

These economic and philosophical concerns about some of the proposals to lessen greenhouse gas emissions as a way of lessening global warming are well-known and serious. If climate change crusaders do not address them, then their solutions should be rejected. 

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