Thursday, July 10, 2008

Broome Paradigm

** updated 7.15. **

This post is a review of the climate ethics cover of June 08 Scientific American. The review -- please scroll down -- has three parts. Good News is on the context. Broome's Paper is on the text. Problems with the Paradigm is on the limitations.

Note two newbies in Climate Philosophy Meets at right. There is a call for papers from the University of Central Florida, in Orlando (see the organizers' blog). I like the title of the Jan 2009 meeting--"evolution, the environment, and responsible knowledge". Kantian! And, if you add it up, evolution plus environment plus responsible knowledge equals non-paradigmatic climate ethics. By contrast, the prevailing paradigm of climate ethics would be environment plus responsible knowledge, sans evolution. Food for thought!

Then there's a call (pdf) from philosophers in Oslo & Victoria to join in the massive conference hosted by the Danish government March 2009. The Climate Conference Copenhagen is going to be a biggie. It'll be interdisciplinary as heck; philosophers will be one tribe only; this may be a historic event. The conference will be a run-up to the UN COP 15 Nov 09, whose goal is a REAL climate treaty for 2012ff.

The next post will be the July Climate Review. As a pre-view some info that popped up since the two June reviews (parts one and two).

ESA reports that an Antarctic ice shelf is "hanging by its last thread". The ice apron is not looking so good these days. Trippy about ESA's finding is that this is happening in the Antarctic winter.

NOAA released its States of Coral Reef Ecoysystems 2008 report (pdf, 580p.) Since 2005, half the reefs in the Caribbean have died. That's a fifty percent loss in three years (p.11). And then there's this: “continued increases in CO2 may result in acidification of waters to the point that calcification by marine organisms can no longer occur, which would prevent future coral reef growth altogether.“ (p. 15). A news blurb is here.

O yes. And on top of this, one third of coral reef building organisms is now facing extinction. The destructiveness of the Gringo Square has become tangible.

Personal updates: There is hope for a USF Honors Climate seminar. There may be a second bicyclist commuter in the USF faculty, rumour has he's a math guy. The USF Provost Office may be interested to consider solar panels and energy independence -- if only to stop the laughter at the Sunshine State without Sun Power.

'Nuff said. Now John Broome.

Good News

That Scientific American selects a philosophy paper as last month’s lead article (vol. 298.6:97-102) is excellent news for philosophers and a PR feat for our discipline. Now this particular paper is a study of climate change, and this shows the progression of research. As even die-hard Christians, dogmatic Humeans, and motoring Republicans know by now, climate change, despite federal attempts at censoring the information, is not in doubt anymore. The debates on the historic transformation of world climate have branched out from the empirical stage of inquiry and its questions of events, causes, and effects. Originally, debates revolved around the fact-based questions of trends, thresholds, tipping points, and feedback loops. Now, new branches are weaving a rational stage of broader inquiries. There, debates concern insight-oriented questions, such as of what it all means; how to value it, and what’s to be done.

In the arts and sciences, climate change has leapt over disciplinary fences like an unstoppable wildfire. What started out as a puzzle in chemistry, physics, and meteorology grew into a topic in geology, paleontology, geology, marine studies, ecology, and biology; next turned into a challenge for medicine, engineering, economics, and environmental management; and has now solidly emerged as an issue in ethical theory, in moral or practical philosophy. The hope of this blogging historian of ideas is that the problem of climate change will soon break out from the confines of ethics (and philosophy of science, for that matter), and invade foundational philosophy—phenomenology, hermeneutics, ontology, and the geography of thought. When that happens—when, not if—climate studies will have evolved from the factual and the practical to the truly conceptual.

We would then also have come full circle, or at least made one revolution on a rising heuristic spiral, namely from the Kyoto Protocol to the Kyoto School and Watsuji. But this is in the future. For now, and looking back, the news of Scientific American leading with a paper in Moral Philosophy adds weight to Tim Flannery’s 2005 prediction that the issue of climate change, in the years to come, will dwarf all the other issues combined, and that it will become the only issue.

Broome’s Paper

John Broome’s “The Ethics of Climate Change” is a valuable, well-informed, and informative paper. While I don’t agree with it a bit, I must reign in misgivings (more below), put my mouth on the leash, and see things in perspective. My misgivings are opinions outside the paradigm, and they are exotic compared to British moral philosophy. And regardless of mixed feelings, the fact remains that Professor Broome has done the discipline a service by showcasing the application of British moral thought to a world problem. This should make the conceptual sum of climate-plus-philosophy less counterintuitive to a broader audience, also in academic philosophy.

Broome has written lucid works at the intersection of economics and philosophy. Weighing Goods (1991) and Weighing Lives (2004) are two of them. His book, Counting the Cost of Global Warming (1992), was an early, if not to say pioneering, appraisal of the price tag of then looming climate change. “The Ethics of Climate Change” is reasoned in a similar vein as Counting the Cost. “The Ethics” is written in a non-technical style; the essay is simple, plain, and short. The brevity distils what would otherwise be fine-grained lines of reasoning into a compact mix of queries and conclusions. While this may not satisfy the expert, it helps in thinking about the issue, and it highlights the author’s perspective.

Sections of the paper have titles such as “ethics of costs and benefits,” “the richer future,” “temporal distance,” and “market discount rates?” One graph box (p. 98) is entitled, “discounting made simple—how much do we care about the future?” Another box is on Utilitarianism—here defined as the view that “assigns the same social value no matter how benefits are distributed” (p. 99)—and on the view Boone calls “Prioritarianism,” which assigns greater value to an increase in the wellbeing of the poor as compared to an increase in the wellbeing of the rich. Broome is for utilitarianism and against prioritarianism (p. 102). A final box (p. 100) leads with the question, “measuring catastrophe?

Questions matter here. Two of them stand out: “how much should we sacrifice today to improve the lives of future people richer than we are?” (p. 98) And: “which is worse, the death of a child in 2108 or the death of a child today?” (p. 100)

And that, in a nutshell, is what this is about—a non-technical summary, more perspective than treatise, on the ethical and economic aspects of climate change. The thought is British. The viewpoint follows the Scottish Enlightenment and its successors. The ethical framework is utilitarianism. The economic framework is the free-market theory, or capitalism, and specifically, the discount rate. This rate refers to “how fast the value of having goods in the future diminishes as the future time in question becomes more remote” (p. 100). Broome is a disciple of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Then again, if you teach philosophy at Oxford, you’re more or less expected to be.

For Broome, discounting is problematic and yet the only way to go—which means, on the one hand, that “we should be temporally impartial” (p. 102), hence not operate with the assumption of diminishing future value over time; and on the other, that low discounting à la Stern (of Stern Report fame) is desirable, in contrast to a high discount rate à la Nordhaus. William Nordhaus is a Yale economist, American optimist, and free marketeer, who doesn’t lose much sleep over climate change. Broome favors, with Stern, a 1.4% discount rate over the 6% rate proposed by Nordhaus. Broome and Stern put a “relatively high value on the wellbeing of future generations,” which translates into the demand to spend “1 percent of [the world’s] total production rate, or about $500 billion today, on efforts to reduce greenhouse gases” (box p. 98).

In sum, the essay is informative and reasonable. Broome says that climate change is a problem that is only going to get worse; that we need to pay respect to future generations (conundrums à la Parfit of their presently-obligating not-yet-existence notwithstanding); that the solution of the climate problem requires sacrifices; and finally, that it ain't right to favor ourselves unduly over the future, which rules out Prioritarianism, even though, economically, we are poor compared to the ever richer generations of the receding future.

And that’s that.

Problems with the Paradigm

Let me tackle the problems in terms of three questions.

First, can we afford to continue thinking in the Adam Smith box? Karl Marx was wrong: despite his predictions, capitalism didn’t collapse through internal contradictions. The system works alright. But the system is at odds with its context. A flourishing free market requires steady economic expansion; economic expansion means expanding resource exploitation, expanding productions of goods and waste, and expanding biospherical stress. As Nicholas Stern freely grants, climate change is "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen" (Stern Report, Summary of Conclusions, p. 3). Climate change is the result of the external conflict of capitalism with its physical context. None of what I write here is particularly controversial. So what makes Professor Broome and other British moral philosophers think that the paradigm that got us into the mess will get us out of it? Is it because, after the fall of communism, it's either capitalism or nothing? If so, he and his colleagues must suffer the reproach of being fresh out of ideas.

Second, can we afford to trust Adam Smith dogmas such as the discount rate? To be sure, the world economy, measured at constant prices, expanded about twenty-fold in the past century. This expansion took off in the industrial revolution two centuries ago. Since then, every new generation had been richer than the generation that preceded it. In such a dynamic matrix over time, and from the vantage point of any given generation, some discounting of diminishing future value made sense. But this was then. Now, in light of the crossing of virtually all sustainable yield thresholds of the resources and commons the world economy needs, and in light of of the failing biospherical capacity to absorb more greenhouse gases without ill effect, I wonder what can possibly justify this dated belief in future riches? Climate change changes things. How will future generations be better off than we are? Begging this question makes the paper sound dogmatic.

Finally, the paradigm tells us to conceive of climate change in one-dimensional terms: it’s a “problem,” and its solution is going to be “costly” yet necessary for the benefit of the “future”. Why don’t we turn things upside down? Don't see it as problem; see it as chance. Don't judge it costly; judge it beneficial. Don't think only of the kids then and there, also think of yourself, here and now.

Put differently, I suggest looking at what needs to be done not as a costly solution for the sake of the future, but as an overdue exit from a failing paradigm. Intergenerational equity is essential, but climate ethics is not reducible to it. We need to think outside the box, and this would suggest that the current events give us a chance for evolution. After the dumbing-down of US culture to the gringo square, we're finally forced to smarten up again! The utopian, enlightened, and ecosophical societies envisioned by Schweitzer, Leopold, Fromm, Naess, and the hippies, as well as by Laozi, Confucius, and Kant, are within reach. At last these visions aren't for dreamers anymore. They're for realists who wish to avoid a Darwin Award. Such social visions are now the only viable alternative to a failing present. In that sense, climate change is not a problem--it's a chance. It points beyond a paradigm that seems to be meeting its limit. And if my misgivings sound too romantic, kindly consider this: is it realistic to hope creating forces for the needed effort by seeing climate change purely in terms of costs for an abstract future?

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