Local Responsibility for a Global Problem: Juliana v. the U.S.

The following is the text of the speech that Liz Stanton gave at Wednesday night’s event at Tufts University celebrating the life and work of Frank Ackerman, one of the founders of Dollars & Sense, who died in late July. 

I’d like to talk about some very recent work of Frank’s.

Frank wrote an expert report wrote last year and made a deposition in that same case. Some of you may have heard of it.

Twenty-one kids are suing the U.S. government for knowingly failing to protect them from climate change. It’s Juliana v. the United States, filed in 2015. It’s been tossed back and forth between courts, included the U.S. Supreme Court for going on four years and has yet to see an actual hearing, a day in court for those kids, some of whom are now young adults.

In his expert report on behalf of Kelsey Juliana and her 20 co-plaintiffs, Frank explains that the conventional methods of economic analysis employed by the federal government in its decision making undervalue or dismiss altogether serious risks of climate damage. He writes about some pretty wonky, esoteric topics: the discount rate, fat-tailed distributions, contingent valuation, and credible worst-case risk assessment. He was one of quite a few witnesses offered by the plaintiffs. But it’s his testimony—full of formal economic theory, moral philosophy, and a chapter on pricing the priceless—it’s that testimony on which the judgment in this case may well hinge, if it ever gets that day in court.

The key issue for the justice department really shines through in Frank’s deposition, a 300-page transcript of their interview in which the justice department’s lawyer frequently pleads with Frank to, please, for the love of god answer a yes or no question with a yes or a no so that we can all catch our flights. Frank responds saying that a simple yes or no can be misleading without explaining the context and that he had “spent a career explaining these things to people, and it’s not something you can turn off on a dime.”

Local responsibility for a global problem. That’s the key issue in Juliana v. the United States on the government’s responsibility for future climate damages. And it’s also the key in other legal proceedings brought before state and federal authorities regarding what kind of energy infrastructure we should be building today. Local responsibility for a global problem.

The argument goes something like this: Hey, look, we admit it. The U.S. is responsible for some share of global greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. emissions are 15 percent of the global total and U.S. government activities account for, maybe 5 percent of that 15 percent…Let’s round up and call it 1 percent of global emissions. Now, our 1 percent is not the cause of climate change and stopping our 1 percent isn’t the cure for climate change. So why should we do it? Why should we impose additional taxes on U.S. residents to pay for greenhouse gas mitigation activities that by themselves are doomed to fail.

Now I’m sure, given the audience, that many of you sitting here have already given this some thought and have a host of reasons why, in fact, the U.S. should pay to protect kids from climate change. You would tell the justice department that U.S. responsibility is the whole 15 percent, not just 5 percent of the 15 percent. You would point out the rather obvious folly of running our lives, much less our government, using this kind of reductive logic. Some of you might even get a bit irritated and start talking about Immanuel Kant and ask: what if everyone behaved that way?

And don’t worry, Frank had your back on this. He said all of those things. Frank also had some things to say about value. And dignity.

Asked whether the environment’s worth is best determined by the question, what would you pay to prevent damage or what would you pay to buy the right to inflict damage, Frank said:

“I believe that the public owns the environment. It’s our common birthright. It’s what we hope we will be passing on to future generations, and the people who want to pollute it should have to [pay for] it.”

When asked about uncertain climate outcomes, Frank said:

“Climate change is a science experiment we’re all doing once, and we won’t know until it’s over exactly how bad it turned out to be…[Precise answers aren’t available.]…I think it would be very dangerous to wait for [them]. You can make up a number and say this is a precise number. But, you know, is it better to be precisely wrong than to be generally accurate…Economists do often play a pick-a-number game, and it often involves ignoring the really serious catastrophic risks.”

The justice department’s lawyer also tried to get Frank to agree that economics is “the study of the efficient allocation of scarce resources”. And Frank acknowledged that that was one piece of economics.

This is about local responsibility for a global problem. Economists, like Frank, like many of us here, may get mistaken for mathematicians or accountants or stock brokers. But numbers are the medium for economics. They’re not the subject that we study.

Frank was, throughout his career, a moral philosopher. Sorting through very practical questions of value and dignity, distribution and equity, right and wrong, and how to think about human beings that have not yet been born. His testimony in Juliana v. the United States lands smack in the middle of the kind of ethical question that has occupied economists since the Enlightenment: how do we translate collective goods, or bads, into individual rights and responsibilities.

Frank would ask us—and ask the U.S. government—to weigh monetary costs against unmonetizable benefits. And to recognize when the only solution to a global problem requires the whole world’s participation, that reducing our moral responsibility to the isolated impacts of individual action is petty, specious, and really not the way anything important has ever gotten done in global history.

He’d say that Rome (as it were) is burning and the U.S. government is playing a pick-a-number game, telling us 1 percent of nothing is nothing.

He’d say that the cost of making our planet inhabitable is infinite and that even if you insist on pretending this is a math problem, that plugging infinite avoided costs into cost-benefit equations leads to only one conclusion: Do whatever it takes and do it now.

Liz Stanton is director and senior economist at Applied Economics Clinic. She and Frank Ackerman were frequent co-authors and collaborators. 

 

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