Archive | May 2012

The Ethics of Emissions Trading

Why do some researchers ethically object to emissions trading?
Image Credit: Megan Sutherland

One of the most widespread strategies aimed at mitigating climate change is emissions trading. Also referred to as cap-and-trade or carbon trading, it has been the subject of much debate, drawing criticism ranging from claims that the resulting changes will be too modest, to claims that the system will result in job losses. Some researchers, however, have taken issue with emissions trading because they view them, at best, as ethically nebulous and, at worst, ethically defunct. Today’s post examines some of the ethical objections to emissions trading.

At its heart, emissions trading is a market-based approach wherein a central authority (usually a government) sells or provides a limited number of permits that allow companies to emit a specified amount of pollution. If a company doesn’t need all its permits, it can sell them to companies who anticipate they will require additional permits, thus creating consequences for polluting and incentives toward reduction. Whether or not the market should be used to solve certain problems, though, is at the heart of much of the ethical debate.

Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and lecturer at Harvard, argues precisely this in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel’s argument is that there are many things which should not be bought and sold, one of them being the right to pollute the environment. Environmental protection, he says, is inherently vested in “civic values” and the introduction of market choices cause a “corrosive effect” to the underlying ethical values they are meant to protect. For Sandel, placing a monetary value on the environment is wholly inappropriate and “undermines the spirit of shared sacrifice that may be necessary to create a global environmental ethic.”1

Other researchers have voiced similar objections, holding that commodification undermines the ethical obligation citizens have to protect the planet by allowing the market to create a space where wealthy countries or businesses can “buy their way out of the duty not to despoil the environment.”2 That is, by treating the atmosphere as a commodity to be sold, businesses and people begin to focus less on the ethical offense of pollution and think of paying for additional permits as “the cost of doing business.”3 Read More…


Spotlight On: “I Can Change Your Mind About…Climate”

Climate change debate took to Australian television at the end of April when a skeptic and a climate change activist debated one another while traveling around Australia, America, and the UK. The hour-long documentary featured Nick Minchin, a former Australian politician, and Anna Rose, a climate change activist and founder of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. The pair traveled by train, plane, and car, all the while discussing their opinions and meeting with experts chosen by Minchin and Rose to represent their respective sides.

After its premier, reaction was mixed and drew some criticism for its funding source (Australian taxpayers) and the estimated amount of carbon the pair used traveling more than 40,000 miles during the course of the four-week taping. Criticism aside, the documentary is certain worth watching, and incidentally includes an appearance by Bjørn Lomborg, who was mentioned in last week’s post. The official, full-length video was unfortunately taken offline this morning, though the video may be available elsewhere. There are, however, several clips of extra footage available on the official Australian ABC1 website.

Scientists and Politicization

Have scientists contributed to the politicization of climate change?
Image Credit: Mark Skrobola

It goes without saying that there is an inherent breach of validity when science is influenced by political opinion. Perhaps less explored is a variant of this, wherein scientists align a scientific outcome with a particular political perspective. According to researcher Roger Pielke, this mode of thinking has increased, whether intentional or not, and has played a role in the politicization of climate change. Pielke has dubbed this “the politicization of science by scientists”1. Today’s post explores some examples of this politicization and why it might be dangerous to science.

In 2001, Bjørn Lomborg published a controversial book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book challenges some of the most publicized claims about climate change science, stating that while climate change is real and the IPCC the utmost authority on it, climate change as a whole has been overly dramatized. Lomborg goes on to make policy recommendations about a variety of environmental issues. In the aftermath, Pielke noted that many scientists responded by expressing concern about what this would translate to politically (i.e. who gets elected,who has political influence, etc).

To start, Pielke points at the way climate scientists dismissed TSE‘s climate change chapter due to what Pielke says are “minor differences” in scientific interpretation; the real issue, he says, is Lomborg’s very subjective position that the cost of Kyoto is not worth the benefit. Pielke says that by focusing on small differences in scientific interpretation to debunk Lomborg’s policy opinion, scientists are treating science and policy formulation as a single process with one acceptable outcome. At its core, this way of thinking equates winning the scientific debate with winning a policy debate. Read More…