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Climate Change: No Harm, No Claim

All countries have engaged in greenhouse-gas generating activities

Indur Goklany
June 12, 2008

Typically, calls that industrialized countries pay poor, developing nations for harms allegedly caused by human-induced or anthropogenic global warming come from UN climatocrats or Third World activists eager to redistribute global wealth. But does Free Market Environmentalism, given its core commitment to property rights, offer grounds for such compensation?

Based on what is known today, the answer is "no." Not only is there no proven harm that can be specifically attributed to the warming, but, more importantly, even if there were such harm, a proper respect for property rights might preclude compensation. This is especially the case since these harms are an indirect effect of essential, life-sustaining activities that had until recently been regarded as perfectly safe. What's more, given that the task of assessing net harms for which the U.S. and other industrialized countries could be held liable is so analytically complex, it is hard to imagine any exercise to nail them would yield a satisfactory answer.

Let's take each of these points one by one.

There is no shortage of claims concerning the harms caused by human-induced warming. It is feared that it will reduce agricultural yields exacerbating hunger; spread vector-borne diseases; increase the intensities and frequency of extreme weather events; and raise sea levels - inundating coastal areas. But in fact agricultural yields have been increasing because of higher carbon-dioxide concentrations and fertilizer usage - which, in turn, will contribute to future emissions. The death toll from climate-sensitive diseases and extreme weather events has shrunk dramatically in the past century, thanks to our growing wealth and its handmaidens -- better human capital and technology -- that allow us to evacuate people, provide relief and build sturdier homes. Yet all of these things are also contributors to global warming.

Rising sea levels offer the most compelling claim for compensation - but the science is highly uncertain on this issue. Since the last ice age 18,000 years ago, sea levels have risen by an average rate of 2 feet per century - with one spurt of 12 feet per century. The observed sea level rise currently is 4-8 inches per century - well within the natural variability. Furthermore, contrary to predictions, peer reviewed studies published since the latest (4th) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's assessment have found no signs that sea levels are rising at an accelerated pace. But even if it could be demonstrated that human-induced warming has caused harm, it wouldn't necessarily follow that compensation by the West is due.

The 1611 common law English case called Aldred is sometimes cited to argue that if my activity diminishes my neighbor's ability to use and enjoy his land, then my conduct is actionable. In that case, William Aldred sued his neighbor, a pigherder, for nuisance, arguing that the pigs' foul odors diminished the use and enjoyment of his land. The neighbor's response - that he was serving the public, providing food and prosperity for the community, and that Aldred should be less sensitive to odors - didn't persuade the court.

But the Aldred case is inapposite. It may well have been decided differently had Aldred also been a pigherder. Had he one pig and his neighbor ten, despite the latter bearing greater responsibility for any stink, Aldred would not have been entitled to any compensation. That the neighbor owned more pigs would have merely reflected his greater success in a common quest: pig-herding.

By the same token, Bangladesh is not a good candidate for restitution by the West, even if, as many contend, it will bear the brunt of global warming. It might not have contributed to climate change in a big way, but it hardly has "clean hands," so to speak. It too has removed wetland and mangrove barriers; drilled for water, oil and gas; and engaged in myriad activities to meet its needs for food and energy - all of which have contributed to global warming. If it doesn't generate as many emissions as the West, it is because it remains economically less developed because of poor institutions, historical accident, luck or whatever - not for want of trying.

Indeed, to the extent that greenhouse gas emissions are the effluvia of humanity's common quest for survival and well being, every country owns a metaphorical pig. All countries have engaged in greenhouse-gas generating activities including: land clearing for food and habitation; animal husbandry; tilling and fertilizing soil; trade; and tourism, to name just a few. Asking US and other industrialized countries that emit more to compensate countries that emit less would penalize success - not the offending activity.

But even if one could use common law to make a case for compensation, it wouldn't necessarily follow that there is a normative case. Indeed, people cannot be reasonably held liable for future negative consequences of actions that were regarded as perfectly safe when undertaken. If greenhouse gas emitters acted irresponsibly or carelessly then there would be a moral case to ask them for compensation. But there was no way they could have reasonably foreseen that their actions would produce global climate change, much less damage property in distant lands.

However, should emissions subsequent to this realization be actionable?

Arguably, such realization did not set in until the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Increases in global warming due to emissions prior to 1997 or thereabouts would therefore have to be grandfathered. Moreover, the IPCC tells us that even if emissions are frozen at current levels, the average global temperature will keep rising at least for a couple of decades. But given that there has been little additional warming since 1997, there is no harm yet that is actionable.

If warming resumes, then should emissions become actionable? Not without solid proof of harm. Reasonable likelihood that someone's green house-gas- emitting activity might infringe on another's property rights is not enough. That's because this would run the risk of depriving large emitters of the use of their property. Such a precautionary approach can't help but run afoul of its own precautionary goal: avoiding reasonable likelihood of property rights violations. It would boil down to letting the "harmed" party's rights trump the larger emitter's rights without sufficient proof - hardly a victory for a normative understanding of property rights.

However, if there were sufficient evidence showing beyond any reasonable doubt that: emissions degrade the climate; have damaged or could damage property; and that the damaged parties themselves have clean hands, then how should compensation be estimated?

To estimate, say, what the US owes Bangladesh, we would need models sophisticated enough to separate damages caused by anthropogenic climate warming from natural warming. But that's just the beginning. These models should also be capable of separating America's contributions to Bangladesh's damages from every other country's contributions, including Bangladesh's own. Indeed, if the US has a precautionary duty after 1997 to cut back emissions to avoid harming any development in coastal Bangladesh, then doesn't Bangladesh have a reciprocal precautionary duty to restrict its own coastal development after that time - and remove its people and assets that are at risk?

Furthermore, the amount of compensation due from the US can only be based on its contributions to net damages. This means that one would have to subtract the direct and indirect benefits to Bangladesh from the warming.

Greenhouse gas-producing activities in the US (and other industrialized countries) have created technologies to: raise food production and alleviate hunger; treat diseases such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; and cope with droughts, floods and other natural disasters. Such activities have also lead to the discovery and harnessing of electricity and helped develop cell phones, internet and the personal computer, all technologies that every country in the world benefits from. The wealth they have generated, moreover, has allowed Bangladesh to benefit from trade, tourism and remittances from abroad. It has also allowed the US to offer aid to Bangladesh in times of famine and other disasters.

Had it not been for these activities, what would Bangladesh's level of human well-being be? Its life expectancy has gone up from 35 years in the 1940s to 61 now. Its hunger and malnutrition rates would undoubtedly be far higher as agricultural yields would be lower. It would be hard to even list all the ways in which Bangladesh has benefited.

Some might argue that the US can't subtract the benefits from the harms when estimating compensation because Bangladesh did not acquiesce to being harmed. But benefits are nothing but negative harms. Ignoring one but not the other would be as suspect as a company balance sheet identifying its credits but ignoring its debits. Who knows, in accounting for both benefits and damages, Bangladesh would not end up owing the United States!

If only some countries had contributed to global warming and benefited from causing it while others had neither contributed nor benefited from it, there might have been an argument for compensation from one to the other. But that's far from the case. That every country is both a contributor and a beneficiary not only makes it infinitely more difficult to calculate who owes whom how much, it also vitiates anyone's moral standing for compensation - a normative commitment to property rights notwithstanding.

Indur M. Goklany is the author of the book The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (Cato Institute, 2007).



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