Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Governmental Coercion Is Our Only Hope? A Commentary


Post by Rachel Shindelar

If we are going to stop producing greenhouse gases and successfully mitigate climate change, we do not have time to wait around for individuals to become virtuous. Governmental coercion is our only hope.

At least, this is what Oxford University professor John Broome claimed before launching into his lecture on “The Public and Private Morality of Climate Change” at LMU Munich on Friday, 3 May 2013. Although this statement was not the central message of Broome’s talk, it is worth revisiting.

Broome Climate Matters

Cover: John Broome, Climate Matters

In his book Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (2012), Broome spends a fair amount of time discussing the importance of private morality in the fight against climate change. Specifically, he emphasizes that individuals have a responsibility to not only reduce emissions, but also to exert pressure on their respective governments to achieve a global solution to climate change. It therefore came as a shock when Broome began his talk with the statement, “emphasizing private morality was a mistake.” He has come to realize that in his book and during his public appearances since its publication he has “wasted too much time” on this topic.

Before moving on to an equally provocative talk on the public morality of climate change, Broome argued that we are not going to solve the problem of climate change if we wait for individual, private action. Therefore, national governments must force the necessary changes. While this assertion certainly has defensible elements, it relies on certain questionable premises and leads to a myopic conclusion.

Broome appears to be basing his conclusion on two problematic generalizations. First, he seems to be implying that individuals will not make attempts to combat climate change of their own free will—that they have to be forced. And it definitely feels that way sometimes. No one will challenge the statement that the majority of the world’s population is currently not actively fighting climate change. However, it is unfortunately not just a question of individual failings. The majority of the world’s population is arguably impeded in taking action by social, economic, and/or political conditions. There are also a large number of political and economic policies and social norms that incentivize environmentally damaging behaviors. While it would be nearly impossible to offer an exhaustive list, examples could be the subsidizing of corn by the American government, the necessity of frequent air travel for a growing number of professions, and the association of social status with certain material goods.

Rather than forcing emissions reductions, governments should be facilitating them. Governments should be concentrating on creating a political, economic, and social setting in which their citizens are enabled and empowered in their efforts to combat climate change.

Second, Broome suggests that government action has the potential to be more successful and effective then the private efforts of individuals. Unfortunately, he undermined he own argument by proceeding to explain in his talk how unsuccessful government action had been for the past 20 years. While governmental action can theoretically be further reaching, public policy frequently lacks the strength and the measures necessary to get the job done. Be it domestic laws or international agreements, environmental policy is the result of negotiations and therefore by nature is the highest common denominator of the parties’ willingness to combat climate change (which is usually pretty low; take the outcomes—or lack thereof—of the most recent United Nations environmental summits, for example). In contrast, there are numerous examples of efforts in the private sector to address the problem of climate change that are more extreme and more effective than anything any public policy has ever demanded; one example is the emergence of ecovillages in numerous countries across the globe. Imagine what would happen if society stopped encumbering individuals’ efforts and started simplifying them.

UN Climate Change Conference 2009

Bilateral Meeting, UN Climate Change Conference, 18 December 2009. Source: US Federal Government

Broome concludes that seeing as there is only a short window of opportunity left for saving humanity from climate change, governments are our best bet for getting the job down. There may very well be some truth in this statement. However, in his conclusion there are only two players on the field—individuals and governments—and he is placing his money on governments. He seems to be overlooking another important sector in the fight against climate change: civil society. Civil society has been a major player in the environmental movement since its birth. Nongovernmental organizations are frequently more successful at influencing individuals to adopt more environmentally friendly behavior than governmental agencies or public policies (think of the influence of Greenpeace,, etc.). This is not necessarily because they have more influence then national governments, but because, when it comes to convincing citizens to combat climate change, most national government have not put nearly as much effort into it as these organizations have. In our society today, it is debatable whether individuals or governments alone could effectively mitigate climate change without civil society.

The point of this commentary is not, however, to argue that John Broome got it wrong. Governments do truly have a central role to play in combating climate change. Nevertheless, that role should not solely be coercion. If the goal is to reduce emissions and combat climate change—which Broome stated is the most important job of our generation—then society and the planet would be much better served if governments concentrated on enabling and encouraging their citizens to combat climate change, not on forcing them to. Governments should be actively working to transform the political, social, and economic structures that shape our world—to create a society in which individuals and civil society actually have a real chance to make the changes necessary to successfully address the danger of climate change.

Rachel Shindelar is Acting Communications Director at the RCC.


3 thoughts on “Governmental Coercion Is Our Only Hope? A Commentary

  1. I don’t think it is an either/ or proposition. If we are going to effectively mitigate climate change and prevent “worst case scenarios,” some government coercion is necessary. And “coercion” does not have to be a dirty word. As Garrett Hardin said in his famous essay about the tragedy of the commons, we need “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” in order to prevent tragedies of the commons. We as citizens must agree (through democratic processes) to constrain our choices and to make better choices. This can–and must–be done through both positive incentives and regulations which limit our behavior.

    While I agree that public policy can be disappointing and is not enough to get the job done, it is absolutely necessary as the foundation for combating climate change. If we assess the major environmental victories of the last century in the U.S. (to take one example), most were the result of government policy—whether it be the clean air act, endangered species protection, or the like. Can you imagine if we had asked people to voluntarily preserve endangered species through their own actions (whether these be as individuals or in groups)? Where would we be today? Instead, we have a strong law that civil society groups effectively use (often through litigation) to change the behavior of individuals and institutions. Are we still losing species? Of course. But things would be a lot worse without the Endangered Species Act.


  2. Hey Sarah,

    Thanks for your comment! It brings up a good point. And I think that we agree with each other here more then might appear at first glance. I also do not think that it is an either/or situation. I think it is vastly more complicated then that, which is why I find Broome’s statement problematic in the first place.

    As I said in my final paragraph, Governments have a central role to play. And public policy must be a big part of any lasting, effective solution. However, I question the effectiveness of concentrating on governmental coercion. At the moment, many national governments are sending their citizens mixed messages. I like your example of species conservation: On the one hand, certain public policy coerces us to protect species in certain areas (and I agree with you here, this is a GOOD thing). But on the other hand, there are also numerous examples of public policy that encourage or even sanction behavior that is absolutely detrimental to the conservation of other plants and animals, in the name of economic growth. I think governments should concentrate on getting rid of these contradictions, on getting rid of the incentives in the system that encourage “un”environmentally friendly behavior. If our goal is long-term, sustainable solutions then I strongly believe governmental coercion is NOT our only hope. Rather we need to see governments implementing systemic reform.


  3. Hi Rachel,
    I agree with you. The government does a very bad job of coordinating its actions, and as a result, one agency might be undermining the goals of another. Governments often work at cross-purposes, and as you’ve said, it sends mixed messages. One of my current obsessions is energy subsidies–talk about mixed messages! The U.S. subsidizes oil and gas, as well as renewables, as though these things don’t conflict with one another.


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