This article was an assignment for the Justice and Globalization class at Phillips Academy in the Spring Term of 2014.

As Peter Singer says in the opening of the chapter “One Atmosphere” in his book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, the immediate and long-term global problems caused by human impact on the atmosphere may well be the most pressing example of the necessity for humanity to work, in turn, towards global solutions. Simon Caney, in a paper published in the Leiden Journal of International Law, laid out a set of fundamental human rights (based on the theory proposed by Joseph Raz) and explained how, if the scientific findings and forecasts of the The Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are to be believed, climate change left unchecked would likely violate all of them.

Caney proposes that:

“Persons have fundamental interests in not suffering from:
  • drought and crop failure;
  • heatstroke;
  • infectious diseases (such as malaria, cholera, and dengue);
  • flooding and the destruction of homes and infrastructure;
  • enforced relocation; and
  • rapid, unpredictable, and dramatic changes to their natural, social, and economic world.”

Singer, who also based much of his theory upon evidence gathered by the IPCC’s reports, agrees that the effects of climate change will be devastating, and that we need to find a suitable theory of ethics to deal with this problem. He lays out several different theories of equitable distribution, and explains the arguments for and against each. Our value system (or at least, the one we had before the long-term effects of our environmental impact became known, which was also when the process of industrialization put those impacts into motion) came to be, Singer says, in circumstances such that the atmosphere and other natural resources seemed unlimited. He refers to the justification of private property in the Second Treatise on Civil Government, penned in 1690 by John Locke. In it, Locke claims that all of the Earth’s natural resources belong to humans in common, but by mixing our own labor with that public resource we can make our own private property. At least, Locke says, so long as taking those natural resources leaves “enough and as good” resources available in common for others. Singer then analogizes the atmosphere to a global sink into which our wasteful emissions are poured. If those harmful gases simply vanished into the sink without negative consequences, Singer says, then anyone would be able to dump as little or as much waste into it as they wanted without violating Locke’s principle.

However, because our atmosphere is not limitless, there must be some global distribution of pollution rates so that there is “enough and as good” for all. Singer claims that the global rich use far more of the atmosphere’s pollution capacity than the poor, without providing any real benefit to the poor in return. He concludes that, using a historical principle, the developed nations “broke” the atmosphere and thus should be proportionally responsible for its repair. Singer adds that, because most of the atmosphere’s pollution was caused by people in the past who were unaware of its limits, a time-slice principle making a fresh start could be considered a fairer approach. Singer continues by saying that every individual deserves an equal share of the atmosphere’s capacity for pollution. Carbon emissions could be stabilized at their current rates, he says, if the atmospheric sink were divided among each country, based on their expected population at a certain date. That way, countries are motivated to decrease population rates and therefore prevent the diminishing of each person’s quota to compensate for new populations.

Singer uses John Rawls’s argument of fairness, which states that we should aim to improve the conditions of those who are the worst-off. Singer points out that adjusting emission quotas based on their Gross Domestic Product allows countries like the United States to continue producing dangerous levels of pollution even though their economic activity mostly benefits only Americans, and as such, that kind of quota would be flawed. In short, he argues that the significant margin of wealth between rich and poor countries in the world means that the goal of improving the livelihood of the worst-off would still require the wealthier nations to pay for virtually all of the costs that aim demands. As a utilitarian, however, Singer disagrees with Rawls in the sense that increasing the happiness of the worst-off should only be the rule if, in doing so, it also causes the greatest benefit for the world as a whole.

Ultimately, Singer puts his favor in a system of “equal per capita future entitlements to a share of the capacity of the atmospheric sink, tied to the current United Nations projection of population growth per country in 2050.” The linchpin to this plan is the mechanism of emissions trading: nations polluting under the required limit can sell the remainder of their quota to countries exceeding their limits. This not only gives under-producing countries a strong motivation to minimize their emissions, it also gives them a bargaining chip to leverage the resources of rich countries and improve their own conditions of living. In addition, emissions trading decreases the economic impact sudden emission limits would cause to highly-industrialized countries. The issues of corrupt dictatorships misusing the emissions-traded money in poor countries and the inability to persuade governments in the most powerful countries would be solved, Singer says, if the international community as a whole could hold countries accountable for the damages they cause to other countries, and if corrupt regimes were simply not recognized as official governments.

While Singer sees the “polluter pays” principle as a general rule to be a good motivator for rich countries to avoid increasing their emission rates, Caney points out a number of problems with its implementation. First, there are multiple definitions of “polluter” which differ dramatically in their allocation of blame. Caney observes that the standard unit to which blame is usually ascribed is of countries, but it is possible that individuals, economic corporations, or even international institutions are to blame for causing pollution, or allowing other categories to pollute. Additionally, Caney notes that the common allocation of responsibility to people who live in countries which have, historically, produced greenhouse gases, actually violates the “polluter pays” principle because most of the actual polluters are people who lived in the past (and, if they lived before 1990, were unaware of the damage their activity was causing to the environment) and not people today. Caney also disbands an alternative “beneficiary pays” principle, in which the people who simply benefit from the processes which cause pollution should pay for its consequences, by pointing out that if those processes did not occur, the course of history would have flowed differently and those beneficiaries would never have existed in the first place. In addition, Caney says that it is unfair towards impoverished countries which cause pollution but which are still poor and thus cannot sustain significant changes to their economies.

Caney criticizes the “polluter pays” principle not because it is inherently wrong, but because it only applies to living people who are aware of the damages they are causing and who are both able and willing to pay for those damages. The principle works if and only if all parties are informed of the consequences of their actions, are able to pay for them, and are unable to use their power to avoid contributing their share. That said, he uses the same foundational principle of Singer’s argument: that the atmosphere is a limited sink of which we all have the right to a certain amount, and that an entity which exceeds that quota ought to be held responsible for paying for the consequences.

The difference is that Caney specifies that, in order to account for all of the greenhouse gases emitted before 1990, the wealthiest and most powerful individuals of the world ought to pay for the rest because they can bear the additional burden most easily. Even though they are paying for the consequences of the actions of others, Caney says, his proposal is still fair because the most-advantaged people have an obligation to design institutions which minimize non-compliance to his proposal, and that the cost of simply not compensating for the rest of the greenhouse gas emissions would be unacceptably large, and would unfairly affect impoverished people.

The proposals made by Caney and Singer are as complex and intertwined as the issues of climate change themselves are. Because both the causes and effects of climate change comprise the connected issues of consumerism, poverty, sovereignty, and responsibility, and because they implicate tremendous short- and long-term consequences stretching into the past and future, and because our understanding of these issues is so tentative, summarizing all of it into a single, 20-minute narrative told to elementary schoolers would probably prove to be a daunting and dangerous task. I think that, while these issues are difficult for anyone (let alone schoolchildren) to understand, it is essential for everyone (including and especially schoolchildren) to think critically and carefully about them. As such, I do not criticize The Story of Stuff’s attempt to explain its argument in a simple way so as to be accessible to a young audience.

However, in my opinion one of the video’s primary weaknesses is its failure to present even one real, respectable alternative viewpoint, let alone encourage its audience to seek out more information and develop their own understanding of the topic. Presenting both Singer’s and Caney’s viewpoints would at least provide two proposals which are both, arguably, rational and well-thought-out arguments. I would propose that their arguments be presented, in as appropriately-simplified a manner as possible without distorting meaning or hiding important facts, as a multimedia presentation; having visual cues is a crucially valuable way for children to understand a complicated idea. However, instead of simply having a one-person lecture video, I propose presenting this information in an interactive website which allows students to explore the ideas and sources used in each argument in a deeper way.

For example, an explanation of the sink analogy used by Singer could be accompanied with a diagram of a sink. A student could click on that sink to simulate adding pollution to that sink, making it more and more full until it can’t hold any more. This would allow a child to understand, in a more tangible way, the zero-sum concept of the atmospheric sink. They could also click on John Locke’s name, for instance, and an illustration of his face with a brief explanation of his life and its significance would appear on the screen to give students more context if they need it, without boring students who don’t want it. This format, which gives children multiple arguments and teaches them how to find additional information if they do not understand a concept, allows them to build the critical thinking skills necessary for understanding these issues in a meaningful way while avoiding misinformation and over-simplification.

In my opinion, The Story of Stuff does a great job of visually breaking down an argument, and of using emotional words and body language to convey the importance of these issues. However, its greatest shortcoming is that its format does not allow further explanation or interaction, and its creators chose not present any meaningful discourse within it. Designing a lengthier lesson plan (anywhere from a day to several weeks) to explore the evidence and theories surrounding this issue, and creating a technological framework for students to do their own research as well as consider multiple viewpoints, would be significantly more rational and productive. Finally, after letting students think about all the things they’ve learned and the arguments they’ve heard, a teacher could ask his or her class to come up with their own ideas and discuss with each other what they think is important. If students are taught to acquire a deep understanding of evidence, listen carefully to alternate viewpoints, and then discuss with others to develop and explain their own proposals, then they would not only have a much deeper understanding of this particular issue but also be better-equipped to think critically about everything in the world around them.