Offsetters or Activists?

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Dr Scott Wisor

Last month the IPCC released the third of four reports due out this year, updating assessments from 2007 on the problem of climate change. The findings are stark, but more or less consistent with past estimates. Despite ongoing international attention since at least 1992 (in the form of the Kyoto process), concerns by governments dating back to the 1950s, and a global financial crisis that slowed some of the economic activity that contributes to climate change, in the 5 years since the last IPCC report, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have continued to increase. The IPCC now gives us about a decade to begin to turn the rising tide of GHG emissions, or the costs of avoiding catastrophic climate change (exceeding 2 degrees Celsius global temperature) will be extremely high.

What are individuals morally required to do in light of the ongoing harm caused by GHG emissions? Perhaps no one in the world is better positioned to answer this than John Broome. Initially trained in economics and having held a full Professorship in Economics at the University of Bristol, before shifting to full time appointments in philosophy, Broome is now White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, one of the most distinguished positions in the field. He is also a lead author of the IPCC reports.

The ethics of climate change involves some difficult questions, including how to compare various apparently incommensurable values, how to make decisions under uncertainty, how to weight lives existing today against those that have not yet come into existence in the future, and how to compare harms against humans versus those against non-humans. Broome’s previous books, Weighing Reasons and Weighing Lives, discuss many of the key philosophical issues one must address to develop a comprehensive answer to how humans ought to deal with climate change. Furthermore, he is no newcomer to the field—his first publication on climate change was released in 1992.

Given this background, I was surprised to find how thoroughly I disagreed with Broome’s recommendations in Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (Norton, 2012). In that book, he argues that individuals have duties of justice and duties of beneficence. Duties of justice are strict, to not harm others, and duties of goodness are imperfect, to improve the wellbeing of others. If this is right, individuals have strict duties not to harm others through their GHG emissions. Given this strict duty, Broome argues that individuals have a strict duty to offset all of their emissions. Offsetting involves making payments to organizations that undertake activities, such as replanting forests that recapture GHGs which have been released into the atmosphere. This is not the sole duty—individuals also have an obligation to support governments that are willing to combat climate change. But Broome believes that first they are required to offset their emissions.

There are four reasons to think Broome is wrong in prescribing offsets as what justice requires of individuals in the face of climate change. First, by offsetting an individual’s net emissions, rather than offsetting emissions with each purchase, consumers and companies face no precise incentives to shift away from carbon-intensive activities and towards low-carbon activities. When you go to the grocery store and consider buying a British steak or a Brazilian banana, you have no price signal telling you which required less carbon. Second, the proposal relies on the remarkable goodwill of an astounding number of individuals to have an appreciable impact on climate change. People are meant to tally up at the end of the year their carbon emissions and offset them. But even well-intentioned people are going to reach the end of the budget year and find it hard to turn down the extra Christmas gift or holiday that they could get with the money set aside for offsetting. Third, the proposal has no impact on the underlying structure of economic activity that permits greenhouse gas emissions to continue growing. It creates no reasons for manufacturers to move toward energy sources that emit few GHGs or for fossil fuel companies to figure out ways to reduce emissions. Finally, I am less optimistic than Broome that most offsetting programs actually pay for new GHG reductions rather than for projects which were already underway. It is striking that Broome concedes many of these points, but believes nonetheless that strict duties of justice require offsetting, and a separate political morality should govern the solution to climate change.

In my view, individuals seeking to discharge their duties of justice that are considering donating money (or time) should direct their efforts to organizations seeking to find a political solution to the problem. They can fulfil their duties of justice by committing to (admittedly uncertain) efforts to find political solutions to climate change. Individuals should back organizations that work to place a price on carbon. By putting a price on carbon that rises over time (a proposal Broome endorses), the prices of low carbon activities naturally fall in comparison to high carbon activities. This shifts consumption towards low carbon activities, and gives companies reasons to develop low carbon ways of providing goods and services to consumers. Individuals have a moral obligation to fight climate change. This is best undertaken through joint political activity rather than individual carbon offsets.

Further useful links:

Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis

Weighing Lives

Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World (Book Review)

Ethics & Global Climate Change

Climate ethics: Essential readings

Ethics of International Action on Climate Change: How Would Mahatma Gandhi Have Looked at it?

Climate change and hybrid ethics: a review of four ethical theories

EPA Social Cost of Carbon

Carbon pricing Policy (Au)

Image: By Vera Buhl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons



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