Donald A. Brown, American Heat
Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield 2002
A number of economists have recommended that greenhouse gas allocations among nations be set to maximize global utility or efficiency. The idea is that the allocation scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be chosen that maximizes global GDP or some other measure of global economic activity.
It would make no difference under such proposals if the U.S. economy would prosper more than other nations that might shoulder more of the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, provided that total global economic activity is maximized in the chosen option compared to alternative allocation schemes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The ethical basic for such proposals is, as discussed in chapter 3, the utilitarian notion that public policy decisions should choose the option that maximizes happiness or utility as measured by market preferences.
Such utilitarian prescriptions are often indifferent to how burdens are distributed. That is, according to some often-follows economic theories, distribution inequalities assigning burdens to implement public policy can be ignored, provided that aggregate utility is maximized. If such an approach were followed in determining national allocations for greenhouse gas emissions, it could lead to the result that some people would have vastly different rights than others to use the atmosphere as a sink. In other words, such approaches often ignore distributional equity.
Not all economists, of course, argue that distributional inequities should be ignored. Some economists actually urge that compensation should be provided to those who are harmed by public policy decisions that seek to achieve international welfare maximization or that such decisions should avoid disproportionate harm altogether. Yet many narrow welfare maximization schemes ignore distributional effects. Because distributional equity is ignored in these schemes, proposals to define equitable criteria on the basis of welfare maximization without compensation to losers must be rejected out of hand as fundamentally inconsistent with the idea of equitable and just distributions.
Although some economists and others argue that public policy options be chosen that maximize utility without regard to distributional effects, it is disingenuous of proponents of this approach to argue that his approach is “equitable” for so long as distributional equity is ignored. Equity and justice demand that policymakers examine whether those who are harmed by public policy decisions are being treated fairly. If these questions are ignored in the prescriptions recommended by some, they cannot claim that their prescriptions are equitable.
In addition to the ethical concern with the use of welfare maximization strategies to assign national greenhouse gas emission rights, there are large practical problems with such approaches in an international setting that are not present in domestic policymaking.
Any nation could choose to follow welfare maximization strategies domestically because sovereign governments have the ability to choose such strategies on behalf of their citizens. Yet if some nations are asked to shoulder proportionally larger burdens of protecting the atmosphere than other nations, it is highly unlikely that they would agree to a strategy that would make them poorer while others gained simply on the basis that total aggregate global welfare would be increased.
This is particularly the case where some nations have been benefiting from irresponsible energy use. In an international system, nations are likely to prefer options that are viewed as just over those that maximize global utility. For this reason, narrow welfare maximization strategies are not only inconsistent with theories of equity but are also less likely to achieve widespread international support.
Particularly the poorest countries that do not receive the benefits of high levels of global economic activity will likely strongly oppose proposed allocations that ask them to bear disproportionate burdens.