Just deserts, Justice or Equity?

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:

Hi Nicholas,

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.”

1. Legal/normative

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?

PS

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:

Hi alexinbogota,

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.

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John Brookes
8 years ago

When I used to play social volleyball and we’d go out for a beer and a meal afterwards, I’d always put a bit more than my share towards the bill. Everyone else seemed to do the same. It worked well.

But as for generosity of spirit being responsible for nations doing enough to cut emission – I don’t think so. Our main hope is that a technological solution that makes renewable energy sources cheaper than fossil fuels is developed soon.

Kien
Kien
8 years ago

Suppose the West has made a far greater contribution to low income countries via technology, I am not sure how much of this contribution has improved the well-being of the poor in the low income country. If constraints in per capita carbon emission prevents a low income country from growing sufficiently to lift its poor from poverty, the technological contribution of the West would not make much difference to the well-being of the poor.

Kien
Kien
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

You may be right empirically. But I had understood that the rise of China, India etc had been accompanied by an increase in within country inequality. So most of the world’s poor are now in middle income countries. No the caps are not targeted at the poor, but might be difficult to grow without allowing for a temporary period of above average levels of per capita emissions. So if u are right that technology has lifted people from poverty, this to date seems to have been achieved by not imposing carbon issuing constraints on the developing economies.

I am not sure but it is possible the richer countries should allow developing economies to have higher per capita emissions than the developed economIes until they have caught up with the developed economies.

Please let me know what u think as you seem to care about global justice in terms of just outcomes vs just institutions.

alexinbogota
alexinbogota
8 years ago

Hi Nicholas,

I am not saying they “shouldn’t contribute” – I am saying their contribution will, not as a matter of generosity, but as a matter of fairness (both based on shared-legal normative elements of the negotiations and on a consideration of responsibility for the problem) be less than that in the North. While they are proposing more to the current “solution” (as in right now) – the solution is unfair and that’s why the solution will not actually work.

Again, like your drought example, the dishes example or volleyball meal doesn’t quite line-up. It’s not like we’re in a share-house and we’ve all vaguely used the same amount of dishes. One of us had a banquest last night and used almost all the dishes. Someone else just had a sandwich. Now it’s true that the banquet guy has dishwasher that sandwhicher can use, lightening the load a bit, but still, it doesn’t really add up that the sandwhicher does more than the banqueter?

I am all for a generosity of spirit and doing more than your ‘exact amount’ – I am not proposing a strict formula where nothing but X could possibly be done in the South. But this is not a small thing around the margins. At the moment (depending on when you attribute responsilbity, since Tyndall, Arenhaus, the White House reports in the 60s, the majority of science articles in the 70s, Hansen’s testimony in the 80s) developed countries have between 40-70% responsibility for cumulative stock of emissions in the atmosphere. That’s a group of countries with only 1/7 of the population. That since 1990 they have collectively reduced their emissions about .5 of a Gt, mainly due to the economic collapse of Eastern Europe, undermines any potential to moralise about what India or China “should” do.

So although you didn’t engage in any of my arguments very directly I’m happy to think about what impact ‘technology’ has had – I think it does mitigate some responsibility in some ways. That said, I don’t think you can sustain an argument that “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” for two reasons:

1) As outlined above I don’t think there is necessarily a direct correlation between the development of that technology and the reduction of poverty (i.e. huge advancements in industrialisation occurred at the turn of the 20th century but a lot of that is still to reach the poorest people, as per Kien).

2) The costs “imposed’ by climate change, could well be astronomically high. Even if they were contained to 5% of global GDP a year, that’s the share of income of almost half the people on earth (those who somehow missed out on our technological beneficence that is supposed to be raining down on them).

So you can say – hey let’s mark down that share of responsibility a bit because we reduced some ‘development’ costs for them – or another way of saying it is that the UK in 1850 got a lot less out of a tonne of CO2 than China will in 2025 – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t base your burden/effort sharing framework on a consideration of that responsibility to begin with, before you mark it down. On this issue perhaps we agree on what we are and are now just arguing over the price?

I’d add that a “per-capita” contract and convergence proposal, which you seem to be suggesting, is not particularly fair. Let’s say the target was everyone on 2tonnes in 2035 (approx. in line with a pathway to limit warming to 1.5C) . So everyone below 2tonnes gets to go up to that and everyone above goes down. That means between now and 2035 every Australian will come down each year from 20 to get to 2. But every Indian will go up each year from 1.5 to get to 2 before levelling off. Obviously in aggregate over that time every Australian will get almost 10 times as much as an Indian, how is that fair? And if your proposal is to make it line up in aggregate over that time how is that possible without Australia taking cuts drastically deeper and earlier than those of India?

Kien
Kien
8 years ago
Reply to  alexinbogota

Hi – I would seek just outcomes vs just institutions. So I would not assert that each nation has an equal right to emit the same carbon per capita. However if carbon emission caps do constrain economic growth (which I gather is an assumption that Nicholas would dispute but this could be resolved empirically), I would think the lower income countries should be allowed higher per capita emissions than the rich countries until per capita income levels across countries are broadly the same. (I am taking income per capita as a proxy for well-being, but equal per capita income is not necessarily what we seek.)

Kien
Kien
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Rich and powerful countries with well-developed legal institutions look for legally binding international agreements. Poor and weak countries seem suspicious of binding agreements; perhaps they are concerned the powerful will ignore or enforce the agreements as it suits them.

The Rawlsian emphasis on just institutions (such as an international agreement) vs just outcomes might be a distraction. Just institutions don’t guarantee just outcomes. The process of dialogue, debate and public scrutiny (such as the one we are having) may do more to change the world than entering into legally binding agreements.

Just a thought. I have no empirical basis for making these claims.

BTW, Amartya Sen looks at “comprehensive outcomes” vs “culmination outcomes”. The former takes account of the process that leads to culmination outcomes. I’m not sure a low-income country would want to depend on foreign aid for development. I would prefer to achieve development on my own, and simply ask for a higher per capita carbon emission cap (relative to rich countries) so I can reach high income levels more quickly.

John Brookes
8 years ago
Reply to  Kien

I reckon equal per-capita emissions are the way to go. This will give poor countries a much better deal than they have now, Pushing for them to get more may make it hard to get a deal.

alexinbogota
alexinbogota
8 years ago

@Kien – that’s not true. The richest, most powerful country in the world doesnt’ want a legally binding agreement. The US hasn’t ratified an international envrionment agreement in decades.

A further question when people say “equal per capita” – over what time period are we talking? As I said – if it’s going forward and grandfathers in the higher amount we have now, that’s not a very fair way of doing it.

@Nicholas and @John – getting a ‘deal’ is going to be hard. It’s a “diabolical” problem (to quote Garnaut). Avoiding these hard parts will actually make getting a ‘deal’ harder OR make the deal that comes out of it more useless/less comprehensive. Although it’s good to talk through the philosophy of this it’s not like there aren’t developing countries who are making this very point – something like 16 countries signed up to a “climate debt” proposal in 2009 and both India and China have been clear they consider the international negotiations about sharing a ‘resource’ rather than just ‘effort’ – if we don’t engage with them, what’s the point?

It strikes me as strange that the answer to these issues often becomes (once the logic is accepted) “well that’s political infeasible”, which is what the Climate Authority wrote of the “GDR” approach in its “issues paper.” But what we mean is “politically infeasible” in developed countries – there never seems to be a consideration that the opposite (rapid, unsupported decarbonisation in undeveloped economies) might be equally politically infeasible…

Kien
Kien
8 years ago
Reply to  alexinbogota

Thank you for pointing out that the US hasn’t signed up to a binding agreement.

I tried to argue that we should care about just outcomes vs just institutions. So I would not assume that each country has a prior right to equal per capita carbon emission, whether or not historical emissions are taken into account. The goal is for all countries to converge to a broadly same level of income per capita as quickly as possible. I suggest higher income countries contribute more to mitigation by accepting lower per capita emission limits than lower income countries. This allows lower income countries to grow more quickly than if all countries had the same per capita emission. As a low income country grows wealthier, its contribution to carbon mitigation should rise. Hope this makes send.

Kien
Kien
8 years ago

My thinking about global justice has been influenced by Amartya Sen’s book – the Idea of Justice. Sen contrasts the Rawlsian approach to seeking perfectly just institutions via the “veil of ignorance” with the Smithian (as in Adam Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments) approach of comparing outcomes and asking which outcome is more just. The debate about whether each country is entitled to an equal per capita income and whether historical emissions should be taken into account is a Rawlsian way of looking at global justice. It seems to be that allowing low income countries higher per capita emissions than rich countries would lead to outcomes that are more just than the counter factual of equal per capita emissions.

Kien
Kien
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Hi, Nicholas. I’m not sure what inefficiency you have in mind here. The marginal cost of mitigation is likely to vary materially across countries. Hence, it would be efficient to delink the “emission quota” allocated to each country from the place at which mitigation takes place. For example, it may be efficient for Australia to pay another country to undertake mitigation on Australia’s behalf. So even if India is allowed a higher per capita emission than Australia, in practice India may continue to emit less per capita than Australia if India were willing to sell part of its emission quota to Australia.

Thus at first blush, the allocation of emission quotas would seem to be a distribution issue, not an efficiency issue. However, perhaps you have other inefficiencies in mind?

John Brookes
8 years ago
Reply to  Kien

Why do it through entitlements? Well, because we all share the same atmosphere, and it seems reasonable that we should all be entitled to emit the same amount of CO2 into it.

But I have a problem with wealthy nations buying the right to emit from poorer ones. We pay some African country tor emission permits. They don’t exactly do their carbon accounting very well, and we don’t ask any embarrassing questions. And emissions don’t go down. I think we just need to reduce our emissions. But within Australia I’d go with a per capita entitlement to emit that can be bought and sold.