Sorry for the laboured title. This post has in mind discussions which have gone on with Michael, Dennis, William and David, among others, on the subject of Lomborg, economic analyses of climate change such as the Stern report, and similar issues.
It’s going to be a bit of Ethics 101, I’m afraid, so for those of you for whom this is old ground, my apologies. maybe someone reading will learn something useful.
The argument about mitigation has largely been conducted in terms which suit policy makers and governments, dealing with the costs and benefits of action against inaction, or the opportunity costs, for example. Those against mitigation argue that the cost is so great in the present and near future, that any potential future benefit is outweighed by the damage (loss) incurred. Arguments such as those presented by the Stern Report generally attempt to refute this by demonstrating that the claim is false.
This causes some discomfort amongst some of us; the language in which the argument is framed seems somehow not right, though it isn’t always clear why. This is an effort to offer a possible explanation.
The frame of reference, the context, in which these discussions take place is important here. For the purpose of such analysis, it is assumed that what matters is the instrumental value of the environment and the atmosphere; this is often determined as the physical transformation value of the resources available to us; what they are worth if they are transformed into something of (normally) economic worth. The focus of attention is inevitably on us, humans, as the objects of interest, those for whom the value of the resource is significant. It is thus also generally anthropocentric as well as instrumental. This appears to be the case whether we take an approach which argues for resource exploitation, resource conservation, or resource preservation. In each case, what is being debated is the value to humans of a resource.
So far, I have used language which derives from contemporary ethical/philosophical discussions of the environment and environmentalism in general. This appears to be the terminology in which discussions of the value of the atmosphere and climate have also been framed; what signifies is the effect that a changing climate will have on a range of resources, including water, food and energy. Against this is placed the value of the energy resource in the form that it currently takes, as a derivative of fossil fuels which produces CO2 and GHGs as a by-product.
But it is my contention that all of this is wrong. What is wrong is that we appear have chosen a set of criteria for evaluating the resources available to us which fails to take into account the specific and unusual character of climate, and which define ‘value’ narrowly and not necessarily accurately.
What is exceptional about climate, as compared to any other environmental issue, is that whereas most objects of environmental concern involve species, habitats or even large-scale ecosystems, none of them has the universality of climate. The usual environmental objects are also to some degree tangible, whereas climate is not. Finally, they are concerned with object which, in most cases, do not involve the survival prospects of humans, not necessarily as a species, but certainly in large numbers, as social or national groups placed in vulnerable topographies.
Both the atmosphere and the climate are the necessary conditions of our existence on Earth. Without a certain atmospheric composition,and a certain climate, the ability of our species to thrive is curtailed, or in extreme cases, threatened. Not only this, but a world in which a certain degree of ‘ecologic’ richness persists is probably also of vital importance, and this richness is most of all what is threatened by climate change.
So the value of the resources available to us for use need to be measured against the immeasurable value of the holistic environmental resource, a vital ecosystem in a relatively narrowly confined range of climate. This is the case whether we are exploiters, conservers or preservers. None of these addresses the magnitude of the matter in question, which is the value of the world as a fit habitation for us.
It should be simple enough to see, then, that the instrumental value of the climate is not a big enough measure to describe something without which we can not flourish. inasmuch as climate belongs to that variety of environmental object, such as the entire biosphere, on which the grounds of our existence depend, it should be seen as having an intrinsic value – a value in and of itself. And in the interpretation I hint at here (it is so very incomplete), intrinsic value trumps instrumental value every time.
If, then, what is at issue when the discussion about the mitigation of climate change takes place, is the threat such changes pose to the viability of a proportion of our ecosystem – a large proportion of our ‘home’ – then measuring such a thing in terms of economic, or instrumental benefit, becomes a nonsense.
This is a large subject and I have not put the case completely here, but I hope it gives some taste of what I understand is wrong with our current discussions of the ‘value’ of the environemnt in general, and of the climate in particular.