CLIMATE MATTERS: Ethics in a Warming World. By John Broome. W.W. Norton and Company. 197 pages. $23.95.
In a warming world, what is the most ethical course of action for an individual to take? Should you lower your greenhouse gas emissions or just offset them? What actions will best promote justice for all? What will most enhance goodness? Can we calculate how much a human life is actually worth? Is the well-being of life in the future worth sacrificing life’s comforts today?
John Broome, moral philosopher and economist at the University of Oxford, sets out to answer these weighty questions in his discerning handbook, “Climate Matters.”
Broome, the author of several other works on ethics and the economics of climate change, simplifies esoteric theories and complex issues into 11 coherent chapters. “Climate Matters” begins with a short but thorough explanation of current climate science and then defines basic economic principles such as “risk,” “waste” and “efficiency” and applies them to the environmental crisis.
The author writes that person’s efforts to mitigate his own climate-changing behavior promotes justice, but that it takes collective action to promote goodness and make the world a better place.
In other words, if you choose to drive less, you may reduce pollution and cut the incidence of respiratory illness in your neighborhood, but it takes government to raise fuel efficiency standards and make a practical difference on a global scale.
“Climate Matters” is essentially a series of proofs pieced together so that one thought exercise logically leads to the next. Broome compares private morality to the ethics of governments. From there, he addresses the uncertainties inherent in climate models and predictions of the future, discusses ways to reconcile the world of the future with the world today and compares current theories on how to calculate the monetary value of a human life and how to view the ballooning human population.
For each topic, Broome comes to compelling, often surprising conclusions: Individuals should purchase certified offsets because it’s cheaper and more efficient than reducing their greenhouse gas emissions; governments must act immediately to mitigate climate change because there is a real risk of catastrophe; the well-being of future generations should not be discounted as if they were future commodities.
Perhaps the most contentious argument the author makes concerns population. Broome asserts that a world with more people is one with more happiness and thus a world with more good in it. This is a difficult notion for many scientists and climate change philosophers to accept. After all, isn’t population the enemy? “Climate Matters” reopens this important discussion but by no means ends it.
Though the book succeeds in conveying complex subjects in simple terms, its artless presentation and uninspired language will not grab the attentions of a general audience. Indeed, the book’s appeal to a small audience of specialists is its primary weakness.
After decades of preaching to the choir, the environmental movement still is looking for its voice, a fusion of science and persuasive writing in the spirit of Rachel Carson and Lewis Thomas that can make us reimagine who we are and how we relate to the natural world.
Reviewer Carlin Rosengarten is a writer in Charleston.