Climate Change: Economics or Ethics?

The Nation State and Individual Self-interest

A recent text dealing with the issue of climate politics coined the term ‘cancer of Westphalia’ to describe the current ailment of the international logjam in addressing what has been described as the greatest problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century.1 It is a rather strange evocation of the peace treaty of 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War of religion in Europe.

John Sweeney

The link to the present topic, however, lies in the fact that in the Peace of Westphalia the roots of the modern nation state can be traced. Individuals’ loyalties henceforth were to be focused on the government of the state they resided in, and not on any religious or secular entity. The nation-state became the embodiment of its individual citizens, looking to maximise its advantage – at the expense of its neighbours if necessary – and distancing itself from concepts of the common good. Not in the political sense, but in the linguistic sense, the expression sinn féin captures the essence of nation states behaving like individuals in this manner.

International Climate Negotiations

International climate negotiations epitomise this evolution. The yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (often referred to as the UN Climate Change Conference) has evolved into a major event which promises much but often falls asunder under the imperative of national self-interest. The now infamous Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) attracted delegates from 192 countries, including 119 Heads of State, but ended in a ‘car crash’ as nations refused to limit their economic aspirations in the short and medium term to ensure a sustainable planet for those being born today and over the next few decades. A wish to carry on as before on the part of the developed world, exemplified by the USA, and an aspiration to develop along similar consumerist lines on the part of the developing world, exemplified by China, combined to defeat moves to push forward the radical changes necessary to produce meaningful progress.

As COP19 (Warsaw, November 2013) approaches, more positive signs are emerging that the logjam may at last be broken. In a historic speech in late June 2013, hardly reported in the Irish media, President Obama indicated that the United States would at last move to a leadership position after many years of being a laggard or even spoiler in global climate politics. Actions rather than rhetoric are, however, urgently required, and the focus in Warsaw will now also turn to the ambiguous position of the planet’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter – China, which is at once a leader of the developing country negotiating bloc and a country with a per capita emission rate that is on a par with the average for the EU as a whole, and in excess of the rate for many individual EU Member States. Perhaps the tipping point is approaching.

Climate Policy at National and EU Level
Moving down the scale from international to national level, the same exigencies exist. Sectoral and vested interests continue to exert powerful influences on attempts within nation states to control greenhouse gas emissions in the interests of the global community at large. During the 2012 US Presidential election no candidate seemed willing to address the issue for fear of losing votes, or possibly even funding. In Ireland, we are in the process of making yet another attempt to legislate for action in response to climate change. Over the past decade, we have had an All-Party Bill, a Fianna Fáil/Green Party Bill, two Independent Bills and a Sinn Féin Bill. In February 2013, the Fine Gael/Labour Party Coalition published the ‘Draft Heads’ of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013. The successive efforts to introduce climate legislation have exposed strong opposition on the part of various sectoral interests to having strategic targets for emission reductions, even as far ahead as 2050, enshrined in law.

In the European Union, international agreements under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are handled on a ‘burden sharing’ basis – in other words, the EU as a whole negotiates a target it will sign up to and its Member States agree what will be their specific contribution to meeting this target.
When the Kyoto Protocol was agreed at COP3 in 1997, Ireland received very favourable treatment from its fellow EU states, being allowed, for the period 2008 to 2012, to increase its emissions over 1990 levels by 13 per cent. By contrast, an average reduction of 15 per cent for the then EU-15 Members States applied, so as to enable the EU as a whole to reach its emissions reduction target of 8 per cent below the 1990 level. However, in 1997 the Celtic Tiger had still to roar and Ireland could legitimately claim that requiring a large decrease in emissions would impose a heavy cost burden on its then only slowly growing economy.

Once Ireland’s economy boomed, emissions grew rapidly, reaching 27 per cent above 1990 levels by 2001. Thereafter, a slow decline set in, even at the height of the boom, as natural gas replaced coal as the preferred fuel for industry and power generation and as renewables such as wind began to make an impact. With the sharp decline in economic activity from 2008 onwards, emissions fell rapidly and compliance with Kyoto occurred. New undertakings for a second Kyoto commitment period extending from 2013 to 2020 were agreed at COP18 in Doha in December 2012, though details of how this will apply to Ireland have still to emerge.

In 2007, the European Council initiated a process of agreeing a self-imposed EU commitment to a low-carbon, energy-efficient future, embodied in the ‘climate and energy package’, finalised by the Council and adopted by the European Parliament in December 2008. This entailed a target, to be reached by 2020, of reducing EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent as compared to 1990.

For a then still-booming Ireland, the 2007 EU negotiation process produced a very different outcome from that which emerged from the 1997 negotiations regarding the Kyoto target. Ireland’s burden was one of the heaviest compared to other Member States, requiring that it achieve a 20 per cent reduction, relative to 2005 levels, in emissions not covered by the EU-wide Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

Ireland is not on track to meet the required emissions reduction of 20 per cent by 2020. Yet achieving this target is obligatory and failure to do so may well necessitate the purchase of emissions quota from other countries. Up until 2009, when purchases ceased, Ireland had spent €73.7 million on emission credit purchases. These were ultimately not needed to meet the Kyoto target, but can at least be banked for future compliance, though under-achievement of annual targets set by the EU Directive for non-ETS emissions may have consequences for such flexibility should Ireland continue to exceed its annual limits to 2020. The ultimately non-productive investment in buying emissions quota is a reminder that doing nothing about climate change may come at a considerable cost to the Irish taxpayer.

The Costs of Climate Change

Nation states and sectoral interests argue against taking action on climate change mainly from an economic perspective. The validity of this will be questioned later. However, even from an economic perspective, the damage costs associated with climate change are considerable. The 2006 seminal review conducted by Lord Nicholas Stern on behalf of the UK Government calculated that inaction would cost 5 per cent of global domestic product each year, with an upside risk of this increasing fourfold.2 By contrast, the cost of action to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases at 500–550 parts per million (ppm) equivalent CO2 would amount to 1 per cent of global GDP. But the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

Above a concentration of about 550ppm, global warming over 2°C above pre-industrial levels is likely, a threshold at which currently unquantifiable but very serious adverse consequences may occur. Avoiding this temperature change is now the guiding principle of international climate diplomacy, though there is a greater than 50 per cent likelihood of exceeding this level of warming even with greenhouse gas concentrations of 450ppm. The ‘emissions cliff’ – the climate change equivalent of the fiscal cliff – means that if global emissions reductions do not kick in for the next couple of decades the rates of annual reductions required thereafter become extremely difficult, some three to seven times greater than might be possible if we started in the next year or two.

Lord Stern is more pessimistic now than in 2006.  In an interview at the World Economic Forum in 2013 he was quoted as follows:

Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.3

Economic Costs for Ireland
Ireland’s GDP is only 0.34 per cent of the global total; it amounts to approximately €160 billion. While applying a global figure of 1 per cent – that is, Stern’s estimated cost of action to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases at 500–550 ppm – to Ireland’s GDP is inappropriate (Ireland is likely to experience less radical changes in climate due to its oceanic location), even a highly optimistic 0.1 per cent would yield a total cost of €160 million per annum.

However, no comprehensive economic study of the costs of climate change for Ireland has yet been done. Perhaps this is because it is such a difficult task: how do we cost potential impacts on, for example, tourism, water resources, energy, transport, agriculture, and – most difficult of all – biodiversity? What value do we place on the boglands, the turloughs, the salmon, or even the humble Kerry slug?

Figure 1: Number of addresses below Selected Heights in Five Coastal Counties
Source: Stephen Flood and John Sweeney, ‘Quantifying Impacts of Potential Sea-level Rise Scenario on Irish Coastal Cities’ in Konrad Otto-Zimmermann (ed.), Resilient Cities, London: Springer, 2011

A first pass can be made at estimating potential damage costs using some of the latest Geographical Information Systems technology. With reference to sea level and storm surges, it is possible to estimate the vulnerability of major cities using digital elevation models combined with knowledge of where people actually live. For example, about 20,000 addresses in Dublin city lie below an elevation of 3 metres above high-water mark, with about half that number at similar heights in Cork (Figure 1). In many cases, of course, coastal defences exist to protect these districts, but the lesson of history is that these do not always work. The once-in-a-century storm surge height along the east coast of Ireland is probably about 2.5 metres, and this is based on past sea level. With elevated sea level, vulnerability increases considerably.

What would flooding 20,000 houses cost in insurance claims? This can be estimated using claims data from past flood events. The disastrous 2009 floods in Co. Galway provide a reasonable estimate. The average claim in respect of domestic property was €16,600; for commercial property it was €103,000, and for motor claims the average was €3,500. Using these figures, it is clear that flooding in Dublin and Cork as a result of elevated sea levels could account for over €1 billion in damage, with a national exposure of up to twice this amount.

Costs for the Natural Environment
Placing an economic value on threatened aspects of the natural environment is an even more difficult task. Ecosystems provide essential elements of the food chain, cleansing functions for the air and water around us, and an aesthetic value which evokes a spiritual response in all of us. They are also frequently public goods which entail no utilisation costs and may not incentivise individuals to maintain them. Valuations are thus complex and can be based on use value, the actual direct exploitation of a resource, such as for fishing or hill-walking, or indirect use such as for educational purposes.

Ecosystems can also have future use value, such as people willing to pay for a future option to enjoy a scenic location, or a ‘bequest value’, reflecting people’s willingness to pay to conserve aspects of the built or natural heritage to ensure that they are available for future generations. But these are only a sample of the different evaluation methodologies in circulation. One example valued European wetlands at €6,700 per hectare.4 It this measure were applied to just one Irish county – Wexford – we would find that its beaches, coastal lagoons and salt marshes lying less that 1 metre above sea level would have a valuation of around €5 billion.5

Plant and animal communities are also likely to see significant changes in their composition as a result of climate change – with both winners and losers. Invasive species are already gaining a toehold, partially assisted by current warming of both the ocean and land.

People may have very different responses to this. Some may accept it as inevitable; others may see it as tragic that the Ireland of their youth is no more. In a survey of Irish emigrants to North America, for example, it was the potential loss of the cry of the Curlew that evoked the greatest emotional response from the diaspora.6  Mountain habitats, heathlands, peatlands, dunes, coastal wetlands – all are part of our national psyche, and all are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but they are not amenable to the economist’s accounting rules.

Rethinking the Criteria: Some Ethical Considerations

It is clear that, as with all environmental hazards, the negative consequences of climate change will fall inequitably: the main burden will be on those least able to bear it.

Whether it be heat waves (as in Europe in 2003), tsunamis (the Indian Ocean tsunamis of 2004), or hurricanes (Hurricane Katrina in 2005), it is the elderly and people who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged who are in the frontline of vulnerability. It is also clear that the developing world will suffer for a problem not primarily of its making, but one created and sustained by consumer demand in the developed world. An Irish citizen is responsible for 25 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as a citizen of Malawi.

Furthermore, the developed world will, in the medium term at least, have the financial and organisational resources to better adapt to the problem of global climate change. The ‘cancer of Westphalia’ will continue to drive self-interest among developed nation states at the expense of their neighbours in the Global South. This is the basis of concerns collectively captured by the expression ‘climate justice’. At a global scale, however, the spatial and social inequalities associated with climate change are symptoms common to a wider malaise relating to human misuse of the environment.

An Anthropocentric World
Throughout recorded history, humans have exploited their environment to create an anthropocentric world fashioned to suit their needs for food, shelter, transport and technology. Driving wild game by setting fires undoubtedly helped create and maintain the grassland biomes. In Ireland, for example, deforestation associated with the medieval monastic settlements, or to remove cover for rebels, or to supply timber for Elizabethan naval vessels, was instrumental in the creation of the treeless landscape of much of the island.

Canals, railways, roads, mines, reservoirs, dams and farms fashioned a landscape designed for supporting better the ecologically dominant creature of the biosphere. Once part of nature, struggling to overcome its vicissitudes and caprices, humans have increasingly, as a result of technological advances, become exploiters and dominators of a natural world more and more geared to meeting their material needs. Nature has been tamed. Climate, which once imprisoned our ancestors by its vicissitudes through the medium of the harvest, has now become the prisoner of humankind.

In his classic essay, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ (1967), Lynn White attributed this attitude of dominance over nature to deep-rooted cultural traits imbued by what he termed the Judeo-Christian tradition. Marxism and Islam were included in this Judeo-Christian categorisation, though White traced the separation of humankind from nature primarily as coincident with the emergence of Christianity.7

Certainly, anthropocentrism has been a major feature of Christianity for most of the past two millennia. Humankind has been elevated above nature as part of this process. A dualism between humankind and a natural world created for human purposes has evolved. In part, this can be traced back directly to the urging of the Book of Genesis:

And God blessed Adam and Eve and said, ‘Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; you are the masters of the fish and the birds and all the animals’. (Genesis 2:28)

While the same text contains other passages emphasising care and stewardship of the natural world, the biblical imperative of destroying pagan animism was probably a powerful force divorcing humankind from the natural world in the early Christian era. Interestingly, and by contrast, in the Celtic Ireland of the early medieval period a more harmonious and respectful relationship between people and nature is apparent. This is evident in some parts of the Brehon Laws – for example: “It is illegal to override a horse, force a weakened ox to do excessive work or threaten an animal with angry vehemence which breaks bones.”

White absolved eastern philosophies from this anthropocentric view of nature, though this position was challenged by Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-US geographer, who argued that the introspective ideals of oriental cultures are seldom practised.8 The headlong rush for economic growth, seemingly at any environmental cost, of many Asian countries in recent decades would seem to vindicate this view.

The Scientific Tradition
Anthropocentrism was further enhanced by the emergence of the scientific tradition in Europe. Latin translations, dating from the eleventh century, of the works of earlier great Islamic and Greek scientists provided a major impetus for a revolution in western scientific thought. This irrevocably altered the pre-existing relationships between humankind and nature in Europe. Understanding processes became a theological objective. Most major scientists rationalised their work as having religious motivations, and ‘science and religion’ slipped off the tongue as readily as ‘science and technology’ do today. Ordering the universe and placing it in human comprehension reinforced the role of people as the lynchpins in the functioning of the natural world.

Later on, science became aided by technology to the extent that the two terms have become almost interchangeable in today’s world. Unfortunately, harsh lessons that technology alone could not overcome nature’s limitations were not learned in the first half of the twentieth century. When the Great Plains of North America became the Dust Bowl, or the Virgin Lands of Siberia refused to grow wheat, there was always new land further out to provide the safety valve for burgeoning populations. ‘Exploit and move on if you fail’ was always an option as settlements pushed west into North America and east into Russia.

Such options have now closed off, especially where burgeoning populations in the poorer tropics have removed the safety valve of new lands. Increasing numbers of people are forced into vulnerable locations which would have been shunned by their ancestors. Risk has increased and any natural disruption to assumed continuity can be catastrophic. Climate is just the latest facet of nature to show vulnerability to human action. Now confronted with what Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, has labelled ‘the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had to face up to’ it is clear that only a reorientation of how we view nature offers a viable solution to global climate change.

Most of the earth’s resources have been privatised. Utilisation of a resource involves either paying an access cost or conforming to regulatory requirements such as licensing. Water, for so long thought of as part of our birthright, has now been commoditised in most parts of the world. Resistance to the process has been marked – witness the hostile reaction to water charges in Ireland.

The atmosphere, however, remains largely an open-access resource. For greenhouse gases, it is still effectively a global commons. As with all resources, common resources provide a facility and, if no utilisation cost is involved, tend to get overexploited. This is the root problem of atmospheric pollution by industrial emissions, such as sulphur dioxide, or by greenhouse gases. The proposed international agreement on climate change, which is expected to be signed at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, is thus of crucial importance for humankind. This agreement, intended to integrate the various regional actions undertaken under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, will require all states, not just developed nations, to be bound by legally binding commitments aimed at limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the value now accepted as constituting the  threshold of ‘dangerous climate change’.

Towards Stewardship

Private gain versus public and community good is a familiar issue for those seeking to manage environmental resources of all kinds. In a similar vein is the issue of short-term pain versus long-term gain – or intergenerational equity, as it is more properly referred to. Do we have an ethical responsibility to leave the earth for future generations in at least as good a state as we inherited it from our forebears? By not acting on climate change now we reduce options for those who come after us and bequeath them damaged goods. This is why sustainable development needs to move from a nebulous concept to a reality in decision-makers’ minds.

Ireland is one of the world’s top greenhouse gas polluters on a per capita basis. It has a serious responsibility to play its part in addressing the problem of climate change. Thus far it has failed to do so, and the radical measures necessary are not forthcoming. The political will to make the necessary policy changes in how Irish society is organised is not yet evident.

In tackling the problem of climate change, a revision of our deeply-ingrained attitudes towards the natural world is clearly required. The anthropocentric view of the natural world has blinded humanity to the obvious fact that far from being above nature we are as dependent on it today as were the Neanderthals, though the relationship is more complex. Scientific advances have given us answers to fundamental questions of earth functioning. But these often come in an ethical and religious vacuum. Perhaps the non-anthropocentric view of humankind as humble components of a natural web, as espoused by Francis of Assisi, offers an alternative perspective. Humans as stewards of the earth is perhaps the ideology which needs to be inculcated in all of us if we are to have success in tackling the environmental problems facing us, especially that of climate change.

  1. Paul G. Harris, What’s Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.
  2. Nicholas Stern, Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, 2006. (
  3. Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott, ‘Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change – it’s far, far worse’’, The Observer, Sunday, 27 January 2013.
  4. Luke M. Brander, Raymond J. G. M. Florax and Jane E. Vermaat, ‘The Empirics of Wetland Evaluation: A Comprehensive Summary and Meta-Analysis of the Literature’, Environmental and Resource Economics, Vol. 33, 2006, pp. 223–250.
  5. Stephen Flood and John Sweeney, ‘Quantifying Impacts of Potential Sea-level Rise Scenario on Irish Coastal Cities’, in Konrad Otto-Zimmermann (ed.), Resilient Cities, London: Springer, 2011, pp. 27–52.
  6. Kevin Sweeney, Rowan Fealy, Laura McElwain, Lorna Siggins, John Sweeney and Victoria Trinies, Changing Shades of Green: The Environmental and Cultural Impacts of Climate Change in Ireland, The Irish American Climate Project and Rockefeller Family Fund, 2009. (
  7. Lynn White, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, Science, Vol. 155, No. 3767, 10 March 1967, pp. 1203–1207.
  8. Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Discrepancies between Environmental Attitude and Behaviour: Examples from Europe and China’, The Canadian Geographer, Vol. 12, Issue 3, September 1968, pp. 176–191.

John Sweeney is Professor of Geography, NUI Maynooth, and was one of the contributing authors and review editors of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007.