CRF Blog

Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats

by Bill Hayes

Writing in the New Republic, Amartya Sen argues that Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention.

I would like to comment on two quite different, but ultimately related, areas of neglected environmental analyses that demand immediate attention. The first is the general problem of not having anything like an overall normative framework, involving ethics as well as science, that could serve as the basis of debates and discussions on policy recommendations. Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge. The second is a much more specific problem: the failure to develop a framework for assessing the comparative costs of different sources of energy (from fossil fuels and nuclear power to solar and renewable energy), inclusive of the externalities involved, which can take many different forms. (By externalities, I mean the consequences that operate outside the market and that market prices do not reflect, such as the release of pollutants into the air, of effluents into rivers and public water supplies, of radiation into the atmosphere.) One of the externalities — the evil effects of carbon emission — has received enormous attention, which in its context is a very good thing, but there are other externalities that also demand our urgent attention. These include the growing danger from the rapidly increasing use of nuclear energy — in China and India especially, where the use of nuclear energy is gathering momentum and large expansions are being planned, but also elsewhere. The dangers of nuclear energy have received astonishingly little systematic attention in scientific and policy discussions. Environmental thinking has to be multi-directional rather than single-focused, even if the focus is something as important as the climatic threats from carbon emissions.

Not only is the large issue of making reasoned estimates of the externalities — including probabilistic evaluation — of energy production and energy use largely neglected, but the lack of a normative framework also contributes to ignoring the benefits from greater energy use on which the lives of billions of deprived people in the world depend. Since the emphasis on cutting emissions, if necessary by lesser energy use, has become an almost universal position among environmentalists, I shall begin by noting some persistent biases in thinking about the benefits and penalties of energy use in different forms in the contemporary world.

First, 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. There would appear to be an insufficient recognition in global discussion of the need for increased power in the poorer countries. 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.

Second, there is insufficient recognition of an empirical fact that at first glance may seem rather trivial, but which has much greater importance than may be immediately recognized. Many areas of the world where poverty is common are also particularly sunny and offer hugely underappreciated opportunities for the generation and use of solar power …. [more]