Carbon Offsets as an Non-Altruistic Expense

post by Davidmanheim · 2019-12-03T11:38:21.223Z · score: 18 (13 votes) · EA · GW · 5 comments

Altruism is important, but so is basic personal responsibility - and basic personal responsibility arguably takes precedence. For instance, the cost of feeding myself and my family is important, but it's not altruistic. This is necessary for personal reasons. For obvious reasons, I budget for altruism separately from my personal expenses. That means that my kid's clothes and school costs, my vacations, my health care costs, and my retirement savings are all included in personal costs.

Perhaps the world would be better if some of these weren't personal expenses - if my health care and retirement were covered by government programs, and these were provided universally. A functioning economy can either include these as personal expenses, or include them as part of a government budget. That structural choice changes my personal responsibilities to my family by moving the cost of educating my children from my personal budget to the government's budget. It might even change my moral responsibility to help those in my country. To the extent that I have a responsibility to the world's poor, however, the governmental choice to cover or not cover my healthcare is irrelevant.

According to most economic theorists, a market economy can similarly choose the location for the costs of externalities. It is often more efficient to put externality costs on the people who generate the externality, rather than imposing those costs on those affected. This is why governments tax cigarettes and ban dumping waste into rivers. In some cases there are reasonable arguments that such externality costs shouldn't be internalized, since measurement is infeasible or easily corrupted, or because costs of enforcement are high, or because personal liberty or privacy is unduly affected. In each case, the governmental decision affects my personal budget in ways that have moral consequences.

Sometimes, this can be enforced legally, but not always. In cases where externalities are not fixed by governmental action, individuals still have a personal responsibility not to harm others. In cases where property rights do not compensate for the externalities, individuals still have moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

The argument to avert harm to others is not an altruistic claim. Instead, it is simply noticing a part of my basic personal responsibility. Given that, there is a glaring gap in governmental response to a specific externality that I have a personal responsibility to address - my carbon footprint.

If it were unduly burdensome to understand or to offset my personal impact, there might be a case that I am not required to go to great lengths to fix the problems. In fact, quantifying my impact (and that of my family) is remarkably easy. Similarly, if offsetting my impact was incredibly burdensome, I might be excused from doing so. But even using traditional, ineffective offsets, the cost for the average US household is only a few hundred dollars.

Instead, however, Vox's reporting found that I can offset my family's carbon yearly footprint far more effectively, and cheaply. There is a clear case for a moral responsibility to give at least the estimated $6 it would cost to offset the average family's carbon emissions by giving to the most effective program found. Given the uncertainty around the impacts of carbon offsets, I can afford to be risk averse and give 5 or 10 times that amount, and spread my donation across a couple of the most effective programs to account for the uncertainty. But even for those who cannot be quite so generous, or don't have much time, they can still take 5 minutes to just give the money.

5 comments

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comment by MaxGhenis · 2019-12-04T03:44:21.049Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like half of offsets: It's important to internalize externalities, and if the state has failed to do this with carbon pricing, it makes sense to self-assess a carbon tax to incentivize yourself to reduce emissions.

But once you've raised a certain amount from that self-assessed carbon tax, why limit to climate causes? Conversely, if Coalition for Rainforest Nations is the most cost-effective charity out there (8 metric tons of CO2 averted per dollar), then why only donate to it from your carbon tax bucket and not, say, your Giving What We Can bucket?

I admit I haven't done this yet, but if I were to approach the offsets issue, I'd self-assess a carbon tax and treat the proceeds as fungible contributions to my overall EA budget. Even with Coalition for Rainforest Nations' powerful effect in the climate sphere, it would probably not rank above other top EA charities, so I would not give to them.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2019-12-04T05:20:42.101Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Because society hasn't chosen to put in place a tax, I see the commitment as not just to self-tax, but rather to offset the harm being done. As I argued above, I don't think that internalizing externalities is an altruistic act. Conversely, I don't think that you can offset one class of harm to others with a generalized monetary penance, unless there is a social decision to tax to optimize the level of an activity. As an optimal taxation argument, spending the self-tax money on global poverty does internalize the externality, but it does not compensate for the specific harm.

I certainly agree that donations above the amount of harm done would be an altrustic act, and then the question is whether it's the most effective use of your altruism budget - and like you, I put that money elsewhere.

comment by MaxGhenis · 2019-12-04T06:02:53.775Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Would you still offset if society enacted a carbon fee-and-dividend, e.g. with the price equal to the social cost of carbon? Such a policy would also internalize the externality without compensating for the specific harm.

In part this may come down to whether you see climate change as a threat separate from other societal problems. I see it as a mechanism that takes its toll on broadly-comparable outcomes like DALYs and economic growth. From that perspective, the harms (and therefore the offsets) are comparable to the harms of, e.g., not providing bednets.

comment by Davidmanheim · 2019-12-04T19:22:29.104Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

No, because given a socially optimal level of carbon, there's no net harm to offset - any carbon emissions are net socially neutral, or positive. (That doesn't imply there are no distributional concerns, but I'd buy the argument that purchasing DALYs generally is better in that case.)

I'm not a strict utilitarian, and so the issue I have with offsetting harm A with benefit B is that harms affect different individuals. There was no agreement by those harmed by A that they are OK with being harmed as long as those who benefit from B are happier. This is similar to the argument against buying reductions in meat consumption, or reducing harm to animals in other cost effective ways, to offset eating meat yourself - the animals being killed didn't agree, even if there is a net benefit to animals overall.

comment by ishi · 2019-12-04T18:53:25.910Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I just skimmed this but it raises important issues (which of course have been discussed many times---often economic and philosophy papers).

(I partly skimmed it because i skimmed your 'preprint' paper linked to in another thread. I basically didn't figure out what it said, except I noted it cited Robert May's 'complexity and stability' book which is a classic, so I figured it said something--just not in my dialect.)

What really caught my attention (besides the author's name) was mention of 'vacation travel' as non-altruistic, but part of personal responsibility. The same issue applies less obviously to 'taking care of your kids'. In biology, having kids can be seen as either 'selfish' or 'altruistic' --perhaps some child grows up to a great altruist. Aldo taking a vacation may be indirectly altruistic. If you don't get some 'personal time', its possible you will not be able to take care of personal and family responsibilities, nor even be 'altruistic' (ie donate to various charities). You may help some others more if you take care of yourself enough to also help them.

The question is 'how much is enough'?

I personally donate the little I do to local and small groups dealing with environmental and poverty issues, as well at times to individuals (who can't make their bills---in a way this is taking care of myself---it keeps me on ok terms with people in my area, some of whom otherwise can get desperate and turn to criminal behavior.

In a sense i am paying a 'tax' for personal safety; which is why I support a some forms of 'social safety or welfare nets', and Universal or Conditional Basic Income . Also to an extent i am being 'altruistic' to people who are irresponsible---my donations 'keep the peace' around here, and while they provide some safety for me, they also provide safety for people who spend all their money on themselves (probably because they feel its a personal responsibility-and even altruistic in their own way. If they have some very expensive car , clothes, and house, their neighbors often like them--makes the nieghborhood aesthetic and a joy to live in. They would have less joy if they spent less on those, and relieved the 'suffering' among people who live a few blocks away who can't afford heat, water, food or electricity by giving it to them. Often they also do not support government services such as 'welfare' or 'rent subsidies', except perhaps police protection --because that means they have to pay more taxes.

Also many go to church, so if they do give to charity, its their church. A few churches do 'help the needy' using donations, though often the help they give is a small fraction of the donations they get---which often goes for good salaries spent on nice clothes and cars and so on for the church staff. Of course the people who make those cars and clothes benefit as well --provides them a job, especially if they like the job. If its not a '3rd world sweatshop' maybe they feel relativiely happy.
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