Environmental policy isn’t value-neutral: where do the ethics hide?

All public decision-making depends on ethical values, even if that’s disguised. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Courtney Biggs

However they’re spun, environmental concerns are never far from the headlines – and coordinated global marches on the weekend attest to the public’s interest in this area.

Whenever we’ve made contributions to government inquiries on environmental issues, my colleagues and I have been disappointed to find the ethical concerns we raised were relegated to the back pages of the final report.

One reason for our disappointment lies in the conviction that ethics deserves a better billing. If something is unethical it shouldn’t be done.

We were also puzzled by the assumption that ethical values have nothing to do with the economic and technological reasoning that plays a dominant role in public decision-making.

All public decision-making depends on ethical values, but sometimes values are disguised by a method that appears to be value-neutral. So what are the hidden ethical assumptions that underpin decisions about environmental issues?

The ethics of a cost-benefit analysis

When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority decided to support a permit for dredging Abbot Point and depositing debris in an area adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, it admitted that almost all public submissions opposed the project. But the Authority argued that the environmental costs were not sufficient to override the economic benefits of putting a coal shipping terminal in that place – so long as these costs could be mitigated by strict conditions imposed on the dredging company.

Here is a case where objective reasoning appears to win out over the “uninformed” or value-laden views of opponents. But a closer look reveals that it is not as objective as it first appears.

The Authority made technical assessments that its critics questioned and their doubts have led to a proposal to deposit dredged material onshore. But it also made controversial value assumptions by employing a decision-making method that favours the option that produces the greatest benefits over costs.

This method requires weighing up and comparing costs and benefits – a procedure that is especially difficult when benefits or costs cannot be quantified.

How should we compare the economic benefits of a new port to the value of uncontaminated water – for fish, fishermen or people who enjoy recreation in the area? But it also requires decision-makers to subscribe to an ethical position called utilitarianism.

Value, according to this view, depends on the consequences of an action, and the right action is the one that maximises welfare. Utilitarianism has an important place in policymaking. But its results do not always correspond to the way people value.

Most of us think that some things have a value that should not be compromised, threatened or replaced with a substitute – whatever the benefits of doing so. Human life, great works of art, species and national heritage are common examples of things that people value in this way.

To many Australians the Great Barrier Reef has this kind of value. These opponents of dredging are not impressed by the argument that the costs are small and are outweighed by the benefits of building a port. But their way of valuing is not captured by a cost-benefit analysis.

The decision making for the port at Abbot Point was said to be neutral - but a closer look reveals unacknowledged ethical assumptions. AAP/Greenpeace

Discounting the future

When Ross Garnaut produced his 2008 Climate Change Review for the Rudd Government he had to make a decision about how to determine the costs that present people should bear for the sake of future generations.

Economists make this decision by choosing a rate of discount for harms and benefits in the future. A high discount rate could justify putting off most of the expense of dealing with climate change by passing on the costs to future people.

Choosing a high discount rate is often justified by the fact that people prefer benefits in the present to benefits in the future. But from an ethical point of view it is hard to justify use of a formula that devalues the wellbeing of future people.

For this reason Garnaut chose a zero rate of discount in respect to the value placed on costs and benefits to future people. But he also thought it was reasonable to assume that future people will be better off than us and thus more able to bear costs.

The belief that our descendants will be wealthier than us may turn out to be false.

But this is not the only problem. Economic accounting tends to assume that wealth is the only thing that counts. Future people will not be better off if climate change undermines their security or their enjoyment and use of nature.

Assessing risk

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority reckoned there was a small risk that a severe storm could cause dredged material to pollute the Barrier Reef. How that risk was assessed is unclear but it was not regarded as sufficient to veto the Abbot Point development.

There is a formula commonly used for assessing risk. Its quantity depends on the magnitude of harm times the probability the harm will occur. The problem that bedevils the application of this formula – especially in the case of environmental risks – are the uncertainties that attach to any attempt to calculate probability of harm.

But the formula also contains a value assumption: that a risk becomes acceptable if the probability of harm is low.

Adopting a course of action that has a small probability of causing harm might be all right if the harm is not all that serious. If the harm could be catastrophic then even a small probability that it will occur makes the decision morally questionable.

John Broome, the philosopher/economist who advised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it this way: You don’t get a fire extinguisher because of what’s most likely to happen. You get one because of the dire consequences of what might happen.

If we put a high priority on protecting the Reef from serious harm, then a small chance it will occur is reason enough to cancel or change a project.

This survey shows that the ethical choices of policymakers and advisors are not merely found in their stated values. They are often embedded in their choice of a formula or procedure. We can judge for ourselves whether the assumptions are good or bad. But first we need to know what they are.


This article is part of a series on public morality in 21st-century Australia.

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