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Spotlight Durban: National Interests, Ethics, and Climate Change – Don’t Listen to (Most) Economists

by Julie Nelson • November 30, 2011 @ 9:44 am

The U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP17) is taking place in Durban, South Africa. The Spotlight Durban series, a joint series by Real Climate Economics  and Triple Crisis , invites experts to comment on the negotiations and the prospects for real progress addressing climate change in the months and years ahead.

What are the ethical responsibilities of sovereign nations? How can we expect nations to behave, in regards to climate change? We often hear that  nations will inevitably try to shape policy in ways that serve their own interests, where “interests” are largely defined in terms of short-run economic growth. Yet, if every nation sets this as a goal, we are—to use a particularly apt colloquialism—cooked.

I’m afraid that economists are particularly to blame for this perverse framing of the issue. In the economics mainstream, people are thought of as autonomous individuals who are driven by a desire to maximize their own levels of personal satisfaction.  Sociality,  care, ethical responsibilities, and environmental impacts are not part of the story. The insistent teaching of this approach over the last century or so has led many people to believe that selfish and even opportunistic behavior is simply “natural” or “standard” in commercial life—and therefore both excusable and unavoidable. A number of scholars of economics, law, and politics have extended this approach to thinking about governments, considering states as simply  “economic man” writ large.

Eric Posner and David Weisbach’s  wildly mis-named 2010 book Climate Change Justice, for example, is a precisely-argued exposition of such a position. They make national self-interest foundational: “we need to think about how to solve the climate problem in a way that  even selfish states would agree to” (138).  Any  proposal must, by their lights, satisfy the “the principle of International  Paretianism: all states must believe themselves better off by their lights as a result of the climate treaty” (6). Distributional goals are set aside as the topic of some other discussion, to take place  elsewhere. The stonewalling of climate policy by the United States is excused as a case of the U.S. “just tryingto exercise its bargaining power,” which they regard as simply a”common state behavior” (114). Notions of collective responsibility are dismissed as being contrary to the “standard assumption” of individualism (101). They conclude that “an optimal climate treaty… could well require side  payments” not to poor countries, but “to rich countries like the United States” (86).

But to whom are the assumptions of self-interest and individualism “standard”? They are standard—and peculiar—to those who think of the world in “economic man” terms. Envision a book along these lines called Schoolyard Justice.  Picture a school playground in which a big, tough bully has taken control of all of the balls and bats, and refuses to share. What principle should be applied to straighten things out? Well, first, of course, we would have to grant the bully the right to keep all that he has amassed. Perhaps all the other kids could pool their lunch money,and bribe the bully to lend them a ball. Doesn’t leave a whole lot of work for the “justice” part of the book title to do, does it?

Fortunately, there are richer conceptions of justice available, and deeper understandings of what citizens expect of themselves and their countries. Even little kids understand that greed and bullying are not fair. And most people want both themselves and their countries to be the “good guys” not the “bad guys.” This is what made the George W. Bush administration’s support of waterboarding so distressing for many Americans across the political spectrum. People are often willing to make sacrifices for what they believe is a good and noble cause. Many people offer up even their health and their lives to liberate people abroad from tyranny and torture, or protect families back home. Lose those high aspirations—let “our” side be one that tortures (or let the real reason for a war be the interests of Big Oil)—and the confidence that we are the “good guys” deflates.

Not even Posner and Weisbach, it turns out, can completely ignore the fact that we need some “good guy” behavior in regards to climate change. While their ideal treaty would be in the self-interest of every country, countries would afterwards, they argue, be under a strict ethical obligation to abide by the treaty (170). How convenient, for the countries that have been well-off all along.

So, instead of framing the question of global climate policy in terms of national self-interest, how about we frame it in terms of “doing the right thing”? How about we motivate it with the appeal of being “the good guys,” instead of being the people our grandchildren will hate, or being the people that many of our (I write as an American) contemporaries the world over see as the biggest jerk on the block? This is not a matter of naively believing in altruistic behavior: It is a pragmatic approach that takes into account the mulitplicity of human motivations. It’s time to take global politics back from the economists.

Julie A. Nelson, University of Massachusetts Boston

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