Sen on climate change

Amartya Sen’s August 22 New Republic piece probably has an unfortunate title: “Stop Obsessing About Global Warming.” That is bad advice–and a poor summary of the article–if it means: “Care less about climate change.” But it is wise guidance if it means: “Care more about other things, too.” (The latter, by the way, is a valid gloss on “Stop obsessing”).

[8/25: the headline has been changed to “Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention”]

In any case, the article is vintage Sen, drawing on several of his lifelong themes:

  • Unidimensional moral reasoning is a mistake; moral judgment always requires balancing many goods. Just as raising GDP is too narrow, so is cutting carbon. “The recent focus of energy thinking has been particularly concentrated on the ways and means of reducing carbon emissions and, linked with that, cutting down energy use, rather than taking energy use as essential for conquering poverty and seeing the environmental challenge within a more comprehensive understanding.”
  • The poorest people of the world are constantly overlooked. They need more resources, not less. “In India, for example, about a third of the people do not have any power connection at all. Making it easier to produce energy with better environmental correlates (and greater efficiency of energy use) may be a contribution not just to environmental planning, but also to making it possible for a great many deprived people to lead a fuller and freer life.”
  • People have agency and freedom. They are capable of improving the world, and supporting their agency is generally the best way to help them. “The environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the process of development may have destructive consequences (and this is very important to understand and to address), it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live.”
  • Economics, technology, and politics interrelate; you cannot ignore politics when assessing an economy. For instance, we can imagine nuclear power being used safely, but that is like assuming that people will be rational enough to avoid war. We mustn’t forget “the risks of terrorism and sabotage (a strong possibility in countries such as India); the consequences of possible nuclear theft … ; and nuclear reactions that may be set off if and when a nuclear power plant is bombed or blasted with conventional weapons in a conventional war, or even in a rather limited local skirmish.”
  • Development is liberating, as long as we define it broadly and do not reduce it to the pursuit of GDP. Growth is desirable, not sinful. “In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental efforts.”

I am guessing that Sen has in mind The Population Bomb (1968) and debates of that era. Paul Ehrlich argued that the earth faced imminent catastrophe because of population growth. There were too many people, especially in the poorest countries, and they were using up finite resources of food, water, energy, and space.

As a result of such thinking, some developing countries imposed illiberal and undemocratic controls on population–not only communist China, but also India during the State of Emergency. These were the problems with that approach:

  • The diagnosis was wrong. With increasing demand, resources have been used more efficiently. India’s population has tripled since 1960, but its rate of malnutrition is less than half as high. Overpopulation has costs, but it is not a “bomb.”
  • The ethics was wrong. Poor people were treated as a problem, as fundamentally undesirable. They were not treated with dignity.
  • The politics was dangerous. Governments used population control to justify tyranny. As Sen famously noticed, famines never occur in representative democracies but are common under colonial rule and dictatorships, including the very tyrannies that control population growth.
  • The solution was wrong because it ignored agency and freedom. It turned out that the best way to reduce the pace of population growth was to educate and empower women, because then they had alternatives to bearing many children.

Perhaps Paul Ehrlich was the boy who cried “wolf,” and now a real wolf is at the door. Over-consumption is somewhat self-correcting because prices rise with rising demand, but carbon emissions have no price. So climate change could be a worse problem than over-consumption caused by population growth. If we are at severe risk of global environmental catastrophe, then Sen’s concerns seem misplaced, and we may regret that a Nobel laureate with progressive credentials published an article headed “Stop Obsessing About Global Warming.”

But if we learn from the previous crisis, then we should address the climate crisis in a different way. We should consider the severe costs and risks of carbon emissions along with other problems, such as poverty and lack of democracy. A top priority should be helping the poorest people in the world to use more energy with less carbon emissions. We should support them in exploiting solar power and alternatives like “biochar.” Finally, we should not treat human beings as sin in the Garden of Eden and try to minimize their impact. Sen writes:

The environment is sometimes seensimplistically, I believeas the ‘state of nature,’ including such measures as the extent of forest cover, the depth of the ground water table, the number of living species, and so on. It is tempting to go from there to the conclusion that the best environmental planning is one of least interference, of leaving nature alonethat the urgent need is for inaction, rather than for actions that may be best supported by reasoning.

Sen’s vision is a deeply humanistic one, in which all people have dignity and the capacity to improve the world, including the natural world. Again, that would be the wrong case to make right now if climate change poses an unprecedented threat to our very survival. Then we should be trying to persuade governments to regulate carbon–end of case. But we can’t literally make governments do what we want. So the real question is not whether states should focus narrowly on carbon (which they won’t do, anyway), but rather: How should environmental activists pose this issue? Should they try to raise the odds of significant regulation by using apocalyptic and unidimensional language about climate change? Or should rather adopt a more balanced rhetoric, in which growth is desirable but carbon has costs?

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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