Author Archives: Dominic Roser

Less confidentiality for the IPCC?

Currently, the first order drafts for the next assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III) are up for expert review. These drafts are confidential and should not be cited, quoted or distributed.

Does it make sense for the IPCC to stress the confidential nature of these drafts? Not necessarily, as a friend of mine pointed out.

Why? Firstly, the IPCC is lacking the public trust that it deserves. This trust could be enhanced by extra large transparency. Secondly, given how easy it is to become a reviewer and given how incredibly many reviewers there are, chances are close to zero that the drafts will ultimately remain a secret anyway.  Journalists who try to get access presumably will find a way to do so. Even Harry Potter leaked to the internet before its official release…

Criticizing Conference Flights

In recent posts I compiled considerations that might justify flying to academic conferences, including environmental conferences (here, here, and comments). I now list points that might disapprove of “workshop tourism” (I aim at completeness rather than a systematic taxonomy):

  • Passengers on airplanes can often be said to cause harm. At least, they are complicit in harm. That’s the first and most straightforward reason that speaks for staying at home. The climate change ensuing from aviation emissions puts people at risk, especially the poor in the future. Many travellers exceed their fair share of emissions, thereby also behaving unjustly towards their less emitting contemporaries.
    Those who refrain from flying not only refrain from harming but also have beneficial secondary effects in terms of affecting the behavior of others. They are role models who change perceptions of what’s “normal”. On some occasions, these pioneer’s decision forces conference organisers to adapt the format, thereby stimulating experimentation with new ways of doing academic interaction.
  • A second reason: In virtue ethic frameworks, there are obviously many problems with flying. By putting one’s own butt into an airplane seat one uses a big complex humanly built metal bird to thunder over the earth, thereby making thousands of miles in a very short time without having any sense of the physical and cultural distance one has thereby bridged. The “metal bird” exhausts dirty emissions all along the way. All this is often just for trivial benefits and for advancing career prospects.
  • A third reason: In case one works on environmental questions there might be special duties associated with one’s role. One reason for this is consequentialist: the behavior of environmental researchers and activists is more closely observed by the public and therefore has a larger impact on public attitudes. Another reason for this is the larger knowledge (compared to the population) that environmental folks have about the harmfulness of flying. But there might also be deeper reason, to do with a certain consistency between one’s core projects in life (such as one’s professional vocation) and one’s behavior.
  • A fourth reason: Travel-based cooperation filters out researchers from well-off universities for interaction. Scientific interaction based on reading each other and internet-based interaction would give better access to people from less well-off countries and lead to a less biased sample of voices in the scientific dialogue.
    Also, travel-based scientific cooperation is more closed in the sense that you typically need institutional funding to participate. This excludes voices that are important but less well integrated in institutional structures (such as independent researchers).
  • A fifth reason: Flying may be bad for you. A former economics professor who limited himself (vacation included) to three flights per year questioned the value-added that large conferences have for established professors.[1] This might not only be so for established academics: More generally, time spent at the desk rather than in airport terminals might possibly be more productive…
    In addition: The mental stress experienced in airports will probably let you die at least two years earlier than you would otherwise die…

Many further suggestions are welcome. I would especially like to collect some personal statements and thoughts on “why and how” of researchers who deliberately restrict their air travel (also anonymously, if you prefer).

[1] Neue Zürcher Zeitung 19.10.2009, Nr. 242, p. 37.

People are pessimistic about the future

An interesting excerpt from the newsletter of the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations: “An international public opinion poll recently published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) shows that of the 13 countries investigated, only citizens in Brazil, Belgium and India believe that future generations will be better off than today’s generation. 66% of respondents from all countries believe that future generations will be worse off, while only 27% believe they will be better off. According to the survey, the French have the most pessimistic outlook, with 93% of respondents feeling that future generations will be disadvantaged. The findings represent the opinions of over 1.4 billion people. The full study is available on the ITUC’s website.”

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences II

In a recent post,  we discussed whether researchers can justify jetting across the globe for their research (in particular for environmental research). We collected three reasons that could be adduced for the justifiability of “conference tourism”. We now add three further strategies for defending airmiles:

A fourth and prominent reason is this: the carbon emissions can be offset. If offsetting actually works and is actually done (by the university or by the researcher herself), then there is no overall environmental effect from flying to workshops.

Fifth, even if it might be a moral imperative to shift the whole research culture to more local interaction or, if international cooperation is deemed very valuable, to more electronic versions of international interaction, it might still be said that it is unfair to expect single researchers to go ahead with that shift if there is no joint action by the whole research community. There is no duty to be the lone “hero” who takes up large personal costs that others refuse to take up.

A sixth way to defend conference flights is based on doubt about the effectiveness of individual, small actions. If refraining from single flights does nothing to prevent — or not even diminish — climate change, then the reason for restraint vanishes according to many moral theories (even according to some non-consequentialist theories).

For some objections to the last two strategies, see the paper by Sabine Hohl and myself in Analyse&Kritik. Note that even someone agrees with our objections might still think that political action is a more effective and a more fair means to protect the climate than personal, small, voluntary actions such as a refusal to participate in conference travel.

The next post in these series collects reasons that speak against flying to workshops and talks. Any suggestions are welcome. Also, I need to collect a list of ideas for making international cooperation in research cooperation greener that anybody can agree on: no-regret-measures, first steps, creative solutions we haven’t thought of, etc.

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences

Is there a paradox when climate scientists fly to scientific conferences? Many people on the street think so. They find something inconsistent in the idea of contributing to climate change in order to solve climate change. I am sure that any researcher working on environmental topics had some explaining to do with respect to her conference flights: Friends and family push for it at some point or other. The same is true even more starkly for environmental activists who fly for their activism.

I’d be interested to start a collection of arguments that justify (or condemn) such conference flights. Surely the most common and plausible strategy for environmental researchers to justify their conference flights makes use of consequentialist reasoning: Greater good can be achieved (even in environmental terms) by researchers flying around the world in order to make scientific progress than would be achieved if they stayed at home.

A second strategy for exculpating the researcher is more radical: It questions the idea that the conference-travelling researcher has any explaining to do in the first place. Rather than the researcher, it is the university in whose name he travels (or the society who pays the university to do its work) who bears the burden of justification. The university who employs the researcher and expects results from him is the “principal” who bears the responsibility for his travels, while the individual researcher is only the “executive agent” who does what he is told to do.

A third strategy refers to the place that research has in the life of the researcher. The academic path is a personal project to which she is deeply committed — and, so it is claimed, everybody has a right to pursue such projects. This highly valued core aspect of her life would be thwarted if she couldn’t participate in the conference circuit. It would be “too much to ask” if she would have to give up being part of the academic community. The case for overdemandingness seems particularly strong when we notice that for those who do get funding it would need a very active and conscious decision to refrain from academic travelling.

These are just three possible justifications. I look forward to collect more of them (and also to collect condemnations). Note also that each of these strategies not only justifies flights but also delineates the limits to which it does so. To the extent that my decision for a workshop in Japan was motivated by the excitement of seeing that country, to the same extent none of the three strategies mentioned above would be of much help…

Is a carbon-neutral life extremely cheap?

Recently my wife suggested that we offset all our emissions. Even though I found this a noble idea, I was worried that we might lose a fortune by doing so. This worry is unfounded (at least for a Swiss): Offsetting my yearly emissions costs around $300, possibly even less.

Here is an observation about this number: If everybody were to live a carbon-neutral life, then offsetting emissions would be much more expensive. In that case, it would cost me (to make an arbitrary guess) $10’000 rather than $300 to “compensate my life”. If everybody else were to offset their emissions, I couldn’t just pick the low-hanging fruit of cheap mitigation measures but would have to make use of very costly emission reduction measures. So, which number is the right one? Can I claim to actually have offset my emissions if I only pay $300? In some sense, the answer is “yes”. There is nothing incorrect about the following assertion: The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is the same if I emit and pay $300 to an offsetting company as it were if I weren’t around on this planet at all. Thus, my payment of $300 actually does offset my emissions. (Admittedly, many people don’t believe that offsetting works in practice; let’s set these worries and the uncertainties aside for the moment).

However, many are interested in compensating their emissions for a certain specific reason: they want to do their fair share in humanity’s common task of protecting the climate. If that is the reason for their interest in compensation, then things look different. If you are keen on doing your fair share and if you believe that the fair share consists in bearing your part of the overall costs that would arise if everybody were to do the right thing (and if you believe the right thing presently consists in living a carbon-neutral life), then your fair share would consist in paying $10’000 rather than $300. Another way to see this goes as follows: In order to do your fair share, you have to pay two bills. First, you pay $300 to actually offset your own current emissions. Second, you pay $9’700 on account of making mitigation measures more expensive for others in the future. Mitigation measures are more expensive for them because you have already exhausted the low-hanging fruit – your mitigation imposes an externality on them, so to speak.

An objection to this line of reasoning might arise: It is unrealistic that everybody else will offset their emissions. So, yes, if you want “to do your part” you have to pay the first bill of $300. But the second bill must be calculated differently: You have to estimate how much more expensive future mitigation will be on a realistic assumption about how much more future mitigation there will be (rather than on the assumption that everybody will fully do their fair share of mitigation in the future). In that case, the true price I would want to pay for compensating my yearly emissions would be something in between $300 and $10’000.

These thoughts are all rough. The basic message is this. Going carbon-neutral might seem extremely cheap. However, in order to know whether the moral goal you want to achieve by going carbon-neutral is really as cheap as it seems, you need to go into difficult philosophical territory. You cannot know how much it costs you without carefully examining the moral reason you have for going carbon-neutral in circumstances where others don’t go carbon-neutral. The literature on duties under partial compliance is the place to look for answers (and, when it comes to calculating actual numbers, the economic literature on the shape of Marginal Abatement Costs curves is relevant as well).


An overlooked rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle

When I want to lose weight, I am often relieved to run out of chocolate in my apartment. Often the relief occurs because I know that I couldn’t resist the temptation. But, interestingly, I might be happy to run out of chocolate even if I were able to resist the temptation. Why is this so? Trivially, it’s much easier to refrain from eating chocolate when there is no chocolate around. If I simply don’t have the possibility of grabbing another bite then I am spared from constantly having to fight the urge to do so. If, in contrast, the chocolate were there right in front of me, I would use up lots of mental effort for refraining from it. I could save this mental energy by simply not having the opportunity of eating chocolate in the first place. (The internet even offers self-binding websites where people are actually willing to lose money in order to make it easier for them to reach their goals and overcome their temptations.)

Where is the link between the chocolate and the Polluter Pays Principle? Note first, that there are many different  rationales for the Polluter Pays Principle. There is…

  • …a consequentialist rationale: having to pay for pollution gives people an incentive to pollute less
  • …a corrective rationale: making polluters pay is fair because their payment can be seen as compensation for the harm they cause through their pollution
  • …a distributive rationale: the polluters typically benefit from polluting and making them hand over part of their benefits to those who are harmed by pollution yields a more equal distribution than if they could keep their gains.

I want to suggest that there is a further rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle, namely…

  • …a second consequentialist rationale: making people pay for pollution reduces the mental effort they need for refraining from pollution.

The idea is the same as with the chocolate. Assume that you are the type of person who voluntarily foregoes air travel. This sacrifice is based on your personal conviction that the heavy pollution involved in flying makes air travel immoral. You are the type of person who does not need to be incentivized by a Polluter Pays Principle in order to forego flying. Your intrinsic motivation is sufficient. The crucial point now is this: You might still be glad if your government were to tax air travel. This would make it easier for you to forego flying. Rather than having your conscience do heavy-duty work in suppressing daydreams about holidays on the Maldives, you can simply tell yourself that the taxation on the flight would make the flight too expensive for you anyway. Instead of having to rely on the burdening mental effort of intrinsically motivating yourself, the Polluter Pays Principle allows you to take the motivationally easier route of foregoing flights on the basis of your financial self-interest.

In other words: By setting up a Polluter Pays Principle, the government provides a service to environmentally conscious citizens. The government saves them the mental energy of having to exert willpower in order to perform voluntary green actions out of pure moral conviction. This rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle is genuinely different from the other rationales.

Evidence for/against future generations being better off than we are

Will our descendants be better off than we are? Cornucopians say: Yes, most likely. Cornucopians exhort society and in particular environmentalists to forego their pessimistic fears about the future. Cornucopians would of course not view their own stance as an instance of replacing pessimism by optimism but rather as an instance of realism: They consider the prediction that future generations are much better off than we are the most sober and plausible estimate.

It matters tremendously whether cornucopians are right or not. If our descendants can actually be expected to be significantly better off than we are, then there is a strong case for diverting resources from climate mitigation – and other investments into the future – into projects with a focus on the present such as poverty relief.

My big problem is: I find it extremely hard to make an empirical case for or against cornucopians. Both sides of the debate seem to rest their case mostly on gut feeling (and distortions by self-interest, by a human propensity to apocalyptical thinking, etc. do their fair share in influencing that gut feeling). If one wanted to have a reasoned debate based on empirical grounds — where would one start? If one had to make a bet about the level of welfare in 200 years, how would one rationally go about in placing one’s money? What evidence could we cite to refute or support the cornucopian predictions?

One place to start would be to look long-term economic models (they usually predict strong growth over the next century). However, these models seem to presuppose a cornucopian growth idea rather than to arrive at it. Another strategy for replacing gut feeling with argument would be to extrapolate past growth rates (One would then have to make a case why one chooses to extrapolate the last, say, 50 years rather than, say, the last 5000 years). A third approach would start from the extrapolation, too, but enrich it with innumerable bottom-up considerations about relevant factors that affect the growth or de-growth trend. The most prominent such relevant factors would be looming environmental catastrophes, assumptions about human ingenuity, guesstimates on political stability, population growth, etc.

Any help would be appreciated. My basic question is: What methods are there for going beyond a basic faith or gut feeling for the purpose of adjucating cornucopian “predictions”? What types of empirical evidence can be given to make a real case for or against the cornucopian idea?

No problem with taking the helicopter since we have “perfectly simple” solutions for climate change?

Here’s a short and bold comment by climate scientist Myles Allen. It will definitely give you some food for thought. If only all climate scientist could write in such an exciting way!

Photograph: twitter@iamwill

I attended a talk by Myles Allen last month and after the talk a PhD student went up to him and said “I want to tell you where you’re wrong.” Trying to emulate this self-confidence, I’ll list two points where I think Allen’s comment doesn’t hit the mark:

  1. Taking the helicopter from London to Oxford is a problem. To see why, assume for the sake of the argument that we only have two strategies available to solve the climate problem: First, a political solution that relies on technology and market instruments. Second, a conversion of the hearts and minds of individuals to motivate themselves for a greener lifestyle. Here’s my point: Even if you strongly believe in the first strategy, you still cannot fully do without the second.
    The climate problem requires such large scale changes that we will not be able to do without at least some shift in our mindsets. For example, how will we get people to vote for Allen’s preferred solution (carbon sequestration) if there has not been at least some shift in our mindset in a green direction? After all, mandating carbon sequestration will be very expensive and if these economic costs are to be politically feasible, people need a sense of urgency about the climate problem. That sense of urgency goes hand-in-hand with at least some greenwards change in our minds and lifestyles. Poking fun at “heroical” individual behavioral changes is not helpful to support that change.
  2. Allen makes the following point: If Will.i.am (or even Europe as a whole) reduced its carbon consumption then that same carbon would simply be pumped into the atmosphere later on. But why should we think so?
    Allen himself considers it possible that humanity will in some way or other manage to politically enforce a solution that relies on putting carbon back in the ground. But if that solution should be politically feasible, why shouldn’t it also be politically feasible to keep the carbon in the ground in the first place? Believing the one to be politically feasible but not the other requires a justification.

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.