Monthly Archives: October 2012

Money, Motivation, and Nature

Emissions trading faces opposition from many sides. One specific argument against emissions trading is based on the fact that humans are to some extent intrinsically motivated to care for the environment. This intrinsic motivation can disappear, however, if people are also paid for caring for the environment. Emissions trading can thus “crowd out” the intrinsic motivation to care for the environment. Therefore, it may ultimately lower environmental protection.

The effect of motivation crowding has been shown in spectacular experiments. For example, in one experiment people were asked whether they would be willing to host a radioactive waste site in their village (the idea being that this counts as some sort of altruistic act; it is driven by a sense of civic duty since some village in the country has to host the waste site). Other people were asked the same question but in addition they were told that the national government would compensate the village that hosted the site. Interestingly, people were less willing to host the waste site in their village if they knew that they would be compensated!

Without compensation people agreed to host the waste site because they probably thought something like: “One village or other has to host it, nothing speaks against us — so the right thing is to agree to it.” With the compensation people opposed the waste site because they probably thought something like: “Well, it’s a deal. We host the site and in return we get compensated. So, is that a good deal for us? No, it isn’t.”

The same with emissions trading. Without emissions trading, people might lower their emissions due to a sense of duty to play their part in the common effort. With emissions trading, they might get the impression that releasing emissions is in principle fine so long as one does not exceed one’s “cap” on emissions or so long as one buys emission rights off from others. One can get paid for emission reductions below the cap — so why do it voluntarily?

So — should we oppose emissions trading because it crowds out intrinsic motivation to reduce emissions voluntarily? I think not. My (semi-tentative) objection is this. I agree that emissions trading crowds out intrinsic motivation. I agree that this crowding out is bad. However, I think it’s unrealistic to avoid the motivation crowding effect anyway. Why?

  1. Firstly, I assume that there will be some “putting a price on carbon” anyway. It is completely unrealistic that future environmental policies will rely purely on voluntary (or command-andc-control) measures for the protection of the environment.
  2. Secondly, I assume that the motivation crowding effect depends much more on whether there is a “price on carbon” at all rather than on how extensively a “price on carbon” is used as a strategy for reducing carbon.

In other words: Given that people are already accostumed to the idea that there is a price on carbon (and carbon reductions), I doubt that much additional intrinsic motivation will be crowded out if emissions trading is used. Motivation crowding may thus not be a strong objection to using emissions trading more widely.

People in 1900 predict our times…

ImageIn yesterday’s seminar, we discussed Matthew Rendall’s fascinating article about protecting our grandchildren against climate catastrophe at their own expense. The article builds on the idea that under certain assumptions our grandchildren might be much better off than we are.

This assumption about rising levels of welfare caused a lot of protest. The point that still bothers me in this whole discussion is this: How on earth could we actually give reasons for claims to the effect that future generations will be better off than us or worse off than us?

I suggested some ways of giving reasons for such claims here. Here’s a further method one could use for avoiding arbitrariness about predictions about the future:

  1. Estimate your own gut feeling about the future being richer or poorer than us.
  2. Think hard and carefully about the direction in which our gut feeling is probably distorted by biases.

In that context, it might also be instructive to see whether the past over- or underestimated future welfare rises. A fun and interesting example is from the Ladies Home Journal of December 1900. A journalist asked the “wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” what they expect the world to look like in 2001. Read here for yourself.

They predicted peas as large as beets and strawberries as large as apples. Sometimes the forecasts are quite good, though. Twitter even seems to have made this prophecy come true  “Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas (…)”.

Are More Babies Better?

Two authors write about the same topic but about completely different subjects: Population.

Phil Cafaro writes an advanced review on Population and Climate Change for the WIREs Climate Change journal. The whole article is exclusively about how population size affects climate change.

But there’s also an effect the other way round: climate change affects population size. In John Broome’s new book on climate change there is a chapter entitled “Population” and pretty much the only topic is how climate change might decrease the human population (or increase it or eliminate it).

Funny how the two authors diverge so much in their focus. While Cafaro’s piece talks about population purely because climate change is bad, Broome’s chapter talks about climate change because a smaller population is bad.

I think Cafar0’s topic (population causing climate change) is more important than Broome’s (climate change causing population shrinkage). But at the same time, Broome is perfectly right to highlight the other side. It’s very difficult to come up with a coherent ethical view that would give no importance to how our actions affect population size. How come hardly anybody talks about that — the intrinsic value of a larger population — in climate policy?

A publication bias in ethics?

In areas such as medicine, “experimental results that are positive (i.e. showing a significant finding)” are reported differently from “results that are negative (i.e. supporting the null hypothesis) or inconclusive”. This is the most prominent example of a so-called publication bias.

Is there a publication bias in ethics, too?

In the last months I worked on the topic of responsibility for emissions. Is the producer of a good whose production involves emissions responsible for those emissions? Or is the consumer of the good responsible? Unfortunately, I arrived at messy results. Firstly, I concluded that the question has no easy answer. Secondly, I concluded that insofar as a tentative answer is possible, both the consumer and the producer are responsible. Thirdly, I concluded that it would be extremely difficult to determine shares of responsibility for the producer and the consumer.

How much neater would it have been, if I had arrived at a determinate and simple result! It would make presentation and publication of the results more attractive.

It’s not that I find my results boring. Given that in practice, we usually account emissions to the producer and given that some find it intuitively fairer to account emissions to the consumer, I did find it interesting to claim that the truth is, first of all, much less obvious than it seems and, secondly, probably somewhere in the middle.

Still: Even if my results are valuable and informative – in the same way that non-significant results in experimental studies are valuable and informative – they sell less well than clear-cut and simple results.

I wonder if this effect skews the publication of articles areas such as ethics, too, especially in applied ethics. In applied ethics, many issues must ultimately be evaluated as mixed bags and as inconclusive. Do papers that arrive at such disappointing conclusions get published as easily as papers who claim to have found certain and radical conclusions?


P.S.: Here’s a nice example of publication bias 🙂