Climate change triage.

Author:Sachs, Noah M.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. A TRIAGE FRAMEWORK FOR CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION A. The Atmosphere As a Scarce Natural Resource B. Allocating the Scarce Atmospheric Resource 1. Intragenerational Climate Change Triage 2. Intergenerational Climate Change Triage C. The Current Allocation of the Atmospheric Resource D. Triage Without Triage Personnel III. TRIAGE ETHICS IN CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION A. The Triage Ethics Literature B. Substantive Principles for Triage 1. Utilitarian Triage Ethics 2. Egalitarian Triage Ethics 3. Market-Based Distributions in Triage C. Utilitarianism, Egalitarianism, and the Market in Climate Change Mitigation D. Triage and Corrective Justice IV. FOUR IMPLICATIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE TRIAGE A. Recognize Shortage Conditions B. Fulfill Responsibilities to Vulnerable Populations C. Distribute Emissions Rights on an Egalitarian Basis D. Conduct Long-Term Planning for Economic Transition V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    As the earth warms this century, governments will confront tragic choices, and new frameworks of law and ethics will be needed to govern our relationship to the natural world and to each other. Global climate change will cause severe food and water scarcity, resource conflict, and sea-level rise that will threaten major cities. (1) Many nations will become overwhelmed by these impacts, and some nations will likely be destroyed. Already, Pacific island nations are evacuating their citizens as they lose their territory to the rising seas. (2) Warming at the high range of estimates for this century, five to six degrees Celsius (9 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit), would be civilization-altering. (3) It would constitute more than a 35% increase in the average surface temperature of the planet since the middle of the twentieth century. (4)

    These massive ecological changes will likely give rise to new legal regimes and ethical values that we can scarcely envision. Older, twentieth century frameworks for human interaction with nature, such as Garret Hardin's tragedy of the commons (5) or Aldo Leopold's land ethic, (6) provide little guidance for the hard choices on resource allocation and survival that we face in a warming world.

    Triage provides a new, twenty-first century framework. Triage comes from the French trier, which means to pick or cull. (7) It refers to allocation of scarce resources under life-and-death conditions--disaster, war, medical emergency, or calamity--where the needs of all claimants exceed the available resource supply. (8)

    The literature on triage ethics, which has emerged from disparate fields such as military medicine, organ donation, and disaster response, is directly relevant to the allocation dilemmas of climate change. Indeed, the triage ethics literature addresses one of the central questions of the climate change era: How can just policy solutions be implemented in situations of immense scarcity? No scholar, however, has engaged with this triage ethics literature for insights into climate change policy. (9)

    This Article is the first to explore solutions for climate change mitigation through the lens of triage ethics, bringing together perspectives from law, philosophy, moral theory, and economics. The politics of climate change have been thoroughly dominated by economic considerations, (10) especially in the United States, and the triage framework I develop here helps to widen the discourse: It squarely highlights the need for moral accountability and allocative fairness. Climate negotiators from over 190 countries are slated to meet in Paris in 2015 to finalize a new global climate change agreement, (11) and new perspectives on the core allocation dilemmas of the treaty are urgently needed.

    To slow the rate of warming, policy makers need to triage a scarce resource, the atmosphere's capacity to absorb greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that the atmosphere can absorb no more than 3,670 billion tons of carbon dioxide since the middle of the nineteenth century if warming is to remain within two degrees Celsius, (12) the warming limit identified by most climate scientists as reasonably safe. (13) Because we have emitted about 1,890 billion tons since that time, we have already used half of the available carbon budget, and emissions are rising fast. (14) Many analysts have concluded that humanity will exhaust the remaining carbon budget within three decades if the current intensive path of greenhouse gas emissions continues. (15) Indeed, in a finding that clearly demonstrates the triage situation we face, the IPCC recently concluded that global greenhouse gas emissions must reach "near zero" by 2100 to keep warming below two degrees Celsius. (16)

    Governments now face a two-fold challenge as they debate a new climate change agreement: first, they need to preserve this scarce atmospheric resource as long as possible by limiting global emissions; and second, they need to allocate this scarce atmospheric space fairly among themselves.

    Seen in this light, the climate crisis is the first global-scale triage crisis, yet we are failing to recognize it in these terms. (17) If policy makers were to follow triage principles, they would be forced to confront hard questions: Is there a sustainable use of the limited atmospheric resource? If so, who should have access to it? And what formula or principle should guide the allocation?

    The triage framework outlined in this Article addresses these questions and takes seriously the finite carbon emissions budget. This framework offers normative guidance for climate treaty negotiators from the United States and other countries and rules out policies, including the current path of global emissions, that would tolerate warming far beyond two degrees Celsius. It also puts options on the table, such as per capita distribution of emissions rights, that are currently marginalized in the United Nations talks. (18) The triage lens generates a climate change discourse focused on ecological preservation and public health. It forces us to think socially rather than individually. It therefore serves as an important framework for advancing justice during the "long emergency" of climate change. (19)

    In surveying the triage ethics literature, I identify three principles that could potentially serve as a basis for allocating scarce atmospheric space: utilitarian principles, traditionally applied in contexts such as battlefield and emergency medicine; egalitarian principles, traditionally applied in contexts such as distribution of emergency food and shelter; and a market-based distribution, the most common way that societies allocate scarce goods in non-emergency situations. (20)

    In allocating scarce emissions rights through an international treaty, I argue, the dominant principle of justice should be egalitarianism. Every person on earth is a legitimate claimant on the atmosphere's capacity to absorb emissions, regardless of race, geography, wealth, or nationality. In allocating a vital natural resource like the atmosphere--owned by no one and held in common--an equal per capita distribution should be the starting point for discussion.

    The other two alternatives have serious drawbacks as principles to guide climate change law. A market-based distribution of emissions rights, based on ability to pay, would cripple the development of poor nations and privilege the wealthiest nations, which have become wealthy in large part by burning fossil fuels--the largest source of greenhouse gases. Utilitarian approaches to the allocation dilemma are problematic because there is no globally agreed upon conception of the good we are trying to promote in allocating scarce atmospheric space. Contenders might include gross domestic product (GDP) growth, per capita GDP growth, other indicators of human development, environmental preservation, religious commitment, or even a vague goal such as human happiness. (21)

    My support for egalitarian allocation principles challenges the work of scholars such as Cass Sunstein, Eric Posner, and David Weisbach, who have argued that a just solution for climate change can be derived from welfarist principles aimed at maximizing net monetized return for negotiating parties. (22) Their perspective is unduly narrow and ignores important issues of equity. Their welfarist approach, grounded in utilitarianism, suggests that some nations or populations are more deserving than others of atmospheric space, yet attempts to engage in a sorting of the deserving would eviscerate international support for a climate change treaty.

    While analyzing the merits and drawbacks of these three approaches to climate change triage, I also show that current climate change policies reflect none of these approaches. We are instead engaging in a global free-for-all of greenhouse gas emissions, proceeding along no principled path. Collectively, we are engaging in a chaotic run on the available supply of the atmosphere's capacity to absorb emissions. (23)

    There are many differences, of course, between traditional triage contexts and the "super wicked problem" of climate change. (24) Atmospheric space is not, strictly speaking, a life-saving resource. Rather, it is the misuse or failure to conserve this resource that threatens human life. Moreover, because there are no duly empowered global triage personnel, no allocation system for climate change mitigation can be imposed by fiat, unlike in emergency room or battlefield triage contexts. (25)

    These are important limitations on the use of triage ethics in climate change law, and they are discussed further in this Article. The point of this Article, however, is not to suggest that triage ethics can dictate all the innumerable details of a climate change treaty, but rather it is to offer a framework for considering the resource allocation decisions we face. By examining the ethical principles that have historically governed triage, I aim to highlight alternatives...

To continue reading