Sunday, October 25, 2009

Human rights today, climate change tomorrow

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal questions President Obama’s recent softening on human rights negotiations. Bret Stephens cites Obama’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama, softening positions on Sudan, Burma, and Iran as appeasement to China. Mr. Stephens feels the goal of these compromises is to get China at the table in Copenhagen for climate negotiations in December.

The claim is serious. Currently, there are nearly a million Sudanese refugees. Approximately 110,000 Tibetans live in exile. 50 million Burmese live under a brutally repressive regime.

However, Stephens never asks why Obama is making these sacrifices for climate change. He should have instead asked if preventing climate change is worth turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Climate change will have a disastrous impact on human welfare. The IPCC AR4 report states, “In the year 2000, climate change is estimated to have caused the loss of over 150,000 lives”. Impacts will be higher in the future: by 2050, the an estimated 133 million people will be at risk of hunger because of climate change. Decreased freshwater availability in Asia, due to melting glaciers, “could adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s”. And by the end of the 21st century, climate change will increase the number of people flooded in coastal populations by 80 million.

Enough of the scary forecasts. Bottom line: climate change is expected to increase the suffering of hundreds of millions of people. The real question is: how much are we willing to increase suffering today to reduce suffering tomorrow?

An easy answer is that we’re not willing to compromise at all on human rights. Human rights compromises lead to a slippery slope that undermines our moral character. Although this is a noble position for an individual to take, it is an impractical position for the U.S. government. International diplomacy requires compromise. Not compromising equals inaction, which will increase suffering from climate change.

Economists deal with this problem by discounting future lives, just as you discount the costs of future purchases because of inflation. OMB suggests federal agencies adopt a 3% discount rate on statistical lives for regulatory policies that impact human health.

A 3% discount rate means 15 million deaths in 2009 equal 50 million deaths in 2050 and 122 million in 2080. Are we willing to sacrifice the human rights of 15 million today to prevent the suffering of 50 million in 2050? How should we, as a society, value future human lives?


  1. Very important and tough questions for everyone to grapple with. While we're talking about exchanging current lives for future lives in our climate-cost-vs-benefit analysis, we should probably also be talking about whether carbon mitigation alone is really the best strategy for preventing the worst effects of climate change (and most human suffering). When you're paying for something in human lives, it seems especially important to get the best possible deal.

  2. Well, we already can directly map oil to CO2 emissions, so with the long established blood-for-oil market we've established it shouldn't be too hard to set up a reliable unit conversion. (rimshot)

    Dealing with the Chinese is huge, if we can't get them and India to grow in an environmentally safe manner we're hosed. Parts of China are already so poisoned by their economic/environmental policies, they are the greatest developing crisis area. Couple this with the fact that we have lost a lot of moral ground to preach about human rights after Bush/Gitmo/Abu Graib, and it makes a lot of sense to push the Chinese in areas where there's some hope of near-term progress.

  3. An interesting question. I think one aspect we should consider is whether we should be intervening in Myanmar, Sudan, etc. in any direct way. There is no global society, and while I admit that it is a noble concept, it isn't actual. However, there may be situations that we can act on through global channels; hopefully climate change is one of these situations. Every person *should* have sympathy/empathy for the individual loss of life, but some things are hard and require an equally hard resolve. I tend to think that many cases of human suffering are cases that involve global financial managers. I question whether the human rights cause can make *any* progress if this is the case, and global finance is a much bigger problem to deal with (and one that few are willing to address).
    So, for all the Star Trek fans that I *know* are reading this, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Yeah, I went there.

  4. Also, interesting redesign. Though I am partial to the foreboding inspired by the black design.