Letters to the Editor

GLOBAL WARMING AND ETHICAL ISSUES


There is much to celebrate and a mite to mourn in PERC's dialogue on whether the victims of global warming are, by free market principles, entitled to compensation (March 2005). That the dialogue took place is the big celebration - a sign that the right is emerging from its long vegetative state on the ethical and policy issues involved in global warming. Congratulations to Jonathan Adler for forcing his colleagues to confront the reality that consumers of fossil fuels do not own the global climate system and have no established right to impose the costs of climatic change on others without compensation or permission. (On other issues, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has distinguished itself for its rigor in separating issues of net total welfare from individual rights and questions of compensation, but applying this to global warming is a big step forward.)

A second bracing and positive feature is that everyone in the dialogue
admitted that there are substantial practical difficulties with using common
law mechanisms to achieve compensation, even if compensation is normatively called for. No one hid behind Nobel laureate Ronald Coase by pretending that we live in a world without such transaction costs.

What was sad was that Adler's question was too often confined to a debate about damage to property. The even more compelling reality is that in many cases life is lost. While there are many countries where property rights are indeed poorly recognized, it is hard to construct an ethical basis for saying that consumers of fossil fuels are therefore licensed to kill these people.

Surely all theories of free markets rest on self-ownership. Assault on one's person is an even more egregious violation of freedom than assault on one's property. So the churlishness of some of the comments, implying that the poor are somehow free riders, was grating. Nevertheless, it's a good thing for everyone that this dialogue has begun.

Carl Pope
Executive Director, Sierra Club
San Francisco, California

JONATHAN ADLER REPLIES:

Carl Pope and I agree that there are fundamental normative questions at
issue, but we certainly differ on the stakes and the proper policy solution.

Even climate change that is largely benign in temperate regions could
have - indeed would be likely to have - negative impacts on developing nations. But I think it is an exaggeration to say that the real issue is loss of life. Most of the effects in tropical regions will not kill people, at least not directly. The various energy suppression policies favored in some parts of the environmental community pose a greater threat to the health and well-being of people in the developing world than does climate change.

If the goal is to save lives in developing countries, direct investments addressing causes of mortality in these countries - disease, unsafe drinking water, lack of sanitation, lack of infrastructure, etc. - would do far more than a dozen Kyotos. Yet the likes of Bjørn Lomborg get pilloried when they suggest as much. What I am suggesting is that there may be a normative case for such investments - that industrialized nations may actually have an obligation to fund such projects as a form of compensation for violating property rights - even if there is no practical way to make sure that such compensation is paid (or that it accomplishes its goal). Perhaps the Clean Development Mechanism (a Kyoto Protocol provision that encourages efficient investment in return for credits against carbon emissions) is a step in this direction, but I am skeptical that any international institution - existing or proposed - is capable of fulfilling this role. As I see it now, I do not believe that such concerns justify Kyoto-type treaties.

Editor's note: For additional comments on Pope's letter see
The Commons Blog (www.commonsblog.org), with postings by
Indur Goklany, Thomas Tanton, and Richard Fulmer.

AN SUV IS NOT A MINI-VAN

Professor Benjamin relies on Michelle White's analysis to
support arguments regarding light trucks' safety. This raises two issues.

First, Benjamin (and White) fail to note the difference
between SUVs and other light trucks. White first presented her
analysis in the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
working paper The ‘Arms Race' on American Roads: The Effect
of Heavy Vehicles on Traffic Safety and the Failure of Liability
Rules. As Cato's Jerry Taylor (2003) noted regarding White's NBER paper,

The analysis found SUVs were saving a net of between
1,023 and 1,225 lives every single year. Moreover, the study found no statistically significant evidence that you are more likely to die if your passenger car got into a collision with an SUV than if your passenger car got into a collision with another passenger car. Interestingly enough, Professor White found that light trucks as a class were responsible for an unnecessary 2,260 deaths on the road every single year. Apparently, it's the pickups and minivans - not the SUVs - that are the problem.

Second, Benjamin notes that because light truck operators
drive more aggressively . . . light trucks are actually more deadly
for their occupants than are cars. The problem is the driver, not
the vehicle. Rather than deny safe drivers the enhanced safety of
a light truck, we should hold each driver responsible for his or
her actions. Benjamin's proposal to eliminate the CAFE standard
(which I applaud) would increase the likelihood that many passenger
cars would be heavier and safer, but might also increase
the speed at which people are comfortable driving those cars.
Drivers should have the right to choose a heavier vehicle and
should be punished if they abuse the right.

Grant W. Schaumburg Jr.
Boston, Massachusetts

DANIEL BENJAMIN REPLIES:

All of my Tangents columns are based on published papers,
which have been through the complete peer review process, something
not true of working papers. In her published paper, White does not distinguish between SUVs and other light trucks.

Still, your note made me curious, so I have taken a quick look at White's NBER working paper. She does note differences between SUVs and other light trucks. SUVs are not as lethal as other light trucks - but SUVs are still more lethal than cars.

As to your second point, people who intend to drive aggressively surely select vehicles that reduce the costs to them of such behavior. One way is to buy a light truck or large car, relying on the mass of the vehicle to protect one in case of an accident. Another is to buy a vehicle (such as a high performance sports car) that is unlikely to get into a crash when driven aggressively.

So while it is sometimes (perhaps most of the time) true that the problem is the driver, not the vehicle (as you put it), the vehicle must surely play a role. White's results make it abundantly clear that the hazard to other people is greater when the aggressive driver is pushing 6,000 pounds down the road than when he is pushing 2,400 pounds down the road.

Still, we would both agree that whatever they are driving, drivers
should bear the full consequences of their actions and - should
they do so - presumably be free to drive any vehicle they want.


Jane Shaw, a senior fellow at PERC and editor of PERC Reports, welcomes vigorous debate about controversial environmental topics. Send your letters to her at: PERC Reports, 2048 Analysis Dr., Suite A, Bozeman, MT 59718 or shaw@perc.org.

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