Saturday, April 26, 2008

Does climate change have implications for freedom and flourishing?

The most obvious implication of climate change has to do with adaptation. There is nothing new about adapting to climate change. Our ancestors managed to survive ice ages and periods of global warming, and to flourish by making changes in the way they went about their lives. No doubt our descendents will face similar challenges.

How can we best adapt? It seems to me that collectivist adjustment strategies that involve putting all our eggs in baskets designed by government agencies would be highly risky. The overall outcome is likely to be much better if individuals have maximum freedom to adjust as they see fit.

Does it make any difference if the challenge of climate change that our descendents face is attributable to human activity – namely, global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions? It seems to me that there are two ways in which it may make a difference. The first concerns personal ethics and the second concerns public policy.

There are not many individuals who would feel happy about pursuing a lifestyle that is likely to be seriously detrimental to the interests of their children and grandchildren. So, why aren’t we all making efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions or to take action to offset them?

An excuse that some of us have is uncertainty about the science of global warming. In November 2007 I wrote: “ I now accept that the probability of net adverse consequences following from growing greenhouse gas emissions is somewhat higher than zero. I may be wrong.” Five months later, I think I might have been wrong. In a few months time I could change my mind again. I am easily swayed by the latest research findings.

What attitude should a climate change waverer, like myself, have toward environmental puritans who not only accept that there is an emerging problem of climate change caused by human action but also take action to minimize their own contribution to the problem? Some of my sceptical friends make no secret of the fact that they think these people are being foolish because their individual actions have an insignificant effect on the global problem that they perceive to exist. I think my sceptical friends should mind their own consciences and leave the environmental puritans alone – provided, of course, that environmental puritans are prepared to reciprocate.

Before ridiculing those who seek to minimize their own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions we should consider whether the fact that an individual’s actions have an insignificant effect on outcomes is seen to absolve her/him from responsibility for personal actions in other areas of conduct. It isn’t. For example, we do not view pilfering as being ethically OK for individuals who work in large firms, even though the amounts each individual steals may represent an insignificant proportion of the total costs of the firm.

So, let us have some respect for the environmental puritans who act conscientiously. In my view we should reserve our ridicule for the hypocrites who seek to impose restraint on others – through use of the coercive power of the government - without first exercising restraint themselves.

When government action is proposed this is not just a matter of saying: “Let us all agree to adopt a lifestyle that involves less emission of greenhouse gases so that our consciences can be clear”. It actually involves saying: “Let us make a collective decision that will induce people to emit less greenhouse gases whether they want to or not”. When governments make that decision they are disadvantaging some people who do not support the objective they are pursuing. Furthermore, the objective they are pursuing of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions cannot be achieved by the Australian government acting alone.

No amount of reduction in emissions by Australia can be anything more than a drop in the bucket relative to the global greenhouse gas emissions. If our government gets ahead of the rest of the world on this issue, citizens of this country risk the worst of all outcomes – bearing the cost of involuntary emission reductions without benefiting from any amelioration of any adverse effects on our climate.

It seems to me that until the world develops something approaching a global consensus in favour of reducing greenhouse gas emissions the Australian government would be wise to view this issue as a matter for individual conscience. However, I doubt whether this point of view will find much favour with our prime minister, Kevin Rudd. It seems more likely that he will prefer to follow the inner voice urging him to lead the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After all, he has probably been in office long enough by now to believe that this inner voice is the collective conscience of all Australians.

Postscript: 28 April, 2008.
 Two years on it is now apparent that I owe Kevin Rudd an apology. The rhetoric that led me to fear that he wanted Australia to lead the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions turned out to be just political spin that led nowhere. It seems that Rudd's inner voice has told him that Australian voters would not like pointless increases in electicity prices that could be sheeted home to his policies. The government has suspended its proposals to reduce greenhouse gases for a couple of years. I don't imagine the proposals will re-surface until there is a strong lead from the U.S. that might actually result in a significant reduction in global emissions.
I promise that I will be much more careful in future before assuming that Kevin Rudd's rhetoric is anything more than political spin.


Shona Bates said...

One word for you concerning global consensus. Rio. In Rio in 1992, the world did come together and recognise that climate change was real, and agreed to do something about it. Since then there have been efforts to crush and scupper these initiatives by various parties to satisfy their own means.

Climate change is a natural process, but one which has been unnaturally exacerbated by recent human activity. Environmental consequences asside, this is not all bad in terms of freedom and flourishing provided that you have the upper hand, ie that you recognise climate change and do something about it.

Economic opportunities of climate change that may lead to greater freedom and flourishing might inlcude providing mechanisms for adaptation, mitigation, or through simply having viable land that isn't under threat of rising sea levels and has access to clean water.

However, those facing the brunt of climate change will have both their freedom and ability to flourish diminished.

So, isn't it in everyone's interest to act?

Winton Bates said...

You say: "So, isn't it in everyone's interest to act?"

It seems to me that that is the critical question.