Saturday, October 07, 2017

Ethics, Economics, and Climate

The Stoat has a nearly impenetrably referential post on the subject as above. As usual, reading the post left me pretty much entirely clueless about what he was talking about, but because I had more important work that I wanted to avoid, I read a couple of the links. I discovered that a few years ago he seemed to be able to express himself more clearly, though even then he wasn't willing to give his stuff a descriptive title.
His point, then and now, as I understand it was:

So I’ll be more explicit, here, and argue for solving GHG emissions as a matter of economics, to be handled by taxation, rather than as a matter of morality, to be handled… somehow. Context: Eli wants to handle it as ethics. And a fair amount of the comments on Can global emissions really be reduced? are about this.
Oddly enough, I agree with this, but I think that posing potential solutions as economics versus ethics is profoundly misleading, mostly because they are inextricably intertwined. Ethics is supposed to tell us what we ought to do, while economics is mostly about the consequences of certain choices. I think Connolley wastes a lot of energy arguing that differences in moral principles prevent adequate agreement on goals. While this is true, economic means is equally obstructed by disagreement on goals.

The real question is, given the extent to which goals can be agreed on, what are the best methods for achieving them? The choices come down to economic incentives and punition. Punitive measures are probably appropriate in cases of fraud, like the Volkswagen case, but also usually consist mainly economic incentivization by fines, sometimes with a few symbolic perps getting jailed. The more famous economic incentives are taxes and exchange traded emission permits.

I think that Connolley and I both agree that taxes are the better choice. A lot of economists preferred emission permits, mainly, I think, in the vain hope that this would deceive the gullible into not realizing that they were intended to raise the price of gasoline and other petrochemical products. As it happens, they aren't that gullible, especially when there is a multi-trillion dollar industry dedicated to making sure they know exactly that.

So, I say, decreasing GHG emissions comes down to moral persuasion: persuading people that it is morally correct to impose taxes which will make certain aspects of their lives today more difficult in order to make a better future for their children and grandchildren. That is really hard, since the world is full of both scoundrels and honest men who don't accept the premise.