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.
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.
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, 350.org, 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.