The Dog’s Bollocks

Truth is like a dog’s bollocks – pretty obvious if you care to look.

The Ethics of Climate Change: Pay Now or Pay More Later?

Sci AmWeighing our own prosperity against the chances that climate change will diminish the well-being of our grandchildren calls on economists to make hard ethical judgments, says John Broome in a thorough analysis in Scientific American. The economists in our midst are naturally concerned with the impact of dealing with climate change and advertantly or otherwise encourage our politicians to err on the side of recklessness. The denialist debate prefers to cast doubt on the science, but Broome places the ball firmly back in the court of the economists. Climate change is the ethical issue of our time.

In a nutshell Broome argues:

  • Future generations will suffer most of the harmful effects of global climate change. Yet if the world economy grows, they will be richer than we are.
  • The present generation must decide, with the help of expert advice from economists, whether to aggressively reduce the chances of future harm or to let our richer descendants largely fend for themselves.
  • Economists cannot avoid making ethical choices in formulating their advice.
  • Even the small chance of utter catastrophe from global warming raises special problems for ethical discussion.

What should we do about climate change? The question is an ethical one. Science, including the science of economics, can help discover the causes and effects of climate change. It can also help work out what we can do about climate change. But what we should do is an ethical question.

By emitting greenhouse gases, are the rich perpetrating an injustice on the world’s poor? How should we respond to the small but real chance that climate change could lead to worldwide catastrophe?

In going about our daily lives, each of us causes greenhouse gases to be emitted. Driving a car, using electric power, buying anything whose manufacture or transport consumes energy—all those activities generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In that way, what we each do for our own benefit harms others. Perhaps at the moment we cannot help it, and in the past we did not realize we were doing it. But the elementary moral principle I mentioned tells us we should try to stop doing it and compensate the people we harm.

Weighing benefits to some people against costs to others is an ethical matter. But many of the costs and benefits of mitigating climate change present themselves in economic terms, and economics has useful methods of weighing benefits against costs in complex cases. So here economics can work in the service of ethics.

No wonder the Bolts of this world would rather deny there is even a problem. It’s much easier than reflecting on the ethics of one’s lifestyle and compensating for the impact we are knowingly inflicting on the world’s poor. We might have to make personal sacrifices! That would never do.

Economics in the service of ethics rather than personal affluence? I’d like to see that!

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Filed under: Economics, Environment, Politics, Science, , , ,

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The Dog’s Bollocks

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