The Confusing Morality Of Global Climate Change

By Conor Clarke

Over the weekend I did an interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, who has done a lot of pioneering work on game theory and collective bargaining, especially as it pertains to global conflict and nuclear arms control. I wanted to talk to Schelling because of another collective bargaining problem that's been on my mind: global climate change. As I wrote below, weighing the costs and benefits of climate change is both morally fraught and empirically uncertain. Or at least it confuses the heck out of me.

Will Wilkinson is not convinced that Schelling -- or any game theorist -- is in a position to help with my confusion. And maybe that's completely fair. Climate change questions aren't just math puzzles! So let me take a page from Conor F's playbook and list some of the reasons why I don't know how to make sense of global climate change. Here are seven (!):

1. Any solution to climate change must have a theory for what the present generation owes future generations. That's hard. How do we weigh the interests of people that don't yet exist?

2. Any global solution to climate change must take account the fact that the costs of warming will be borne unevenly around the world. Parts of the northwestern United States will actually benefit from a warmer climate. Bangladesh will not. But why should the U.S. care what happens in South Asia?

3. Any solution should account for the fact that the responsibility for global warming is also borne unevenly. The developing world will bear most of the costs, but the developed world bears most of the responsibility. (My understanding is that this will change at some point in the next 50 years.)

4. Related to #2, the world's ability to adapt to a changing climate is distributed unevenly. It would surprise no one to learn that wealthy nations will have an easier time adapting than poorer ones. So should we allow poorer nations to pursue the most rapid growth possible, before the consequences become dire? Or should we pursue a solution that achieves the maximum possible reduction in global emissions?

5. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen. To be sure: There is no (repeat, no) scientific uncertainty as to whether or not the climate is warming. It is. But the question is, By how much? And when? Will the temperature increase by two degrees Celsius over the next 100 years? Three degrees? Seven degrees? The differences matter.

6. Climate change has an incredibly long time horizon. Any small cost or small chance of a catastrophic outcome must to weighed across hundreds or thousands of years. There is also one-way ratchet here: It isn't clear everything we change about the climate can be reversed.

7. Global warming asks us to weigh economic factors -- growth, GDP -- against non-economic ones, like the diversity of species and the amount of arable land on the planet. I have absolutely no clue how to do that.

And this is all quite apart from how you would ever enforce any solution we arrived at. Or maybe that's just an eighth reason why I'm confused.