IPCC Calls In Moral Philosopher As People Cool On Global Warming
Scientists have had only limited success persuading us to care about climate change so perhaps it is time to call in the philosophers. That appears to be the approach of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has engaged a philosopher to help to produce its forthcoming report on how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The report, the fifth of its kind since the IPCC was created in 1988, will focus more heavily on ethical issues than previous reports.
Abstract concepts, such as the relative importance of non-existent people and how much we value a second bathroom, will enter the debate alongside more mundane matters, such as how to insulate millions of lofts.
John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, is one of the lead authors of the IPCC’s report on the mitigation of climate change, to be published next April.
Professor Broome’s role appears to be to rein in the economists in the IPCC team and remind them to take ethics into account when considering how much governments should spend on cutting emissions.
He argues that we should be thinking not simply about the impact our emissions will have on our grandchildren but also on non-existent generations, who will not be born because of population changes as parts of the world become less habitable
In an article for Scientific American, he wrote: “Many people, some living, others yet to be born, will die from the effects of climate change. Is each death equally bad? How bad are those deaths collectively? Many people will die before they bear children, so climate change will prevent the existence of children who would otherwise have been born. Is their non-existence a bad thing?”
He also said why we should be prepared to make sacrifices, such as travelling less, eating less meat and living “less lavishly” in order to observe the “elementary moral principle that you should not do something for your own benefit if it harms another person”.
“What we each do for our own benefit harms others,” he wrote. “Perhaps at the moment we cannot help it, and in the past we did not realise we were doing it. But the elementary moral principle tells us we should try to stop doing it and compensate the people we harm.”
Professor Broome is also an expert on the ethics of discount rates, the tool economists use to apply values to future events. For example, he asks whether we should attach less importance to the death of a 10-year-old in 100 years’ time than the death of a 10-year-old now.
He contributed to Lord Stern’s Review of the Economics of Climate Change, which was criticised by many economists for justifying spending billions of pounds mitigating climate change by attaching a much higher value to goods available in the next century.
Bob Ward, the policy director at the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, which is chaired by Lord Stern, said philosophers were essential to help the IPCC and governments to value the well-being of future generations.
“Philosophers also help on questions of equity, such as the extent to which developed countries should be doing more than developing countries to address the problem,” he said.
However, Benny Peiser, the director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which argues that the threat from climate change has been overstated, said that the inclusion of a philosopher would weaken the IPCC’s authority further.
“They should be addressing basic questions of economic common sense, such as what’s the best way of spending money on climate change, not philosophical questions,” he said.
“I don’t think philosophers are good advisers on these questions because they haven’t got a clue about hard economic issues and they are not experts in the field of policy-making.”
The Times, 11 September 2013
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