Climate Change and Two Forms of Justice

Jim Manzi is that rarest of creatures: an intelligent, reality-based conservative. But that doesn’t make him right.

Via David Brooks today, Jim Manzi from several months ago makes an intriguing argument regarding the equities of international climate change policy.  Developing nations consistently say that developed countries should pay for the lion’s share of climate mitigation because developed countries have caused the problem.  But says Manzi,

What this ignores is that the reason the U.S. and Europe have historically emitted carbon dioxide is that they invented the modern economy. Along with putting all that carbon dioxide in the air, the West invented the polio vaccine, the limited-liability corporation, the high-efficiency power turbine, and so on. It invented, that is, the tools for creating wealth that successful parts of the developing world are now using to escape poverty — and, incidentally, to emit more carbon dioxide. It is less than obvious why we should put a special burden on the West to make reparations for carbon-dioxide emissions while ignoring the fact that the net global effect of the system that created these emissions has been extremely positive. Ask yourself this question: Would you rather be born at the median income level in Bangladesh today, or at the median income level in Bangladesh in an alternative world in which the entire Northern Hemisphere never escaped life at the subsistence level — that is, to live in a world of lower carbon emissions, but no science, no hospitals, no foreign aid, and no meaningful chance of changing the material conditions of your life?

This has purchase, but not as much as Manzi says.  First, it assumes that the “benefits” brought about by the industrial development in the North have been shared equitably between North and South.  There is little doubt that Bangladesh is better off than it would have been had the North not developed, but it does not follow that the advantages that it has now and in the future are even close to comparable to the disadvantages it will incur under climate change.  If, say, development in the North amounts to $10, of which $9 goes to the North and $1 goes to the South, and this development will then harm the South in the future by a total of $9, but only continue to benefit it $1, then it remains true that the South has been injured by $9 and only benefitted by $2.  (All of this is accepting for the time being Manzi’s assumption that all costs and benefits can be monetized, which they surely cannot be.).  So Manzi’s question has rhetorical power, but really does not get to the heart of the answer.

Second, Manzi confuses the ethical heart of the issue — a confusion that in fairness is also made by many advocates of the global South: he conflates retributive versus distributive justice.  Put another way, the strongest argument for the developed world paying for climate change is not that the developed world caused the problem; it is that the developed world is, well, developed.

Consider that the average Indian lives on less than $2 a day.  To the extent that someone has to make a sacrifice to save the planet, should it be hundreds of millions of similarly-situated Indiains, or should it be tens of millions of Americans driving SUVs?  A tendentious example, but one that accurately drives the equity picture.  Who should pay, millions of Africans threatened by malaria and AIDS, or Americans who refuse to pay even a minor carbon tax?  That’s the justice question.

Manzi is that rarest of creatures: an intelligent, reality-based conservative.  His ideas need to be taken seriously.  But that doesn’t make him right.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

7 thoughts on “Climate Change and Two Forms of Justice”

  1. Jonathan –

    Fair point, and thanks for bringing this excerpt to light. I, however, understood Manzi's point a bit differently. In your $9/$1 hypothetical, you seem to be understanding the "benefit" to undeveloped countries as only a percentage of the output of developed countries — that is, for every $10 that the North produces, $1 of it "goes" to the South, whether through foreign aid, or polio eradication programs, or something of that sort. I, however, understood his point as follows – that the benefit to the South isn't simply the past financial or medical aid they have gotten, or what we may be giving at the present – rather, Manzi mentions LLCs and power turbines as "tools" through which these countries are starting to jumpstart their own economies, and soon will be able to have their own (hopefully robust) economies without nearly as much need for foreign aid. Now, I do agree with your overall point that the disadvantages to the South likely outweigh the advantages — but I think the numbers are a lot closer, as their people now have the tools to work with that the North has spent centuries working to develop.

  2. Manzi's whole discussion is based on an unproven assumption that humankind actually has anything at all to do with climate change. In case you haven't noticed, the science in this area is abysmal. It really is a disgrace to the scientific community everywhere. Of course the idealogues like Jonathan naturally latch onto it as a way to spread their agenda. I have to admit though, hearing Al Gore read that fruity poem always makes me giggle.

  3. It's worse than that. Set aside the odd idea that the net global benefit of the modern economy is uncompensated. (After all, there's a reason Westerners can purchase the labor of Bangladeshis for a pittance, while said Bangladeshis pay an enormous sum for any Western labor.)

    The claim he wants to make is that since A's advancement indirectly benefitted B (tho by a much smaller degree), A has license to foist the costs of its environmental policies onto B. This is dubious reasoning — would Manzi view it as OK for Henry Ford to have appropriated his house, on the grounds that Ford's positive contributions to "net global wellbeing" override the harms done by his theft? Does he believe that Ford Motors is entitled to permanent bailouts, because of the great benefits of the assembly line? Or that California's budget woes should be paid for by the other 49 states, since those states are much better off than they would be if California and Silicon Valley had never existed? Not many people buy this reasoning if they're not the ones who stand to gain from it.

    But that's not even the most serious problem with his argument. Let's assume we accept his claim: The people who invented the modern economy shouldn't have to pay the lion's share of the burden of carbon emissions, since they've done so much uncompensated good for poor nations. Has Jim Manzi done any uncompensated good for the people of Bangladesh? Has Jonathan? Have I? For that matter, how much good have Barack Obama or Bill Gates done them? A pretty trivial amount, surely. Perhaps James Maxwell did, or Salk, Faraday, Edison, or Ford. But they're not going to pay any share of the cost of climate change, for obvious reasons. They're dead.

    So are nearly all the people who "invented the modern economy," especially the ones who have (arguably) benefited Bangladeshis. So if you believe that those who reaped the unearned rewards of these peoples' work should pay much the cost for preventing/dealing with the climate change they helped bring about, the conclusion is clear. Jim Manzi, Jonathan, I, and the current population of the Western world have clearly received *vastly* more (unearned!) benefits from the invention of the modern economy than the people of Bangladesh ever have. We should pony up the cost.

    That's the conclusion from Manzi's 'retributive' reasoning, without even bringing the question of who's wealthier or more able to handle into it at all.

    Manzi doesn't see it that way, apparently. Jim Manzi is simply entitled to all the unearned benefits he gains from being born in a wealthy nation, while a Bangladeshi subsistence farmer's unearned freedom from polio means the peasant loses his right not to have his climate screwed with. I would say that's a strange sort of view, except the habit of anthropomorphizing states makes it seem a lot more appealing at first blush. And no doubt the reality of climate change runs so counter to so many conservative sacred cows that it's quite difficult to look past that first blush of a superficially appealing argument…

  4. "There is little doubt that Bangladesh is better off than it would have been had the North not developed…"

    In who's universe?

    Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) was the world's leading manufacturer and exporter of woven goods (jute, linen & other fabrics) before it's deliberate destruction by the British East India Company (1757-1775), by a co-ordinated policy of military conquest (Plassey, 1757), it's fostering of famine (1770), and a 100% increase of taxation on Bengal manufactures throughout this whole period, including a 10% increase of taxation during the famine itself (!).


    Both your and Manzi’s logic fail due to argument based on facts not in evidence, and not real in fact (false assumption).

  5. Independently of Ali's fair point about standing on the shoulders of dead giants, how far can the huge value of the global commons of science be attributed to the currently rich countries anyway? In recent centuries, sure. But "Western" science built on Arab and Hindu mathematics and medicine, not to mention the Phoenician alphabet. Best leave the commons out of it.

  6. Consider that the average Indian lives on less than $2 a day. To the extent that someone has to make a sacrifice to save the planet, should it be hundreds of millions of similarly-situated Indiains, or should it be tens of millions of Americans driving SUVs? A tendentious example, but one that accurately drives the equity picture. Who should pay, millions of Africans threatened by malaria and AIDS, or Americans who refuse to pay even a minor carbon tax? That’s the justice question.

    The flaw in that is the assumption that we're all part of one community in which, in exchange for being relatively richer, we in the Rich Countries (I prefer that term over "Developed World", with all its connotations) have responsibilities to take care of our poorer brethren in the Poor and Middle Countries. But is that actually the case? Do I have an ethical burden to actually help out the Poor Countries, or just an obligation to try not to actively do them harm?

    Moreover, the debate over "who is responsible" for cutting emissions seems to be missing the point. The atmosphere doesn't care who emitted the CO2 in the past, or who will emit it in the future. That means that the major emitters all have an obligation to cut emissions, particularly since the damage done by each additional unit of emissions has increased*. That's the Rich Countries, but it also includes the major polluters in the Middle Countries, like India and China.

    *That's something you don't see discussed often – the marginal damage done by each additional unit of CO2. CO2 emitted now is far more devastating than CO2 emitted, say, 100 years ago, because we're that much closer to major climate change and possible catastrophe. Shouldn't that be a factor in determining who is "responsible"?

  7. I think DeepBlue's point can be taken a lot further: insofar as the "modern economy" has depended on resource extraction from the territories of people with fewer guns, it's not at all clear who should "own" the credit for its benefits. Once you get into the details and the opportunity costs, this sounds like some guy in silicon valley who spent all his stock options on a ferrari and then crashed it insisting that every PC owner in the world pay for a replacement.

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