Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Legal Ethical Dilemmas IV cont. - Indifferent things, Part II

Another example would be the relative generosity or toughness of the worker’s compensation law regime in a given state. Worker’s compensation in itself is a sort of special compromise made in the law that allows workers to collect damages for injuries from their employers in exchange for limiting the amount and scope of the damages. Before workers compensation laws it was difficult to collect damages for an on the job injury since an employee implicitly agrees to do the dangerous things that he does as part of his regular employment. Worker’s compensation in itself is a sort of social bargain that has advantages and disadvantages, but nearly all states have chosen to enter into that bargain and have a worker’s compensation scheme of some sort or another. It was pioneered by the scheme used for sailors in maritime law. But worker’s compensation regimes can have relative harshness or generousness. They can either make it easy to collect or difficult to collect, easy to contest an opinion about whether a worker is injured or difficult. In California, the system used to favor workers. The advantage of this was that workers who were genuinely injured had an easier time of obtaining fair compensation for their injuries. Attorneys were able to represent them and obtain enough of a reasonable compensation to make a living as worker’s compensation attorneys. However, the scheme had disadvantages. It encouraged fraud and waste and was hard on employers in the state. One of the factors influencing employers in whether to keep their businesses in California or move to other states was the expense of the California worker’s compensation system. California was losing many employers (California environmental regulations and the high cost of housing in California are also reasons businesses are leaving, but people don’t like to talk about those). Now we have a stricter worker’s compensation regime in California. There is less waste, less fraud and the system is easier on employers. But the system is more difficult on people with legitimate claims. And the new system is particularly hard on worker’s compensation attorneys. It is much more difficult to make a living as a worker’s compensation attorney in California today as opposed to a few years ago. So, the change in regimes has both costs and benefits. It isn’t really a choice between good and evil, but a choice between which goods and which evils you’re willing to tolerate in a fallen world.

Often complex issues also involve risks in the calculation as well as costs and benefits of the system itself. The controversy over global warming is a good example. There is some scientific evidence that global temperatures are rising. There is a risk in interpreting the evidence because it is statistical data collected from a variety of fixed points over what geologically or climatologically is a short period of time. When we look at the history of weather, we also rely on the accuracy of certain scientific techniques and theories for interpreting temperatures and conditions in the past. It is possible that there are certain factors affecting those tests and measurements that we’re not aware of, and that measurements and estimates of past change are inaccurate. In addition, cities create heat. Much of the rise in global temperature measurements is due to the urbanization and the rise of temperatures in urban areas. So even the question of whether there really is warming or not is one where we may be substantially certain that there is increase in temperatures, but it is difficult to be absolutely certain that this is the case, or to be certain as to how long the trend will last. After all, it is obvious that weather men have trouble predicting the weather next week. To predict the weather over decades or centuries is far more difficult. Currently computer models are used to do this but the computer models are only as accurate as the assumptions made in constructing them. Until we have a many years of computer models making accurate predictions, it is difficult to know whether or not the current computer models actually are accurate. When you’re deciding whether there really is global warming there is always a substantial risk that you’re wrong.

Second, what is the cause of global warming? Some people believe that it is man-made and other people believe it is natural. Some people think it is a combination of both. Again, the decision is largely based on faith in computer models that may or may not be accurate. We have no certain way of knowing. But there are also common sense arguments on both sides. Some people look at the tremendous amount of waste material put into the atmosphere by industrial mankind. But other people note that the amount of waste generated by mankind is miniscule compared to that generated by one volcano. In addition, when we think about carbon dioxide emissions, we tend to focus on cars while forgetting that some natural objects like cows and buffalo create vast amounts of carbon dioxide over a period of time—especially since a car is only operated a few hours a day, while the buffalo was breathing around the clock. Furthermore, climates have built in regulators that we are not fully aware of. There was a period of time back in the 70’s and 80’s when climatologists were sure we were going to produce a new ice age. Now they are even more sure that we are creating global warming. They appear to have been wrong about the ice age.

But then even if you assume and are willing to take the risk that global warming is real and that it is actually man-made rather than natural, there is then the problem of exactly how you deal with it. Even assuming global warming is real and affected by human carbon dioxide production, there is still a question about whether it can be stopped, slowed down, prevented or reversed and whether or not stopping it or reversing it is actually worthwhile. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is likely to have an unpleasant impact on commerce. It will make all the products we use and all the food we eat more expensive. That means that more people will descend into poverty as they are unable to afford the necessities, let alone the luxuries of life. Because more people will be in poverty, some of the people who are already in poverty will actually die because they will be unable to afford the necessities of life. In addition, the money used to convert industry to produce less carbon dioxide will not be available for other endeavors. The human ingenuity and time invested in reducing carbon dioxide emissions will not be available to produce new food, to create new technologies, to defend the country militarily from its aggressive enemies, to spread the Gospel or to do other desirable things. While warmer temperatures may not be desirable in the Sahara, they may be highly desirable to Canadians. National public radio has recently been running stories on the expected boom in commerce to areas in Canada that are currently enclosed by ice for a large part of the year. Many Canadians hope that global warming will turn there towns into major centers of commerce. If global warming is real, a northwest passage may open up cutting 4,000 miles off a travel by ship from Tokyo to New York. The Russians have recently complained that global warming will melt the permafrost of Siberia and that the uncovered mammoth carcasses will release large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. But a warm Siberia will also be an area that will be more friendly to farming, logging and other human enterprises than the permanently frozen Siberia that we have today. In addition, there may be alternatives to limiting industry. The process of photosynthesis turns carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon imprisoned in the form of plants. Is it possible to plant and sustain enough new vegetation around the world to shift the global balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen? Undoubtedly doing so is probably easier than retooling all of the industries of the world or trying to stop the poor from burning fossil fuels. These are just some examples of how a complex issue like global warming is not simply about the right and wrong of protecting human life, but rather about the costs and benefits involved in specific political and economic measures. When you decide to endorse policies for changing industry or policies for letting the market take care of these problems, you are choosing between costs and benefits, not merely choosing to save the environment or hurt the environment.

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