Philosophy on the Edge

Would you commit murder?

Last October, in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives — a tiny nation made up of more than one thousand low-lying islets in the Indian Ocean — called an urgent and highly unusual meeting of his cabinet. Government officials donned scuba gear and headed into the sea, convening on the ocean floor five meters below the surface where they signed a document calling for global cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. The half-hour meeting, observed by snorkeling journalists and captured on video by waterproof camera was, to use a phrase coined by political theorist Stephen Duncombe, an “ethical spectacle”: a theatrical attempt to call attention to a very real threat and moral predicament. The Maldives aren’t submerged yet, but they will be soon enough if the world doesn’t take action to prevent such a fate.

Though President Nasheed is widely hailed as an ecological visionary — he was even named one of the “Heroes of the Environment 2009” by Time magazine — his cabinet’s spectacular assembly was largely ignored by more powerful nations. Though countless developing countries will face unprecedented disasters in coming years as a consequence of unmitigated climate change — heat waves, floods, storms, droughts, crop failures, pandemics, displaced populations and more — these avoidable catastrophes have been sidelined. World leaders are focusing on another more appealing and potentially lucrative issue: how to divide up the atmosphere’s diminishing capacity to absorb greenhouse gases in a way that will not inconvenience — but will actually benefit — an already privileged minority.

mercy or murder

On the second day of the Copenhagen summit Mohamed Axam Maumoon — the articulate, impassioned 15-year-old climate ambassador of the Maldives — put the moral predicament in stark terms: “On the basis that you know what you are doing is wrong and you can see that the victim is begging for mercy … would you commit murder?”

His poignant question reminded me of a thought experiment made famous by the philosopher Peter Singer. The “shallow pond” scenario imagines a hapless bystander who notices a small child in danger of drowning. The child can easily be saved, but a new and expensive pair of shoes will be ruined as a result. Most of us sense immediately that shoes are trivial compared to human life, yet it is precisely the specter of stunted economic growth that industrialized nations invoke to justify stalling on environmental issues. Our governments are too obsessed with the GDP to prioritize preventing harm. Meanwhile, a recent report from London’s Telegraph warns that climate change is set to be the single biggest threat to children’s lives worldwide, estimating that up to 250,000 young people could die of its effects in the next year alone. For fear of ruining its shoes, the developed world appears to be turning its back on important moral precepts regarding the fundamental value of every human life.

If we accept the premise that every human life has the same intrinsic value — that all people are equal — a simple question follows: What entitles one person to use a far larger portion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases than someone else? What permits Americans to produce 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year while people living on the continent of Africa produce less than one ton on average? The answer, of course, is nothing. In light of this, the “per capita principle” is taking hold in some environmental and diplomatic circles. It’s the radically simple idea that all people have the right to emit the same amount of greenhouse gases, which, according to a recent German study, would mean a quota of 2.8 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually. As Peter Singer says, “one person, one share.”

The current climate crisis demands that we make a novel conceptual leap and begin thinking about human equality in terms of energy and resource consumption. If we don’t, as Climate Ambassador Maumoon put it (in a comment that referred not only to the Maldives but also to countries like Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia), “it’s as good as killing us off.” Unfortunately his exhortation was hardly melodramatic. A report commissioned by the Global Humanitarian Forum, launched in 2007 by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, puts the climate change-caused death toll at 300,000 people per year. This number is projected to double by 2030. Likewise, groups like Pan African Climate Justice Alliance caution that a two-degree Celsius increase in global temperature (a target the Copenhagen pledges fell short of) will mean “an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger” and “water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people.” It seems we are indeed willing to commit murder.

thinking like a convict

As the Copenhagen conference came to its anticlimactic end, I was reminded of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” one of the more provocative thought experiments known to philosophy and economics, and one that, unlike the shallow pond scenario, highlights the darker angels of our nature. The prisoner’s dilemma envisions two criminals, both accused of the same misdeed, held in separate cells. Their punishment will be minimal if they both stay quiet; if one provides testimony against the other, the testifier will go free while the other convict is punished harshly; if they both testify, the punishment will be significant for both parties. The dilemma illustrates the tension between individual and group rationality or between selfish behavior and social behavior: The criminals will inevitably rat each other out and, by pursuing self-interest, make the situation much worse than if they kept their mouths shut.

Taking various iterations over the years, the prisoner’s dilemma has fascinated philosophers, mathematicians, psychologists and economists, ultimately promoting the view that human beings are generally selfish, though not always rational. If they were rational, after all, the hypothetical prisoners would cooperate since the outcome would be better for all involved. At Copenhagen the richest nations behaved like petty criminals, sabotaging collective betterment for economic gain and turning toward mutual destruction in the process. The thing is that unlike the criminals in the prisoner’s dilemma, who are prohibited from speaking to one another, the leaders at the climate summit spent 11 days trying to broker an agreement and still ended up with the worst possible outcome: no legally binding treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There’s also the important fact that while both criminals in the hypothetical scenario are guilty as charged, blame is not so easily shared when it comes to climate change. The wealthiest half-billion people on earth, or a mere seven percent of the population, contribute half the carbon dioxide emitted. Meanwhile, the poorest half of the world’s citizens are responsible for only seven percent of emissions.

In the days leading up to the summit, European negotiators pledged to sign up for carbon emissions cuts of 30 percent if — and only if — other major polluting nations agreed to do the same. As we all know too well, the United States and China balked and the targets were abandoned in favor of a vague unenforceable nod toward lower emissions. Unable to come to a collective agreement, the world’s most powerful nations acted like selfish prisoners, refusing to accept responsibility for the impending ecological catastrophe or to take significant steps to remedy it unless everyone else did to the exact same degree. In other words, why should Canada curb emissions if China builds one hundred new coal-fueled power plants? If you’re thinking like a cliché criminal, the answer, sadly, is it shouldn’t.

RAND researchers developed the prisoner’s dilemma during the Cold War. Entranced by game theory, they used it to argue that a kind of paranoid equilibrium could be achieved through self-interest and suspicion, a bizarre and questionable insight that led to the promotion of nuclear arms race-logic and so-called strategies of deterrence. The only problem was that when they tested the prisoner’s dilemma on their secretaries, the researchers were shocked to find that people generally trusted rather than betrayed one another. These results were repeated in later trials. It turns out that when regular human beings — as opposed to nation-states or RAND scientists — play the prisoner’s dilemma, a powerful tendency to cooperate often overpowers mercenary opportunism.

Copenhagen demonstrated that governments don’t compromise and cooperate like regular people; neither do corporations. The prisoner’s mindset may be anathema to many individuals, but it’s a worldview more central to capitalism (an economic system that rewards greed above all else) than some may like to admit. It turns out that thinking like a convict may give us some chilling insight into how the market-based solutions to climate change hyped by Wall Street and Washington will actually function. Cap and trade may make prisoners out of us yet.

selling the sky

While many of us may accept the premises that each human life has the same intrinsic value, that all people are equal and that nothing entitles one person to produce more carbon dioxide than anyone else, these are hardly the principles guiding climate policy.

Not by a long shot. These days, the existence of carbon emissions is treated not as a political or ethical issue to be resolved but as an economic asset to be exploited. The atmosphere has been claimed as a private commodity. Corporations, with the aid of the UN, are buying and selling “rights” to pollute it. Consequently carbon trading is now the fastest growing commodities market on Earth. But what exactly is the commodity these markets are peddling? It’s a highly unusual product. It’s not carbon that is being bought and sold but rather the assurance of its nonproduction.

And what about these rights? If everyone has a right to the sky, does that mean rights are something that can be transferred and speculated in, collected and hoarded? Can they be passed on and inherited? The answer to these and other equally outlandish questions is an enthusiastic yes. Cap and trade gives corporations the “right” to pollute through the buying and selling of permits. Some of these permits are “grandfathered,” allowing old plants to avoid regulation. This means, counterintuitively, that the right to contaminate the environment is bequeathed on the basis that one has a track record of doing just that. But even more problematic are the “offsets” that companies can purchase instead of cutting their carbon production. These offsets are credits generated by projects that claim to reduce emissions but often don’t, since there’s no reliable system of monitoring or enforcement: wind farms in China, methane-capturing landfills in New England, old-growth forest protection projects in South America. Investigative journalist Mark Schapiro — reporting on carbon trading from rural Brazil — exposed the system’s fatal flaw, which also happens to be the secret to its profitability: No one has the power to remove junk credits from the market, even if there’s proven misconduct.

James Hansen, the NASA scientist who was one of the first to blow the whistle on global warming, warns that cap and trade does little to slow climate change, while simultaneously removing all incentives to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. “Because cap and trade is enforced through the selling and trading of permits, it actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate,” Hansen recently argued. “If every polluter’s emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear.” Cap and trade ensnares us in a twisted prisoner’s logic, deterring the most desirable outcome. Though the greatest good would come about if we quit producing greenhouse gases altogether, formidable interests are now invested in keeping carbon-market profits high. That’s why cap and trade won’t get us out of the mess we’re in. Instead, as Hansen has cautioned, “it merely allows polluters and Wall Street traders to fleece the public out of billions of dollars.” It’s been widely acknowledged that the market for trading permits will be loosely regulated and the actual “offsets” hardly supervised. Only a few months ago, the European Union admitted that carbon-trading fraud had cost the bloc’s governments $7.4 billion in lost tax revenue over the previous year and a half. But even for investors who don’t engage in outright swindling, policing the carbon market is going to be a boondoggle of unprecedented proportion.

And what a boon it will be, at least for those who know how to game the system. Much was made of Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the “United States is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries.” Even if that money actually manifests and is eventually dispersed, it involves sums that look positively paltry in comparison to the carbon market, which is already valued at well over a trillion dollars a year. Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development described the Copenhagen summit as a “colonial moment,” explaining that rich countries essentially traded “beads and blankets for Manhattan.” He laments that the atmosphere, the last remaining unowned resource, has been carved up and allocated to the already wealthy.

No wonder carbon-trading shops have been swamped with résumés in recent months. “I think that the guys on Wall Street, as well as people in related industries, all kind of see this as a growth area in the economy, or a potential growth area in the economy, and would like to get involved,” Evan Ard, a spokesman for the carbon brokerage firm Evolution Markets, told the New York Times. All that despite the fact that even Deutsche Bank has condemned the current arrangement, complaining that the carbon market is ineffective and unlikely to contribute to cutting emissions “for the foreseeable future.”

our climate is not their business

We are facing an unparalleled challenge. Unlike nuclear weapons, greenhouse gases can’t be contained. The stakes for humanity have never been higher. The prisoner’s mindset will only doom us all.

In a recent editorial Hansen asks us to consider what he calls the “perverse” impact cap and trade will have on altruistic actions. “Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car,” he writes. “That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it allows somebody else to buy a bigger SUV — because the total emissions are set by the cap.” Hansen’s observations inspire one to wonder what system would reward our altruistic impulses instead of stifling them? What arrangement will encourage us to dramatically curb our energy consumption, to invest in sustainable development, to quit acting entitled to every last ounce of the world’s resources?

Michael Hardt, coauthor of Empire and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, argues that the solution is a system with the common at its center, a category that includes everything from the forests, seas and atmosphere to ideas, language and affects. The common, in Hardt’s formulation, is that which eludes measurement and rebels against commoditization: It both defies and is deteriorated by property relations. “Just as your land shares with the neighboring land the benefits of rain and sunshine it will share too the destructive effects of pollution and climate change,” he explains. The common also disrupts and exceeds the dominant measures of value. In other words, just as we cannot put a dollar value on human life — all we can say is that every human life is of equal worth — so we cannot assign a price to something as ubiquitous and essential as the atmosphere or as integral to our species’ survival as carbon dioxide. Instead of struggling to determine the cost of carbon — which can then be manipulated by the market — we should instead abide by Singer’s simple equation: “one person, one share.”

At Copenhagen the wealthy countries advocated for modern-day indulgences, including offsets and credits, for those lucky enough to afford them. They faced off against the global south, which rightly continues to demand reparations for the climate debt incurred by industrialized, colonizing nations over the last century. Hardt, who was in Copenhagen, saw the summit primarily as a struggle over the management of resources that must be shared, whether the world’s powerbrokers want them to be or not. The challenge at hand, Hardt would later reflect, lay in developing “a politics of the common that both recognizes the real limits of the Earth and fosters our unlimited creative capacities — building unlimited worlds on our limited Earth.” In other words, the climate crisis has revealed the environment’s finite nature, its fragile balance and our precarious place therein. But the human imagination remains boundless, our capacity for empathy and solidarity inexhaustible and the future uncertain.

For now the problem is not a lack of vision. We have both the moral principles to guide us — the atmosphere belongs to everyone, and everyone is of equal value — and a bounty of intelligent, effective solutions on the table: setting ambitious emissions targets, instituting a carbon tax, establishing a “fee-and-dividend model,” investing in truly renewable energy and sustainable development, embracing the “polluter pays” standard, and leaving fossil fuels in the ground, among other ideas. The problem is the insatiable minority who wants to privatize the sky — and the lack of popular will to counter their arrogating ways. That said, hopeful signs indicate a growing opposition. The climate justice movement, currently making appearances around the world, is the best available evidence that we have not yet become hostage to the logic of the market, that the prisoner’s mindset is not yet dominant.

If climate change has taught us anything, it is that we can no longer remain oblivious to our interconnection. With the simple flip of a switch we contribute to the inundation of the Maldives. Maumoon’s blunt question must ring in our ears: “On the basis that you know what you are doing is wrong and you can see that the victim is begging for mercy … would you commit murder?” It’s still not too late to change our answer.

Astra Taylor is the director of two documentaries about philosophy, Zizek! and Examined Life, both distributed by Zeitgeist Films and available on DVD. A companion book, Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, is available from The New Press.