One of the Trumpian questions that the US administration poses to the world is whether we should we care about people beyond our borders.

In a comment that was published today, I discuss one particular way that this could matter which relates to climate change (Mintz-Woo 2018). When deciding how to act, governments employ something called the “social cost of carbon”. This is an estimate of the monetary harm to society that each additional (“marginal”) increase in carbon produces. If the social cost of carbon is high, then public policies which could increase carbon would be harder to justify and more likely to be rejected; if the social cost of carbon is low, then carbon emitting will be easier to justify.

In terms of a social cost of carbon, we can think about the Trumpian question in a very particular way. Indeed, the administration has already done so. In March 2017, it produced the Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth. Part of this executive order concerned whether the social cost of carbon should include costs to non-domestic (i.e. non-American) people. The order said it should not; effectively only Americans matter for American policy.

This actually would make the social cost of carbon more like the costs of other types of policy where international impacts are not included (Fraas et al. 2016, Gayer & Viscusi 2017, and the response by Revesz et al. 2017). Should the social cost of carbon be different from these other social costs as previous administrations accepted, or is the Trump administration right that American policies should limit their concern to Americans?

I argue that there are two reasons that the social cost of carbon should include non-domestic (i.e. global) costs (Mintz-Woo 2018).

First, the costs that carbon leads to are predominantly global not domestic. In the contexts where the harms are global, we morally ought to follow when other countries are incorporating global harms in order to increase international reciprocity (for evidence about other countries, cf. Howard & Schwartz 2017, Appendix B). This allows us to reinforce moral norms and avoid poaching the international commons of an unpolluted atmosphere.

Second, the mechanisms by which carbon is spread are physically well-understood. They are not subject to sufficient uncertainty that we could claim ignorance about whether carbon emitted in one country would travel to another or not.

These two arguments suggest that we should indeed morally care about those beyond our borders in the case of climate change (although, perhaps, not in the case of other kinds of public policies). The social cost of carbon is in these two respects importantly different from other kinds of public policy so, I argue, the social cost of carbon should be global.

[For more, please read my paper. It is open-access, so freely available to everyone.]

Works Cited:

Fraas, A., Lutter, R., Dudley, S., Gayer, T., Graham, J., Shogren, J. F., & Viscusi, W. K. (2016). Social cost of carbon: Domestic duty. Science, 351(6273), 569.

Gayer, T., & Viscusi, W. K. (2017). Letter—The Social Cost of Carbon: Maintaining the Integrity of Economic Analysis—A Response to Revesz et al. (2017). Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 11(1), 174–175.

Howard, P. H., & Schwartz, J. A. (2017). Think Global: International Reciprocity as Justification for a Global Social Cost of Carbon. Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 42(Symposium Issue), 203–294.

Mintz-Woo, K. (2018). Two Moral Arguments for a Global Social Cost of Carbon. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 21(1), 60–63.

Revesz, R. L., Schwartz, J. A., Howard, P. H., Arrow, K. J., Livermore, M. A., Oppenheimer, M., & Sterner, T. (2017). Letter—The Social Cost of Carbon: A Global Imperative. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 11(1), 172–173.