Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Carbon Emissions Moral Dilemma

Will Wilkerson faces a moral quandary:
If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so that’s morally bad. If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly that’s also morally bad. Which is the morally correct thing to do?
Tyler Cowen posts an interesting response:
Don't argue the facts of carbon emissions (you can choose another scenario if you wish), focus on the moral dilemma. Will says fly, the plane is going anyway. That makes my brain hurt with game theory and the probability of threshold effects and triggers. (Isn't there some chance that your patronage, eventually, sets another flight in motion, if only stochastically?) Under an alternative approach, say you are allowed some quota of carbon emissions; otherwise suicide or residence in Iceland as a pedestrian would be required.

Your net carbon impact depends far more on the number of children you will have than any other variable; remember good environmentalism uses a zero rate of discount. So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all. Is that so far from the reality we observe?

Hmm. If you don't procreate, you get to emit more (because you're long run impact on the total amount of carbon diminishes -- and, maybe, I am not sure, because you don't care as much about future generations). That's certainly one way to approach sustainability discussions.

While we're at it, Cowen also points to a New Yorker piece on our carbon footprint.

This sounds like a ploy by a bachelor to rid his airplanes he flies on of loud, ill-mannered children.
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