Does Climate Action Require Sacrifice?

We have a moral duty to sacrifice our carbon intensive lifestyles to not cause great harm to future generations. This argument has been central to the 30 year international effort to mitigate climate change, but the failure to make meaningful progress indicates we may need a new strategy.

John Broome, professor of moral philosophy at University of Oxford and author for the IPCC, believes that we need to abandon the appeal to morality. He says there are simply not enough individuals motivated by morality. And regardless, we need global scale cooperation to address climate change and governments are held hostage by powerful interests opposed to action, such as oil and gas lobbies.

In a lecture given at Stanford in 2020, John argues that the only way to make meaningful progress is to harness the motivation of self interest. He claims there is so much benefit to mitigating climate change that nobody needs to sacrifice their wellbeing if the benefit is distributed correctly.

climate change can be controlled in a way that requires no one to make a sacrifice. This means no one — not even the owners of fossil fuel resources and workers in coal mines. None of them need suffer.

The challenge is that benefits of mitigation mainly go towards future generations, while it is the present generation that needs persuading. John’s idea is to borrow from future generations by issuing long term green bonds, which act like a tax on future people to compensate present people who stand to lose from climate action. Importantly, the revenue from green bonds can drive investment towards a green economy, which leaves future people a livable world.

High yielding bonds can motivate the self interest of investors, but what about consumers? Consumption is highly carbon intensive, and consumers will not sacrifice the quality of life it gives them. John argues that we can shift to green consumption without sacrificing quality of life. Electric cars, heat pumps, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, etc. The green bonds can help finance these goods and services.

There is tool which is critical for steering the market towards green investment and consumption, a price on carbon, the most efficient and cost effective way to reduce carbon emissions. If the revenue is returned back to everyone as a dividend, the bottoms two thirds of people will get a net boost in income. What about the top third? Bond revenue can compensate them indirectly such as with income tax cuts. And fossil fuel workers? A shift to renewables and electrification will create millions of jobs.

it will not be correct to say that no single individual will end up making a sacrifice. But it is approximately correct: no class of individuals needs to make a sacrifice.

John acknowledges that a no sacrifice strategy perpetuates injustice by paying off those who created the problem and are opposing the solutions. But the self interested powers that hold our governments hostage will not give way to morality, only ransom.

I am not happy with it. It sticks in the gullet, but we have to swallow it.

What about free-riding? John suggests border tariffs to tax nations that don’t put a price on carbon, and mentions morality may have a role to play after all, highlighting the growing movements of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future.

Although I have cynically said that some governments are impervious to morality, I hope that powerful enough public movements might at least prevent them from free riding.

Increased government debt is at the core of John’s idea of borrowing from future generations in exchange for leaving them a livable world. However, the need to issue long term bonds will be difficult for governments that are not credit-worthy. His proposal is for a World Climate Bank to provide them financing.

John’s suggests the World Bank, created to finance recovery after WW2, as a model for the World Climate Bank. Could Green Bonds be the new War Bonds? Can a Green New Deal help us recover from COVID, the greatest economic hit since the Great Depression? Can long term government backed loans help people afford green appliances like the long term mortgage did for home buyers in the 1930s? What lessons from that era can help us recover from COVID and fight the war against climate change?

What do you think? Should we stop appealing to morality and focus on self interest? How do we conceive of our “self” anyway? It seems most people have a very narrow and fragmented sense of self. If we shift from an egotistical conception of self to an enlightened one, then we align our self interest with collective humanity and the biosphere we are interdependent with, closing the gap between self interest and morality.



Writing in service to life.

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