February 2012

Arts & Letters

Philosophic Emissions

By Peter Singer
'Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet' by Roger Scruton, Atlantic, 646 pp; $39.99
Roger Scruton’s 'Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously about the Planet'

Climate change is a threat to us all but it poses a particular difficulty for those who, like English philosopher Roger Scruton, are on the political right. Conservatives tend to favour market solutions and oppose expanding the reach of government. If the emission of greenhouse gases as a result of human activity is causing potentially catastrophic global warming, however, then the market is failing to capture the true costs of billions of everyday human transactions, and it seems that disaster can be averted only by granting governments powers to alter virtually every aspect of the way we live, from the cars we drive to the food we eat.

Some conservatives respond to this predicament by denying the evidence that strongly implicates human activity in the warming of our planet. To his credit, Scruton is not among them. Although he highlights the uncertainty in climate science, he also points to risks that we cannot afford to run, such as that the melting of the Greenland and Siberian ice shields might begin to release some of the billions of tonnes of methane currently trapped beneath them, resulting from the decay of primeval forests thousands of years ago, which in turn would cause more warming and start a feedback loop that would continue until all the methane had been released, causing unpredictable changes in rainfall and “catastrophe for many parts of the globe”. Scruton adds: “Even if the alarmists are overstating their case, therefore, these possibilities are so dire that we are duty-bound to consider how they might be averted. The global warming that is occurring may not be all man-made, but it is still our problem.”

Once the risks posed by our greenhouse gas emissions are recognised, the next option for most conservatives is to claim that the market can solve the problem, if only it is allowed to work properly. Because Scruton wrote Green Philosophy (Atlantic, 464pp; $39.99) as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (a neoconservative think tank), I thought that this might be the course he would take. But Scruton is a British, rather than an American, conservative, and he recognises that the market can only work properly if it internalises all its costs. Scruton puts it accurately when he writes: “There is hardly an aspect of the modern economy that does not involve the transfer of costs to anonymous others by imposing them on our shared environment.” He is tough, too, on “the agribusinesses, the producers of GM crops, the developers, the supermarkets and the airlines”, describing these businesses as causing lasting environmental damage.

So if the facts are granted, and the market is not the answer, what can a conservative offer to combat climate change? Scruton writes: “We should introduce a flat-rate carbon tax. The more you emit, the more you pay.” Admittedly, what Scruton wants is not exactly the tax introduced by Australia’s Labor Government, supported by the Greens and so vigorously opposed by the conservative Opposition. He wants a tax on products based on the amount of carbon released in the process of their production, whether they were made in the country imposing the tax or made elsewhere and imported. This would, if it could be done, provide an incentive for the country of manufacture (read: China) to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by its export industries. It’s a neat idea, but unfortunately Scruton does not explain how the taxing nation would obtain data on the carbon footprint of every item it imports. Scruton surely doesn’t expect an accurate report from the Chinese government on each product China exports.

Scruton is sceptical of international treaties to reduce emissions. He doubts that any democratic leader will sign on to a treaty that, by demanding a drastic change of lifestyle, will lead to his or her defeat at the next election. In undemocratic nations he distrusts the will of the government to enforce the laws in the manner that would be necessary for it to live up to its treaty obligations. As for proposals to build global institutions, including a democratic global parliament, Scruton apparently considers it utopian to think that people will prefer sustainability and social justice to the gratification of their present desires.

This scepticism about human nature is part of Scruton’s conservative philosophy, which is rooted in a view of human nature that suggests our interests and our feelings are local rather than global. Scruton draws heavily on the British eighteenth-century thinker Edmund Burke to argue that we must work with human sentiments as they actually are, and not with how we might wish them to be. For Scruton, this means love of home or territory, or, as he calls it, oikophilia (from the Greek word oikos that means home or settlement and is the root of the term ‘economics’). Oikophilia is the most distinctive new idea – or new old idea – that the book promotes.

Such local feeling can be very useful for preserving landscapes, cleaning up highways or protecting rivers. Green Philosophy is full of examples of local citizens working together for good environmental purposes. But while love of one’s place can certainly evoke strong sentiments and may enable us to clean up one of Scruton’s pet hates – plastic waste in the countryside – it isn’t clear how love of place can help with the larger issue of climate change. There is no territory in the atmosphere, and our emissions do not limit their effects to the locality in which they are emitted.

Scruton is clear that he favours “a fundamental moral idea to which conservatives attach great importance: the idea that those responsible for damage should also repair it.” This is, of course, exactly the argument that countries like China, India, Brazil and the African nations make. It is the industrialised nations who have, with their much higher emissions, caused the problems, and therefore on this view they are the ones that should be the first to cut those emissions and compensate the other nations for the damage already caused. Yet although Scruton explicitly recognises this principle, and its implications, it seems to play no role in his recommendations for solving the problem. It is as if he gives it up as too hard to achieve, perhaps because his time in Washington has made him aware that there is no political will for it in the US.

Scruton’s real hopes of avoiding catastrophe appear to rest, surprisingly for a traditionalist, on a technological fix – either the discovery of an alternative source of clean energy, or geo-engineering. A source of energy that emits no greenhouse gases, is less hazardous than the nuclear industry, and yet is cheaper than coal, would, of course, be a very welcome solution to global warming. So far, alas, there is nothing like that on the horizon. Keeping your fingers crossed is no real answer to the problems we face.

The other technological fix that Scruton appears to favour is the very antithesis of conservatism. He tells us that certain kinds of geo-engineering are likely to be many times more cost-effective than emission controls and hence we should be researching this option, “if only as ‘Plan B’”. The currently most feasible of such ideas involves spraying fine particles of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, thus mimicking the effect of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo that cooled the planet for several months. To do this would be, in effect, to run an experiment with the planet whose full outcome we do not know. Acid rain and reduced plant growth is one possibility. And since Scruton is a sceptic about international bodies like the United Nations, with what authority could one nation or group of nations undertake to do this?

By the end of the book, Scruton’s support for geo-engineering, at least as a last resort, becomes clear: “Advances in climatology and the theory and practice of geo-engineering could well put within the power of a law-abiding nation state – and evidently the USA is the likely example – the means of initiating global cooling to counteract the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” It seems that Scruton thinks it should be done, if not by a single country than by “coalitions of the willing”. Perhaps, just as Bush overawed Blair on Iraq, drawing him into an overconfident, misinformed and illegal “coalition of the willing”, so too Scruton’s colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute have persuaded him to favour an even larger and more dangerous mission to save the world.

Scruton refers to the “law of unintended consequences” that holds that any regulation is likely to have unintended consequences that undermine the good it was intended to do. Geo-engineering could well have the biggest, baddest unintended consequences of them all. That a traditional Burkean conservative like Scruton should suggest that we can always find some technological fix to global warming (and hence we do not need to worry about our failure to negotiate a global climate treaty) is an indication of how desperate things have become among conservatives who acknowledge the facts about climate change.

Peter Singer
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, The Ethics of What We Eat and The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. @petersinger

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