Monday, May 07, 2012

Guilt, Culpability and Responsibility

We are sailing into a moral storm.

The moral dimensions associated with the Anthropocene has long interested Eli, and to be honest many others on a deeper level.  While philosophy is associated with personal responsibility, law concerns itself with assignment of responsibility to others.  As our command of the Earth increases, these must come together, and indeed they will on this Friday, May 11 at the University of Chicago, where folks will gather to discuss Climate Change Justice
In their recent book, Climate Change Justice, Eric Posner and David Weisbach argue for a relatively narrow climate treaty that would require nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but that would not redistribute wealth, correct for past injustices, or address other issues not immediately connected with the urgent task of mitigating climate change. At this conference, scholars will respond with criticisms of the Posner/Weisbach argument or provide their own views about how a climate treaty ought to be designed. Topics will include the role of distributive and corrective justice in the design of climate treaty, discounting the future, abatement strategies, and the possibilities and limits of international cooperation.
Ray Pierrehumbert is one of the presenters, and usefully most of those who are to speak have provided manuscripts, which Eli hopes that the bunnies will look at, here, he wants to discuss the analysis of Yoram Margalioth who summarizes Posner and Weisbach's argument as
(1) The US is not morally required, on distributive justice grounds or on an alleged responsibility for the stock of GHG in the atmosphere due to past emissions, to assume the costs of (or reimburse) other countries that participate in a global climate change mitigation scheme. 
(2) Countries differ in their vulnerability to climate change. In the absence of distributive or corrective justice claims, the cost of mitigation should be allocated according to the benefits from mitigation. The US is relatively less vulnerable to climate change than other countries, including many developing countries, and should therefore bear a relatively small share of the cost.
When countries demand that the US bear a significant share of mitigation cost as, for example, was expected of the US under the Kyoto Protocol, they ask the US to become a net loser. International cooperation is voluntary. Countries will not sign treaties that make them net losers, unless they are ethically required to do so and choose to act morally. As claimed in (1) above, the US is not morally required to do so.
Ethically, this position is bankrupt for obvious reasons, something that Eli expects Paul Baer to deal with in his talk (no paper yet posted) titled Who Should Pay for Climate Change?  “Not Me.”  In addition to ethical questions, with respect to the US and the industrially developed countries, the practical answer is who else has the resources? But here the Bunny is more concerned with an argument advanced by Margalioth
Unlike Posner and Weisbach, I find merit in the argument that there is a moral flaw in the US’s lack of significant action to reduce its relatively high per-capita GHG emissions in the years after it became general knowledge that dangerous climate change was taking place and that it was anthropogenic.
he later develops this idea in a discussion of culpability
Until relatively recently, developed countries were not (and could not have been) aware of the effects of GHG emissions, and so should not be held accountable for past emissions. 
Setting the cut-off date is an empirical question. It could be 1992, because in that year, nearly all countries, including the US, signed an international treaty – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
In Eli's opinion this argument confuses guilt, culpability and responsibility in a way can only lead to disaster (Posner and Weisbach are even worse).  As Stephen Gardiner pointed out, climate change is a moral storm, not an economic or legal one because of the separation of time and place of cause and effect.  Actions taken today will primarily influence the future.  The physics of the situation does not concern itself with whether the emitters knew that what they were doing had harmful effects, that is an issue of culpability or guilt, the distinction between involuntary manslaughter and murder as it were, with the former being the case if the emitters recklessly or without reasonable care, and the later with malice and aforethought.  In both these cases a retributive response is justified.

Responsibility does not require knowing beforehand knowing that your actions caused harm, but recognizing afterward that it has and accepting responsibility for both the harm as well as working to reverse that harm. Accepting responsibility is a sign of growing up, and with our increasing control of the planet growing up is increasingly becoming a survival trait.

There are levels of denial.  The Sky Dragons, who deny that increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will increase global temperatures are denying science in totallity.  The lukewarmers, merely deny the conclusions flowing from that science.  Margalioth is denying responsiblity, and Posner and Weisbach are denying culpability.

Pick one.

(Picture from Deviant Art)


Anonymous said...

I don't know... there's the question of "what treaty would I design if I were King", and the question of, "what treaty would actually have a chance of being implemented".

Both my approaches would be based around something roughly like a harmonized global tax: this avoids leakage, where all the high-energy pursuits (eg, aluminum smelting) flee to no-tax regions. While the taxes would mostly remain within the nation where the tax hit, some portion from the rich nations (Europe, US) would be skimmed off to fund low-carbon development projects in poor nations (public transit development, energy efficient small housing units).

Now, here's where my two treaties diverge. 1) If I were King, the skim off the top would be a lot larger than it would be if I was trying to implement a practical policy. 2) If I were King, I might start tinkering with the nature of the tax, so I could start penalizing "conspicuous consumption": think a "progressive carbon tax". Implementation would be hard: what I'm trying to achieve is a system where the person living in a 500 square foot studio apartment would have a lower tax per ton than the person living in a 10000 square foot mansion. But given that CO2 taxation is easiest upstream, I'm not sure how to do this. (Similarly, I'd like a water use structure where every person gets to use a certain amount of water at a subsidized rate, but that above that quantity they have to pay above market rates in order to encourage conservation).

But I think that progressivity both between and within nations is an ideal that would make real reductions harder, and should be sacrificed at the altar of practicality. I wish Kyoto had gone with harmonized taxes rather than a cap-and-trade: then countries aren't arguing about whether the money is all going to Russia for its hot air, or that a cap will stunt their economic growth, or that the 1990 baseline is unfair, or whatever...


Greg said...

MMM, actually many water and electrical utilities charge customers via a "block" structure that achieves progressive pricing ... except that they also have a basic charge that applies no matter how little one uses, so that's regressive.


Marion Delgado said...

I will just say Ray is so awesome and leave it at that :)

Brian said...

An implication of the idea that countries aren't responsible for past emissions is that the countries who expect to emit disproportionately in the near future (i.e., present big emitters plus up an comers) should stall action as long as possible. That way their future emissions become past emissions, and not their problem anymore.

Not a good incentive system, but what do I know.

Anonymous said...

"Not a good incentive system, but what do I know."

Well, the problem is that the "you shall be held accountable for past emissions" is only a good incentive system if the big emitter thinks that a global climate treaty with that clause is inevitable. Which, sadly, is a hard sell.

There are ways to craft policies to give early-action incentives. Most of the examples I've heard involve cap-and-trade schemes: one is to use a historical baseline date rather than a future one, to avoid perverse incentives of increasing emission to have a higher baseline. The other is to allow banking, so that emitters who join early can start accumulating credits. But while that's okay for a small market like SO2, I don't think it is appropriate to give credits to major emitters in cap and trade - that's like gifting trillions of dollars. Cap and trade is only okay if it is mostly auction-based (with some limited grandfathering for political necessity).

I guess a tweak to my above homogenized tax system is to add in that the skim off the top can only go to member nations, to encourage developing nations to join (I don't expect to get 180+ nations in a treaty right off).

The problem is that there really aren't great incentives for the US or Europe to join, outside of the goodness of their hearts and a distaste for moral shaming. Maybe border carbon taxes for non-aligned nations, but those would have to pass muster with the WTO, and no political scientist that I've talked to think it would be a slam dunk (the airline tax will be an interesting test case here).

Also, in my opinion, another flaw of Kyoto was that the environmental movement (and Europe) wouldn't accept a treaty without a pretty hefty commitment from the US - which Al Gore came in at the last minute to promise. But under the Kyoto targets, the US was going to pay a higher price than everyone else... and so it isn't surprising that the Senate never came close to ratifying the treaty as proposed. And I wouldn't be surprised if Kyoto only made ratification at all because 1) it gave European nations a chance to be smug and superior, and 2) once it was obvious that the US would be out, nations on the fence realized that the carbon price would be really low.

Again, this is not to say that the Kyoto targets were unfair: the US was rich, and responsible for a lot of historical emissions. BUT the Kyoto targets did not take into account political reality, and so an Annex I agreement was sacrificed at the altar of environmental idealism. While I admit that it is easy to point out the inevitability of the US failing to ratify in hindsight, I think that there were enough signs there that people could have figured it out in foresight, too.

I don't like the Breakthrough Institute, and disagree with their proposed solutions as being totally inadequate, but I do see where some of their frustration with the environmentalist community comes from.


Anonymous said...

I have to wonder at Posner and Weisbach...

After all, they live in a country where abbrogation of responsibility is punished financially, by the removal of liberty, by the removal of life itself, or by a combination of some of the above.

Further, they live in a country that is explicitly Christian, and that (nominally) upholds the Christian values of not covetting thy neighbours' stuff, of not killing thy neighbours, of respecting their god's creation, and of generally doing unto others as you would have them do unto you (although that last one might be stretching it in the 21st century...).

And in spite of their nation's legal and spiritual tenets, P&W seem to want to indulge in the hypocrisy of shirking that to which they ostensibly subscribe via their citizenship. Besides the moral bankruptcy of such a stance, they should keep in mind that other countries' citizens see this hypocrisy, and how its effects spill over the borders of the USA (and of countries such as mine Down Under), and they don't forget...

They won't forget.

If those who promote minimised responsiblility for changing the world's climate do have any spiritual morality, they would do well to remember the story of Cain, a fellow who wanted it all for himself, and who wouldn't 'fess up when he stepped over the line.

We know how that ended.

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII, Esq.

Aaron said...

None of this matters. Mother Nature runs this planet under a system of collective punishment. If one is guilty, all are punished.

Besides, at this point almost everyone has participated in some way in the global economy that is subsidized by fossil fuels. Almost nobody is a true innocent.

In some ways, Mother Nature is very fair, because she will "whack" everybody, but take more wealth from the rich than from the poor.

Anonymous said...

"Mother Nature is very fair ... take more wealth from the rich than from the poor."

All the poor have to lose is their livestock, their livelihoods and their lives. I very much doubt that reductions in our wealth will 'offset' the ghastly impositions on the poor.


Alex the Seal said...

Doing "what is right" comes a distant second to doing "what is necessary". The USA as a democratic nation of free thinking individuals will never agree to paying damages, an international deal will never be reached and emmissions will not be regulated. Sorry, that's just the way it is.

Go to plan B: Let bygones be bygones, and everyone starts regulating CO2. It's not fair, but life's like that. We need to just get it done.

J Bowers said...

Plan B2: Let bygones be bygones indeed, so wipe out Third World debt and everyone starts regulating CO2. We need to just get it done.

Anonymous said...

Well color me stoopid, they call me stoopid.

Ah, these good men wish to re-establish the wall of total isolation.

One would be intrigued, how such a barrier would operate, in an economy of service and consumer driven demand, that is purely addicted to debt? Especially one, which has closed all it's factories and is a net importer of all technologies?

As for the wealth, these fools seek to retain, there is an old Native American prophesy:-

"Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten."

willard said...

My all time favorite, **Three Ways of Spilling Ink**:

which reminds me I just spilled my first ink bottle two days ago, the loveliest Visconti blue.

Oh, and remember Yamal.

And Woodpeckers.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Tbe USA turns away from wealth and power, Islam ignores the past, Russia ditches its criminals, and the Chinese abandon dreams of empire.

Other than that, the treaty is a piece of cake.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

you know we are sailing into a moral storm but I would suggest everyone's moral storm is their own and not some fake collectivist goal.

I know a lot of you here consider Eli to be a demi God but trust me, there's a reason he is a teacher and probably makes 50k or less. Remember the saying, those who can do. Those who can't...teach.

Alastair said...

Now that, the red mist which rose before my eyes while reading the excerpt from Posner and Weisbachhas has subsided, I would like to make a couple of points.

First it seems to be accepted that "The US is relatively less vulnerable to climate change than other countries." [P&W] Margalioth writes "... , because developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change, ..." What is the evidence for that? Hurricane Katrina, the drought in Texas, and wild fires in California all are harbingers of the future and occurred in the US. Moreover, Florida and New York are as vulnerable to sea level rise as Bangladesh.

Second, this claim that US citizens are not responsible for the emissions in the past is irrelevant, and IMHO is just a diversionary tactic. The US is emitting 25% of global emissions now, so it must make the biggest cuts. How much pain this is going to cause relative to poorer countries is another imponderable, but the thing is to get started with the cuts, and give up these interminable arguments about justice, which are all relative and depend on your viewpoint.

What is required is that the US start making cuts without waiting for a universal agreement, just as Europe and most of the rest of the world did under Kyoto. What is morally repugnant is for the US to continue increasing its emissions while arguing about what is not right and not fair!

Cheers, Alastair

Anonymous said...

Remember the saying, those who can do. Those who can't...teach.

Ah! An idiotic idomatic expression found on one of the chocolate fruit & nut's wrappers no doubt!

Self-educated obviously! And boy/girl does it show.

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."
Albert Einstein

Cymraeg llygoden

Bryson said...

Pretending responsibility only arises from deliberate, knowing malfeasance strikes me as self-serving, deliberate malfeasance in its own right. Further, awareness of a risk goes back much further than 1992. Finally, practicality cuts in several directions here. It may be difficult to get wealthy nations to accept responsibility and take action-- but it's just as unlikely that poor nations will do much on their own without substantial leadership from the 'first world'. China and India need to follow quickly, but I don't see why they should go where we won't lead. In the end, all countries will suffer if pure, short-term 'self-interest' and the right to 'self-determination' dominates the negotiations. Do Posner and Weisbach really want to tell their grandchildren, "...well, we wanted to do something, but no one would agree to treat everyone else in a way they each would agree was perfectly 'fair', so we did nothing..."?

Bryson Brown

J Bowers said...

Concerning teaching, Jay makes an appeal to the wisdom of Sarah Palin.

No Jay, I am not Canadian.

William Connolley said...

I wouldn't worry about past emissions, on the grounds that what we've done so far is only the start. Current emissions, if stopped now, wouldn't be very exciting.

Steve Metzler said...

I tend to agree that insisting on retribution for past emissions would probably delay any treaty indefinitely.

So how about we forget about the past, and just worry about trying to make the future viable? Though obviously designed with the U.S. in mind, Hansen's proposed 'fee and dividend' could be made to work on a world-wide scale:

Hansen's original 'fee and dividend' pitch

Or, am I being incredibly naïve? Perhaps the amount of tax per ton of carbon taken at the port of entry could be pro-rated according to that country's GDP per capita, or such.

EliRabett said...

Dr. J. please note the small image on the left side near the top of the blog right above the list of contributors.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

yes I see you smoking your pipe there!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

so I'm trying to start a new cause/movement, anybody want to help me start the argument that the video game industry is too big to fail? Honestly, they are one of a few things that don't suck right now, innovation is happening and people that play video games are happier than non gamers.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

But Jay, Everything you start sucks. Everything you touch fails. Failure oozes from your very pores.

If you ever lose your virginity, rest assured it will be a pityf***.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Jay Cadbury, phd.

I don't know a ray, it doesn't seem like anybody is jumping on board to give their money to the government either.

Maybe next year.

Stephen Leahy said...

This is an actual proposal to change the game that's been bouncing around the UN climate talks for some time - doesn't get much attention (besides the other idea to leave the US out of the game until ready to play)

willard said...

Dear Eli,

You can take consolation that the saying dates back to Plato.

And the whole saying mentions those who can't teach. Those are worse than you, because they need to teach how to teach.

These are the worse.

You can also take consolation in the fact that Plato's saying respects your favorite's blogger Rule of Three:

I vaguely recall some platonist mathematician saying that teachers were the most lukewarm workers, but my memory is not infaillible.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Jaybird: "I don't know..."

Could of stopped right there, Jaybird, regardless of the subject. Your are a proudly ignorant moron whose picture appears prominently next to the word FAIL (n) in the dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, this meeting is not all about Posner and Weisbach. PW are easy prey, their idea is so laughable, but the occasion provides an excuse for some serious thinking about how to apply principles of justice to the climate change problem. There's lots in the papers posted that just ignores PW and gets serious about the problem. I was fascinated to find that the guy from Merton College came to essentially the same conclusions as I did regarding the carbon commons, despite approaching it from the standpoint of philosophy rather than physical science. I had graphs, he didn't, but we arrived at the same place.


EliRabett said...

Hi RayP Eli suggests you use the image at the top of the post as your last slide, it got it all

J Bowers said...

Possibly of relevance and, even though many are dismissing it as a stunt, enough for National Association of Manufacturers to get their own lawyers into action to oppose.

An Inconvenient Lawsuit: Teenagers Take Global Warming to the Courts

Their pro bono lawyer used to be a Republican in Congress, too, which makes it all the more curiouser.

willard said...

> PW are easy prey, their idea is so laughable [...].

Resisting to this urge would decimate blog lands.

> There's lots in the papers posted that just ignores PW and gets serious about the problem.

Citations needed.

Russell said...

Eli. any effort at postulating the moral calculus in question ought to take the per capita stats into account.

Forget getting to 350: cutting CO2 enough to limit its rate of growth to 1 ppm per annum would cut each persons carbon ration to about a kilogram a day for lighting, heating cooking transport and trade combined.

What kind of world was that ? That kind of energy and CO2 output level was last seen globally in the 1870's, and can still be found in several dozen nations with supergreen carbon footprints , from Afghanistan to Zambia.

The only trouble is the strong negative correlation between life expectancy and CO2 emission per capita among the wood-hewing and water-hauling classes. Instant enforcement of Sinn's SuperKyoto regime would likely hasten a billion people into early graves, because the nations with the lowest CO2 emissions have the shortest life expectancies on the planet.

Some of us have long opposed Sinn's global rationing plans as an affront to human liberty.

When will we hear from those appalled by carbon rationing's inhumanity ?

EliRabett said...

Problem is, of course, that the moles have a quorum at UC, so the bunnies gotta whack em. If what you say is true, every talk should start with the ritual Posner and Weisbach are ignorant sluts so we will ignore them slide

Anonymous said...

"When will we hear from those appalled by carbon rationing's inhumanity ?"

Russell, the trouble is that it is not a matter of 'if' but 'when'; not of 'could' but 'must'.

Carbon rationing is inevitable, courtesy of Peak Fossil Carbon. The longer humans suck on the oily, coaly, gassy tit, the harder will be the landing when they're ripped from it.

There is every reason to do it sooner rther than later. The only folk who might disagree are those who think that they'll slip through and live out their lives before weaning time arrives.

It's exactly because of involuntary carbon rationing's appalling inhumanity, as well as global warming's even more appalling inhumanity, that I am emphatically in favour of kicking the habit now.

Bernard J. Hyphen-Anonymous XVII, Esq.

owlbrudder said...

Those of us who occupy the Land Down Under (Australia, for those who lack an atlas) are witnessing a small but important disaster. Our slightly-left-of-centre government has enacted legislation introducing an emissions trading scheme (ETS) (essentially cap and trade), which is due to commence on the 1st of July. Whoopee - a step in the right direction!

Trouble is, the very same government, which rules with a legislative majority of a single vote, is facing the prospect of one, or possibly two, of its members being slapped with law suits that would make them ineligible to sit in our parliament. The possibility that the government could fall is very real and the conservative opposition have vowed to repeal the ETS laws as soon as they get into the driver's seat. The opposition is led by a zealot who has stated "climate change is crap" and who drums up fear about the damage to our economy from the ETS, but refuses to see the future damage to the global economy from continuing with business as usual. He believes in infinite growth on a finite planet, but he is an economist, so perhaps we should cut him some slack: after all, conservative economists tend to believe in Infinite Growth, Santa Claus and the Magic Pudding.

If the government's problem children are dragged before the courts, this could conceivably happen before 1st July, meaning the emissions trading scheme could be in jeopardy and that would be a small disaster: disaster because losing the ETS would set the world back by removing some important leadership; small because Australia's carbon reduction would have very little effect on global emissions.

What does this have to do with the OP? Well, the Australian ETS legislation implicitly acknowledges its responsibility for future emissions. Given that there is currently no practical way of scrubbing CO2 from the air once it is released, it is relatively fruitless for countries to try to take responsibility for past emissions, but at least we could make a difference by now accepting responsibility for future emissions, just as Australia has done. Of course, we can regret past emissions, but there is nothing we can do about them now. It is better to start now and do something, than to argue about the past and end up doing nothing.

Every tonne of CO2 emitted is doing harm, regardless of whether it is coming from a supersonic jet fighter in America or a cow-dung cooking fire in Somalia. AGW is affecting everybody on the planet, some worse than others. AGW does not care about who is to blame.

All humanity should do what it currently can do to reduce future damage and not stall over arguments over who is responsible for damages to date. Talkfests that only rake over old ground are doing nothing to address the problem.