top of page

The Perfect Moral Storm


Q. Is there anything that you find instructive about comparing the COVID-19 mobilization to our ongoing inaction on climate change?

Covid and climate change are two aspects of one environmental crisis. The growing numbers of people and our increasingly profligate way of life brings us into worsening conflict with nature. We find ourselves in closer contact with wild animals, which have infected us with Covid, and we are contaminating the atmosphere with our waste gases.

Climate change is by far the bigger problem. As I write, the confirmed death toll from Covid is passing 700,000. Perhaps two, three or four million of us will die from this disease. But good estimates tell us that climate change will kill a million people every year by the end of this century, even if we take moderately strong action to control it.

Still, Covid presents itself in much more urgent fashion. Governments could not get away with ignoring it, even when they tried. And they have shown themselves willing to take dramatic action. For the last decade, governments – particularly in Europe – have put their citizens through great hardship in the name of fiscal probity. Interest rates have been so low that governments could have borrowed freely, and they should have done so. They should have borrowed and invested heavily in reducing carbon emissions. Doing so would have slowed down climate change and also buoyed up their economies. But they missed this opportunity. Instead they adopted a dogma of austerity, which did great damage to their economies, their health services and their people.

Yet when Covid arrived governments threw fiscal probity to the winds. They borrowed and spent vast sums of money. We can hope that, now they have discovered they can do so, they might be willing also to spend money responding to the greater crisis of climate change.

We can also hope that we as individuals might change. We have learnt not to be so profligate. We do not have to travel so much. We do not have to have an office to work in as well as our homes. We do not have to consume so much, eating out and shopping. Perhaps these discoveries will lead to a permanent change in our habits. Surveys suggest that people do not want societies and economies to return to their old normal ways once the pandemic has subsided. They want us in the future to pay more attention to fairness and to the environment.

This is what people want but, sadly, what people want does not determine what happens. Powerful commercial interests persist and, unlike the people, they do want to return to the old normal. They may well win. The British government has promised to ‘build, build, build’, and this includes building lots of new roads to encourage the motor industry. This is not a good sign that it is caring for the environment. I am not very hopeful.

Q. In some of your recent work, you note that governments have not and will not be motivated by morality to make the necessary investments to address climate change. You propose an alternative that relies on self interest and the notion that we can address climate change without present people having to sacrifice on behalf of future generations. Can you describe this alternative ‘no sacrifice’ policy?

The basic idea comes from textbook economics. Greenhouse gas is an example of what economists call an ‘externality’. When you do something that causes greenhouse gas to be emitted – for instance by driving your car or heating your house – you do not pay the full cost of what you do. The greenhouse gas spreads around the world and causes harms to people everywhere. Those harms are part of the cost of what you do, but they are borne by the people who are harmed rather than by you. They are an ‘external cost’. So when you make your decisions about what to do, you do not take into account the full cost of your actions.

The textbook theory tells us that the consequence of an externality is nearly always that the economy is ‘inefficient’ in a precisely defined sense. The sense is this: it is technically possible to respond to the externality by making changes in such a way that somebody is made better off and nobody is made worse off. That is to say, no sacrifice is required. As it happens, the textbook theory does not apply accurately to externalities such as climate change where some of the external cost is borne by future generations. But the theory can be revised to give a similar conclusion.

The textbook way of achieving the no-sacrifice result is, first of all, to set a tax on the externality that is equal to its external cost. In our case, tax people for emitting greenhouse gas. That will discourage emissions. Other things being equal, this ‘carbon tax’ will impose a burden on some people, including the big emitters of greenhouse gas. However, it will benefit those other people whom greenhouse gas harms – including future generations particularly. The next step in avoiding a sacrifice is to redistribute resources between people, making transfers from those who benefit from the tax to those who are harmed. The theory tells us that this redistribution can be enough to compensate fully those who are harmed and leave them no worse off than before. On balance, they make no sacrifice. The benefit of removing the inefficiency is so great that it can be redistributed with this result.

Since the principal gainers are future generations and the principal emitters are presently living people, there will have to be a transfer from future people to present people. How is that possible? More goods have to be made available to present people at the cost of making fewer goods available to future people. In practice this can be achieved through the financial mechanism of government borrowing. Governments borrow by issuing bonds, which are a sort of commitment to tax future people. The money they borrow can be paid out to present people. This transfer mechanism is more complicated than it may seem at first, because when a government borrows it borrows from present people and, when it taxes future people to repay the loan, it makes the repayment to future people. Nevertheless, the desired effect can be achieved by borrowing.

One consequence will be a shift in our investment from conventional polluting investment to green investment instead. Instead of building roads, airports and fossil-fuel burning power stations, we invest in renewable energy, insulating houses, forestry, cycle tracks and so on.

Q. What might be the most important first steps toward a global ‘no sacrifice’ climate policy involving massive government borrowing on the part of all countries, including those who cannot do so within our current institutional framework?

Governments have to be willing and able to borrow. I said that the governments of many well-off countries have recently preferred austerity to borrowing. This is the consequence of economic dogma, which we can hope they are now throwing off. But the governments of badly-off countries are in a genuinely difficult position. Their economics are weak and unstable, which means they do not have good credit on the financial markets. They simply cannot borrow the amounts that will be needed.

An important first step is to overcome this problem. One way is to create a World Climate Bank that is strong enough to borrow money on behalf of these poorer countries. It will need to be supported by the world’s powerful economies, which have high creditworthiness. A model to show the way is the World Bank, which was created at the end of the Second World War in order to support the recovery of shattered economies.

Q. Given your view that moral appeals are insufficient to achieve the level of climate action we need, what is your view of climate activists who use moral appeals as a central strategy to demand government action?

Governments have to be made to act, even if we are to have a no-sacrifice policy. They have to recognise that action on climate change is in the interest of their people. Activism is an effective means of forcing this recognition on them and forcing them to do something.

True, the activists are also delivering a moral message: that climate change is a moral wrong perpetrated by some people on others. They are absolutely right. When we release greenhouse gas we do harm to others, generally for our own benefit. Generally it is rich people that are harming the world’s poor. Our emissions stay in the air for a very long time, which means that we older people are storing up harm for the young. This is a moral injustice we are doing them. Greta Thunberg – a representative of the young – is absolutely entitled to her outrage. ‘How dare you!’, she says, ‘You are failing us, but the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.’

But I’m very sorry to say, I don’t think our prime ministers and presidents are affected by moral outrage, however justified it is. They are much more influenced by the powerful forces of economic interests. A good example is the Australian government’s reaction to the devastating fires suffered by Australia in December 2019 and January 2020. As the fires raged, there was much fury in the country at the government’s inaction on climate change. The government’s reaction was: nothing. The Prime Minister is much more in thrall to the coal lobby than to the public. He said he would not be pushed into making what he called ‘reckless’ cuts to the coal industry. Coal is one of Australia’s two largest exports.

In sum, the activists are justified, and we need them to stir up the political process. But it is self-interest that will in the end move governments to real action.

Q. What do you see as potential approaches to the problem of free-riding for a global no-sacrifice policy?

You’re right to point out that a no-sacrifice policy is not proof against free riding. If all countries agree on a no-sacrifice policy and all adopt it, the result will be good for everybody, or at least not bad for anybody. But some countries might well find they could do even better for themselves by not participating. They might benefit from free riding, that is. For example, if all countries but one impose a carbon tax, the one might benefit by not imposing one. This is a major difficulty in implementing a no-sacrifice policy. International cooperation is essential, but it is attainable only if countries trust each other not to free ride.

Free riding is rife in countries’ existing climate-change policies. For example, the Australian government often points out that Australian emissions of greenhouse gas have very little direct effect on Australia. They spread everywhere and do harm everywhere, but very little of the harm comes back to Australia. The Australian government offers this as a reason for pursuing its policy of inaction over climate change. It openly adopts a policy of free riding, that is to say. It would like other countries to reduce their emissions, which harm Australians, but it will not reduce its own emissions.

I have no novel solutions to offer to the problem of free riding. Defences against it are available. Tariffs are one. Suppose a free-riding country does not impose a carbon tax, so that its industry is saved this cost and can consequently undercut goods produced in cooperating countries where a tax is charged. The cooperating countries can impose tariffs equal to (or greater than) the carbon tax. This will cancel out the benefit the free rider enjoys over their own producers in the cooperating countries.

The free rider will still have an advantage elsewhere, however. So this strategy will work only if the cooperators are many and the free riders few. Free riders can be repelled so long as we are able to put together a big enough coalition of cooperating countries that trust each other. We have to hope this can be done.

Q. Why do you think there is such willingness to forgo fiscal austerity as part of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic when that same willingness does not exist for addressing climate change?

The harm done by climate change is less visible. It is relatively easy to attribute particular harms to Covid. People see their friends and relatives suffering and dying from this disease. Mounting deaths tolls of identifiable people pose a severe threat to governments; they know the public will not stand to see them go too high. But few particular individual’s death can be attributed unequivocally to climate change. For climate change we have only statistics rather than identifiable individual harms. Statistics are not so emotionally disturbing as the deaths of identifiable people.

Furthermore, the biggest effects of climate change will not occur till far in the future. People are much more motivated by present harms.

Q. You were one of two philosophers who worked as an author on the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What insight can a philosopher bring to a document like the IPCC report and what do you see as some of the primary functions of such a document?

The IPCC is a hugely influential United Nations body. It is the focus of most of the science of climate change. It reports every few years on scientific developments. Its meetings bring together many of the leading climate scientists, and it represents climate science to the world. Its reports are extremely authoritative – though they are also cautious because they are written by consensus. They underlie all the international negotiations on climate change policy, which principally take place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report provided the scientific basis of the Paris Agreement, which now encompasses the policy of nearly all the world’s governments.

The IPCC’s remit has always included policy. It's Working Group 3 has the job of presenting information that will help guide governments and other policymakers in their response to climate change. It does not itself recommend policies, but it presents relevant information. Working Group 3 is mostly populated by social scientists, who have an obvious role in forming policy.

Policy also requires input from philosophy. Policymakers have to evaluate the alternative policies that are available to them, in order to make an informed choice between them. Government policymakers commonly turn to economists for help with their evaluations. Economics has a highly developed approach to valuation, which is generally some version of cost-benefit analysis. However, values are ultimately a subject for ethics. Valuations made by economists are sound only if they are based on sound ethical principles. Moral philosophy therefore lies at the heart of what policymakers do.

Not many natural and social scientists know this. Many economists even deny that the methods of economics have anything to do with ethics. Nevertheless, for its Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC was wise enough to recognise its need for moral philosophers. Among its 800 or so lead authors it included two philosophers: Lukas Meyer and me.

We discovered that the IPCC had not initially grasped everything that philosophy could contribute to its work. It assumed we two philosophers would principally be concerned with issues of fairness and justice. These are undoubtedly important issues within the philosophy of climate change. For example, an important question in international negotiations is whether countries that have emitted a lot of greenhouse gas in the distant past have a special moral responsibility for dealing with the damage that has unexpectedly resulted from their emissions. Philosophers have written a lot about this topic, and we discussed it in the report; Lukas took on this task.

However, the IPCC seemed not to have clearly understood the contribution philosophy can make through value theory. It had not made a place for it in its outline for the report. However, it was persuaded to make room for it, and I wrote the relevant sections. I surveyed the various sorts of value that are threatened by climate change, including the values of nature and communal values as well as human wellbeing. Starting from this broad basis, I went through the long sequence of particular assumptions that narrow the focus on to values that economists take into account, setting aside many other important values on the way. I also explained the philosophical basis, such as it is, of the particular formulae that they use.

I was even able to insert some scepticism about cost-benefit analysis into the Summary for Policymakers of Working Group 3. This is a short summary that is very widely read, so I hope my sceptical remark may have some influence.

Q. A theme of your writing on climate change is the differences between the moral duties of individuals versus governments. What do you think that individuals (who are not government affiliates) should be focusing on to address climate change at this time?

I have already said that emitting greenhouse gas does harm to others. This is an injustice we do to other people by our emissions. Justice demands that we do not do it. This may seem an impossible demand to meet, since it is impossible to live without causing some emissions. But I believe that offsetting is a means we can use to avoid injustice. If, at the same time as you emit gas, you prevent the emission of the same amount of gas by means of offsetting, you add no gas in total to the atmosphere. You therefore do not contribute to climate change. Consequently, you avoid doing harm to people through climate change. You avoid treating people unjustly.

We are under a moral duty of justice not to emit greenhouse gas, and this can be achieved by offsetting. However, if you emit and offset your emission, you do nothing to reduce climate change; you only avoid increasing it. Climate change had to be reduced because it is extraordinarily damaging. We have a moral duty – separate from the duty of justice not to emit – to do what we can to make the world a better place. This implies doing what we can to reduce climate change.

How can we do that? Some philosophers urge us to adopt green virtues. They urge us all to be less profligate: avoid unnecessary travel, eat less meat, turn our thermostats down and so on. These are all good things to do, and we should do them on the grounds of justice I mentioned, but they are not the way to save the world from climate change. Reducing our own emissions by these contributes a little, but only a little. Individual action to reduce emissions does not make much of a difference, only because so few people will do it. If we all adopted green virtues, that would stop climate change, but we are not all going to do that. We cannot expect the whole world to adopt green values within the few years of opportunity we have left. Yet to stop climate change, everyone must act.

Only governments can bring climate change under control. Governments have the coercive power to compel everyone to reduce emissions. They can use taxation and regulation to achieve this result. But at present they are not doing so. The best we can do is find a way to make our governments take action.

So I recommend civic action. We should see ourselves as citizens aiming to influence our governments rather than as private individuals taking private actions to reduce our emissions. We should use whatever means of influencing government we have available. For many of us, private action is a part of civic action. It has the direct effect of reducing our emissions, and as well as that it has the indirect effect of demonstrating that we care.

Governments will take notice when a lot of people show they care. The indirect effect may be more important than the direct one. Other civic action includes voting, and the sort of activism that you raised earlier in this interview.

bottom of page