Thursday, February 26, 2009

Collier: I don't buy economists' case for fighting climate change

Paul Collier in the Guardian (UK) points out some flaws in relying on a utilitarianism for making climate change decisions: The 2006 Stern report brought the legitimising power of orthodox economics to the emotive battleground of global warming. In his Review on the Economics of Climate Change - widely regarded as the most important and comprehensive analysis of global warming to date - Lord Stern argued that in cold cost-benefit terms, it made sense for the present generation to make sacrifices because the benefits to future generations would be so substantial.… Post-Stern, that battleground has now shifted to ethics. Superficially, this is surprising: environmentalists have long occupied the moral high ground. Yet the challenges have come from two ethical positions that, viewed from the left, cannot be readily dismissed.

One challenges the elitism that is implicit in overriding democracy: according to the utilitarian calculus the government should value the interests of the future far more highly than most voters would do. Indeed, if we are guilty of radically undervaluing the future, then this neglect applies not just to carbon emissions, but to all the other ways in which we could help the world of the future. The government should force us to save far more than we do, perhaps by subsidising bequests instead of taxing them - in the utilitarian calculus there is nothing special about curbing global warming as a means of benefiting the future. Are we radically neglecting the future by not saving enough?

…Personally, I doubt whether the utilitarian calculus is the right ethical framework in which to think about global warming. It gives us numerical answers, but it just does not feel as though the calculus captures my concerns. …Is there an ethical basis for being concerned about global warming that does not depend upon the notion that quite generally we are radically negligent about future people? I think that there is, but this concern depends upon a rights-based notion of ethics rather than on utilitarianism. Most professional economists will at this point stop reading because they will think that rights are a quagmire. But here goes.

Natural assets such as biodiversity, and natural liabilities, such as carbon, are not owned by the current generation, because we did not create them. We have them because previous generations passed them on to us, and we are obliged to do the same. If we deplete natural assets, or run up natural liabilities, we have an obligation to compensate future generations in some other way…Ultimately, in a democracy our policy decision rules must rest on ethical principles that are widely shared by citizens. I suspect that most people feel that they should reduce carbon emissions, but the key issue is why? Is their motivation better captured by the utilitarian calculus used by economists, or by a sense of custodial obligation towards our natural legacy, of which carbon is but one instance?

Jeremy Bentham's "Auto-Icon" at University College London, shot by Michael Reeve, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

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