Peter Singer

One Atmosphere (2002)


1.      We now have bizarre new ways of killing people

         a.      Seemingly harmless and trivial human actions can do this

         b.      “By spraying deodorant at your armpit in your New York apartment, you could, if you use an aerosol spray propelled by CFCs, be contributing to the skin-cancer deaths, many years later, of people living in Punta Arenas, Chile”

         c.      “By driving your car, you could be releasing carbon dioxide that is part of a causal chain leading to lethal floods in Bangladesh”


2.      Sue for CC damages?

         a.      Polluter pays suggests that poor countries affected by CC should be able to sue the rich countries for the harm they cause

                   i.       Just as it seems proper for Norway to sue England for damages caused by a British nuclear power plants emitting radioactive wastes that harm shellfish on Norwegian coastline

                   ii.      So an island nation should be able to sue the U.S. for allowing huge amounts of CO2 to warm the planet and flood homes on their island

3.      U.N. sanctions for these countries (Apartheid analogy)

         a.      More reason to sanction unfair GHG polluters than South Africa during apartheid

         b.      The case for sanctions against nations that cause fatal harm to citizens of other countries is even stronger than case for sanctions against South Africa during apartheid

         c.      For its policies were not a threat to other countries



5.      Cost arguments

         a.      One: Cheaper to adapt to climate change than mitigate

                   i.       Reply: Costs of mitigation not significant

                            (1)    Defer economic growth by a year; by 2051 would be as wealthy as would have been in 2050 (and people will be twice as wealthy as today)

         b.      Two: Money that would have been spent on mitigation would be better spent directly in helping the poor

                   i.       Reply: Unlikely rich give this $ to poor

                            (1)    Comparatively inefficient way of helping poor better than not helping at all

6.      C/B can’t appropriately price costs of CC

         a.      Doing Cost/Benefit on CC assumes it is acceptable to put a price on increased deaths due to tropical disease and flooding and to put a price on extinction of species and ecosystems

                   i.       Even if assume acceptable, how determine $ figure?

                            (1)    One method determining value of a life: How much lost income results from the death? Morally obnoxious?

                            (2)    Willingness to pay studies: What would you be willing to pay to prevent death of a loved one?

7.      Singer on discount rate

         a.      Discounts the future (not because inflation, constant dollars): A future cost or benefit is less important than one today

         b.      With 5% discount rate, losing 100 today equivalent to losing 95 in a year’s time, 92.5 in 2 years

                   i.       Only worth spending 14.20 today to make sure don’t lose 100 in 40 years

                   ii.      Because if I invested $14.20 today at 5% it would be worth $100 in 40 years

                   iii.     So 14 people dying today is just as bad as 100 people dying in 40 years? (So that if choose between 14 today and 99 in hundred years, choose the 99)

         c.      So not worth much to prevent future harms due to CC

                   i.       “Losses that occur in a century or more dwindle to virtually nothing”

         d.      Although our investments will grow over time and we will be richer, the price we are prepared to pay to save human lives or save endangered species may go up just as much.

                   i.       So discounting these makes no sense





10.    Atmosphere as a giant global sink into which we can pour our waste gases

         a.      Two arguments that might justify developed world’s use of the sink


11.    One: Okay to take more of that common resource than others because there is as much and as good left for others

12.    This is John Locke’s justification of owning private property in what once was owned in common by all

         a.      Mix labor with land and it becomes yours as long as as much and as good in common for others to appropriate

13.    Wastes down a sink example

         a.      In a village everyone puts wastes into giant sink and they don’t know what happens to them but don’t care as no adverse effects

         b.      Some consume a lot and have lots of wastes, while others are poorer and have hardly any wastes

         c.      No one cares as sink seems limitless

         d.      Use as much as you want and okay to use more that others

14.    When sink gets full and capacity to carry our wastes used up, lose our right to unchecked waste disposal

         a.      Sink starts to fill up, unpleasant seepage, smells in warm weather, algal blooms in nearby lakes kids swim in, respected leaders say village water supplies will be polluted unless stop

         b.      If continue to put wastes down sink, not leaving as much and as good for others

         c.      Sink belongs to all in common

         d.      By using w/o restrictions, we deprive others of their right to use the sink in same way w/o bringing about results none of us wants


15.    Two: Okay to take more than our fair share of the common resource of the atmosphere because doing so makes everyone better off (than if we had only taken our fair share) – because we have used this extra so productively

         a.      Singer believes this claim is mistaken

         b.      World’s poor have not benefitted from increased productivity that has resulted from industrialized nations use of the global sink

                   i.       Poor can’t afford to buy the products of industrial nations

                   ii.      CC will harm them severely


16.    Argument for compensation

         a.      Rich got rich by stealing common resources of humanity; rich’s current wealth unfairly gained

                   i.       Developed world uses up to 15 times as much as developing world of atmospheric sink and thus we deprive those living in developing world of opportunity to develop like we have

                   ii.      If they behaved as we do not, there would be a CC catastrophe

         b.      Rich, by appropriating much, much more than their fair share of a common resource, deprive the poor of their ability to develop w/o leading to a catastrophe

         c.      Since wealth of developed world linked to use of carbon fuels for 200 years (and ongoing), present global distribution of wealth is result of wrongful expropriation by small fraction of world’s peoples of a resource belonging to all humanity

         d.      Requires compensation

17.    Who should pay the bill for plumber: Divide it up proportionally to causal responsibility

         a.      People should pay in proportion to contribution to problem

                   i.       U.S. 5% of pop, 30% emissions, India 17% of population, 2% emissions

                   ii.      Old numbers, but more recent numbers could be used to make same point


18.    Developed nations broke the atmosphere and should fix it

         a.      Developed nations owe the rest of the world to fix the problem with the atmosphere

         b.      At presents rates of emissions developing world won’t reach develop world’s built up contribution of CO2 until 2038

         c.      If figure it per capita, will take at least century


19.    Tree planting counter argument

         a.      U.S. tree planting in recent decades soaked up more carbon than it released

         b.      U.S. has growing forests, only because cut them earlier (and released C02)

         c.      Depends on when date set

         d.      If date begins when U.S. cut all its trees, we come out worse off

         e.      If date begins after cutting and before reforestation, we come out okay

         f.       Forest growth not long term solution

                   i.       Forests soaking up carbon only temporarily while trees growing

                   ii.      When old tree dies for every new one grows, forest no longer soaks up much carbon

         g.      Also the issue about we are lucky to be able to grow trees and other nations are not (not enough rain)

                   i.       Perhaps this is something we have a right to disproportionately benefit from?



21.    Ignorance argument: Since most of developed nations contributions to GHG done when they could not have known of its limits

         a.      Fairer to look to future, not past–start fresh

22.    Reply 1:

         a.      Ignorance no excuse; strict liability for those who can pay (e.g., corporations)

         b.      Especially when they have benefitted from the harm caused

23.    Reply 2:

         a.      Should only wipe slate clean to 1990 when for 1st IPCC report made and not also with pollution since

24.    Singer says: Let’s assume poor nations generously overlook the past


25.    One: Equal share for everyone

         a.      Find out what level of CO2 is acceptable and divide by everyone in the world

         b.      If want to stabilize GHG at present level, everyone gets 1 metric ton per year

                   i.       U.S. 5; Japan, Europe, Australia 4.2, most below 3

                   ii.      Developing world average 0.6 and china at .76, India .29

         c.      U.S. must reduce emissions by 1/5

                   i.       India can increase 3x, China up 33%

         d.      Objection: No incentive to respond to population growth (growing pop would force everyone else in world to have less per person)

                   i.       Reply: Use fixed population # (would encourage people lower pop as then each in a country would get more per person)

                   ii.      Use fixed populations projection of future, since if use current number puts unfair burden on countries with many more young people


26.    Two: Aiding the worst off

                   i.       This discussion moves between equality of GHG emissions and equality of wealth overall

         b.      Rawls difference principle: Only depart from equality if it is to the benefit of the worst off

                   i.       Give more to some if so doing provides incentive to do things that benefit the worst off.

         c.      Only accept distribution of GHG is one that improves situation of those who through no fault of their own are at the bottom of the heap (poor, developing countries)

                   i.       Reject any distribution that reduced living standard of poor as long as rich are clearly better off

                   ii.      E.g, can’t set limits on U.S. that only force us to drive more fuel efficient cars, if this means Chinese can’t drive at all

         d.      Only reason rich shouldn’t bear all the costs of reducing emissions is that this would make the poor nations worse off than they would be if rich did not bear all the costs


         e.      Conclusion: Principle require distribution of resources to improve level of worst off–given huge gap rich and poor, makes rich nations bear all costs of changes for CC



28.    Simple, suitable for political compromise, and increase global welfare

29.    Support equal per capita future entitlements to share of atmosphere tied to projections of population in 2050

30.    Too harsh on developed world?

         a.      Reply: Less harsh than historically based polluter pays, you broke it you fix it principle

                   i.       Which would insist that developing world produce much less that equal per capita share

31.    Emissions trading can make transition of developed world to equal per capita emissions much easier

         a.      Emissions trading beneficial like trade is:

                   i.       If you can buy something from someone else more cheaply than you can produce it, you are better off buying it than making it

         b.      Countries that were below their allowable share would have no motive to keep it below if not allowed to emissions trade (e.g., Russia)

         c.      Give the poorest nations something rich nations want and something they can trade in exchange for resources they desperately need.

         d.      This is fair, utilitarian and gets developing world in the GHG control game, but requires they agree to binding quotas


         e.      Some believe emissions trading allows U.S. to avoid its burdens too easily


32.    Objection to emission trading: Poor countries get benefits that would go to dictators and not people in those countries who need it

         a.      Singer suggests U.N. Trust fund hold money until country can prove it will use it to benefit its people


33.    Pure fantasy recommendation?

         a.      Given political reality that we spurned Kyoto when it would allow us to pollute at 4 times our per capita share

         b.      Ethical discussion shows how flagrantly self-serving position of those developing countries who refuse to cut GHG is

         c.      Knowing what is a fair solution will help citizens change these policies


Questions on Singer, One Atmosphere
1. Using an example, explain what Singer means when he says we have bizarre new ways of killing people.
2. Explain Singer’s attitude about suing for damages caused by climate change.
3. Does Singer believe U.N. sanctions are justified against carbon polluting nations? Relate this to the apartheid analogy
4. What are some objections to pricing the costs of CC that Singer discusses?
5. What is the discount rate and what are some objections to it?
6. Use Singer’s village sink example and the idea that there is as much and as good left in common for others to explain moral dimensions of releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
7. Have the poor of the world benefitted from the rich’s carbon emissions?
8. What is Singer’s argument that the wealthy developed world owes the developing world compensation
9. Explain the “tree planting counter-argument” to the claim the U.S. is a carbon polluter and Singer’s response to it.
10. How does Singer respond to the objection that the developed world was ignorant of the harm caused by CO2 emissions and so is not responsible for that harm caused?
11. Explain Singer’s “equal per capita emissions proposal” and how Singer proposed to respond to the problem that it might give an incentive to increase populations.
12. What is emissions trading? How might it make it easier for the developed world to meet GHG goals? What are the arguments for and against it?