Friday, December 14, 2012

Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #10: What Does Sustainability Mean in the Age of Climate Change?

Sustainable development traditionally demands that we meet future generations’ needs without sacrificing the current generation’s needs. Since climate disruption already promises to compromise both current and future generations’ needs, climate disruption demands a refinement of our understanding of sustainable development. I would suggest that sustainable development demands approximating this ideal of meeting current and future generations’ needs as best we can, by minimizing damage to our attempt to meet the basic needs of both future and current generations. Concretely, this requires a transition to a zero-fossil-fuel economy as quickly as we can, while generating (probably through a carbon tax or sale of allowances) sufficient revenue to fund adaptation both here and in developing countries that will bear the most serious consequences. A fossil-fuel economy is not sustainable, because the resources it relies upon are not renewable and because carbon dioxide harms this generation and threatens to destroy future generations. Herman Daly’s definition of sustainability as demanding harvesting of renewable resources that do not exceed the rates at which these resources replace themselves probably needs revision in light of climate disruption. For resources that we need as carbon sinks or that are already dangerously depleted, we may need to embrace growth in the resource (when possible), rather than a steady state. 

In the United States, the political constraints on moving toward zero fossil fuels appear so formidable that it’s hard to think about a key question this leads to:  What does sustainability teach us about managing the costs of a transition to zero fossil fuels? But it’s a philosophically important question and will become practically important even in this country if the politics change significantly. First, the concept of sustainable development rules out delaying a transition to zero fossil fuels because of undifferentiated concerns about costs. For that reason, cost-benefit analysis does not help much in analyzing a policy’s sustainability. Sustainability concerns itself with meeting people’s basic needs, however we define that, and embraces sustaining quite significant decreases in surplus wealth if necessary to meet the basic needs of future generations (or this one). At the same time, sustainable development requires some attention to easing transitional impacts on low-income people and to ameliorating impacts associated with dislocating workers in the fossil-fuel industry, even if the green economy generates more jobs than we lose. 

My own work has been primarily focused on the problem of operationalizing sustainability (or something like it) when crafting pollution control policies and other policies affecting development (e.g. financial regulation).  Sustainability demands changes in the focus, goals, and methods we bring to bear on almost all areas of law. It requires a focus on the shape of change over time, rather than near term costs and benefits. It suggests a goal of avoiding systemic risk, not achieving efficiency at the margin. And it invites an analysis of economic incentives that aims at efficacy in avoiding systemic risk, by asking how government actions will influence the actions of boundedly rational institutions and individuals responding to incomplete information. 

The principal advantage of this elaboration involves its ability to directly address the pathologies emanating from neoclassical law and economics and to make the sustainability concept meaningful in other areas of law that influence development. One might argue that the deregulation of the financial industry advanced sustainable development, as it precipitated a rapid decline in carbon emissions as the economy collapsed. I would reject that conclusion on the grounds that it harms our efforts to meet current basic needs. We need to maintain basic social as well as environmental systems even as we drastically change the economy’s material basis and financial structure, as the goal of avoiding systemic risks implies. The economic dynamic concept described above (and elaborated in more detail in The Economic Dynamics of Law (Cambridge University Press 2012)) captures the change in thinking about how government operates that we will need to move us toward sustainability in the era of climate disruption.  

-- David M. Driesen

Climate Change, Economics, Governance/Management, Law, Sustainability | Permalink

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