Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Climate and Altruism

Writing from the floor of the climate summit in Copenhagen this week, Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg suggested that a singular focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions was misguided. Such cuts, he argues, would be "breathtakingly expensive and woefully ineffective" and the money would be better spent on more immediate problems like global health and education in developing countries. Is his suggestion realistic, or just a diversion?

In his 1970 book "The Possibility of Altruism", philosopher Thomas Nagel tried to understand why people make sacrifices -- sometimes even give their lives -- to save others. He argued that the notion of altruism is similar to the notion of prudence. Just as a prudent individual must extend their concept of self to another time, an altruistic individual must extend their concept of self to a different space, in another person. Thus, if we believe it is important to plan for our own future (prudence), it is possible to act on an analogous belief in the value of other people's lives (altruism). It was an assertion of the commutability of space and time that would have made Einstein proud. This is relevant to Lomborg's suggestion because the arguments for taking action on climate change invoke both prudence and altruism: we should reduce our carbon emissions to secure our own future, but also to improve the future of our children and the citizens of developing nations who will be most affected.

Richard Dawkins promotes a different view of altruism in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene". He suggests that it is useful to think of altruism from the perspective of the individual genes inside of a person. Instead of attaching a survival instinct to the individual, Dawkins ascribes this trait to the genes themselves. In this view, a gene does not care where it survives -- only that it survives. As a consequence, if I have two children who are in danger of being eaten by a lion it is rational from the perspective of my genes to risk my life to save them. Since each of my children shares half of my genes, my complete DNA may have a better chance of continuing to survive in the two kids than in me. Brothers and sisters are even more likely to share my genes, while more distant relatives share less and citizens of developing countries share almost none. According to Dawkins, any act of altruism must be justified by this sort of detailed calculus. This naturally explains why the average person feels very little obligation to ease the suffering of people in distant lands, whether caused by climate change or more immediate problems.

Lomborg is a former Greenpeace member, and author of the 2001 book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" where he applies the economic principle of cost-benefit analysis to world problems. Whatever your understanding of altruism, his suggestion that the world should address the more immediate problems in developing countries rather than fight climate change is a false dichotomy. If the international community had the will to improve human health and education in the third world, it would have done so already. On the other hand, climate change is a problem that will affect the entire planet -- not just developing nations -- so the motivation to avoid the worst consequences is a personal imperative whether Nagel or Dawkins is right about altruism. Whether we cap our emissions because we recognize the humanity of others or because we simply want our genes to survive in our children, the outcome will be the same.

The worst thing that could happen at the climate summit in Copenhagen is nothing. If the delegates fail to reach a consensus on carbon reductions, there is at least one good idea promoted by Lomborg. "Instead of making far-fetched promises about greenhouse gases," he writes, "how about a concrete commitment to green energy research and development?" Now there's something we can all support.