Anti-Environmentalism for the Good of the Poors

[Note to readers: In my new Verdict column today, "Democracy Is Dying, But We Do Not Have to Lose Our Souls," I confront one of the more shocking comments that I have seen recently from a non-Republican.  Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist Max Boot casually but enthusiastically encouraged Joe Biden to contrive a "Sister Souljah Moment," suggesting that Democrats distance themselves from anti-racists by targeting and denouncing people who Boot thinks are harming the Democrats' brand.
[I honestly never thought that I would see someone invoke the Sister Souljah controversy as a positive model for political strategy -- certainly not someone who otherwise so often makes intelligent contributions to the political discourse.  I frame my shocked response around an extended reference to a Stanley Kubrick film, "Paths of Glory."  That rhetorical setup might or might not work for readers, but I thought it was important to put under the glare of an appropriately harsh light Boot's bland suggestion that Democrats should scapegoat relatively powerless people (which, by the way, would potentially put those political patsies in very real danger).
[In any case, as I mention in that column, I hope at the very least that some people will now decide to watch that classic film.  It happens to be a great courtroom drama, which fits with the legal themes of Dorf on Law and Verdict.  But sometimes, greatness is simply greatness and should be enjoyed for the pure beauty of it.]
By Neil H. Buchanan

Two days ago, in "The WhatAreYaGonnaDo Response to Climate Change" here on Dorf on Law, I responded in part to a soft-spoken rendition of climate denialism.  That is, a colleague at one of my recent talks had stated in matter-of-fact terms a triumvirate of claims to insist that the government should not try to address climate change.  The first two arguments were that (almost all) scientists might be wrong and that the climate changes naturally, both of which we usually encounter in shrieking tones on right-wing media or on Republican politicians' web pages and Twitter accounts.

Tuesday's column included my brief response to the first point about scientific uncertainty, followed by a much longer response to the claim that the climate changes naturally (which is where the title of the piece came from).  Rather than provide even a brief thumbnail of the argument, I will leave it to readers to go back to that column, if they so desire.  I do want to emphasize that those two arguments are pretty much all that we ever get from the right on climate change.

The third argument, while not new, is relatively unknown and has the twist of seeming to put progressives on defense by asserting that there is a tradeoff between two of our core commitments: helping poor people and fighting climate change.  Is it true that we should be burning more coal to help poor people, so that the most humane path forward is to trash the planet by letting private industry do whatever it wants?  No, but at least this argument has some interesting twists and turns.

As I noted in Tuesday's column, I raised climate change during my lecture in the context of a discussion of intergenerational justice.  That is, the analysis of environmental questions is arguably the leading example of a situation in which our answers change significantly when we expand our framework to include children, grandchildren, and generations beyond.  Unlike other very important policy issues, such as preventing murder, that are neither more nor less pressing in an intergenerational context, the climate's long-term damage becomes the essential component of any analysis that purports to take into account the interests of people beyond those who are making decisions today.

On the way to making that point, I recounted an example that my colleague offered regarding a completely different issue: "[M]y questioner made a good, separate point that the people who favored Brexit did so because they thought that they owed their children and grandchildren a United Kingdom that was 'for the British, not subservient to unanswerable bureaucrats in Brussels.'"  I then wrote: "Quite so.  If intergenerational appeals merely mean 'doing something I like because I say it's for the benefit of future people,' then pretty much anything that will change the future can be justified as an intergenerational issue."
I later went back and replaced "Quite so" with "I am quite sure that is what they thought, but this merely exposes the problem with that rhetorical move."  Why the change?  "Quite so" was too cryptic, and it might have been read to suggest that I was agreeing with the idea that Britain is for Britons only, and screw the EU.  To be emphatically clear, I reject all of that.  Instead, I was trying to say that such a hijacking of the "for our kids and grandkids" framing merely highlights its emptiness.
And it is hardly limited to Brexit.  Some unhinged adults, largely driven by AstroTurf organizers and egged on by the right-wing mediaverse, are now screaming in American school board meetings about how "my kids are upset by learning about racism," or "my grandkids shouldn't be taught to hate themselves," or whatever.  It is trivially easy to use the emotional framing of future generations for any purpose one likes.  For as much as I like the seven-generations theme that environmentalists have adapted (apparently incorrectly) from Native American lore, I am obviously uncomfortable when someone else invokes a thousand-year Reich and says that future generations of Aryans will be better off if inferior races are exterminated.
The point is that there is nothing magical about invoking the interests of future generations -- or more accurately, that doing so does not relieve us of the work of making philosophical assessments and reaching moral judgments.  If even bigots and xenophobes can tug at our heartstrings with intergenerational arguments, then we know that it is not nearly enough to cry, "Won't someone think of the children?!"

All of which nicely tees up the "pollution for the poors" argument.  As I explained in some of my earliest academic articles addressing intergenerational justice, there is an interesting moral distinction between two categories of future generations.  If we literally mean our children and grandchildren, then we most likely mean today's young people.  Greta Thunberg is currently young, and she speaks for the interests of today's young people, nearly all of whom appear to be rightly dismayed that the middle-aged and older people who run the world are not thinking nearly enough about how the world will look in ten, twenty, or fifty years.

But another way to think about future generations is to draw the line between the already-born and the not-yet-born.  That distinction matters because of what philosophers call the Nonidentity Problem.  Suppose that we think about the people who will be born into a climate hellscape, and we think: "Wow, we can't do this to those people.  We have to make their lives better!"  But because none of the people in question have yet been born, the acts necessary to improve future climate outcomes will also change who is born (in a sort of butterfly's-wings effect).  Therefore, the people whose lives we were trying to improve will have no lives at all.  Other potential people get to have lives, and those lives are better than the hellscape-inhabiters' lives would have been, but the choice regarding the first group is not between living a worse life or a better life.  It is between living a worse life or not living at all.

Why is this important?  The standard hypothetical scenario goes like this: Suppose that we could guarantee that all people living today will live better lives than they otherwise will be fated to live, but doing so will require destroying the planet and making it uninhabitable for anyone after the natural lifespan of today's youngest people ends.  Everyone with an identity today gets a good life.  All nonidentifed people are either mercifully not brought into existence, or they are born into a world that will end prematurely (for them).

As I emphasize when I choose to focus on this question in my lectures, this is an interesting moral dilemma.  People alive today -- billions of them -- are going to live unnecessarily miserable lives, many of them cut short for no better reason than that they were born on the wrong continent (or sometimes merely on the wrong side of the tracks, or with the wrong skin color or family religious background).  Are their interests morally less important than those of people who might never exist?

I am not saying that there is an easy answer to the question, of course.  I am saying instead that there is a progressive, egalitarian argument that has moral import and that cuts in the opposite direction of climate protection.  The point is that one could devise a hypothetical world in which people knowingly and morally destroy the planet, if doing so uses the earth's resources in a way that prefers the dignity and needs of existing people over those who need not be brought into existence.  (Again, I know that there are counter-arguments.)

Going back to my mild-mannered colleague, then, he has a potentially much stronger point here than he had when he merely parroted the "science can be wrong, and besides, the climate changes all the time" nonsense.  The problem, however, lies in the word "potentially" in that last sentence.  As I said in response during the seminar last week, no politician today (as far as I have ever heard) is in fact arguing that we need to pollute, pollute, pollute BUT make sure that all of the material benefits of doing so are directed to the people who can most benefit.  Even setting aside environmental racism and other location effects (dumping waste in countries where the most poor people live, for example), we are not saying: "Let's withdraw from the Paris Accords so that we can help the poor."

This is analogous to a point that I made a few years ago in a very different context.  Commenting on the book by my colleagues Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, I noted a common rhetorical move used by those who want to "get" vegans.  The claim is that there is nothing wrong with eating animals, because one could imagine a situation in which eating an animal's dead carcass does not violate the stated ethics of vegans like me.  For example, if an animal were to die of natural causes in my back yard, I would not be participating in the torture or killing of that animal if I were to eat it.

There are other reasons why I would not eat that animal, but what matters here is that it is true that there are situations in which "eating meat" is not automatically tied to the horrors of conveyor-belt-delivered agony and death that typify meat production.  Even though that is true, however, the argument falls apart at the next step: "So because you could imagine eating an animal without violating your ethics, you've admitted that it is ethical to eat animals.  Now, let's go to Outback!"

As I put it in my book comment, that conclusion relies on the same logical fallacy as saying that because there are situations in which it is acceptable to kill a person (self-defense), killing people is per se acceptable.  Or that because there are situations in which it is acceptable to have sex with another person (with consent), having sex with another person is acceptable in every situation.  Once one thinks about it, this is perhaps the weirdest slippery slope argument on offer: I can do anything I want so long as I can find one situation in which doing it would be OK.  Floodgates, indeed.

The idea that there are situations in which one could justify polluting in the service of doing something that is morally important, then, leaves us in a similar spot.  Cranking up the extraction and burning of fossil fuels because doing so could result in a better material existence for currently miserable people is not enough, any more than is the old story that frat bros use to justify date rape: "I heard that she did it with some other guy, so I know she does it."  The moral conditions have to be met before the outcome is justified.  All of the conditions, not only the convenient and self-serving ones.

In the end, then, using the hypothetical misery reduction that could have resulted from increased pollution is yet another dodge from climate change deniers.  It has a more interesting internal logic than the other denialist arguments, but it ends at the same place: making bad-faith excuses for keeping people like the Kochs as rich as they want to be.
And if we are going to engage in hypotheticals, we can just as easily say that this very rich country could give assistance to all of those angry former industrial workers who have now turned to Trumpism, to make it easier to deal with transitions to climate friendliness.  But wait: That is something that Democrats have in fact favored for decades.  I wonder why it never seems to happen.