The Bjorn Ultimatum


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September 4, 2007

During a Congressional hearing on March 21, in stark contrast to prevailing public opinion, statistician Bjorn Lomborg boldly asserted that a frontal assault on global warming would be a bad idea. His argument was straightforward. He acknowledged that global warming is likely to harm large numbers of people, but he pointed out that combating it would require enormous effort, and the results produced by that effort would be relatively insignificant. Instead of inefficiently using resources to fight climate change, Lomborg insisted that we would be better off pursuing other projects, such as fighting malnutrition, malaria and HIV, bringing clean drinking water to those who don't have it, and encouraging free trade. He claimed that 'for each dollar spent, we would end up doing much less than a dollar of good for the world' by fighting global warming, while we could see returns of up to 'forty dollars worth of social good' by investing in other programs like HIV prevention.

Lomborg's point is staggering. If it's true, as he said, that fighting global warming is uneconomical, we would have good cause to demand some answers. After all, climate change has been roundly appraised as the most important issue of our time by environmentalists, the media, and many in the scientific community. How could it be that solving the biggest problem faced by humanity would be a waste of time?

Adopting Lomborg's stance would certainly change a lot of things. But while I think some of his observations are important, I don't think Lomborg is completely right. This article will examine Lomborg's claims from a philosophical standpoint, in order to separate the valuable insights from the chaff.

The first thing to notice about the argument is its unapologetically utilitarian nature. As Lomborg writes, 'Do we want to focus on cutting CO2, at fairly high costs and doing fairly little good a hundred years from now? Or would we rather want to fix some of the most obvious problems in the world, where we could do a lot more good and do it now?' Clearly, Lomborg takes the view that the best policy is the one which produces the most happiness for the most people, and on these grounds we should refrain from a focused attack on global warming.

The utilitarian paradigm has run into trouble in the past because it often requires us to suspiciously compare one person's happiness to another person's unhappiness, so that we can pronounce one of the feelings 'larger' than the other, translating to an increase or decrease in 'total' happiness. This is evident, for example, in Lomborg's assertion that focused malaria policy would do 'about 400 times more good' than the Kyoto Protocol.

To illustrate why this is a problem, imagine that Harriet was driving along in her dream car'a newly restored antique convertible'when she saw George's prized basketball roll into the road. The only way Harriet could avoid the basketball would be to swerve out of the way into a ditch, almost certainly causing irreparable damage to her car. Let's say Harriet knew that the basketball belonged to George's deceased father, and losing it would be devastating to George. But if Harriet swerved, and smashed her treasured convertible, she would be very distressed as well.

Suppose Harriet were a good utilitarian and wanted to choose the outcome which would maximize total happiness, even if it meant harming herself. Is there any way that Harriet could determine whether the damage to her car would be more painful to her than the loss of the basketball would be to George? It doesn't seem like there is. Even if we let Harriet pause time, talk to George, take measurements, and examine the basketball, the ditch, the car, and whatever else she wanted, there would still be no scientifically acceptable way to determine which choice would produce the largest total amount of happiness.

In the same way, it's difficult to say that the harm caused to one group of people by global warming could be 'larger' or 'smaller' than the harm caused to another group of people by diseases like HIV and malaria. Therefore, it is difficult to scientifically argue that something like disease prevention could definitely produce happiness with greater efficiency than mitigating the ill effects of climate change. But someone might object that the differences Lomborg highlights are so significant that it would be ridiculous to maintain the incomparability of fighting the spread of HIV to fighting global warming. After all, Lomborg claims that the efficiency of the alternatives to global warming policy would be greater by orders of magnitude.

While this argument isn't particularly scientific, it makes intuitive sense to me. If two things can never be perfectly measured, but one is obviously much larger than the other, it would be foolish to refuse to pronounce a victor because of the absence of perfect measurements. As the saying goes, it's better to be kind of right than totally wrong. So for our purposes, I will concede that Lomborg is correct in saying that our resources could be more efficiently used to fight HIV, malaria, malnutrition, etc.

But remember, I already said that I don't think Lomborg was completely right. The reason is that I think the global warming problem possesses an important feature not found in the other problems Lomborg discusses, which makes it ethically necessary for us to mitigate its harms, even if we could produce more happiness with an alternative policy. What feature is this? The important difference is that global warming could be our fault.

It is not our fault that communities around the world do not have access to clean water, or that easily preventable diseases kill people every year, or that many of the governments of the world decided to ban DDT, thereby ensuring that malaria would go unchecked for decades. We, as individuals, are not to blame for the hardships being endured by people around the world because of conditions we did not personally impose on them.

But if people are harmed by global warming, it will be at least in some part because we engaged in voluntary activities that contributed to the atmosphere's capacity to capture and store heat. I do not want to get into a complex discussion of ethics here, but I want to suggest that there is a difference between, on one hand, a person's moral duty to mitigate a harm that she was responsible for causing, and on the other, her duty to mitigate a harm that had nothing to do with her.

There are different ways to formulate this stance. On the most extreme end, there's Murray Rothbard's contention that ''utilitarian considerations must always be subordinate to the requirements of justice.' But this kind of assertion is not acceptable to everyone, and it's maddeningly difficult to resolve such disagreements. So to avoid controversy, I will take the more conservative position that regardless of how we feel about pursuing utilitarian goals, we definitely have some kind of moral duty to repair harm that we have inflicted on other people through our voluntary actions.

What does that mean for policy? I don't know. In today's discourse, global warming is described as ''a public bad par excellence,' and it is widely held that only governments can be looked to for a solution. But perhaps Lomborg is correct to say that the government should hold a limited role in a solution, though he arrived at that conclusion for different reasons. It could be that one or more of the many difficulties facing government actors would preclude them from properly handling the problem. Or maybe, as many have argued, the protection of private property rights could make this an issue for the courts to consider, and not for public deliberation.

But if global warming is to prove harmful to people, and if we are causing it, then it is our responsibility to deal with it somehow. We would be shirking our moral duties if we ignored the problem on account of the fact that we have bigger fish to fry. Solving problems like world hunger, poverty, and disease are worthy tasks for humanity, to be sure. But before we think about all of the wonderful things we could be doing with our time and resources, we ought to take a moment to acknowledge our duty to do no harm. It does not seem right to completely ignore justice in favor of mere efficiency. So I don't completely agree with Lomborg's conclusion.

However, I do think he highlights an important idea that we would do well to consider. If he is correct about the inefficiency of global warming policy, then perhaps as a society, we should take a more measured stance towards the subject. The cries of alarm which seem to grow shriller with each passing day seem unwarranted in light of Lomborg's discussion. If we do not panic about the other grave problems he mentions, then it seems unclear why we should become so perturbed over this one. Global warming is certainly an important issue, but Lomborg reminds us that we have a responsibility to consider the merits of our actions, even when we are only trying to help. Good intentions are not enough; intelligent choices are just as important with regard to this problem as to any other.

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Danny Shahar's picture
Columns on STR: 9

Danny Shahar is an intern at the Foundation for Economic Education.  He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and plans to begin work on a PhD in philosophy in the Fall of 2009.  Danny's research generally falls within the fields of ethical, political, and economic philosophy.  He writes a blog called Back to the Drawing Board.