I have just completed a lengthy answer to a very thoughtful comment on my previous post on climate change. And because the raises lots of Very Big issues about how one talks and reasons about ethics, I thought I’d exercise my prerogative and turn the exchange into a post for further Troppodillian development:
I find it interesting that leading econobloggers from the ‘progressive side’ in Australia don’t seem to carry much truck for considering historical responsibility in allocating burden-sharing arrangements on climate (really I’m just counting you and Prof Quiggin – haven’t done much of a survey!)
One possible reason for this is the continued perception of the pollution of the climate system as a sink/externality problem? If you reconceive of the climate system as a resource with a capped limit before depletion (whatever threshold we collectively decide is too risky to cross) then it becomes a source/commons problem and then perhaps the issue of historical consumption becomes much more pressing?
I would say that there are three broadly reasonable justifications for developing countries’ “not committing themselves before seeing action from the North” -although I personally think we’re at the stage where everyone has to everything now, these were particularly relevant in the past and should inform how we share “everything, everyone, now.”
When you enter into an agreement with someone you expect that agreement to be honoured. If you have agreed terms you would hope to see the other party honour those terms, if they have not, you might reconsider which terms you would want to apply to yourself in the future. The UNFCCC agreed in 1992 certainly preceeded a lost decade (or two) of inaction – but that was from developed countries. They agreed to “take the lead” due to their historical emissions; they agreed to peak their emissions by 2000; they agreed to transfer new+additional technology and finance. None of these things happened (some EITs and UK maybe peaked). It would seem strange for developing countries to look at that and say: these countries with the greatest technological capacity/wealth in the history of the world agreed to do this thing, but they didn’t, so now we should do it. To me it suggests – to do this is really hard, they haven’t done it, they said they would, why should we now do it? I think it’s a bit rough to frame a lack of climate action of the last two decades on developing countries. I would also add that developing countries have actually promised to do MORE emission reductions in the coming decade than developed countries – http://www.sei-international.org/publications?pid=1899
2. Moral/justice arguments
As above, if you consider the climate system a commons, and you consider all people to be equal, then there should be an equal right of access to that system. That applies across time. While it’s true that historical consumption led to the development of technologies etc. that others have gained access to (and so the responsibility should not be solely attributed to the North) this adds a limb of increased capability available to countries with the highest historical consumption – increasing their moral responsibility to act. I also don’t agree that “not knowing” absolves you of all responsibilities for your actions, or that applying a precautionary principle from at least 1970 would not be unreasonable.
We are not facing a “drought” – but if we were, setting a minimum threshold that all people could use would be very reasonable so as not to parch the poorest people, which may happen if you applied an across the board 30% cut in everybody’s consumption. What we are facing is more analogous to being on Easter Island as it was running out of trees. We have to share the 100 trees left and not use anymore or there will be no rejuvination- how should we do that? Saying everyone from now gets 1 tree doesn’t seem fair if many of us have houses built of 50 trees while others only have a few leaves. Saying everyone from now reduces their tree consumption by 30% is also not fair as it means those with more trees now get to have more trees in the future. The fairest way seems to be to say – those who have consumed the most trees in the past (and due to this consumption have the capacity) should develop alternatives to trees and help those who will never get a house made out of trees find alternative shelter – so we can let the forest to survive.
3. Practical arguments
Without massive transfers of science and tech how do we get this done? If the richest and most technologically advanced don’t blaze a path and show it can be done, how do poor societies, with bad infrastructure and weak institutions do it? If we actually want a global response to climate change then the rich have to do it first and then help everybody else to follow them. I can’t see it happening any other way. Can you?
To Steve – I think Bill McKibben on Lateline summed it up well saying the latest report from Otto suggest “we caught a break from physics” but that a reduction in climate sensitivity by 0.5C or 1C may well be offset by the increased impacts that are being observed/projected at lower temperatures (including tipping points). Combined with the fact that we are currently on track to triple the CO2 concentration so it doesn’t really change that we need a drastic transition of energy sources otherwise there maybe a non-linear impact on your wealth projection models, making it hard to think our children will be richer than we are.
My reply was as follows:
You have very high blown reasons for your views. Let me try a homely story.
I remember one of the people I lived with in a group house said that her philosophy was always to do a bit more than you thought was fair as far as communal chores were concerned. Why? Because everyone’s thinking of things from their own perspective. They notice more of what they do than they do of what others do. They can think of more excuses why they shouldn’t do something than they can think of excuses for others.
I see things this way regarding this issue. I’m all in favour of a certain kind of generosity. I tried to outline it here. Indeed, without this generosity we’ll end up getting nowhere. But it has to be a principled kind of generosity – as outlined. Not a mug’s generosity.
Regarding reasons why low and lowish income countries shouldn’t contribute, well it’s easy to think of excuses. It’s easy to elaborate the reasons you elaborate. But then you didn’t meet my main point, which is that WE – the developed West – have made far larger contributions to the low income countries via technology than we have imposed costs by using the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Now I don’t go round saying how ripped off we are getting. That’s just kind of the way the cookie crumbles. I’m all in favour of aid to lower income countries – plenty more than we give, but I’d say that is on grounds of equity and generosity, rather than anything as heavy as justice.
They can go on calling it “justice”. No great harm there, and in a way they’re right. I have no superior right to my high income than they do to it. But there you go, we’re not in a perfectly just world where everyone’s compensated for all possible disadvantages they inherited. We’re not close and never will be. But if we want to get self-righteous about it, and effectively go on strike on global challenges to use them as bargaining coin, well again if it worked I guess I might not be against it. Perhaps it’s worked, but I doubt it. I think it’s just delayed us hugely in getting somewhere.
And if we get down to just deserts on the basis of our past behaviour (rather than generosity from a spirit of equity, comity, and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-ity) then I don’t think anyone will end up doing those dishes. There are just too many opportunities to spin it your own way.