Monthly Archives: May 2012

Rawls and Popper at Climate Negotiations

At the Bonn Climate Conference that took place last month, philosophical theorising entered the political negotiations. UN climate chief Cristiana Figueres noted that “equity is difficult to define” and everyone agrees: There is a bewildering disagreement on equity principles. Dr. Prodipto Ghosh therefore stressed that equity norms must not simply be asserted but must also be justified. You can see him talk here (minute 29), invoking Popper and Rawlsian ideas along the way.

In his view, we must systematically compare different equity proposals by following a six step validation procedure (see p. 8 and 9 here). A crucial step includes testing whether the different equity proposals are consistent with basic ethical criteria (universalizability, avoiding harm, etc., see p. 10 and 11 here). While his specific suggestions are based on some – in my view – adventurous philosophical premises, the basic thrust seems right: We better find some way to resolve that disagreement.

Dr. Ghosh and myself might be wrong in thinking that the best means to resolve the disagreement over equity norms consists in finding agreement on a method to resolve the disagreement. That might be too academic and too artificial to be of any help in practice. I am not sure what other means would be more effective in achieving the goal of agreement. But what I am sure about is the importance of agreement (or at least convergence). Why? The bewildering variety of equity proposals makes room to choose one’s favorite principle based on self-interest (cf. Lange et al.).

A good example is the US negotiator who made self-interested use of the disagreement on equity in subtle but powerful ways. You can see him talk here (at minute 11:40). He stressed how there were multiple interpretations of equity, how each interpretation is valid, how equity is a qualitative concept that doesn’t fit into a formula and how we should respect diversity of opinion. He displayed other ingenious ways of dodging the equity issue (such as ruling out equity proposals on account of their lack of realism, meaning nothing else than that rich countries are not willing to bear the costs). But the above mentioned insinuations were particularly salient in instrumentalizing disagreement for the purpose of avoiding being nailed down. This proves Dr. Ghosh right: We should not rest content with the current state of massive confusion & disagreement over equity principles.


Gold Mining at Roşia Montană: Will Lobbying Overshadow the Debate over Intergenerational Duties?

There is much talk these days in the Romanian media about the start of the gold mining project at Roşia Montană, a small community northwest of the country.

Over the past 15 years, the project has generated intense controversies and, recently, strong political pressure. That Roşia Montană is high on the political agenda is also confirmed by the intensive lobby which in 2010 reached the European Parliament aiming to persuade politicians that cyanide extraction of gold poses no threat to the environment. Opposition to the project has sometimes been criticized as a thin form of ecologism fuelled primarily by the high stakes of the project, and not by genuine environmental concerns.

However, what has so far been missing from the public debate is a serious discussion of the uncertainties surrounding this project, which are relevant for our duties to future generations.

Politicians who support the project (including the incumbent President) emphasize the stringent need of jobs for the locals and the urgency of making a decision in this case. This position has attracted equally categorical statements from other MPs, which claimed that ‘all still left as property of the Romanian state’ would thus be ‘sold’ and suggested that Ministers opposing the project were forced to resign.

In this context, the former Prime Minister’s recent statement, suggesting the unfairness of condemning a community of 5000 people to poverty ‘because we are thinking of what may happen’  should set the scene for different arguments.

Discussing the project in these terms is misleading. Even if the benefits it brings were as certain and substantial as its advocates argue, this could not justify brushing the remaining uncertainties off the debate.

For one thing, these uncertainties regard the environment:

– The fact that some states have not banned cyanide extraction of gold, while others have, does not necessarily show that this technology is safe rather than unsafe, as those in favour of the project argue. It may show that different countries have different protection mechanisms against risks or that they weigh and even afford risks differently.

– Some argue that this project is the unique opportunity to repair the environmental damage caused by mining under the communist regime. However, until the costs of such a repair are completely known and agreed on, massive unemployment in the area would not suffice to make it legitimate. Could we be confident that future generations would be better equipped than the present generation to protect themselves against the consequences of the potential, yet irreversible damage this mining project would cause?

– Finally, downplaying opposition to the project as ‘political ecologism’ exaggerating environmental concerns may have some appeal for those claiming Romanians do not have an ecologist conscience. Though this latter stance may be tenable, the environmental hazards invoked are a mix of uncertainties and social perception (amplification) mechanisms, and they should be compensated for by similar (i.e. environmental and institutional, not primarily employment related) guarantees.

This blog entry relates to research carried out under the ‘Rights to a Green Future’ project, WG4

Environmental Taxes for Other Countries’ Emissions?

Since a couple of months, any airplane that lands in the European Union has to pay a tax on its emissions. China and India plan to boycott this regulation and many other countries, including the US, are outraged as well.

There are a lot of pros &cons for such a tax but I want to pick out just one issue. Some claim that the EU infringes on the national sovereignty of other countries by introducing such a tax. Whether a country decides to tax its airlines should be its own business, it is said. Europe should not paternalistically impose its environmental values on other nations. Europe would thereby impermissibly diminish other nations’ self-determination.

While I admit that other nations might justifiably complain about the unfair distribution of costs that such a tax brings about, I think that the specific complaint about an infringement of national sovereignty is completely groundless from a moral perspective. Why?

  1. We might consider sovereignty to be overvalued in the first place. Especially those with cosmopolitan inclinations might think so.
  2. But even those who consider national sovereignty to be an important value must admit that whatever rights sovereignty includes, it surely does not include the right to fly into the territory of others without paying a tax (and this is so even if the EU taxes emissions occurring over others’ territory). National sovereignty is primarily about authority within one’s own territory, not about rights in other territories
    Neither does national sovereignty include a right to be spared from being affected to the worse by other countries. After all, any European decision in any area of life affects other countries. This includes even the European decision to impose an environmental tax on its domestic industries.
  3. Europe has a particularly strong argument for its right to tax foreign airplanes since the emissions of these airplanes also affect Europe. These emissions contribute to global climate change and global climate change affects Europe.

Any thoughts on this are highly welcome.

Welcome to “Ethics for a Green Future”!

The goal of this blog is to create a forum for reflections on environmental ethics and future ethics. Apart from facilitating academic exchange, ‘Ethics for a Green Future’ aims at facilitating the interaction between academics and the public.

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