A Philosopher at the IPCC

John BroomeBy John Broome
email: john.broome@philosophy.ox.ac.uk 
White's Professor of Moral Philosophy and
Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford

John is a British ethicist and economist. 
His most recent book is Climate Matters: 
Ethics in a Warming World

Published May 20, 2014

Climate change is a moral problem. Each of us causes the emission of greenhouse gas, which spreads around the Earth. Some of it stays in the atmosphere for centuries. It causes harm to people who live far away and to members of future generations. Moreover, the harm we cause, taken together, is very great. As a result of climate change, people are losing their homes to storms and floods, they are losing their livelihoods as their farmland dries up, and they are losing even their lives as tropical diseases climb higher in the mountains of Africa. We should not cause harms like these to other people in order to make life better for ourselves.

It is chiefly for moral reasons that we inhabitants of rich countries should reduce our emissions. Doing so will benefit us—particularly the young among us—to an extent, but most of the benefit will come to the world’s poor and to future generations. Our main reason for working to limit climate change is our moral duty towards those people.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes that climate change is a moral problem or, to use its cautious language, it raises ethical issues. The authors of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report therefore included two moral philosophers. I am one of them. I recently returned from the Approval Session of IPCC’s Working Group 3 in Berlin. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my academic life.

3 thoughts on “A Philosopher at the IPCC

  1. Global Obesity Increasing: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2960460-8/abstract

    Is there a “right to become obese,” along with a “right to develop” along the pre-established lines of the “developed” world? Or is it time to question assumptions, including ethical theories based on “preferences” and economic ones maintaining the fantasy that continuing along on the same path will eventually result in “prosperity” and (hence) well-being for everyone?

  2. This post contains many humanist assumptions such as what is meant by “we” “people” and “moral” and “duty”. I propose that the phrase “Our main reason for working to limit climate change is our moral duty towards those people” is misguided and that global warming is so dire that our main duty now is to reduce the supply of as many humans, and thereby consumption by those humans, as possible in order to preserve what remains of nonhuman life. If there is any value to human life, that too will be better served by a human population reduction.

    All that and not one mention of the effect of capitalism on global warming?

    • I have read through the Technical Summary with considerable interest and appreciate the efforts of John Broome and the other authors of these documents, even though I am also sympathetic to the comment above by John Maher–as Arne Naess once said, “the frontier is long.” I also think Professor Broome is to be congratulated for offering his candid remarks and having some of them incorporated into a more popularized report–how often do the thoughts of philosophers ever make it into more “mainstream” discourse?

      But Maher is right about the assumptions that constrain the work of all the authors of IPCC reports, and I would say that what is needed is not more analysis of the ethics of climate change but rather deep changes in the ontology of “development.” The bottom line of most of the findings of this working group is highly economistic; you find claims like “If economies continue to grow, people who live later in time will on average become better off”–i.e., “possess more commodities”–“than people who live earlier” (p. 37), and “Improvements in wealth, lifestyle, urbanization, and the provision of access to modern energy and adequate housing will drive the increases in building energy demand,” with an implication that the 0.8 billion people currently (and who knows how many more as population continues to grow?) without such access will surely eventually attain it if they keep on the “development” path (p. 60). The controversial information that was suppressed from inclusion in the summary report, starkly illustrated in Fig. TS.5 (p. 18) shows the spiking of emissions generated by the “upper middle income countries” as a result of their manufacture of exports to the high income countries–a clear picture of what increasing the number of “commodities” available for possession is accomplishing. Should the people of these countries be said to have a “right to development”–to keep us all on that path to nowhere– as if that is the primary ethical issue?Of course there is no overt mention of “capitalism” here–the whole discussion takes place within the assumptions of “capitalism.” But, given the “long frontier,” there need to be other philosophers who will raise questions about the entire ontology that capitalism assumes. For instance, what, indeed, is the ontological status of “capital”–or the “cost” of climate mitigation, or of “money” in any of its guisess, other than that of an ontologically subjective symbol that just happens to be collectively accepted by a certain percentage (granted, currently a very high one) of us human primates? How does this compare with the reality of Life on Earth, the many living organisms that currently inhabit the planet that are being squeezed off of it by all our wonderful “development,”, as Maher would draw our attention to?

      It also should be pointed out that, as he notes, there is essentially no ethical or pragmatic concern directed toward stabilizing or reducing our human population in this document, even though there is some discussion of the benefits in emissions reductions that might accrue with “lifestyle, cultural and other behavioral changes”–it is simply blythely accepted that the total human population may grow to 9.3 billion by 2050 (p. 78). And a further, mysterious omission, not even noted by Maher, is the total lack of discussion of the CO2 equivalents emitted in the course of modern warfare, and the preparation for it, by continuing elaboration of the war machine in developed and developing countries alike (though far outstripped, of course, by the former–I have heard claims that the U.S. military is the #1 consumer of fossil fuels, tho I would appreciate some solid references for this). If we humans are going to deal seriously with climate change, we are going to have to place ALL of our ontological assumptions, currently stated and unstated, on the table for drastic re-thinking.

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