Article by Peter Singer (carried in the Wall Street Journal on January 22 201)
All of us who are middle class or above in the U.S. and other industrialized nations spend money on many things we do not need. We could instead donate that money to organizations that will use it to make a huge difference in the lives of the world's poorest people—people who struggle to survive each day on less than we spend on a bottle of water. For decades, that is what I've been advocating we should do.
But this concern for the poor appears to be in tension with the need to protect our environment. Is there any point in saving the lives of people who will continue to have more children than they can feed? Don't rising populations in developing countries increase the pressure on forests and other ecosystems? Then there is climate change. How would the world cope if everyone were to become affluent and match our per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions?
I take these questions very seriously. My first popular book, "Animal Liberation," published in 1975, argued that we should extend our ethical concerns beyond the boundary of our species. In Australia, my country of birth, I was a founding member of the Australian Greens. So balancing poverty reduction and environmental values is important to me. The problem is how to do it.
Part of the answer—the easy part—is that poverty reduction and environmental values often point in the same direction. It is simplistic to assume that helping more children to survive to reproductive age is bound to increase population in poor countries. Poor parents often have large families so that at least some of their children will survive to take care of them in old age. As parents grow more confident that their children will live to adulthood, they have fewer children. And if reducing poverty makes it possible for families to send their children (especially their daughters) to school, all the evidence indicates that their children will have smaller families.
But we shouldn't pretend that there is bound to be this kind of harmony between economic development and environmental protection. Some development projects provide employment opportunities for the poor but at a high cost to wilderness. From Indonesia to Brazil, vast areas of tropical rainforest have been cleared to grow palm oil and soybeans or to graze cattle, thus destroying entire ecosystems and releasing huge quantities of carbon.
What should we do? Sometimes we should choose to protect the environment and the non human animals that depend on it, even if that denies economic opportunities to some people living in extreme poverty. Areas rich in unique biodiversity are part of the world's heritage and ought to be protected. We should, of course, try to find alternative environmentally sustainable opportunities for those living in or near these areas. But there is no single currency by which we can measure the benefit of saving human lives against the cost of destroying forests that provide the last remaining refuges for free-living chimpanzees, orangutans or Sumatran tigers.
Cost-benefit analysis certainly can't handle this task. Even when economists ignore environmental concerns, their usual method of assigning a value to human lives leads to the ethically embarrassing conclusion that the poor count for less because they earn less and cannot pay as much to reduce life-threatening risks.
Economists also tend to trip up on the issue of whether to discount the future. Suppose we believe that in 200 years, people would be prepared to pay $1 million (in current dollars) to have a virgin forest in their region. Today, however, we can profit by cutting down the forest. If we discount the future value of the forest by 5% per annum, how large a present-day profit would be necessary to cover the loss of a million dollars in 2211? Just $60. Such a discount rate cannot be justified on the basis of the real rate of return on capital. It implies a pure time discount—that is, it implies that the future matters much less than the present.
Giving equal weight to the interests of future generations provides us with strong reasons to be concerned about environmental preservation, as well as about the more immediate concern of reducing global poverty. We should help today's global poor, but not at the expense of tomorrow's global poor. To preserve the options available to future generations, we should aim at development that does no further damage to wilderness or to endangered species.
It is clear, though, that the planet cannot sustain six billion people at the level of the most affluent billion in the world today, especially in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The failure of the major industrialized nations to reduce their emissions to a level that will not cause serious adverse effects to others is moral wrongdoing on a scale that exceeds the wrongdoing of the great imperial powers during the era of colonialism.
According to the World Health Organization, the rise in temperature that occurred between the 1970s and 2004 is causing an additional 140,000 deaths every year (roughly equivalent to causing, every week, as many deaths as occurred in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001). The major killers are climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria, dengue and diarrhea, which is more common when there is a lack of safe water. Malnutrition resulting from crops that fail because of high temperatures or low rainfall is also responsible for many deaths. Fertile, densely settled delta regions in Egypt, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam are at risk from rising sea levels.
In 2007 the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a temperature rise in the range of 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2080 would put stress on water resources used by 1.2 billion people. Rising sea levels would expose, each year, an additional 16 million people to coastal flooding. A temperature rise limited to two degrees by 2080 now seems about the best we can hope for, and recently there have been alarming indications that sea level rises could be much greater than the IPCC anticipated.
Perhaps a technological miracle is just around the corner, one that will enable everyone in the world to consume energy at something like the levels at which we consume it, without bringing about disaster for everyone. It isn't ethically defensible, however, to do nothing while hoping for a miracle, given that it will be others, not us, who suffer the gravest consequences if that miracle never arrives.
Some argue that there is little point in the older industrialized nations cutting back on their emissions when China has already overtaken the U.S. as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases; India's emissions are also growing rapidly. The problem is that someone has to take the lead. Otherwise, everyone will hold back to see who goes first, and no one will act.
All the ethical arguments point to the industrialized Western nations taking the lead. On the familiar rule that "if you broke it, you fix it," there is no doubt that these nations bear historical responsibility for most of the greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere. Several Chinese think tanks recently produced a report titled "Carbon Equity." They calculated that from 1850 to 2004, the average American put 21 times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the average Chinese, and 53 times as much as the average Indian.
Granted, until the 1980s, no one really knew the effect of putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but we definitely knew about it in 1992 when the "Earth Summit" was held in Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. and other major nations signed a declaration promising to keep greenhouse gas emissions below the level that would cause "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." That's a promise that has manifestly not been kept.
Even if newly emerging major emitters like China, India and Brazil were prepared to forget about the past and share the burden of major reductions in greenhouse gases, the only fair long-term basis for such a distribution would be equal per capita shares. On that basis, the U.S. is still emitting four or five times as much as China and at least 12 times as much as India.
There is also a strong moral case for saying that rich nations should cut back on their "luxury emissions" before poor nations have to cut back on "subsistence emissions." India still has more than 450 million people living in extreme poverty, and China over 200 million. No one with any concern for human welfare could ask the world's poor to refrain from increasing their greenhouse gas emissions in order to put more food on the table for their families, when we think little of flying down to the tropics for a winter vacation, emitting more in a week than the typical family in a developing country does in a year. Needs should always take precedence over luxuries.
All of us living comfortably in industrialized nations should use more energy from sources other than fossil fuels, use less air-conditioning and less heat, fly and drive less, and eat less meat. And we ought to start doing these things now, for our own sake, for the sake of the global poor and for the sake of future generations everywhere.
Mr. Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include "Animal Liberation," "Practical Ethics" and "The Life You Can Save."
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya
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