On Morals & Tigers

On Morals & Tigers

Mini Teaser: The Obama administration has finally decided to do something about climate change. Yet the assumptions of environmental policy are informed by a flawed morality that has all the religious hallmarks of sin and guilt.

by Author(s): Paul Collier

From the May/June 2009 issue of The National Interest.


Nicholas Stern , The Global Deal: Climate Change and the Creation of a New Era of Progress and Prosperity (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), 256 pp., $26.95.

Nicholas Stern , The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 712 pp., $52.00.


Forests are currently being felled to print a raft of new books on global warming. They all address three big questions: Is it really happening? Does it matter? What can we do about it? I am going to focus on Nicholas Stern's new book, The Global Deal . That is because, like my friend Lord Stern, I am an economist. As such, neither of us has any special insights as to whether it is really happening. Perhaps the whole mountain of concern is analogous to the now-forgotten millennium bug which was supposedly going to destroy our computer-based economy. The British government spent billions of pounds trying to fix the problem; the less organized Italian government didn't get round to doing anything. In the event, the date changed from 1999 to 2000 with not a single computer problem anywhere. But we cannot count on global warming to be like the millennium bug; let's hope that it is, but we should plan that this time the weight of scientific opinion is broadly right. Indeed, the less reliable the science, the more we should be worried: global warming could possibly be much worse than the central forecasts.

Economists, however, will soon have a lot to contribute-supposing the world wants to fix this problem-on what we can do about it. That is because economics is predominantly about how incentives can be structured so as to change behavior. Getting the incentives right will be the agenda of the next few years. But the here-and-now issue with which economists need to engage is that question in the middle. Supposing that global warming is happening and will in a century or so create problems, and supposing that there are some pretty costly things we could do now to avert those problems, does it matter? This is fundamentally an ethical question. As Nicholas Stern says, to his considerable credit, although economists get very uncomfortable moving from technicalities to ethics, the critical issues in climate change are dependent upon ethical choices. Ethics cannot be avoided, but the ethical assumptions made in the climate-change debate turn out to be pretty bizarre.

Climate change is, in fact, infested with ethical baggage, much of it unhelpful. Let's get rid of some of it now. First, climate change has been hijacked by the environmentalist hatred of industrialized modernity. The scientific process behind global warming-the buildup of carbon emissions-unfortunately might have been designed as a parody of medieval Christian theology. Instead of the wages of sin being death, the wages of industrialization is global warming. Rather than burning in hell, we will burn on earth. The "cap and trade" system, under which the right to emit carbon beyond a set limit can be purchased from the authorities, echoes with remarkable precision the "indulgences" sold by the medieval papacy. The popes needed to finance the building of the Vatican; President Obama needs to finance the fiscal deficit. The environmentalist hatred of industrialization is matched by the guilt-ridden colonialist hangover: we in the rich West are responsible for the poverty of the South. As colonialism receded into history this sense of guilt became harder to sustain, but global warming gives it a new lease on life. We, the rich, have emitted carbon and now the world's poor will suffer climatic deterioration as a consequence. Victimhood is back in business. Let's try a thought experiment to cut through the thicket. Suppose that scientists discover that the reason why we in the North die before we reach the age of 150 is that cassava, a crop grown by poor peasant farmers in Africa, emits ions which affect the air in Northern latitudes. Does this discovery give us all a claim for compensation from African farmers? The answer is, obviously, that it does not. Since the farmers did not know, they incur no liability. Now push it one step further. Once the science is accepted, what should happen? Clearly, African peasants should cease to grow cassava, but who should bear the cost? Should Africans simply recognize that killing us is an unacceptable price to pay for growing their favorite crop, or should we in the North compensate them for not killing us? I hope that you recognize the analogy with global warming: the emotive baggage surrounding the issue-sin and guilt-is not intrinsic to the structure of the problem, but imported from other agendas.

Now let me get down to the genuinely difficult ethical issues. These concern not our sin in industrializing or our guilt toward Africa, but our attitude toward people in the distant future: how much should we care about them? The costs of preventing global warming would have to be paid by us over the next couple of decades. The benefits flowing from these costs would accrue mainly in the twenty-second century. So what really matters in deciding whether the benefits make the costs worthwhile is how we value this distant future.

Essay Types: Book Review