Climate Ethics and Climate Economics: Risk, Uncertainty and Catastrophe Scenarios

Report by Simon Beard, Kai Speikerman
Published on 08 May 2017

Workshop summary

Economic analyses of the effects of global warming often focus on the scenarios analysts believe are most likely to materialize. However, in recent years, both economists and moral philosophers have paid increasing attention to the possibility that climate change could prove much worse than we expect. However, it is not clear just how likely such possibilities are. Analysts and decision makers thus confront the problem of decision not only under risk, but under uncertainty. How should we respond?

One keynote speaker—Hilary Greaves (Oxford University) addressed the problem of ‘cluelessness’ about the consequences of our actions, and its implications for the effective altruism movement. The other, Doyne Farmer (Oxford), discussed the prediction of the effects of future forms of technology. John Halstead (Oxford) and Matthew Rendall (Nottingham) presented papers on decision making when we are uncertain which empirical or moral theories are true, while Elizabeth Baldwin (Oxford) and Kieran Marray (Oxford) examined high-stakes decision making with limited information. Mariam Thalos (Utah) discussed under which circumstances precautionary policy is appropriate rather than the maximization of expected utility, and Iñaki San Pedro (University of the Basque Country) addressed the problem of motivation in dealing with catastrophic risks. Tina Sikka (Newcastle) related feminist epistemology to scientific uncertainty, and Eike Düvel (Graz) examined moral and political problems connected with stranded carbon assets.

Coupled with the workshop were two public lectures by our keynote speakers. Opening the conference, Doyne Farmer argued that compared with the study of natural processes like climate change, we actually have a poor understanding of our collective effects on our own societies, and that greater resources could and should be devoted to understanding it. At its close, Hilary Greaves examined the connection between population growth and climate change, and argued that while it may well be a problem, the relationship is not a simple or linear one.

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