Public and Private Morality of Climate Change: An Easy Solution?


John Broome is a philosopher and economist, Whites Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Oxford and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. I get the impression that he is an economist trying to work in some kind of sphere of morality rather than a philosopher studying issues related to economics. In Broome’s lecture ‘Public and Private Morality of Climate Change’, part of the Ethical Challenges series of public lectures at the University of Southampton, he stated that preventing climate change is simple and requires little effort on our part. Intrigued?

Broome’s answer is offsetting carbon emissions; a practical but in my view unsustainable, quick fix. The first half of his lecture focused on the duty of justice and the duty of goodness. According to Broome, we all have an individual duty to prevent climate change. In this way individuals have a private duty of justice to ensure that their individual actions do not contribute to climate change (private morality). Governments however, do not have a duty of justice to prevent climate change, but they do have a duty of goodness (public morality). This is different to the widely held view that governments have a responsibility to stop climate change.

The issue of climate change is a moral one. We actively cause carbon dioxide emissions, it is not accidental. We generally create emissions for our own benefit and we don’t compensate the victims of our harm. A paper published in Nature from 2005 states: “The World Health Organisation estimates that the warming and precipitation trends due to anthropogenic climate change of the past 30 years already claim over 150,000 lives annually”. It cannot be argued that those most affected by the impact of climate change are not those who are contributing to the problem in the main; therefore we have a moral duty to remedy this injustice.

Broome presents the concept of offsetting as a practical solution to the problem of climate change. In this way, we as consumers in the developed world can continue to consume as much as we like and are used to, if we balance out the carbon emissions. This leads to a balance of greenhouse gases, thus ensuring that our presence on earth does not contribute to climate change on the individual level. All of this comes under private morality; it is our duty of justice to offset. The Government then has a duty of goodness to help us with this by providing loans, carbon tax and carbon tax compensation for those members of society in a lower income bracket. This ‘simple economics’ of passing money back and forth means that we can live guilt free for now, only to leave the next generation with a financial debt to service.

Offsets are typically achieved through financial support of projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. A number of organisations offer this ‘offsetting service’ so for a few hundred pounds a year; you can offset all of your carbon emissions. Broome commented that many environmentalists do not agree with offsetting, so I guess that makes me an environmentalist because I struggle to see the sense in paying to buy things, and then paying to offset what we have bought. Surely what we need is to consume less? Carbon emissions are just one part of a wider sustainability issue and I believe it has to be tackled holistically rather than cherry picking.

That said I don’t have a better solution, at least not a realistic one. I can only compare it to Kate Soper’s idealist view of ‘alternative hedonism’ and the need for a return to the good life. Soper’s keynote which I attended last year stated that we need a drastic transformation of the global economic system for a truly sustainable future. We must radically consume less but rather than advocate a restricted and reduced mode of living, emphasise the pleasures consumerism denies and the displeasures it generates.

We are plagued by state contradictions of economic and ecological promises and maybe offsetting is a solution to this, but I don’t understand where the morality sits with leaving future generations a (further) burden of debt. I think selling the concept, as Broome did, as an easy solution is dangerous because I see our individual duty of justice for future generations as a duty to consume less. But then I’m a hypocrite, I consume plenty more than I’d morally like to. There is no easy long term solution.

Patz, A. et al. (2005) Impact of regional climate change on human health. Nature, 438, pp.310-317

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