I spent two weeks arguing that those who use particular arguments in the climate change debate are at best deserving of the same type of condemnation as we would give the drunk driver or the school bus driver who decides to race across a train crossing to beat an oncoming train.
Then I started to give my own position on the climate change debate.
Yesterday, I argued that - unless you are going to put in enough work to qualify for a PhD in climate science - that the scientific consensus represents the best information on the subject. You cannot point to any group or institution and say honestly that it does a better job of explaining and, more importantly, predicting what is going to happen than the scientific consensus. Scientists are human, and some will lie and commit fraud and be blinded by their biases. Yet, in spite of these flaws. the scientific consensus is still the best source of information.
This identifies one of the strongest points of moral condemnation that I have been arguing for - arrogant people willing to bet human lives that, by watching Fox News and surfing the internet for a few hours, they can be so certain that the scientific consensus is wrong that they will bet the fate of whole cities on the outcome. It is hard even to fathom the arrogance of such a person.
However, even though the scientific consensus is the best source of information on what will happen, it does not tell us what should happen. I hasten to add that, as a moral realist, I hold that science could find and report moral facts, so far it has avoided a rigorous study of that discipline. Consequently, even scientists can give us no better than crude, rudimentary moral intuitions - many, like our scientific intuitions, are greatly flawed.
The dominant political consensus on what should happen is that the nations of the world should get together and work together to prevent global temperatures from rising 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. This means mandatory caps and then cuts on greenhouse gas emissions.
I hold that caps and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions represents an extremely costly, foolish, and ultimately immoral approach to the problem that is ultimately doomed to fail. It will fail because it establishes a system where people are given a liberty to do great amounts of harm without being held responsible for the consequences. Not only are they given this liberty, but those who do harm are actually rewarded with a higher quality of life than those avoid doing harm.
The whole issue of climate change is that greenhouse gas emissions create costs. Those costs are potentially as high as the destruction of whole cities and of whole populations. This, in itself, is a moral issue. As such, it is a legitimate object of concern in this blog.
Behavior that does a great amount of harm to others is to be morally condemned.
When it comes to the harms caused by climate change, there are three basic policies on the table that tell who will pay for those harms.
Policy 1: The victims themselves pay for the harms caused by global warming. The bill gets sent to the people who lose their homes and property to sea-level rise, die from heat stress, and have their communities wiped out by drought. If we were talking about a moral crime such as theft or rape, this method says that the costs of theft and rape are to be borne by the victim, and that those who do the harm shall be left free to do as they please.
Policy 2: The taxpayer gets the bill for all the harm done. On this model, we are going to institute expensive government programs to deal with global warming and spend trillions of government dollars mitigating the effects.
Policy 3: Let those who do the harm pay the costs. The costs of dealing with climate change is taken out of the accounts of those who contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The more one contributes, the more one pays. If a person does not wish to pay these costs, then they will take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. If they are willing to pay these costs, then at least they are not making others worse off by their actions. They are being required to pay enough money to compensate their victims for harms done.
Of the three, Policy 3 is the only option that makes any moral sense.
However, Policy 3 does not require caps or mandatory reductions. It does not bilking the common wage earner to pay for huge government programs to subsidize alternative energy production, carbon sinks, and engineering projects to deal with the effects of climate change. It requires collecting money from those who cause climate change - the greenhouse gas emitters - and using that money, not general taxpayer money, to pay for all of these projects.
It is simply an application of the policy that individuals will be held morally responsible for the consequences of their actions. If you are at fault for running a red light and smashing into another car, you compensate your victim for the harms done (or have your insurance company do it).
A lot of people do not like to be held morally responsible for the harms they do to others. They like to escape responsibility - to do harm to others and then run away from the consequences. However, this is not what a good person would do. This is not the type of behavior we have any reason to praise. It is quite the opposite - a type of behavior that we have a great deal of reason to condemn and to condemn harshly.
The political solution that best matches this moral requirement is one that requires that greenhouse gas emitters make a payment proportional to their contribution to the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The solution will then use that money specifically to cover the costs associated with global warming (if any). Anybody who does not want to pay for the harms they cause to others is free to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and thus reduce the amount of harm they have to pay for.
On this method, if a person decides to do less harm, they get a direct benefit in the form of reducing the payments they make into the pool that compensates people for those harms. And the people who decide to continue to do harm makes payments that at least leaves others no worse off than they would have otherwise been.
There is no cap in that people are allowed to emit whatever greenhouse gasses they are willing to pay for. There are no mandatory reductions - just the voluntary reductions of those who decide, "I can't afford to buy insurance against the possibility of moving whole cities to higher ground, so I'm not going to do the things that may have these kinds of consequences."
As fossil fuel emitters are forced to pay for the full costs and consequences of their action, we should see sizable private free-market investment (without taxpayer subsidies) in alternative energy. The demand will come from those who do not wish to pay the costs of emitting greenhouse gasses.
One of the most morally outrageous arguments that we see in the climate change debate - and one that we hear a lot from the vocal leaders of the Republican Party, is that this tactic of forcing people to pay for the harms they cause to others is "bad for the economy". If greenhouse gas emitters are required to cover the costs of their actions, the story goes, this will mean the loss of jobs and economic collapse.
These are scare tactics used . . . effectively . . . by thieves, vandals, and murderers who wish to continue to rob and kill others and destroy their property without facing the consequences of their action. This argument is like saying, "No, we cannot take steps to cause credit card fraud! Whenever we prevent credit card fraud we damage the economy because of all other money these fraudsters spend, promoting jobs and employment!"
It is an absurd argument. Somebody has to pay these costs. Stopping credit card fraud leaves the money in the pockets of those who earned it so that they can spend it as they please. Holding greenhouse gas emitters morally and economically responsible for the harms they do means that those who would have otherwise been their victims get to keep their property, their health, and their lives, to spend as they choose - or they are provided with compensation as valuable as that which is taken from them.
In economic terms, this means raising the victim to the same point on the indifference curve – where possible.
Somebody will have to pay these costs. Either it is the victims of global warming, the taxpayer (regardless of their degree of responsibility in causing these problems), or the greenhouse gas emitters themselves.
Morality suggests that it be the latter.