March 18th, 2012

In what I named the “dumbest blog post of 2011“, economist Karl Smith conceded that

There will be large environmental costs associated with climate change includ[ing] a very rapid increase in extinctions

but we should ignore this and

pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North America[n] regarding fossil fuel production


there are hundreds of millions of very poor families around the world right now, who would benefit enormously from lifting the energy constraint on growth.

So many species should go extinct for the greater good of man. Bye, bye polar bears.

Smith shrugged off my accusation of “yahoo values”. It may be sadly necessary to make a formal argument for the polar bears and lemurs and hundreds of other species. BTW, I stand by my language. Quite mild really. If you threaten a man’s grandchildren – which is what denialists and do-nothings are up to – around the Khyber Pass, he doesn’t say nasty things about you on a blog, he comes after you with a sharp knife and a plan to remove various body parts.

So here’s the argument.

First, wildlife is valued by all children and most adults. Smith only gets one minority vote for his strange preferences. Wildlife generates substantial economic activities of tourism, species-watching, fishing and hunting. These direct values are associated with the economic benefits of the ecosystems that support wildlife, in water conservation, carbon sequestration, commercial fisheries (such as salmon) and forest products. Its value is not limited to them: simply knowing that whales and rainforests exist gives great pleasure to many, and their reduction and risks of species extinction generates pain. It’s mere ignorance to claim that wildlife is valueless, even on the narrowest economic calculus. Smith’s claim would require research he hasn’t done, even leading aside his incredible claims that deregulation of US fossil fuels would magically solve the global peak oil crunch that is ruining the growth prospects for the LDCs (which would be news to India and Brazil).

A second line of inquiry is the direct moral claim that the welfare of animals makes on us. Smith is, like most economists, very probably a utilitarian. Now as Bentham observed, animals suffer too. The basic physiology of pain and pleasure is found throughout the animal kingdom in anything that has a nervous system. It looks as if Schiller was right:

Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben.

The nervous system of a nematode

Photo credit
For now, we’ll forget about fish and lobsters. Polar bears, lemurs, dogs and cats certainly feel pain and pleasure, and Descartes was just wrong to deny it. For a utilitarian the implication is inescapable: we should avoid causing higher animals unnecessary pain.

The dramatic reduction in Arctic summer ice and its possible elimination is putting the polar bear population under severe stress. The distances between ice floes are becoming too far to swim. Many polar bears are dying of starvation, and their reproduction is problematic – bear cubs need two years’ training by their mothers to have a chance of fending for themselves. This stress, caused by human AGW, imposes net suffering on the bear population compared to the steady state.

What about the seals they prey on? By Ecology 101, the seal population is determined by its food supply not by predation. What predation affects is the average age and health of the seals. Absent polar bears, seals will die of disease, degeneration from age and ultimately starvation. I suggest it’s better for an ailing seal to be killed by a polar bear than to starve, so removing the bears probably lowers the seals’ welfare from the steady state. Removing the ice also makes their reproduction problematic, so the seal population will be lower than the steady state. Overall we are looking at an Arctic world with fewer and more miserable bears and seals. That’s a welfare loss. On any plausible accounting, if policymakers had to choose between the lives of the last 1500 polar bears and those of another retired blogger or assistant professor of right-wing economics, Smith and I should not expect to make the cut.

But how on earth are we to weigh this loss seriously against human welfare? Hard, but not impossible. After all, we have no foolproof way of measuring and weighing the welfare of our fellow-humans, and so resort to dubious proxies like per capita GDP, or even Smith’s “growth”, forgetting the inconvenient truths of Bernoulli and Ricardo on diminishing marginal utility, confirmed by the literature on happiness. By analogy, we should look for a not-too-awful proxy for a direct weighting of animal welfare.

One way of approaching the problem is just to note that global warming places an unknown but large welfare burden x on polar bears and Arctic seals, and try to measure what the countervailing benefits to humans y might be. If we know this y, then we can try to strike the balance. But if these net benefits don’t exist, the problem may go away. I have yet to see any solid argument that inaction on global warming is in the interests of humanity, unless you either take silly zero-risk real social rates of discount over 5% (implying the lives of our great-grandchildren are of no importance), or are wedded to a prospect illusion that magnifies the burdens of any significant current reduction in consumption and occludes the discounted burden of future disasters.

There are parts of the world where such tradeoffs may be real: consider the lemurs in the forests of Madagascar, shrinking under the pressure of a rising population of subsistence farmers. The right policy there is to reduce the population pressure by empowering women to have no more children they they want, and introducing more land-efficient agricultural techniques. Easier said than done, but feasible and win-win. Which shows more real concern for the Madagascan poor: pushing for aid for such policies, or consoling them with the thought that they are more important than the lemurs?

Utilitarianism isn’t the only ethical game in town. You can place humanity on a pedestal and say that what matters isn’t our animal capacity for pain and pleasure, but our supposedly unique intelligence and moral sense. Ultimately this claim to uniqueness is a religious position, as science can find no such unique characteristics. Everything in our makeup is just an extension or development of features found in related species. We are much better at thinking and language and cooperation than chimps and ravens, not radically different.

But here’s the catch. Suppose that humans are unique as self-conscious moral agents. That uniqueness does not give us license to destroy other species on a whim. It comes with a unique burden of duties, not a free lunch. The Tanakh overwhelmingly treats man as a steward of nature, not a slaveowner with a license to torture and kill his property. Mainstream Christianity has long outgrown the Thomist position that animals have no moral claims on us, rejoining Hinduism and Buddhism in respect for the environment. The “domination of nature” reading of parts of the US evangelical right is strained and in global terms very eccentric.

On a deontological theory, we have duties to the global poor, to posterity, and to the natural world. In this framework, the natural view of polar bears is that destroying them is a violation of duty as it is under utilitarianism.

Either way, it’s ethics versus yahoos.