Presumptions Against “Polluted Pay”

“Polluted pay” is a deeply problematic approach to climate policy. First, it may render ambitious climate action infeasible even if International Paretianism holds. For one thing, perhaps the very vulnerable do not have anything that powerful high emitters want enough to stop overemit- ting—given their poverty, they may have less to offer the rich than the rich could gain from continuing to overemit. For another, the most vulnerable are often relatively weak; hence, perhaps rich nations can simply take whatever interests them by other means.

Second, there are deep ethical objections. The demand that poor nations (e.g., Haiti, Sudan, Afghanistan) make “side payments” to “compensate” richer countries (e.g., the United States, China) misses central features of the climate problem, such as that the high emitters are predominantly causing it, that they have no right to do so, and that the poor countries are largely victims. Under such circumstances, it seems morally indecent to demand that the poor “compensate” high emitters for stopping. Moreover, to say that they should accept this because they are much more vulnerable—largely because they are so poor—seems both hopelessly wrong and to compound the initial injustice.

To make this worry more vivid, notice that “polluted pay” appears to endorse extortion. Extortion involves obtaining something through the inducement of a wrongful use of force, threat, intimidation, or the undue or illegal exercise of power. In the paradigm case of an extortion racket, a criminal gang threatens its victims with violence unless it is paid “protection money,” as “compensation” for holding back from violence. Such rackets are morally indecent because extortionists have no right to impose, and their victims have strong rights against, these threats. In such a setting, “compensation” for the gang is an ugly euphemism. The extortionist’s demand is ungrounded, and therefore illegitimate. There is no “loss” that ought to be made up. Full deployment of one’s threat advantage over others is not an appropriate baseline against which to claim compensation.

This is not to deny that extortion is sometimes “what works.” From the perspective of the extortionist, concerned only with narrow self-interest, it clearly has benefits. Many organizations (e.g., the Mafia, totalitarian regimes) have practiced extortion with a fair degree of success. Similarly, from the perspective of the victims, acceding to extortion is sometimes the best option available. (It costs you the ransom, but at least you get your daughter back.)

Still, this stark, “pragmatic” approach to extortion seems to miss much of what is going on, especially from the ethical point of view. We simply do not view extortion as merely “a mutually beneficial transaction that enhances the welfare of both parties, under the constraint of each agent’s pursuit of its own self-interest.” Instead, we condemn it.

One reason is the failure of basic respect. Extortionists exploit advantages they have over others in ways that are not merely illegitimate, but deeply disrespectful. Similarly, victims are made to accede, and so to at least a minimal extent “consent,” to a practice that denies them basic respect. Although they typically gain some welfare benefit, this process is inherently degrading and humiliating.

Presumably this is why some people refuse to cooperate with extortionists, even when this results in losses for them, and why we often admire them when they do so (e.g., in Mafia-style cases). Sometimes we think it better to be worse off in welfare terms than to allow our basic status as equal moral agents to be compromised. Self-respect is a factor here; but so is social recognition of our status as beings worthy of respect.

A second set of reasons to condemn extortion involves its wider social costs. Conventional wisdom suggests that paying off an extortionist encourages further extortion, in a downward spiral, so that often the best strategy is to refuse at the outset. More generally, a system that endorsed extortion would threaten many beneficial social practices (e.g., through feeding resentment and corroding the foundations of cooperative social ventures, such as trust). This is one reason why corrupt societies struggle economically; their institutions are undermined by persistent illegitimate threats to citizens and business.

Such concerns are highly relevant to climate change. Vulnerable nations may fear that high emitters will renege on their commitments once “side payments” are made, and demand more. Moreover, even if paying off the powerful works for climate, the vulnerable may worry that this only encourages them to seek further ways to demand “money with menaces” by creating new threats. Such fears foster an international climate of distrust and resentment that is destructive for wider cooperation, overall welfare, and much else.

A third reason to condemn extortion is that for many people, and especially certain kinds of societies, to be cast as an extortionist conflicts with their most central values, and especially with their conception of “who they are, morally speaking.” For such agents, it is hard to see an extortion racket in a neutral way, as merely an effective way of pursuing one’s own interests. Even if the material benefits of being in the Mafia, for example, are substantial, many people cannot find it within themselves to endorse such a life—to want to be “that guy (or gal).” Similarly, even if practicing extortion would benefit America (for example) materially, and is what other countries would do, Americans might reject it as being incompatible with who they are, or aspire to be: a deep betrayal of our ideals that makes the material benefits seem like “dirty money,” and so not real benefits at all. Although we don’t deny the power of “you can keep your money or your daughter, not both,” Americans (like most other peoples) do not aspire to make such threats.

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