19 Jan 2010

Climate Debt

BP asks what I think about "the idea that poor countries are owed a debt or reparations by rich countries due to the climate change that is adversely affecting poor countries, but has been caused primarily by rich countries."

I am broadly in favor of this idea. If someone destroys your property, then they should pay you. If the rich world destroyed the climate to get rich, then they used the "property" of others, and they should pay for it.

The only objections that I see to this logic (and conclusion) is that rich citizens can say "no fair, that's changing the rules -- adding property rights -- after the fact" or "we stole/exploited it fair and square."

I don't think that either holds, especially when you turn the tables (a la Rawls) and put the rich people in the place of victim. It's hardly likely that they would suffer silently.

(In fact, this makes me think of the damage that the poor -- via population growth -- are inflicting on the rich. Perhaps there's a quid-pro-quo, not of mutual payments, but of mutual cessation of behavior, possible here.)

Bottom Line: Everyone owns a bit of this planet, and those who harm it should pay for their damages.


Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Yay, David!
Thank you for agreeing with Judge Stanwood Duvall in his ruling against the Corps of Engineers in the recent MR-GO liability case.
While the judgments for the plaintiffs was small ($750,000) the potential settlements to the Citizens of New Orleans could become substantial.
This illustrates the crux of the biscuit for my own edge on this issue, to wit: your Water Economics don't float if the Water Engineering has holes.
BTW, this MRGO Case is the only time the Corps proper has Ever lost in court, yet still to date no one individual has been named or disciplined or fired or anything regarding the rest of the property destruction and loss of life they cause in New Orleans on 8/29/05. Not a single person from the Corps who designed and built these bad structures.

Given the Billions your state faces in paying for the Corps Engineering, it would behoove y'all to re-arrange your relationship to this outfit.
Also, you might find this new Levee Data from levees.org extremely interesting.
Indeed, I wouldn't mind seeing your take on it.

Thanks for sticking with it, David.
Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Eric said...

As microeconomics, who pays who for what?

The poor were poor long before Europe was rich. The poor have remained poor. Without the advances in technology, medicine, green rice, etc.; the poor countries are much poorer and have many fewer resources of value. The mineral resources of the poor countries have no value without the demand of the rich countries.

It is easy to see the poor only as children who cannot feed themselves. It's not that the rich should not help the poor, but that the simple guilt framing might be less appropriate than a 'person of high moral character' framing.

It seems that a more nuanced view is needed, one in which the children grow up and in which the developments of the rich countries also have value.

Remember that without the 'rapaciousness' of the rich, the earth only supports 100,000,000 of us. The rest of us owe our lives to the inventiveness and industry of the rich countries.

How might all these competing threads make a consistent story and a path forward?

It seems that everyone owes someone else something. What might an input/output economic nuanced view be?

Kevin Dick said...

This is a logically weak statement. Yes, if you could clearly measure the amount of harm and proportionally attribute it, fairness would seem to dictate some form of reparations.

However, that doesn't seem to be the case here. Your suggestion might be worth considering if you presented some taxonomy of the harms you think have been perpetrated, how you would measure the economic harm, and how you would allocate responsibility.

Then we could see whether we believe in your analysis. But at this point, it's nothing more than vague platitudes.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

just from the point of chaos and complexity theory, the math says there would be no rich without the poor.
Hence we are interconnected and yes everyone owes each other for their good or bad fortune.
Give and take, but not survival of the greediest, the most rapacious.

You cannot transact moneies and grow wealth in a closed system or a vacuum. This is the greatest failure of Freidman the Highlander who ultimately says There Can Be Only One.

Further, for me, your view discounts the effects of the biggest bunch of predatory Capitalist on the planet right now: Communist China.
Even the Mafia finally realized you gotta make money, you can't just steal it all the time.

Eric said...

As the history of the earth since the industrial revolution shows, this is not a zero sum game.

That is why I want some serious economic analysis, analysis that includes the role of innovation of all kinds.

Beyond economic analysis, I would like an energy analysis. An energy analysis would include the available energy of the planet and optimal ways to use it. I, as a chemist, start with mass and energy. If a proposed solution for economic inequity involves more energy than there is or is the same as giving the developed world to China for free, I reject the solution.

So, I want coherent numbers not slogans whose numbers do not add up.

Josh said...

Perhaps Pigou, with some revenue allocation to alleviate the disproportionate burden on the poor (bad macro. policy, otherwise) could most effectively address this issue? I'm talking about pricing in externalities, externalities being those ethereal beings that richer countries have been hiding behind for... well, forever, I suppose.

David, I'm all with you on this. Sometimes, there are ex-economic considerations that have to be made, and property and autonomy are two of them.

Eric Perramond said...

Good thoughts by everyone, but I won't debate the merits of a strict "economic" solution to these problems, since no single field or perspective is "RIGHT" in trying to balance a solution on climate "rights." For those who seek understanding and wisdom, I'd refer you to Steve Vanderheiden's interesting work on climate justice (and ethics). You can find that work at:

He's a CU-Boulder, Poli Sci.
It's just another perspective on this issue. Economics won't save us all; all of us have to share our expertise, and partial knowledges to contribute to any kind of meaningful change.
Cheers. EPP

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Give me a break Eric, Jeez.
Go smear your hard tech word salad onto someone else.
I thought I could be quick with you. You do know of Milton Friedman? If you can't think out of your box you will damn sure get buried in it.
Do the math with the numbers you already have.
"Innovation of all kinds" is a pretty big spread of misnomer and discounts cultural contribution.
You as a chemist should understand the interconnected nature of complex systems.
The inherent process of ephemeraliztion in technology proves that you can do more with less as the costs of innovation decrease exponentially.
Malthus was wrong, get over it.

Eric said...

@ Editilla,

No word salad here. Just careful use of words with real meaning. If it is not important to you to know the meanings of the words, then you make my point very well the about lack of quantitative arguments on this topic. Thanks.

Also ad hominem attacks have no effect on me. Keep them up if it doing so releases some stress in you. I will ignore them.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Eric, the word is "qualitative" argument. You may have quantity out the grand wazoo but the quality of your point are lost. Suck it up.
It isn't always about the numbers or who thinks they have the hardest ass.

I didn't attack you ad hominem, fool. Look it up.

"The poor were poor long before Europe was rich."
That statement is Factually and Historically false, yet riddled with Bourgeois Naivete in its unfounded bias of the former by the latter.

"As the history of the earth since the industrial revolution shows, this is not a zero sum game."
Wrong, or we would not have moved into the form of Regulated Raparian Water Rights east of the Mississippi, and thus only to the near Opposite of that view West of the Mississippi.

The Advance of the Industrial age Dictated a Zero Sum Game as illustrated in the fall and reorganization of the various Industrial monopolies since then.

Again, you can't make money in a closed system. At least I have never been able to, without outside competition. All Rich and no Poor makes Editilla a dull boy!

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Ok, I hope y'all will allow me to tone this down and apologize to Eric before this gets outta hand.
I'm not here to piss on Eric's leg and tell him it was Katrina.
But the Fact is it wasn't Katrina it was Engineering Failure by the Corps of Engineers. If you don't think that is the Biggest Gorilla sitting on CA's budget then y'all should think again.
Please see the Study I cited in my first comment as to the fact that over 100,000,000 other Americans live in counties with Levees in them. This has become paramount to the National Flood Insurance Program and it has nothing to do with Rich and Poor with Corps Levee Certifications.
If the Engineering is Wrong (as in New Orleans) then all your Economics will be wrong and you can forget about who will owe who. Everyone will pay much more.

So Eric, I apologize for a bit of an edge here, but CA is getting ready to do one of the largest new levee systems in the country, and that little Budget Movement passed through Sacramento without even the slightest honk or belch from that Clown Car they call a Legislature.

The Study cited above is brand new, currently getting vetted and spread from Homeland Security to the ASCE and the Insurance Journal of America.
David and Aguanomics was one of the first people I thought of when it came out. Please take your time with it, and if you have any questions please contact levees.org (the Director, Sandy Rosenthal) the group in New Orleans who commissioned this Study.
I confess to a bit of heebeegeebees when it comes to "Economist". But I come here to get the word on that stuff and not give it.

And finally, Eric, I have chemists in my close immediate family, and also engineers, history professors, cotton planters and whatnots soooo... let's just not go there, eh?

So I hope y'all check this out since the study is right down your alley. I'll sit back and see what I really hope you can do with it. But, be nice... or Editilla gonna'git'ya!

Thanks Dave

Tim in Albion said...

@DZ - In the linked post, you said: "The causal measurement of "gaps" requires structural econometric models, which are basically impossible to construct for such complex phenomena. With the alternative (reduced form models), we can measure correlations (but NOT causation). All we are left with, then, is theory..." Doesn't this mean it's functionally impossible to quantify the reparations, even assuming consensus on AGW?

Ethics become very tricky in such complex systems, where cause-and-effect is often difficult to discern. What's the ethical distinction between rebuilding Trent Lott's house, and rebuilding the Lower Ninth? Between residential developments on Gulf Coast beaches, and The Maldives?

Josh said...

Tim in Albion, you make an interesting point. I do see some ethical distinctions between Mr. Lott's house and the Lower Ninth Ward, from a number of ethical philosophies. On the a priori side, there are some pretty well established religious ethics that would burden Mr. Lott in helping to rebuild housing for folks from the Lower Ninth Ward while also just building his own. There are also some libertarian concerns about property and past transgressions that have been used by some. There is the Rawlsian approach of the "original position", and also Kant's Categorical Imperative that both suggest that both groups should help out, Mr. Lott with money, and the folks from the Ninth Ward with what they would be able to help with. Marxist ethic also would require that (although we would have to draw lots (hee, hee) on who would get to live in Mr. Lott's house).

On the consequentialist side (where much of economic thought finds itself, libertarians notwithstanding), there are arguments for considering the relative MU of dollars and their subsequent macro- impact that would suggest Mr. Lott foot a higher percentage of the bill for the Lower Ninth Ward. Utilitarianism also would suggest that.

None of these, however, address where these houses (Mr. Lott's or the Ninth Ward's) would be built.

I cheated, I know. Is that unethical of me?

Tim in Albion said...

Josh, thanks for the substantive reply (it cancels out the cheating). Of course the question of where to (re) build is key, especially for the Maldives. Hard choices are coming, but so far everyone wants to ignore that. We're wasting a lot of time and money arguing about who's at fault and how to rebuild places that are doomed in the long run.

Eric said...

I agree about wasting time. It seems to be what governments do, for reasons that each of us has laid out a number of times in this blog.

How might you get say 50 members of the US's house of representatives to stop ignoring and start working, especially in the face of midterm elections?


Eric said...

"structural econometric models, which are basically impossible to construct for such complex phenomena."

I don't buy this statement.
Many other fields have been constructing and using complex models for decades. Even the simplest of these models are better than having no model. Economics models may be hard to build but they do not appear to be harder to build than gene regulation models or quark quark interaction models. Both of these models use lots of computer time, have very complex interactions, and are much better than no model.

In response, I would like a mathematically and computationally detailed answer or good references about such an answer.


Eric said...


Some insights on climate science and how to communicate it effectively.

David Zetland said...

Lots of comments here. Here are a few replies...

@Eric 1 -- totally disagree. Much "rich" wealth came from the poor.

@Kevin -- do you disagree that the environment is harmed? Need to quantify that? Do you disagree that it belongs to all of us? Need to apportion that? Best way to do it is per capita. Those who used less are owed.

@Josh -- right.

@Editilla -- I think we agree, but I don't always understand your words ;)

@Tim in Albion -- quantification -- EXACT quantification -- is impossible, but general principles are possible.

@Eric 07:16 -- humans are not math, so the models may not only be inaccurate quantitatively, but also qualitatively...

Eric said...

'Much rich wealth came from the poor.'

What does this statement mean? If rich countries had not invented and had a use for vanadium steel, then the deposits of vanadium in poor countries have no value. Without the invention of internal combustion Otto cycle engines in Germany and the high volume production of cars in Europe, the US, and Japan, the oil under the Arabian peninsula has no value. The examples seem to me like simple supply and demand. If there is no demand, then it does not matter what the supply might be.

'Humans are not math.'

What does this statement mean? It comes across as a world view not a statement with sold support. Slightly more than a century ago, people were certain than man could not fly. Then man did.

I am not saying that 'humans are math.' I am only saying that using mathematics to predict human economic behavior can give better results than not using mathematics. For instance, mathematics says that as the price of water increases humans will try to use less of it. Mathematics may not be able to say, for each person, how much less they will use day to day; but it can make a stable framework for predicting the usage of lots of people over a year.

Josh said...

Eric, the rich/poor country relationships are sometimes complicated, as you point out, but sometimes they aren't, too.

A country's deposits of something valuable, say ore or oil or food, do not have a relationship to their standard of living, their level of development, or even of their ability to leave the 3rd World. The largest oil deposits on Earth, for example, in Saudi Arabia. However, the typical Saudi now earns less than 1/3rd of what they earned in 1980. Other countries with huge deposits haven't budged: Mexico, Venezuela.

Kazakhstan is a huge supplier of vanadium, yet they remain very poor.

The relationship of extractive industries (including manufacturing now) with comparative advantage in markets where consumption is completely and totally removed from the production process (labor) leads to unsustainable pressures. For example, look at what happened to Lesotho when China's textile restrictions were lifted. Comparative advantage in labor price is a problem when we have "free" trade with dictatorships, and closed borders. The maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexican border offer another example.

Just because a rich country has created value for an item that a poor country has, doesn't mean the rich country's wealth will trickle down to the poor country. At least as often, the poor country stays poor, plus it has to deal with the environmental and social damage caused by the rich country's company activities.

Eric said...


Thanks. I agree entirely.

My point was to bring some of these complexities into the discussion.

Here in Northern New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory has brought in billions of dollars a year yet the surrounding counties are the poorest in the nation.

There are reasons for this, but the reasons are far to long for a blog comment.

Tim in Albion said...

To clarify - the "basically impossible" statement was DZ's, not mine. I simply assert that if he's right, then it's also basically impossible to apportion reparations in a way that all parties will agree is fair.

@Eric - how to get members of the HR to do honest work on the problem? I don't think it's possible in our society. Congresscritters have two overriding concerns: First and foremost, get re-elected. Second, vote your party. Neither of those motivates them to work honestly on solutions that inconvenience small numbers of influential people, or large numbers of voters. And in the larger view, our society is so ill-informed and easily distracted, I have little hope for bottom-up reform.

Eric said...

Isn't the solution implicit in your answer?
Target small groups of influential people or give compelling messages to large groups of people so that the congress people do not get re-elected if they do not pay attention.

I am hoping that commenters here will be a central part of this solution.

Tim in Albion said...

@Eric (what the heck is the @ for, anyway?) - Target them with what? If you tell them (either group) the truth, they will not support you. It's hard to even blame politicians for their shameless pandering, since that is what we reward them for (incentives again!).

If the truth involves any kind of sacrifice, it will not be heard by those who would have to do the sacrificing. (Not a majority of them, anyway - DZ's 80/20 rule probably applies.)

What incentive could be offered that might induce a Rep to undertake such labor? Who would offer it?

Eric said...

The @ comes from David and Twitter.

It seems to be a way to say that the comment is addressed not to the blog owner but to another commenter.

If a company or 527 organization or bundler raises a significant amount of a candidate's campaign funds and threatens to give these funds to the opponent, thus causing the candidate to lose the election, then the candidate might listen.

If an organization comes up with a credible message to the voters that would cause a candidate to lose, then the candidate should probably listen to the message and not be like Coakley.

Either of these strategies could get the focus of an election shifted to critical issues.

Political strategists attempt to use both methods.

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