Identifying Goals For Climate Policy A Pluralistic Approach

One way to address the seeming moral incompleteness of standard cost-benefit analysis for describing the climate change problem is to work within some kind of intergenerational rights framework, with reciprocal duties on the part of people today to respect those rights. A rights approach can be defined in a variety of distinct ways. Here, I want to focus first on approaches that see the current generation as having obligations to protect the potential well-being of persons who will come into existence in the future. This approach in principle can retain much if not all of the integrated assessment approach to climate change cost-benefit analysis, while taking a different view of how costs and benefits should be distributed over time. The focus remains on the impacts and opportunities experienced by people today and those who may be living in the future.

Reference in the rights-based literature is often made to Rawls' (1971) system of justice, though it implies concern for the least well-off and can be interpreted in an economic context to imply a constraint of nondecreasing well-being (or potential well-being) over time. Economists have further addressed the issue by noting that changes in the utility of successive generations can in principle be affected by changes in intergenerational wealth endowments, in that greater intergenerational concern in the face of climate change can be expressed by bequeathing to the future some mixture of lower GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, the capital stock necessary for maintaining such low concentrations (like renewable energy systems), and greater capital accumulated for adaptation.6

"Stewardship" is a popular word in some of this literature. Legal scholars like Weiss (1989) have argued for a moral as well as a legal obligation to keep the potential for future well-being intact over generations; and given the uncertainties about the ability to do so with a radically changed climate, they add a corollary obligation to maintain tight limits on the size and speed of climate change. An older focus of stewardship in various theological literatures (the need to protect God's creation, not just have dominion over it) also has come to the fore in many modern writings. See the work of Daly and Cobb (1989) or Brown's (1998) argument for a stewardship economics, though neither of these works are driven exclusively by theological arguments.

Various constructs of the "precautionary principle" similarly are invoked in discussions of sustainability, intergenerational allocation, and fairness. The principle is rooted, at least implicitly, in the prospect that large and discontinuous adverse effects of climate change could occur, and that a degree of risk aversion on the part of the current generation of actors and decision makers is appropriate to mitigate the risks of setting in motion such effects.

Stewardship ideas and the precautionary principle can be used to define criteria based relatively directly on the physical world. One can imagine these approaches being implemented with a set of physical indicators describing what are or are not acceptable changes in the climatic system. An example is the "safe corridors" approach to defining targets for GHG mitigation: one compares various scenarios for various ways that GHG emissions and the natural world could evolve, excluding all those that involve GHG concentrations that grow beyond a pre-determined level or grow too fast. Then, and only then, does one consider the economic consequences of different paths.

As with the cost-benefit approach, a number of important technical issues can be raised here. One can argue in principle for the idea of protective intergenerational resource transfers from the present to its descendants as described above, and then confront the practical difficulty of how to actually arrange this institutionally. The composition of the intergenerational transfer also can be debated. Advocates of "weak sustainability" argue that so long as aggregate wealth is maintained, an intergenerational transfer can allow substantial modification of the climatic system provided other forms of social investment are made (including adaptation to climate change as well as other socially beneficial activities). The "strong sustainability" approach would rely instead on more stringent climate protection through more aggressive GHG mitigation.

Notwithstanding these kinds of questions, many people seem to embrace ideas of stewardship and the precautionary principle, in their hearts if not always with their pocketbooks. These ideas strike a deep emotional chord. Moreover, they seem to define obligations in ways that are relatively straightforward to apply. So why do these approaches not rule the roost?

As with the cost-benefit approach, we can address this question partly by asking some more fundamental questions about how well this kind of in-tergenerational contracts or obligations approach seems to capture the climate change problem. Can we make sense out of obligations to potential future beings? It is easy to say this is only a metaphor; but it becomes more than a metaphor when we start to think about how large the intergenera-tional transfers ought to be. The identities of these potential future people obviously cannot be known to us in advance, and our degree of kinship with these people may exist at varying levels and for varying reasons. A number of philosophers writing about what has come to be called the ''identity problem'' have wrestled with the extent to which it is possible to meaningfully define moral obligations to potential persons.7 Moreover, at least some rights-based intergenerational contracts are hard to reconcile with the idea of intertemporal preference consistency. If we care as much for the future as we do for ourselves, why do we not act even more aggressively for the greater good of our descendants in lieu of ourselves? And if we do not, are we not led back to some kind of intergenerational discounting that seems to confound the moral compass with cost-benefit analysis?

One key difficulty is in determining what level of stewardship or risk avoidance is morally appropriate. Individuals may believe deeply that we should leave the world better than we find it and take steps to avoid peril to the earth, but there is still some limit to what people will commit to such actions. In practice, safe corridors for the evolution of the climate system incorporate limits on the cost to be borne in carrying out mitigation.

Once cost considerations enter the picture, one is not so far from the balancing envisaged in cost-benefit analysis - though the way costs and benefits are weighed may be far different from a simple present value criterion. I believe that consideration of benefits and costs is unavoidable. How their impacts are assessed is what differentiates one approach from another. The conclusion that benefits and costs must be ''considered'' when judging climate change policies does not mean I advocate a simple, one-dimensional benefit-cost test for climate change policies. In practice, decision makers can, will, and should bring to the fore important considerations about the equity and fairness of climate change policies across space and time. Decision makers also will bring their own judgments about the relevance, credibility, and robustness of benefit and cost information and about the appropriate degree of climate change and other risks that society should bear. The argument in favor of considering both benefits and costs in part is that policy deliberations will be better informed if good economic analysis is provided. But there is a need also for a methodological pluralism in addressing the definition of the climate change problem in a way that combines both logic and passion, the dual forces that figure in any other important human question.

In assessing mitigation costs that the current generation will experience, it is important to consider carefully all the relevant opportunity costs, including the foregone returns from other uses of capital (and any ancillary benefits that can be registered as negative costs, like local air pollution reductions). Damage costs (the benefits of mitigation actions), on the other hand, need to be assessed in a way that gives full voice to the concerns we may feel for the future, whether that future is sensed in terms of descendants or ecological conditions.

Here, we run into a number of additional complications that further strengthen the case for methodological pluralism in defining normative criteria for climate change policy analysis. The impacts being assessed are extraordinarily complex in terms of their nature and timing, compared even to other environmental concerns and certainly in comparison to more conventional consumption-savings decisions. They involve interpersonal and collective evaluations of several types that will be seen very differently by different people. Moreover, it seems likely that what people want to do visa-vis protection of future beings and ecological conditions (whether we call these wants preferences or moral sentiments) will change over time with changes in experience and interaction with others. The elucidation of such wants inherently is a social process, one moreover that can at least somewhat reshape the very wants being investigated.

It is easy to imagine this somewhat amorphous approach becoming a refuge for scoundrels. The passion that people bring to debates over the climate problem and potential solutions can be uplifting or oppressive. Many disciplines, most especially economics, can help propel the debates in productive directions by pointing out clear errors or inconsistencies in valuation. But at the end, I see no alternative to complicated and possibly ambiguous social processes for passing through the eye of the needle on this issue.

"Two-tier" conceptual frameworks provide one conceptual basis for structuring a pluralistic approach, though there are still serious operational problems to be overcome in using them (see Toman, 1994; Norton &

Toman, 1997 for discussions).8 In this sort of framework, decision makers must first consider what criteria and management tools to apply to a particular issue. It is presumed in the framework that human impacts on the environment that are larger in scale and longer in duration give rise to greater concerns about the opportunities for well-being available to future generations (as well as to ourselves), and about the opportunities for amelioration of adverse effects through resource substitution and innovation. Impacts that are smaller in scale and shorter in duration give rise to less concern and thus are more amenable to being treated through conventional cost-benefit tools, supplemented with information about nonmonetizable impacts and distributional consequences. In other cases, standard economic calculations are more likely to need supplementing with information about the physical robustness of underlying ecological systems and the potential consequences over time, and by information about social norms (e.g., basic presumptions about fairness to existing communities and future generations) that might be affected.

We can briefly illustrate these ideas in the context of climate change. Climate policies undertaken by the current generation will impose costs (and generate some ancillary benefits, like local air quality improvements) for the current generation. These costs should be assessed to the extent possible using the best state of the art in economic analysis, including procedures for intragenerational discounting that reflect the opportunity costs of changes in consumption and investment streams. The benefits of action or the costs of inaction, on the other hand, are more complex to assess since they involve significant redistributions of income between current and future generations; they will accrue globally, not just to our own heirs; they are difficult to estimate; and they will depend on the actions taken - for example, actions to reduce future risks by limiting GHG emissions versus actions to promote adaptability to future climate change that can also provide more immediate economic development benefits. Simply calculating the present value of these effects as they appear to the current generation does not provide an adequate basis for evaluating different outcomes. An alternative is to provide a description of the effects (monetary and otherwise) and their timing, and allow decision makers to weigh these effects and their costs against a variety of ethical criteria and the expressed wishes of various stakeholders.

This approach uses multiple normative perspectives in the first tier to assess how an issue should be judged, and then in the second tier in evaluating the issue and decisions (with a mix of perspectives that varies depending on the first-tier outcome). This is not just an application of "scientific" policy analysis, as is underscored by the fact that value judgments will permeate the first-tier categorization decision making as well as guide the second-tier evaluation. The process thus can operate only if it is superimposed on a mature ongoing social discussion about which values matter in which contexts. This superimposition enables an interaction between science, on the one hand, and the process of values formation and education, on the other.

To go further along these lines, we can envision an approach to considering and determining climate change policy goals that is not only pluralistic and multitier but also iterative, to reflect the processes of learning and value formation. The process might take the following general form:

1. Prior assessment of what criteria and evaluation tools should apply to the issue. In the two-tier model sketched above, this amounts to assessing where the issue lies on a continuum between a simple analysis of economic trade-offs and an analysis more circumscribed by physical limits on substitution and the operation of broader social norms, which themselves must be identified.

2. Assessment of physical impacts from different courses of action to the extent possible, with particular attention to their scale, the identification of impacts that are difficult to evaluate in monetary terms, and distributional issues across space and time.

3. Assessment of economic benefits and costs from different courses of action to the extent possible, as well as their incidence in space and time.

4. Further identification of whether and how social values or norms beyond the quantified benefits and costs may be affected by a decision.

5. Engagement of public discourse about both the consequences of different actions and the applicable social values, especially where operable norms are not clear-cut or are conflicting. This is a step in explicitly acknowledging that the decision process cannot be purely scientific. The public engagement can take various forms, from educational programs to multiple-stakeholder negotiations to interagency debates characterized by disclosure and electoral accountability.

6. Decision making based on the pluralistic approach and criteria outlined above.

7. Using the results of the decision process to consider what new information and uncertainties have been revealed about both science and social values, and plugging these insights back into both the values discourse and scientific research agendas.

Discussion of climate change and of sustainability more generally rests on a wide range of different conceptions, emphasizing substantive economic, ecological, and social concerns as well as procedural issues. These various conceptions are based in turn on various sets of values, i.e., perceived differences in the importance of economic well-being, ecological integrity, and social legitimacy. This underscores again that debate on sustainability cannot be resolved solely by recourse to scientific inquiry. For example, substantial progress in resolving uncertainties about the effects of GHGs on the world's climate system, and the effects of climatic changes on ecological systems and human well-being, will not in itself address basic disagreements about the importance of humans versus nature.

Governments and other decision makers continually seek to reduce factual uncertainties in order to support "better" decisions. This can be seen in the attention paid to the quality of science underlying major regulatory and other policy decisions in debates within the United States on environmental issues generally, not just climate change. Efforts to improve scientific understanding are important contributions to better decision making. However, such efforts also can mask deeper and more complex disagreements about social values.

Even in the domain of scientific inquiry, moreover, value judgments are not absent. Prior assumptions about what is important implicitly guide the structuring of scientific inquiry. For example, if one takes the view that ecological systems are organized hierarchically according to scale, the study of these systems at the micro-scale (the function of a single leaf) will differ from the study of these systems at a macro-scale (the biome), and there is no scientific basis for preferring one level of inquiry over another (Norton, 1992).

The fact that science is not and cannot be entirely value-free does not imply that science must be subservient to values in sustainability, or that established measures to test and validate scientific hypotheses must be discarded. Instead, I would argue that science and values need to be seen as two sides of a recurring process in which increased information about the natural world and human impacts leads to a reconsideration of values, which in turn leads to a refocusing of science as needed to address emerging policy issues. This recursive process ensures not only that scientific inquiry is focused on issues that need to be addressed in forming policies, but also that new scientific insights find their way into the policy debate and stimulate constructive reevaluations of existing positions.

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