Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News > Post and Comments

Latest News

Uncertainty About Our Climate’s Future is No Excuse for Inaction in Dealing with Global Warming

Book Review: Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World

In dealing with the dangers of global warming of our planet, what is the best way to consider our responses, both as individuals and as a society?

book cover

Ethicist John Broome walks us through this process in his new book Climate Matters, a review of our human responsibilities toward our fellow people and Earth. Broome is a lead author on Working Group III of the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body addressing the science of global warming, and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is thus well placed to explain, in great detail, the process of finding morality in our response to the crisis of a hotter, more dangerous world.

This is not a book about warming itself — Broome briefly outlines the science and general thinking behind global warming and what it will mean in the near and far future. You will have to go elsewhere to find the detailed facts and science.

In Climate Matters, Broome explains how we should think about our own actions to reduce the threat of global warming and what responsibilities governments should take on to safeguard our future. Along the way, Broome has some surprises in store.

For activists, for example, Broome claims it is not enough to reduce our own energy footprint (and thus reduce our own contributions to global warming gases like carbon dioxide) and to urge our governments to take action. He feels we should offset ALL of our carbon emissions. We can do so, he believes, by supporting carbon-offset programs. He is skeptical of setting aside forests (which he feels are too likely to burn or be cut down in the foreseeable future to make lasting contributions to reducing carbon emissions). Instead, he prefers carbon offset programs that purchase solar ovens and solar panels for people in third world countries, thus immediately reducing the overall carbon emissions that enter the atmosphere.

Broome differentiates between the responsibilities of individuals and governments toward global warming. Individuals have a duty, as a matter of simple justice, to do no harm by reducing their own carbon footprint and supporting offsets. Governments, he contends, have a different moral responsibility to make the world a better place.

Personally, I’m not sure I agree with this hard and fast distinction, as it seems to me there are no clear boundaries between what an individual or government should do to be more moral or to promote justice.

Broome goes into detail about how governments should gauge their actions to address global warming and reduce the adverse impacts, but his analysis comes up against the classical question of how we value things, especially such intangibles as the worth of a human life or the worth of nature’s bounty.

While economists and environmentalists have come up with different ways to address these questions, such as valuing ecosystems for the mechanistic “goods” they provide like clean air and water, eventually his arguments break down. He admits very candidly that economists are still stumped by the question of how to measure the worth of a human life. It is easy to say that one lost life is too much, yet we have people dying all the time in car accidents, yet society has not eliminated cars. How do we make judgments now about putting money into solutions when the results may or may not pay off, if we can’t even decide how much human life is worth in the first place?

But as Broome emphasizes throughout Climate Matters, his purpose with this book is not to tell us what to think, but how to think — how an ethicist works through the various different alternatives to arrive at the best solutions in a moral way. We cannot be certain, but that doesn’t mean we have to be paralyzed.

This is a book that makes you think. The world is a complicated place, and global warming raises many issues of political will (of which US leaders seem to have so little), economics, and practical alternatives. As part of that process of finding solutions, Broome argues that we must include basic morality — what is right and what is wrong — in our thinking. His book is a great start.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Remember my personal information?

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!