John Broome : Do not ask for morality

As part of the conference entitled ‘Climate Ethics and Climate Economics: how to finance ‘well below 2 degrees?’ ’ at the University of Nottingham, April 12th to 15th, John Broome gave a public lecture entitled ‘Do not ask for morality’.

A controversial title for a controversial talk. In his talk, John Broome (former White’s professor of Moral philosophy at Oxford) argued that we should not ask for morality when it comes to response from our governments to climate change. The logic of his argument was that we have to be realistic and the demands of morality are too great for governments in this context.

He started by briefly outlining what he means by morality in the context of climate change. He explained that morality has the fundamental premise not to do harm, and even though there may be exceptions to this rule, the circumstances of our emissions are not one of them. Therefore we ought not to emit, we should lead carbon neutral lives. If governments were to follow the demands of morality they would ensure that citizens have net zero emission throughout their lives. This is clearly demanding and Broome thinks that governments are not going to meet this standard anytime soon. Therefore we should look elsewhere and work out what behaviour may be realistic from governments. Broome gives the example of the British government reducing its support for domestic schemes to cut emissions one week after the COP 21, to show the how unlikely it is that governments would meet their moral duties.

Broome explained that the reason why climate change is often seen as moral issue is because we are asking people to make a sacrifice. At the very least it tends to involve asking people to stop emitting carbon. This premise motivates Broome’s argument. He thinks if it is possible to talk about climate change without asking people to make a sacrifice then people should be willing to perform that action and it is no longer a problem of morality due to the absence of sacrifice.

Broome thinks we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without sacrifice due to the fact that greenhouse gases are an externality. An externality is any cost which is borne by those who do not perform the action. In the case of greenhouse gases, it affects people who do not emit them.  Broome uses logic from economics to say that externalities are inefficient and therefore a Pareto improvement is possible; that is to say, at least one person or group can be made better off without another group or person being made worse off. This is a remarkably strong claim and very counter intuitive to those outside the realm of economics. It basically says no one needs lose; no sacrifice need be made to cut our carbon emissions.

This is a complicated argument to which I cannot do justice, but I will briefly outline it. Basically, Broome thinks for a Pareto improvement to be possible, there needs to be the opportunity for compensation. He looks intergenerationally and asks the question: can future generations compensate present people for cutting their carbon emissions? Again, at first glance most people would say ‘no’. However, he argues that future people can compensate present people due to the fact that we will leave people in the future a set of goods. That set of goods is made up of capital stock such as roads, hospitals and resources. Therefore we can reduce the set of goods we leave them and use those goods to compensate people now for not emitting. People in the present would accept the compensation – assuming it is adequately high and future people would accept it – because it allows them to live in a world with less climate change. This would mean reducing our investment in the capital stock and using that money to compensate present people instead for their lower emissions.

This argument is undoubtedly complicated, but if it is correct then its appeal is that it creates a way in which governments can act on climate change without asking for sacrifice from their citizens. This increases the political feasibility of such action. To be concerned about the idea of future people paying the present not to harm them is a valid concern.  Broome is clear that morality would never demand that you compensate someone for not harming you, and yet a practical solution to overcoming the obstacles currently barring governments from creating policies that would lead to the reduction of carbon emissions must be found.  For Broome, the economic principle of efficiency without sacrifice may provide that solution.

By Joshua Wells, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar