The ethics of carbon offsetting.

I’m half way through John Broome’s book, “Climate Matters”, and all his arguments about the implications of climate change for private morality have now been made. The second half of the book focuses on what governments, rather than individuals, should do about this phenomenon. I haven’t needed much time to reflect upon John’s conclusions. My supervision with him should prove interesting, because I find myself strongly opposed to his position already.

First, to map out that position. The book is predicated upon a general moral distinction between duties of goodness and duties of justice, which Broome takes to be a natural and plausible thought. Duties of goodness include the positive things we should do to improve the world, such as donating money to the poor and, indeed, diminishing the impact of climate change. Duties of justice, in contrast, are meant to apply to a stricter subset of our actions and concern the active and direct harm we do to discernible individuals. Broome claims that governments should be concerned with goodness – the job we assign them is promoting it. But as individuals, our actions should be regulated by justice. We have a duty to not harm individuals even when doing so may be better in goodness terms. For instance, we may not murder someone to save five lives.

Now, you may think that this gets us out of any personal duties to alleviate global warming. Since this appears to be a distant, indirect and large phenomenon, it looks like the type of thing governments should solve in the name of goodness, but it doesn’t look like a matter of justice. Broome denies this. Since our emissions are intentional and we know that they do harm to individuals, it doesn’t matter that the causal chain is complex. This is still a matter of justice, and justice requires that we do not harm individuals through our emissions.

So Broome’s conclusion is to say that as individuals, we should offset our carbon emissions so that the net effect is nil. This is required by justice. However, he denies that we should do anything about climate change as individuals in the name of goodness (for instance, by planting further trees to make our carbon footprint negative), since if we want to do good, it is far more effective to, for instance, deworm children, as I posted about earlier today. But since we should do what is just before we do what is good, we should offset our emissions first, and do good through charity afterwards. This is true, according to Broome, even if the money spent on offsetting carbon emissions could do more good by funding deworming.

And it is undoubtedly the case that deworming does do more good than carbon offsetting, as Broome concedes. According to figures he cites from the World Health Organisation, an individual’s emissions throughout their life time are likely to cause six months of healthy life for a human to be removed from the world. This is a significant harm in itself, and they quickly add up. It’s not to be taken lightly. But according to Broome’s figures, the average American causes 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to be emitted. This increases global warming and harms individuals, so it is unjust. Offsetting these emissions would cost ‘a mere’ $300. Justice, Broome says, requires this. And yet $300 could buy 100 years of healthy school attendance for children. One year of offsetting buys a mere 2 days of healthy human life! (Assuming an individual’s total emissions that kill six months of human life are spread over eighty years). Broome accepts the former is far more good. But only the latter is required by justice, and justice trumps goodness, so saving the 2 days overrules saving the 100 years.

This is absurd, but fortunately, I think it’s easy to see how the problem arises. The problem was inevitable once this distinction between justice and goodness was made, and justice was prioritised. If Broome had instead taken the route that Hume and Mill took – of saying that the value of justice is to be understood in terms of the fact that it is a decent rule of thumb and guide to what is good – then he could say we should not bother with it when it demands ineffective action. If we say that what is good really matters, we don’t need to let the narrow and absolutist demands of justice constrain us in this way.

And if we do pursue this path, something else follows. Since there is never a plausible point on the horizon at which all the children needing to be dewormed will have received treatment, we should always as individuals spend money on deworming, since it achieves good outcomes more effectively. Offsetting our carbon emissions would on this view be a waste.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we thus can and should emit carbon carelessly. Since it still does harm, we should avoid doing so when this is possible. For instance, we can survive perfectly well on more vegetarian meals and reduce our meat consumption, thereby lowering emissions and doing less harm. We should do this. We just shouldn’t spend money on offsetting our emissions that are unavoidable, since there is so much potential for good elsewhere.

I am surprised by this conclusion. I expected my individual contribution to climate change to be greater, and so I expected that if I did offset my emissions, I’d be able to do far more good. But that’s simply not the case. Green movements with a monolithic focus on low footprints seem to be deeply misguided.

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One thought on “The ethics of carbon offsetting.

  1. Interesting thoughts, and I broadly agree with the structure of your argument. However, your conclusion is very sensitive to the actual cost-benefit analysis, which in this case is rather sketchy. You’re comparing school years with life years (or days). Not only are these different things, so it’s not obvious whether 100 of one weighs as heavily as 100 of the other, but you’ve also omitted all other effects that offsetting may or may not have on future people’s quality of life–including but obviously not limited to their schooling. Green movements may seem a whole lot less misguided if you do the cost-benefit analysis correctly. (Other than that, I’m pleased to have found this blog, and look forward to reading more.)

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