Monday, July 23, 2007

RSA, Carnegie Council Discuss Ethics of Climate Change

As part of the Carnegie Council's collaborative project with London-based think thank RSA on the ethics of climate change, we are posting the first part of an online discussion between the heads of the two institutions on the topic below (reprinted from the Carnegie Council website here):

This online conversation between Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive, and Joel Rosenthal, Carnegie Council President, is part of a joint project on the ethics of climate change with the RSA in London and Carnegie Council.

MATTHEW TAYLOR: It is now clear that tackling climate change by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels is necessary not just to protect the environment, but also to save human lives. Climate change is an issue of global human rights. Those who have contributed least to human induced climate change will not only be the worse affected, they are also the least able to deal with the impacts. We are already seeing the first climate change refugees as land becomes uninhabitable due to rising sea levels and desertification. And without tackling climate change, other global challenges such as improving health or reducing poverty will become ever more intractable. The choice between tackling climate change and tackling poverty and disease is a false one. What would be the point of spending decades trying to eradicate diseases or reduce poverty only for climate change impacts to create new epidemics, famines and wars?

There is a perception that high consumption of fossil fuels must go hand in hand with the high quality of life enjoyed by developed nations. This does not have to be the case. We need to see a transition away from a global economy reliant on fossil fuel consumption to a low carbon economy for many reasons other than climate change. Think, for example, of the health problems associated with pollution. More urgently still, fossil fuel scarcity means governments are seeing energy supply as the key issue of national security.

Many argue, and more and more agree, that there is a moral obligation for developed countries to help developing countries make the transition to low carbon. Remember that when the Chinese build their new coal fired power station every week, it is in large part because they are manufacturing products for our domestic markets. Global justice was in part the rationale behind international agreements such as Kyoto. But we cannot simply rely on politicians to negotiate agreed targets at the international level. It is up to us to give the politicians the courage to agree sufficiently demanding targets and the will to police them, and it will be in large part up to business and individuals to deliver on the commitments their governments make.

There is no sign as yet that technology has the silver bullet. So we must start to think about how we must change our lives. In order to make this transition towards a low carbon future, consumer pressure must be brought to bear on business and government to provide the necessary infrastructure and products. Individual behaviour is shaped by external incentives, personal choices and social norms. Living low carbon lives will mean action on all fronts.


Is it enough to rely on citizens of developed countries to use consumer power to reduce the carbon intensity of our current lifestyles, or is the way we live now inherently highly carbon intensive?

What are the most powerful ways for state action, corporate and individual action to work together to foster sustainability?

Does any global framework have ultimately to accept the principle that every citizen of the world has the same limited right to the carbon?

Dear Matthew,

I salute the RSA for taking up this urgent issue. The case in favor of limiting carbon emissions in light of threats to the natural environment and public health is, by now, overwhelming. While Al Gore's book and movie An Inconvenient Truth may put an exclamation point on this observation for the benefit of wide audiences and popular culture, the arguments have been well rehearsed for many years now. I agree that it is well past time for action.

So the question is, what guidance do we have for action? Philosophers give us three distinct moral principles to animate our work: stewardship, intergenerational justice, and distributive justice. Stewardship rests on the idea that man's relationship to the natural world is not one of ownership but rather interdependence. On a planet of 6 billion people, it is self-evident that resources are finite. Here in the United States, the population has risen from less than 200 million to more than 300 million just in my lifetime. Stewardship implies special care for non-renewable resources and respect for common goods.

Most of us learned as children that when we leave a place that we have visited, the place should be in as good a condition, if not a bit better, than we found it when we arrived. The principle of intergenerational justice means that we owe our heirs not only a livable planet, but also as much of the richness and diversity as we have enjoyed.

Things get more complicated when we speak about distributive justice. Distributive justice raises the question of benefits and burdens. Who pays for the burden of clean up, or the added cost of mandating "clean" technologies, especially in developing countries? Why should India or China be required to develop according to "green" standards while the U.S. and Europe most definitely did not?

Political scientists address this issue in the language of self-interests and collective action. Addressing climate change is at some level a common interest. Yet the effects of climate change will not be uniform and political units will calculate the threat in different ways. Thinking in terms of individual responsibility and the liability of specific actors is insufficient. As you point out, we need to think in terms of social connection as well.

The environment is not a distinct entity "out there"—rather, it is embedded in economic patterns (jobs) and lifestyles (consumer choices). Climate change is actually one big collective action problem. As you suggest, perhaps the best strategy is a two-pronged approach. Incentives and disincentives need to be devised to affect individual choice. Simultaneously, social structures and institutions need to evolve so that individuals acting rationally within them will promote positive change. Think small and scale up. Think big and imagine new social arrangements.

History is full of positive examples. After the industrial revolution and the environmental crises it caused, traditions of preservation and conservation emerged. Progressive reform also emerged, marrying the innovations of science and technology to better government, environmental protection, and improved lives. Sanitation, parks, protecting of ecological resources—all came about as a result of raised consciousness followed by political action.
We inherit the successes of the ecology movement of the 1960s and '70s. The achievement of that generation was astounding in its influence and reach. These successes are now a generation old. What is the post-cold war, globalization generation doing? Is it measuring up to its historic responsibilities? I fear not. But with RSA and other like-minded groups entering the arena, I have hope.


Joel H. Rosenthal

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