Sunday, May 13, 2012

Does it make sense to view human progress as a risk to the environment?

I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, human progress is about ‘leaving the world a better place’. That sounds a bit like motherhood, but motherhood statements are probably appropriate on Mother’s day. I particularly like the context in which Ralph Waldo Emerson used the phrase:
‘To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of leave the world a better know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.’ [It would have been more accurate to attribute the phrase to Bessie A Stanley. Please see  Postscript 2 below for further explanation.]

Second, the environment adapts to whatever we do to it. I like the way Mark Dangerfield makes that point in his little book, ‘Environmental Issues for Real’ (2012):
Cover for 'Environmental Issues for Real'‘Our debate has been about how the environment is hurting, that we are to blame and only we can do something about it. Only the environment does not hurt, it just responds. Evolution has come about in spite of all the disturbances, atmospheric upheavals and changing climate. And evolution will be ongoing with or without us and the environment will always be there doing its thing’.

Mark makes the point that real environmental issues are about us. They are about ‘how we will cope with the notion that perhaps we are reaching the limit’. Environmental change will obviously be a problem for us if it means that our lifestyles are compromised. As I see it, values are also involved. I think most humans think that it is good to share the planet with a diverse range of other species. We see the lives of most other species as having value.

The idea that environmental issues are about us is consistent with the view that about 8000 years ago Earth entered into the Anthropocene – the new age of humans. This corresponds to the period in which humans have affected the environment through the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, urban centres and industrial activities. The Anthropocene coincides largely with the Holocene (the last 12,000 years).

Some people argue that we should be aiming to bring environmental conditions on Earth back to where they were at the beginning of the Holocene - on the grounds that the further the Earth’s systems get from those conditions the more likely we are to reach some kind of tipping point. The most common nightmare scenario is runaway global warming, ending up with and crocodiles in Greenland (if not a climate like that on Venus).

Few argue that such outcomes are likely any time soon, but they may not be beyond the bounds of possibility. The following view, in The Economist in May last year, seems to me to have merit:
‘In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed’.

So, how much would we have to modify our view of human progress in order to ensure that we continue to have a good Anthropocene? Is a good Anthropocene consistent with ongoing expansion of economic opportunities? The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) - the result of a major collaborative project of research agencies associated with Yale and Colombia universities – does not seem to me to provide much support for rejection of the view that human progress can involve ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. In general, high income countries – those which have had most economic growth in the past – have higher EPI scores than low-income countries. Over the past decade, there have been substantial improvements in average scores (population weighted) for Environmental health objectives (i.e. environmental factors affecting human health) and even some improvement for Ecosystem vitality.  Most countries with poor performance on environmental health have improved substantially over the last decade. The performance in relation to ecosystem vitality has been mixed. There has been further decline among the worst performers, but some other relatively poor performers (e.g. USA and Singapore) have improved.

We need to take account of the possibility that the future may differ substantially from the recent past. Some physical resources will probably become scarcer. This is unlikely to stop economic growth, however, because the real story of economic growth is largely about productivity growth and technological progress rather than electricity generation and steel production.

Little Green Lies: Twelve Environmental Myths - Jeff BennettWhat about the precautionary principle? I am usually in favour of taking precautions, but the use some people make of the precautionary principle is highly questionable. Jeff Bennett has discussed the issues in his recently published book, ‘Little Green Lies’.  He agrees with the general proposition that we should be careful in making decisions where future outcomes of those decisions are uncertain and potentially catastrophic.  He points out, however, that the way the precautionary principle is advocated often ignores the costs associated with protecting the environment and risks hobbling society in its request for improvement.

The most quoted statement of the precautionary principle is in the 1992 Rio Declaration. If I have correctly found my way through the double negatives in that definition, it is suggesting that ‘cost effective action’ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should not be postponed just because we don’t have ‘full scientific certainty’ that greenhouse gas emissions are likely to cause ‘serious or irreversible damage’ to the environment.  

As a general proposition that seems to me to have some merit, but it raises the question of what actions are cost effective. The only kinds of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that can possibly be cost effective for a small country acting alone are ‘no regret’ policies. In that context, I have previously argued that a carbon tax would have merit if the revenue was used to get rid of less efficient taxes. Unfortunately, those conditions don’t apply to the carbon tax currently being introduced in Australia.

Jeff Bennett applies the precautionary principle to climate change as follows:
‘Climate change poses a risk to society. That risk may or may not be due to human action, but it is a risk nonetheless. When confronted with the risk of a catastrophic outcome in the future, it is always worth contemplating taking out an insurance policy. In the climate context that can involve the adoption of adaptation policies. Essentially, those policies involve taking actions now that will protect society’s interests in the event of climate change causing a threat’.

Adaptation policies seem to be sensible for any single country acting alone. The problem is that adaptation would be massively expensive under the nightmare scenarios. In that context the issue arises of what international strategies have best prospects of success in actually addressing climate change. It seems to me that Bjorn Lomborg is correct in arguing that international agreements to invest in research and development are likely to have a greater chance of success than carbon-reduction negotiations.  Lomborg writes:
‘If we continue implementing policies to reduce emissions in the short term without any focus on developing the technology to achieve this, there is only one possible outcome: virtually no climate impact, but a significant dent in global economic growth, with more people in poverty, and the planet in a worse place than it could be’.

A lot of people seem to get upset whenever Lomborg’s name is mentioned. The question we need to address, however, is whether his diagnosis of the issues is right or wrong. If Lomborg is wrong, why is he wrong?

Postscript 1: 
The discussion of these issues is continued in a later post on the case for government funding of mitigation research.
Postscript 2:
Ooops! The quoted passage that I attributed to Emerson is actually not by Emerson. The original was apparently written by Bessie A Stanley. She wrote: 'He has achieved success ... who has left the world better than he found it ...'.The story is here. I am indebted to Howard DeLong for pointing out the error.


alloporus said...

Interesting post Winton and thanks for quoting from my book.

My thought is that we are not really sure what we mean by environmental performance. It clearly means something different to the green end of town than it does to the brown end but in the end it is about how the environment will provide for all those relatively wealthy people you mention. So Lomborg is right, we really have to figure out some priorities given 9 billion plus reasonably well fed people is not sustainable under the current system. Only nobody likes a pragmatist.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Mark. I need to try to get my head around the question of how governments trying to pick technological winners could be a better strategy than a market-based mechanism. It must be about political failure rather than market failure. If investors were convinced that relative prices will move in favour of new technologies the argument for governments to fund research would look very weak.