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Economics Is Not the Enemy of Environmentalism Economics is perhaps the most misrepresented academic discipline in the interdisciplinary study of climate change (from the perspective of a philosophy student in particular). In addition, people invoke economics when making arguments that true economic literature directly contradicts. The most impactful lesson of this class was that not only is economics not the "enemy" in the work to fight climate change, environmental discrimination, and biodiversity loss etc., in fact it represents one of the most powerful analytic tools in figuring out the true costs of our decisions and the true value we ascribe to certain things. Prof. Casey joked over Zoom that economics tells you what everyone else already knows. For example, almost anyone with any knowledge of air and water pollution could tell you how it impacts the health of communities in Appalachia, but economics can, like no other discipline, attempt to actually quantify the problem, to tell us just how bad it really is. The same goes for full life cycle accounting of fossil fuels and how this changes our analysis of what is the most cost-effective option. Economics may be confirming something we might already know, but it takes that crucial next analytic step and has plethora of methods to tell us the actual quantitative data exemplifying the problem. Policy is not and cannot be informed without this crucial next step, particularly with topics in environmental policy. Overall, this class has given me a much stronger appreciation of the role of economics in the interdisciplinary fight against climate change, not only an appreciation, but at least a rudimentary understanding of the actual methods and tools that economics provides, and now I hope to integrate economic methods and data into my eventual philosophy thesis on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Toggle Commented Apr 21, 2020 on ECON 255 Final Exam at Jolly Green General
Work like this reminds us of a key question and an important maxim. The question is one I'm like a broken record on "What are we really concerned with?/What do we strive for?" and the maxim is (roughly): the Neo-classical understanding of humans as purely rational beings that utilize all available data in objective way to plan our actions and inform our decisions is simply not the case and treating it as such when working at the level of persuasion is to ignore reality. On the question of what we're concerned with, I maintain my position that we're concerned with promoting a flourishing life for all current and future generations understood in terms of some Capability based approach. If you're a monist about the mind, which you should be, then it's clear that our relations to the natural world are valuable in and of themselves, Nussbaum even incorporates this idea into her 10 Central Capabilities. We're not (or at least shouldn't be) directly concerned with wealth and production, these truly are means to ends, pluralistic ends that are irreducible to each other. Our mental relations to the natural world form an integral part of a flourishing life that cannot be satisfied by other goods, there's no commensurability here, no amount of wealth can satisfy this aspect of human flourishing. The beauty of this approach to understanding human wellbeing is that it can be spun in consequentialist, Kantian, anthropocentric, nonanthropocentric, and/or Aristotelian terms meaning one can find consistency with their other commitments. The approach ive given above is only an outline, a flexible outline that recognizes plurality of value and always upholds the importance of a green earth in wellbeing. On the maxim, this piece shows how we need an empirical understanding of how human minds make decisions and react to presentations of data when we're concerned with encouraging action. At the end of the day one can lament the ineffectiveness of presenting large swathes of data to try and encourage action, one can complain that people are voting and acting directly against their own interests, and they might be. But a better approach is interdisciplinary research into the mechanics of the human mind and the electro-chemical responses that certain modes of communication bring about. Building a strategy from this basic level that packages the relevant message in a casually powerful format is a far more pragmatic approach then simply trying to force a model onto reality when said model's utility lies elsewhere. For some relevant stuff I'd read Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen for an introduction to capability theory, Dale Jamieson for an outline of "green" virtues and their role in flourishing, and perhaps even some Rosalind Hursthouse for some more contemporary virtue ethics (as opposed to Aristotle whose work is a bit dated).
I read a piece covering the massive decreases seen in investigations, punishments, and enforcement against superfund sites for polluting primarily marginalized communities across the country. A question I found myself repeatedly asking was how could any president or high level cabinet official be so willing to blatantly harm communities to the tune of billions of dollars, countless lives, and negative health outcomes. Of all places, a potential came to me from our reading from the Kahn textbook chapter on forestry management, namely, that the current system where the length of land leases is so short that It encouragers short term thinking and over harvesting that doesn't actually maximize production in the long term. The key part being the apparent mismatch in time frame. In the case of enforcement of pollution regulations, a president or cabinet official is only in office for 8 years at the absolute most, usually less, yet the full costs of them allowing more unchecked pollution often aren't felt or even officially studied and mapped until a decade or so later. Officials seemingly have a perverse short-term incentive to allow behavior that is inefficient in the long run that allows serious costs to be placed disproportionately on marginalized groups. In many ways I'd love to see the EPA become a (somewhat) more independent arm of the government that functions with a level of independence closer to that of the Fed (probably not that much) so that their enforcement of existing law isn't as subject to the ever-changing whims of the executive. The EPA effectively enforcing infractions of environmental protection laws shouldnt be decided on a whim.
It's clear from the debate on the Green New Deal and other climate-related policy that one of the key points of contention is whether a policy based response to climate change should attempt to address social justice problems such as wealth inequality, marginalization of indigenous groups, and access to health care as well. Some, on both sides of the debate, argue that if we were to pursue climate legislation, we should separate the two for pragmatic considerations (combining both might guarantee that all of it fails), a view that "separate" issues should be handled separately, and perhaps the most persuasive, the argument that the timeframe of climate change necessities such immediate, effective action with massive cuts in this very decade to GHG emissions that trying to deal with the multitude of social justice problems at the same time will delay the time frame of the response which will yield exponentially higher costs due to specific nature of the problem. Although this last one is strong, and might even have at its core a serious tension between the two goals, I argue there is some degree of inseparability between the two and that effective response to climate change by definition will bring about better outcomes for people at the heart of these social justice considerations. I think this point is important as it allows one to craft and represent a climate change related piece of policy without adding unpopular sections directly targeting poverty that make passage of the overall legislation nigh on impossible. Improving air quality will disporportionately help marginalized groups, likewise, the readings from Monday show how a facially neutral policy can help the least-advantaged groups at a higher degree. How a piece of policy is presented to the world is incredibly important, a poor choice of words or too much rhetoric concerning a controversial point could be a political death sentence for a bill. Ignorance and Ideology are particularly strong here, and one must be careful in navigating this area as something as innocuous as a joke about farting cows can become fodder for commentators that parody the very bill and exploit this wording to undermine popular support for said bill. If anything, using somewhat politically neutral language (regarding social justice problems) to communicate a policy that actually works at those very problems might be a pragmatic solution to achieve both goals while still navigating the three Is.
Toggle Commented Apr 14, 2020 on ECON 255: The Green New Deal at Jolly Green General
Before I get into my main point, I'd like to preface that I do find it encouraging that there is potentially a point of agreement across the aisle concerning a potential general outline for an effective public policy concerning climate change. My concern deals with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) point in both of these articles that the atmosphere currently suffers from being overexploited as a public good, a tragedy of the commons-esque case that can be resolved by an understanding of ownership where we understand the right to access the atmosphere as a sink for GHGs as being divided equally on a per capital basis, at this point, at a very general level I can get behind this though I have significant concerns with some of the implications of an equal per capital split but theyre not relevant to my main argument: that even if we decide that everyone has an equal share of the atmosphere (speaking very generally here), it would be an unfounded logical jump to assume that the burdens of our polluting behavior are spread evenly. Roughly speaking, the MDF for individuals varies significantly depending on ones health, geographic location, wealth, etc. Therefore, even if everyone is getting the same checks and are subject to the same taxes, this still isn't necessarily equitable. Individuals whose demographic, personal, and geographical factors make them relatively unaffected by the effects of a changing climate is better off than an individual whose unique characteristics (which are often outside their control) predispose them to feel the effects to a higher degree. Impoverished residents of low-lying costal regions, indigenous peoples, those living in areas that are already dangerously hot during certain times of the year all face vastly different MDFs given certain amounts of emissions/degrees of warming. The effects of pollution and climate change are inherently intersectional and recognition of this fact is important if we consider equitable access to a safe, clean, and hospitable environment some kind of aspirational goal. Of course, it's not necessarily the burden of this specific policy to deal with this problem, perhaps funding from other sources could help alleviate this, however, I think it would be mistaken to think that this distribution scheme in isolation is just. Also, I can't say I was surprised to see Mankiw listed as a contributor to the conservative approach to carbon taxing, after using his book in Econ100 that totally checks out.
Toggle Commented Apr 13, 2020 on The Case(es) for a Carbon Tax at Jolly Green General
Environmental Justice Might Require more than Social Efficiency It's clear that this article presents a paradigm situation in which environmental justice concerns are relevant: you have environmental factors that produce harmful outcomes that weigh disproportionately on marginalized groups. The questions are how should we frame what a just response would look like? What considerations are relevant? What are we truly concerned with/ what do we value? I think an initial reaction to the EPA's move to relax enforcement of air quality regulations at this time would be to look at the MDF and MCA curves and determine what is the most socially efficient level of population and likely find that the EPA's move creates too much damage that could be avoided through cheaper abatement. This approach would likely yield a more efficient and ethical outcome. But due to our current understanding of damages and efficiency, this outcome certainly isn't guaranteed to be just. Damages and costs are measured in dollar amounts to make comparisons commensurable which is incredibly helpful in determining economic efficiency, but let's remember how damages might theoretically be calculated. Because damages are measured in dollars, its economical to pollute lower income areas over higher income areas as this will, on balance, decrease production less. Nuclear waste storage, nuclear plants, coal mining, petrochemical plants etc are built where they are with this consideration in mind. My point being, an economically efficient outcome might actually recommend that pollution be concentrated in poor/minority communities. Environmental justice requires more than this; when the state is determining questions relating to pollution and environemtnla hazards that negatively impact individuals capabilities, I argue that the state must take justice based and normative considerations into account. The scale to which the state should do so is an entirely different question and it's one I'd like to discuss further. But to say that the state has no obligation to consider these factors is entirely inconsistent with the principles and ideals that run throughout our nations laws and moral ideals. An intersectional understanding of vulnerability is a prerequisite to meaningful engagement with the subject matter. Overlapping systems and demographic factors combine and interrelate in determining outcomes and this is at the heart of nuanced understanding of justice-based and moral obligations towards individuals, especially when dealing with environmental concerns.
In Stern's article, he briefly discusses the problems of allocating the burden of abatement across countries with differing historic and current emission levels. He notes what I call the "fairness in development" argument which holds that less-developed nations (think Annex 2 countries) should. be allowed to develop in the same GHG emission heavy manner that Annex 1 nations did. Understandably, representatives of Annex 2 nations have found it hypocritical of Annex 1 nations to suggest that Annex 2 nations shouldn't pursue a similar approach to development that 1s did. However, this is implicitly holding that the only effective path to development involves the heavy use of energy sources that emit large amounts of GHGs. In fact, it seems that many of the readings we've done for this class give convincing reasons why this is certainly not the only path to development, and perhaps not even the "best". Full cost-accounting of coal and other fossil fuels suggests that it's economically prudent to actually pursue renewable energy, especially for powering our electric grids. Once externalities are internalized, clean energy heavy development could potentially be not only viable, but preferable. This brings me to a related point, what are we concerned with? We only value GDP derivatively, in that its valuable only insofar that it often appears to promote things that we actually value in and of themselves. I contend that discussions on the effects of effective response to climate change over focus on measures such as GDP which could potentially distort cost benefit analysis if we fail to recognize to non-equivalence between GDP and well-being. I personally subscribe to a version of the Capabilites based approach to measuring and comparing human flourishing. Sen famously held that we don't (and shouldn't) value income in and of itself, rather we should understand income as a means of increasing our well-being and agency freedom. With this understanding of welfare, the dollar costs of abatement could theoretically be offset by increases in what we really value: human capabilities. To put it bluntly, who really cares if GDP grows at a slower rate if citizens see noticeable increases in their capability to pursue well-being and agency goals that often have nothing to do with wealth, physical goods, or resources? I don't think many would. Even if you reject this understanding of welfare, it's always important to ask oneself "what is our actual goal?" or "what do we really value here?"
At the risk of being pessimistic, I'm concerned the presence of this crisis will be exploited by individuals and groups pushing for inaction on the climate front. COVID19 is a legitimate crisis, but im worried it'll become a smokescreen where faux concern for those affected by the virus will be used to push the climate agenda further down the list of priorities. I think the recent EPA decision to relax enforcement of pollution regulations could potentially be a harbinger of things to come.
Toggle Commented Apr 3, 2020 on ECON 255: Good News at Jolly Green General
A graph of the Marginal Damage Function along with a curve representing the Marginal cost of abating (units of air pollution) would aptly represent the situation the EPA was faced with in making this regulatory decision. Assuming for the sake of debate that the social distancing guidelines actually make it more difficult for certain industries to be in compliance with said regulations (and therefore if followed present a new cost) the question the EPA is faced with is really not does the cost exist, but how big is it, and on the margin, would allowing violations of this law so that we can avoid this new cost of abatement outweigh the new damage costs of the increased pollution. Before even beginning to make their decision, regulators at the EPA would be misled if they used a MDF that doesn't account for how a respiratory pandemic magnifies the marginal cost of an additional unit of pollution. If one were to account for this (the following is pure conjecture) it's likely the the costs of continuing to abate pollution at the current regulatory limits (even if they're actually higher now due to CDC guidelines and not just all rhetoric from companies trying to save money) are far outweighed by the negative externalities in the form of decreased health outcomes especially due to the presence of a severe respiratory pandemic. Assuming my conjecture is true, the EPA policy would be appear to be shortsighted at best, and deliberately sacrificing the health and lives of everyday citizens at worst. Neither possibility seems desirable and it's particularly shameful that it's the EPA itself making this move (acknowledging that there may have been pressure from the executive).
The German word for "environment" is "Umwelt" which is the conjunction of the preposition "um" which when referring to spatial dimensions roughly means "around" and "Welt" meaning world. Therefore, "Umwelt" has the sense of meaning "around world" which I believe roughly captures the intuitive meaning of the word "environment" when used in its broadest sense. The environment is the backdrop against which everything else occurs. In this understanding, the environment is causally inert, and neutral space. However, these three papers dispute this basic conceptual understanding of the environment and its relationship to human activity. Implicit in the three papers' observations is the point that are environment is non-constant, has causal power, and is anything but inert. The environment, which naturally air quality is a part of, effectuates meaningful change in the cognitive ability, life expectancy, health, and labor productivity of humans. What makes air pollution an especially powerful force is the fact that one's use of it isn't a matter of personal choice, it doesn't reflect a true option. One doesn't decide to breathe one day to breathe or not to, it's quite literally a fundamental, necessary condition of existence (I'll presume that existence is desirable axiomatically). Not breathing isn't a choice, and unless one is willing to move their entire life to another area, which is impossible or near impossible for many, then they have to suffer the consequences of an environment that both is shaped by human activity and shapes human activity. The intersectional impacts of pollution deserve extensive further research and discussion, as it's now clear that the environment is just like other determinants of outcome. We don't all live within the same environment, even within the same cities; pollution, average temperature, and other factors vary significantly even across relatively small geographic areas and is often correlated with certain demographic distributions of humans. Once we've recognized and calculated the often extremely localized effects of certain types of pollution, one of the next questions that must be asked is "who is this affecting?" The answer is rarely (if ever) "everyone equally."
Toggle Commented Mar 12, 2020 on 3 short papers for Friday at Jolly Green General
A point of clarification that is central to accounting for the full costs of the coal-use cycle is the use of discount rates for long term gradual impact scenarios. The utility of discount rates is only briefly mentioned in the Limitation section of the paper but I would've liked to see an explicit discussion on the topic especially in the climate impacts section. Considering climate change operates on a time frame of years to centuries, the discount rate chosen when calculating impacts over time becomes incredibly impactful. Minor changes to the value of the rate has serious effects on policy recommendations, especially when the time frame is measured often in decades. To see how powerful a change in this rate can be, one need look no further than the a comparison between Stern and Nordhaus's recommended rates. Although both scholars often recommend either a range of potential rates or a rate that changes over a certain time frame, it can be illustrative to run scenarios on present vs future value and only varying the rate. There's a general consensus (at least in the philosophical community) that the process of deriving a rate inherently involves taking serious normative positions on topics just as intergeneration justice, international justice, and theories of moral responsibility and fairness. Even when one makes an argument in purely economic terms in support of a certain rate, the argument carries hidden normative assumptions and positions. Ignoring this fact puts one at risk of recommending ethical dubious policy that might only replicate existing structures of exploitation and subordination. Just as present considerations of social cost must have a carefully considering normative framework, so should discussions on future social costs (when calculated in terms of present dollars). The often permanent or quasi-permanent nature of ecological change makes these decisions of central importance. For a discussion on the Stern-Nordhaus "debate", see Dale Jamieson's "Reason in a Dark Time" 2016
Toggle Commented Mar 5, 2020 on Discussion Paper for Friday at Jolly Green General
In the concluding paragraph, Casey and Schuhmann raise what I think to be the most interesting proposal (and call for further research). They note that studying the potential of tailored fees that correspond precisely to very specific areas or activities could be an excellent source for money for conservation initiatives. For example, instead of a blanket fee for a zone that has numerous potential activities related to the natural environment, if one could determine precisely the WTP for each specific activity, more nuanced and targeted fees would likely result in more fees collected, thereby making conservation efforts more effective in what could potentially even become a kind of virtuous loop. The applications to areas like coral reefs are perhaps the most obvious example, however, this same methodological approach wherein WTP is studied as not a measure where are variables are created equal but where the possibility that some are more important in determining WTP are recognized. This emphasis on the nuance of the study employed can be justified purely in economic terms, but this doesn't stop one from recognizing the potential normative gains that such studies could bring about.
In this piece, the unique qualities of natural objects were demonstrated to significantly complicate the question of valuation. The distinction between naturalness and artificiality, exhaustibility, and inter temporal valuation all are prominent dimensions of the question. Krutilla raises a point that features heavily in philosophical work on the environment, naturalness and artificiality. When it comes to how individuals and groups value natural landmarks for instance, it appears to be inescapable that the value placed on their existence and desirability is partially a function of their status as a natural object. A thought experiment can demonstrate this, imagine that humanity were to destroy all old-growth forests in the world, but then we develop the tech that allows us to grow trees of the exact same appearance and the same in every meaningful way overnight. Arguably, people still would value the natural version more. This demonstrates that part of the value of natural goods is intrinsic and a function of their naturalness and is not fully reducible to just its physical structure and appearance (Krutilla also argues for the existence of intrinsic value by noting individual's willingness to pay solely to allow some species to not go extinct). Therefore, the ability to recreate natural settings (which would actually be artifacts) does not allow one to capture this dimension of values. Thus, their is a higher value than one might think for natural landmarks for example. A related aspect to the above argument concerns exhaustibility, although for many types of production, scholars have argued its possible we have a near unlimited ability to produce (certain classes of goods that is, for a discussion on the exhaustibility of energy energy, see Harari 18). However, many environmental goods appear to be exhaustible by definition, which when combined with the next argument on the inter-temporal dimension of the question, can yield a distorted understanding of value. Option-value throws yet another wrench into the analysis as many people pay simply for the potentiality of a future preference to enjoy the good even if no current preference exists. This value is important when a good is exhaustible. Finally, the inter-temporal dimension complicates analysis as Krutilla notes that it's likely that there are social and economic mechanisms the make increased demand for environmental goods in the future higher. Even with discounting, this is still an important factor in determining value. Assuming demand to be constant for such goods would be extremely problematic.
An ironic point in the article for me was near the end of the article when Coase is leveling a set of arguments highlighting some difficulties in calculating the size of the externality as it relates to finding the correct level of taxation. It's decidedly ironic because this very argument applies to Coase's proposed "system" of dealing with externality. Why should he have privileged access to simple examples like cow costs 3, field of crops costs 10, then argue that if trying to level a tax on an externality you'll have an incredibly hard problem on your hands. It's not to say that it's easy to calculate damages in many cases, but it's a task that must occur regardless of one's preferred system of dealing with it. On a second, unrelated note, I think there are serious distributive and justice-based concerns with this approach. In many of his examples, even assuming that the result he describes would occur, does this really seem like a desirable outcome? It certainly appears that, especially in the absence of property rights, the world devolves into a system where you can basically destroy others property and make them pay you to stop but at least it's "efficient". Of course, following Sen we could ask the question "Efficiency of what?" Changing the focal variable changes the recommended course of action and that ideal arrangement. Finally, his arguments concerning the courts role it decided cases dealing with externalities seems to both advocate for some form of legal realism while also denying its existence as arguably the dominant paradigm, even at the time of his writing.
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Jan 16, 2020