Public and Private Morality of Climate Change

John Broome is a philosopher and economist, Whites Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. 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, Broome argues, 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.

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 too can offset all of your carbon emissions. The Government then has a duty of goodness to help us with this by providing loans 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.

In my view carbon emissions are just one part of a wider sustainability issue and I believe it has to be tackled holistically rather than cherry picking. For offsetting to work in the way Broome intends it to there is a need for full and determined commitment from all parties. I immediately compared Broome’s lecture to Kate Soper’s idealist view of ‘alternative hedonism’ and the need for a return to the good life. Soper argues 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 ideals and maybe offsetting is a solution to this, but I don’t understand the morality in 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.

A highly stimulating lecture certainly, which left me feeling guilty (for buying too many clothes), and guilty for being aware of my guilt yet still shopping, and rather pessimistic.


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


One comment

  1. Tess Baxter · · Reply

    It was certainly interesting, and good to try and approach the issue from another angle. However, I think I really had two problems with his idea….

    The first is that western philosophy can decide for the next generation and the rest of the world what is good for it, without any need for consent. Consent is an important part of justice as one cannot assume that there is a perfect, unarguably logical argument. I rather side with the Protagorean idea that to every argument there is a counter-argument, an anti-logoi to counter the logoi. His stated concern at the start was to get round these kinds of debates, but can this be done unilaterally?

    The other is the question of debt repayment. For the argument to work, the debt should be repaid to those who did the offsetting – which completes the moral circle of mutual benefit. But the previous generation made the offset and are, by definition, no longer around. If the loan is inherited, it invalidates the argument, as the repayment is effectively to a third party who didn’t do any offsetting but are profitting from the loan.

    I’m not convinced!

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