Category Archives: Global Environmental Justice

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?


Will the real Polluter Pays Principle please stand up?

What is “the” Polluter Pays Principle? One version of the principle says that the polluter ought to pay in proportion to her pollution. A second – and very different – version says that the polluter ought to bear a burden in proportion to her pollution.

There is a large difference between these two versions because the person who pays a tax on emissions is not necessarily the person who is actually made worse off by such a tax.

Here’s an imaginary example: Assume that consumers in Europe pay a tax on gas. This might not burden them at all (even though they are the agents who ultimately hand over money to the tax collector) because gas stations might just lower gas prices in response to the introduction of the tax. However, the gas station owners might not lose any profit, neither. Rather, they might be able to pass on the burden (the “tax incidence”) to oil producing countries by lowering the market price for oil. In an oil producing country, this might have the effect that company X goes bankrupt, as a result of which employee Y loses his job and must move to another town, as a result of which his child Z loses his friends and suffers from a depression.

There are certainly contexts in which  “Polluter Pays Principle” is used in the first sense and there are definitely contexts in which it is used in the second sense. And it is equally certain that this leads to confusion in debates over environmental policy and environmental justice! What is much less certain is whether one version is more sensible and whether one version represents the core idea behind the Polluter Pays Principle better.

Call for Papers “Global Environmental Justice” (Deadline September 7)

Global Environmental Justice

Workshop to be held at the Universität Bremen
26/27 April 2013
Keynote Speaker: Henry Shue, Oxford University

Call for Papers

In recent years, global environmental politics and its study have increasingly engaged with normative questions, including global justice. Justice and equity norms have been on the agenda of international environmental politics ever since the latter’s emergence in the 1970s, but gained much prominence in the context of more recent debates about global climate change, the conservation of the world’s natural resources (e.g. forests, fisheries or biological diversity) or the international trade in hazardous wastes. Core questions include: Who should contribute how much to the avoidance of future environmental harm? Who ought to pay the costs incurred by the need to adapt to a changing natural environment? Which obligations do current generations have towards future ones in preserving the integrity of the natural environment?

So far, two strands of literature seem to address global environmental issues from different angles. First, there is a broad range of philosophically informed writings that focus on what an appropriate conception of global (environmental) justice would entail and seek to derive broad principles of global environmental justice. Second, the more empirically minded writings have thus far primarily been concerned with how (global) justice norms emerge and develop and how they affect policy-making at different scales.

The workshop is guided by the notion that it is useful to bridge this gap and to engage political and legal philosophy and empirical social science research – most notably from political science, geography and sociology – in a more encompassing and multi-faceted debate. The kind of questions we are interested in include (but are not limited to) questions such as:

  • What are the practically relevant differences und conflicts between different concepts of global environmental justice discussed in the literature? Would different theories of justice lead us to fundamentally different assessments of real-world institutions? Or are the differences mainly a matter of degree?
  • How can we recognize and ‘measure’ global environmental (in)justice?
  • How and why do different kinds of international or transnational environmental regimes differ in their distributive consequences at different scales? And what does that mean for global environmental justice?
  • How is global environmental justice conceptually and empirically related to the broader field of global justice? And where and how are global environmental justice concerns in conflict with other values such as ecosystem preservation, the conservation of biodiversity, self-determination, institutional effectiveness, or (legitimate) self-interest?

We welcome papers from different disciplinary backgrounds, including political philosophy, political science, geography, sociology and law. The substantive focus may be on climate change, but given the fast-growing literature on this particular topic we would also greatly welcome papers that address other environmental issues.

 Abstracts of proposed papers should be up to 500 words; they can be submitted to The deadline for submitting abstracts is Friday, 07 September 2012.

 The workshop will be jointly hosted by the Research Group on Changing Norms of Global Governance and the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the Universität Bremen. Reimbursement of travel costs will be available for a limited number of participants.

 Conference organizers:

 Klaus Dingwerth,

Darrel Moellendorff,

Ina Lehmann,



Deadline for abstract submissions: 07 September 2012

Notification of selected papers: 15 October 2012

Papers due: 8 April 2013

Workshop date: 26/27 April 2013




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…

The Valuation of Ecosystem Services in an Intergenerational Perspective

Intergenerational ethicists dealing with environmental problems usually start by asking what moral obligations (for instance, in terms of biodiversity conservation) we have towards future generations. It is assumed that these obligations must have a moral foundation that is context-independent and that environment is one of the possible contexts of application. This approach is intuitively appealing, but it may lead to underestimating the role of contextual variables on individual motivation to act for the environment. Here I approach the problem from a different angle and ask what consequences for intergenerational ethics can be drawn from studying the current instruments used in valuing environmental services.

In the last three or four decades, the socio-economic, moral and policy issues connected with environmental problems have been increasingly visible in academic research, but also in public debates. Apart from the usual (largely neoclassical) treatment of environmental valuation through market prices or contingent methods (‘willingness to pay’ and ‘willingness to accept’), new approaches have been developed.

They focus on a more nuanced understanding of what valuation means, as well as a broader range of valuation methods that question the mainstream reliance on economic assessment as a reliable guide to policy-making. Insofar as they emphasize the strong coupling of ecological and socio-economic systems and the need to integrate ecologic sustainability concerns in sectorial policies, they usually go under the label of ecological economics.

In general, these valuations have referred not to nature or environment as such (whose total value is indefinitely high), but to specific services we derive from them. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) has grouped these services under four categories: provisioning (food, timber etc.), regulating (e.g. pollination, flood control), ‘cultural’ (recreation, cultural identity) and supporting (necessary for the functioning of all other services, e.g. soil formation, carbon fixation). The problem is then how to convert the perceived benefits that we get from these services into quantifiable expressions of value. The concept of Total Economic Value (TEV) captures the attractive idea that marginal changes in ecosystem conditions can be translated into a gain or loss of benefits, which are converted into expressions of value using a common metric, usually monetary. We could then compute the total net value (benefits minus costs) and therefore build a consistent utility function which optimizes the allocation of goods by equating the marginal rate of substitution between pairs of goods to the price ratio.

However, all this implies several (problematic) assumptions – for instance, that market prices take into account all relevant information to be included in the environmental valuation. (In particular, the so-called ‘non-use values’ – e.g. the intrinsic value one places on the very existence of some environmental resource, beyond any possible use – are difficult to integrate in TEV-based calculations.) It also ignores post-Keynesian criticisms of neoclassical reliance on equilibrium markets. Current valuation methods are fraught with other problems too: (1) they tend to reflect current preferences and state of knowledge, (2) they are context-dependent and therefore vary spatially and temporally and (3) they are unable to accommodate multi-criteria assessment methods. Nevertheless, although they may disagree on the appropriate methods to be applied, many authors consider environmental valuation a practical necessity: “although ecosystem valuation is certainly difficult and fraught with uncertainties, one choice we do not have is whether or not to do it. The decisions we make as a society about ecosystems imply valuations (although not necessarily expressed in monetary terms)”. (Robert Costanza et al., Nature, 1997, p. 255).

What does this all mean in an intergenerational perspective? First of all, it shows that intergenerational issues are part of a larger methodological debate that touches the core assumptions of mainstream economics. Behavioral research is challenging the traditional model of the ‘rational’ utility-optimizing actor, by pointing out to cognitive limits in acquiring and processing information, cognitive biases (loss aversion, endowment effect, confirmation bias etc.), stereotyping and intertemporal discounting. In particular, data shows that intertemporal choice manifests hyperbolic discounting (i.e. the discount rate for the near future is higher than the one for long term prospects, which can lead to time-inconsistency of choices). The aggregate effects or imperfectly rational agents, which can often lead to dysfunctional market behavior and suboptimal outcomes, have also been studied (for instance, in the context of groupthink or instances of collective euphoria or phobia).

Secondly, by analyzing the specific contribution of different ecosystem services to human welfare and the way this welfare can be sustained over time, it is sometimes possible to derive intergenerational rights and obligations from a broadly-construed ‘environmental duty’, rather than deriving environmental obligations from an intergenerational ethics. Combining the two approaches is practically useful: while some people are motivated mainly by an anthropocentric ethics focused on duties of people, groups and generations towards one another, others will react more vividly to issues such as connectedness to nature and biodiversity protection. (After all, bioethics is one of the fastest developing fields in ethical theory.)

Thirdly, TEV-based methods are obviously not well fitted to address intergenerational concerns, since they generally take the preferences of current generations (as expressed through different valuation methods) as the only possible justification for any obligations towards future generations. As already mentioned, intertemporal discounting and context-dependency can render aggregate preferences inconsistent and thus undermine collective action and policy-making. While monetary valuation is clearly useful in enabling trade-offs between services (including ecosystem services), we should not expect all and everything from it. Multi-criteria assessment and other deliberative methods allow the integration of multiple non-convergent values and preferences. They may provide an essential ingredient for facilitating public participation, in order to protect essential non-market ecosystem services.

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.

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.