Environmentalists for Economic Growth?


Environmentalists for Economic Growth?

Grossly oversimplified, considering the use of fossil fuels and the damages from the resulting climate changes, the big winners today are wealthy people living in places with winter, air conditioners and bulldozers who are changing the climate a lot, and the big losers today are poor people living in places without winter, air conditioners and bulldozers who are not changing the climate much.

With winter, the warming may hurt ski areas, but warming up the uncomfortably cold times may have relatively little cost or even overall benefits. Air conditioning allows people to work during hot summers and saves them from heat-related illness, thus greatly reducing the damages from excess heat. And bulldozers (and all the other machines) allow building walls against the rising seas or otherwise dealing with problems arising. People lacking winter, air conditioners and bulldozers are endangered by rising heat stress and sea level without the means to deal these problems.

The main religions and traditions of the world all include some principle or law functionally equivalent to the “Golden Rule”, which is often stated as “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”.

The Wikipedia entry, Golden Rule, is fascinating to read for the remarkable universality of this “ethic of reciprocity”. You also might look at Vogel, G., 2004, The evolution of the Golden Rule, Science 303, 1128-1131 for a bit on the science of this, and how it extends beyond humans.

And, it is very clear that if the people causing the most climate change are suffering the least from it, and the people causing the least climate change are suffering the most from it, the Golden Rule is not being followed. No one can legally dump their human waste in your yard, but people can dump their fossil-fuel waste into the atmosphere you live in and change the climate where you live.

This is an important ethical argument that concerns many people. However, the answer may not be as simple as stopping the waste-dumping. Because the winter air conditioner-bulldozer people can help the have-nots get air conditioners and bulldozers to deal with the changing climate.

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Strong scholarship shows that wealthier people in colder places are using fossil fuels faster per person than the rest of the world, and this is causing climate changes that primarily are hurting poorer people in warmer places, and future generations. Does this mean that wealthy people should stop using fossil fuels now and let the rest of the world catch up?


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ANSWER: Everyone will have their own opinions on difficult ethical quandaries such as these. We started this course with a discussion of the good results that humans get from burning fossil fuels. The conflict between the great damages that climate change has begun to cause, and the great good we continue to get from the energy in fossil fuels, does raise important ethical issues, but they cannot be solved with simple slogans or catch-all solutions.

Suppose, as a thought experiment, that by continuing with business as usual, climate change will increase the economy by 2.5% in a high-latitude industrial country, and reduce the economy by 25% in a low-latitude agricultural country of similar size and similar population, but that today the economy is 20 times bigger in the high-latitude country. Or, the high-latitude country could spend 2.5% of their economy to stop climate change. If you poke around with those numbers, allowing the climate change to occur gains the high-latitude country more money than the low-latitude country loses, whereas working to stop the climate change prevents the relatively large loss from the low-latitude country but leaves the countries combined with a smaller economy. Allowing the climate to change, and taking some of the extra money from the high-latitude country and giving it to the low-latitude country, could leave both countries better off than working to stop the climate change.

Lots of questions arise. Maybe the biggest one is whether the high-latitude country will really transfer that money. And, can the transfer be efficient, and will the low-latitude country be happy with charity rather than their traditional lifestyle, and more. But, the economically optimal path allows much climate change to occur because the use of fossil fuels is so valuable to people now. The tendency for many low-latitude poor countries to subsidize fossil fuels for their people may be viewed as showing how much those people want the energy from the fossil fuels.

Perhaps the most direct interpretation of this these two brief studies is to provide support for the idea that wise response involves both helping people now, and heading off future changes, and that these may occasionally work at cross purposes.

Many other issues are ethical or include ethical elements. Some are quite complex, but others much simpler. Let's take a look at a few more as we move forward in this module.