Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Tentative Plan for an Overly Ambitious Climate Change Project

Anyone who's been following my work will know that a main focus of my research is global climate change, viewed from an ethical and political perspective. In this post, I want to sketch out where I'd like to go with that research and how I'd like to compose a complete product. These will only be sketches, and only working sketches at that; I imagine things will change rather dramatically as I move forward. But hopefully they'll help me to organize my thoughts. And if anyone out there is interested in helping me work on some of this stuff, I'd really love to know. It would be amazing to be able to finish this project for a dissertation, but I don't know if that will be possible if I have to do this all alone... Anyway, here it is (as usual, the mainstream scientific standpoint is taken as a premise for the first parts):

1. Collective Action Problems and Coercion

Climate change is a problem that, on its surface, seems to fit right into the model of a public goods problem. People acting on their own independent interests are collectively producing something that appears to be bad. If we were to desire to prevent this bad thing from coming about, we would either need to alter the set of incentives facing the relevant agents (in this case, basically everyone) so that they would adjust their behavior, or perhaps we would need to take steps to mitigate the effects of their actions.

When we talk about an appropriate response to climate change, however, we don't have in mind a sort of Buchananite consensus-building endeavor in which we try to get everyone to agree to a system that would uncontroversially represent an improvement over the current one. Rather, we intend to coerce people -- that is, to influence them to follow plans besides their own by force if necessary -- in order to bring about the desired outcomes.

But we can't just go around coercing people whenever we think we could bring about "better" social outcomes by doing so -- we need some justification for infringing upon individuals' rights to self-determination. Accordingly, this section would attempt to sketch the kinds of reasons that one might offer in defense of an infringement of someone's right to self-determination, all focusing on duties held by the individual whose rights are being infringed.

I will discuss self-defense briefly, acknowledging Roderick Long's contributions in thinking about dealing with climate change from this paradigm, but ultimately conclude that it doesn't make much sense to approach the issue of climate change in this way. I will therefore sketch out two alternative sources of duties which might help us to justify coercion: the duty to show appropriate respect for others' rights and the duty to attempt to mitigate tragic or catastrophic consequences. The next two sections will be elaborations of these issues.

2. Climate Change as an Infringement Upon Rights

This section will draw heavily on my paper, "Justice and Climate Change: Towards a Libertarian Analysis," which will be coming out in The Independent Review in the Fall. It will outline the foundations of a duty to respect others' rights, and explore the ways in which we might think of climate change as infringing upon rights. I will build upon my earlier paper to address some of the issues that were left undiscussed there.

One way in which I will go beyond that paper in this section will be to discuss the question of whether these infringements upon rights would constitute rights-violations. I will predicate this discussion on the premise (which I will challenge in Section 4) that individuals who contribute to global climate change are responsible for the rights-infringements, and search for ways that those individuals might try to defend their actions. The purpose of this discussion will not be to reach any definitive conclusions, but rather to give us a starting point for thinking about these questions in Section 4 when we try to pin down exactly what individuals are responsible for, and how we should think of their duties in light of such an analysis.

3. When Are Consequences Correlative?

This section draws its inspiration from the concept of correlations between duties and rights, observing that some intuitively plausible kinds of duties don't seem to correlate with rights. Some of these duties which are non-correlative with rights seem to make reference to things that we owe to ourselves or to ideals to which we are committed. But others seem to have to do with our duty to promote "the good," or at least refrain from promoting "the bad" or destroying "the good."

In this section, I will attempt to approach the impacts of climate change from this sort of consequentialist perspective, trying to decide when consequences correlate with duties to act in certain ways. I will initially focus on impacts on groups of humans and on cultures, but I will attempt to expand my discussion to incorporate a consequentialist theory of environmental ethics. Much like in the previous section, my discussion in this section will be structured so as to rely on a set of carefully chosen suppositions about individuals' responsibility for bringing about these consequences that will be challenged in Section 4, but not in a way that makes the discussion here useless. Again, the purpose of the discussion here will be to create a starting point for the analysis in Section 4.

4. Collective Responsibility and Individual Duties

This section will bring into focus the emergent nature of the climate change problem, and attempt to engage the literature on collective responsibility in order to understand how we should approach this problem. I will focus particularly on Virginia Held's discussion of the responsibility of "random collections" to organize themselves to address faults corresponding to non-distributive predicates like "caused global climate change." I will draw attention to Held's reservations about the choice of a proper decision-making procedure and search for a resolution to this problem in the literature relating to the selection among sets of alternatives that are impartially reasonable to prefer to inaction.

I will also use this section to directly engage the idea of the social provision of public goods, wondering whether we can think of the ideas presented in this section as justifying or demanding this practice, or if we should rather treat the discussion here as suggesting serious limitations on the extent to which we should be looking to social decision-making mechanisms to fulfill this capacity. I will attempt to show that in certain situations, the line of thinking introduced here can be used to support social measures aimed at providing public goods without relying on perfectionist ideas. But I will also show how these arguments do not establish the sort of paradigm that perfectionists would want, and that my view cannot therefore be seen as a reconciliation between liberalism and perfectionism.

5. Justifying the Enforcement of Duties

In this section I will discuss the jump from the idea that individuals have certain duties (as discussed in the previous sections) to the idea that we could be justified in coercing these individuals to act in the manner prescribed by their duty. I will need to explore the sorts of considerations which justify the enforcement of duties and use them to try to distinguish cases where intervention is justified from those where it is not. Here I will flesh out the questions introduced in Section 4 relating to reasonable pluralism and impartiality, expanding my discussion to cover all duties. I will also explore a dialectical approach to thinking about the justice of coercive enforcement of duties. This section will set the stage for Section 6 and Section 7 by arguing that certain kinds of answers to the questions posed in those questions would make coercion unacceptable.

6. Centralized Policy-Making in a World of Reasonable Pluralism

This section will explore the foundations of political authority outside of voluntary associations. I'm really not sure how I want to approach this section, but a coherent place to start seems to be with the philosophy of Joseph Raz. I'm very much over my head in even trying to imagine what sorts of things I'll want to discuss in this section, but it does seem like I'll have to address this issue. I guess this is what grad school will be for! Hopefully by the time it's ready to actually start writing this, I'll have done a whole bunch of work on the issues raised by this section and will have something worthwhile to say.

7. Finding an Appropriate Role for Uncertainty

Everything that will have been said to this point in the project will have been predicated on the idea that global climate change is undeniably happening in the way forecasted by the IPCC. This section will question this premise and introduce some of the uncertainties involved in the mainstream scientific analysis. It will also introduce the concept of storyline uncertainty and discuss the degree to which we can be comfortable with our predictions about the future.

I will then try to think about how uncertainty should play into our thinking about this issue. I will discuss the precautionary principle and the principles of procedural justice which are enshrined in our current legal system, as well as concerns about the burden placed on victims by standards of proof. I'm not entirely sure where I'll want to go with this, but I think I'm attracted to the idea of some kind of middle ground. I'm not sure, though, so don't hold me to it!

8. Pulling It All Together

In this final section I will attempt to put together all of the pieces discussed in the previous sections in order to compose a coherent answer to the question of how we should think about the justification for a coercive and centralized policy aimed at addressing global climate change. I will highlight areas where I think that reasonable people might find room for disagreement, and where I think my discussion here could be expanded or improved. I will also voice any doubts I have about my conclusions and attempt to identify some avenues for rejecting them. Finally, to the extent that I can do so coherently, I will offer some closing thoughts about the ways that my arguments might be engaged by the policymaking community and the general public.


The Whited Sepulchre said...

I've been checking out your site for more than a year now, and generally enjoy what I read here.

While I disagree with you on AGW (I can't get past the previous ice ages ending without help from SUV's and factories), I like the approach you're taking on this, and look forward to the finished product.

Allen in Fort Worth

Danny Shahar said...

Hi Allen,

Thanks so much for the positive review! You've been doing some pretty great work over on your blog as well; it's an honor to have your readership!

I imagine that you probably have a number of reasons for being skeptical of the attribution of the last century's warming trends to human activity and of the concern regarding future warming, so it probably won't be constructive to try to prove anything to you here. But it might be worth pointing out that ice ages are generally held to be different sorts of phenomena than the warming that concerns scientists today. If you look at historical temperature reconstructions, you'll see that our current period isn't particularly interesting or unusual in any geological sense. The Earth has, in geologically recent times, been both significantly warmer and significantly colder than it is now. And it's all but certain that on a long enough time horizon, this will be true of the future as well.

The problem with which the mainstream scientific community is concerned is expected to take place on a much smaller time scale, and to a somewhat smaller magnitude, than the drastic and long-lived changes in global temperatures which characterize global movements in and out of ice ages.

The concern is not that human interference with the climate system will produce a Venus-like thermal runaway effect, or that we will permanently alter the planet in ways that have never been seen before in the Earth's history. It's more that our civilizations and societies have been built up over a very short time period (in geological terms) and have become adjusted to very specific ranges of global conditions. And if human interference with the climate system causes a shift to a substantially different set of conditions in the short term (again, geologically speaking), it could be difficult for certain individuals and cultural groups to continue living in the way to which they have become accustomed, and effective adaptation could be difficult or in some cases impossible.

There have always been, and continue to be, natural forces which play a very dominant role in shaping the Earth's climate. Those natural processes are what delivered the Earth into glacial periods and brought it back out of them in the past. And in the future, it will probably be those natural processes that play the biggest part in determining the future of the climate system. But if human activity is causing those natural trends to be altered or augmented in some substantial way, that seems like it could be grounds for concern. And that is what is interesting to me.

Michael said...

Regarding section 6 and political obligation, a good place to start would be here. It sounds like you want to look at associative and natural duty theories.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks, Michael; that's really helpful!

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