Skip to content


The Copenhagen climate change summit begins today, and will run for two weeks: . The aim of this UN meeting is to establish agreements to succeed the Kyoto protocol, in the hope ultimately of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2˚C. After the disappointing results of the negotiations in Barcelona in September, it is looking unlikely that such agreements will emerge from Copenhagen. But it can be hoped that Copenhagen will play an important role in establishing a basis for further negotiations over the next few years. If those negotations fail, then there is a non-trivial risk that the overall quality of human life on the planet will plummet, or even that the earth will no longer be able to sustain human life at all.

The badness of those possible outcomes beyond the present generation is a matter of some dispute, since the policies we choose now will affect the identities of those who are born in future. Even if we continue to pollute and individuals in future generations live lives of significantly lower quality than that typical in a developed country today, in a sense they will have no complaint against us. For if we had chosen to change to low-carbon economies, they would never have been born. And of course if we bring it about that no human beings are born at all, then there will be no one to complain anyway.

Derek Parfit has called this the ‘non-identity problem’, and it has led many people to believe that there are ‘non-person-affecting’ principles of benevolence that require us to bring about well-being in people’s lives in the future whoever those people turn out to be. If there are such principles, given that the earth may have the capacity to support human life for at least many millions of years, then allowing global warming to wipe out human life would be an unimaginably great moral catastrophe. But of course even if one believes only in person-affecting principles, the stakes are very high. Many alive now are already suffering from the effects of global warming, and the proportion of those currently existing who will suffer over the next few decades is bound to increase dramatically even if warming is slowed.

It is especially unfortunate, then, that so-called ‘climate deniers’ have been given a fillip in recent days by the contents of emails hacked from the UEA’s climatic research unit. There are two questions here, which should be kept carefully distinct from one another. The first is whether the current rises in global temperature are at least in significant part the result of human activity. Given that the vast majority of climate scientists believe that they are, any rational judge must conclude that there is a reasonably high chance that they are right. (It is no surprise to find that many climate deniers also advocate bizarre conspiracy theories, in the hope of undermining their opponents’ evidence without having to provide plausible counter-evidence of their own.) The second question is a non-scientific one. Given that there is this chance, what should we do? The answer is obvious. Even if the economic and social costs of transition to low-carbon economies are great (and here anyway it can be argued that in the longer term such economies will be more productive, and that economic growth anyway does not advance well-being above certain thresholds), the citizens of the rich countries have an obligation to bear those costs – and to begin to bear them as soon as possible. We may find in future that the climate deniers were right. But given the size of the stakes, it would be extremely irrational now to give even the slightest weight to their opinions about how we should respond to climate change.

Share on

15 Comment on this post

  1. Marco Antonio Oliveira de Azevedo

    Dear Roger. I sympathize with your argument, but I have some doubts. What would you say about the opinions (and arguments) of Sunstein and Eric Posner concerning the alleged obligation of rich countries bearing the costs of global strategies for preventing climate change? This is what they say in a paper published in 2008: “Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would cost some nations much more than others and benefit some nations far less than others. Significant reductions would likely impose especially large costs on the United States, and recent projections suggest that the United States is not among the nations most at risk from climate change. In these circumstances, what does justice require the United States to do?” Their conclusion is that “without reaching specific conclusions about the proper response of any particular nation, and while emphasizing that welfarist arguments strongly support some kind of international agreement to protect against climate change, we contend that standard arguments from distributive and corrective justice fail to provide strong justifications for imposing special obligations for greenhouse gas reductions on the United States” (See If they are right, welfarist considerations can support a global strategy for preventing catastrophic climate change, but it wouldn’t impose distributive bears on rich countries. But even if it would, they conclude that remains the question if it would be “the best way to help disadvantaged people around the world”, saying that it is plausible that protecting other countries from genocide or poverty or famine make better welfarist outcomes than priorizing investiments in reducing gas emissions. Then “it is far from clear that greenchouse gas restrictions on the part of the US are the best way to help the most disadvantagend citizens of the world”. Let me say to you that I don’t have an opinion about this. Even if the Americans are right that they don’t have strong obligations of helping others, it still could be right that the success of global strategies depend on larger investments of rich countries. But I would like to know what do you thing about that.

  2. Roger,

    I think there are a number of complexities that are ignored in the your claim that the answer to the question “what should we do?” is obvious.

    Firstly, the realities of the trying to respond to climate change mean that many proposed solutions will also incur costs on those less rich than the developed world. So your claim that “the citizens of the rich countries have an obligation to bear those costs” doesn’t address the realities that the solution requires *global* action, and thus sacrifices by those less affluent. And in their case cuts to economic growth would impact well-being. So making the developed countries alone “pay” won’t solve things (unless you are proposing a geoengineering solution, funded by the developed countries). The more difficult question is– do you want to also make the poor pay? And there you have to weigh up what those costs are now (to countries that are much poorer now then they will be in a century’s time) versus what the costs of climate change might be in a 100 years.

    Secondly, the conjectures concerning what explains the observational findings that the global temperature has risen 0.6 degrees does not settle the, as of yet untested experimental hypotheses, concerning what impact, if any, deliberate human actions could have on future global temperatures. So there might be a consensus that X causes Y, but that does not establish the claim that doing Z will reverse or impact Y in the way we want or hope it will. So transforming climate science from an observational to an *experimental science* is a very big and bold move. And I myself have doubts that funding and implementing such an experiment is “obviously” a good idea.

    Think about any other complex area of scientific inquiry that has profound policy implications. Do we think the solution to preventing cancer, or malaria or an economic recession is “obvious”. No. And yet as complex as our biology and economies are, they are not as complex as the climate system. Furthermore, we have experimented, for centuries, with our biology and economies, so we have some basis for determining how much faith/scepticism to place in these sciences. But with climate science all we have are observations and model projections. I’m not saying these count for nothing, but it certainly doesn’t provide a basis for saying that the solution is “obvious”.

    And finally, the fact that the IPCC projected future temperatures vary so much, from 2.4 up to 6.4 degrees, in just 100 years shows how imprecise these projections are. And that fact alone should itself create *some* level of scepticism in a rational person.

    I am not a “climate denier” (whatever that is supposed to mean), nor do I advocate bizarre conspiracy theories. I like to think I am on the side of science and rationality. And that is why I think it is counterproductive to polarize complex scientific and policy issues into the “either you are with us, or against us” mentality.

    I have to admit I do find it baffling that so many intelligent and well-intentioned people are willing to champion climate science as the key to improving the life prospects of the world’s impoverished countries when there are so many other, tried and tested, interventions that can do great good now, for little cost. Perhaps many people (in the developed world) aren’t drawn to championing these public health measures because they don’t pack as large a “rich countries have an obligation to bear great costs – and to begin to bear them as soon as possible” punch as climate change does.


  3. Marco and Colin — thx!

    Marco: I’m not arguing that the US has any special obligation. The obligation is one that nearly all rich people have, wherever they live. Nor did I claim that greenhouse gas reduction is the best way to improve the lives of the poor right now. That would be absurd. There are other ways to do that, and we should be doing those things as well. The really significant aspect in relation to climate change is impersonal morality, and the non-trivial risk of making the earth uninhabitable.

    Colin: A few quick responses. First, there is no reason why the rich should not bear the costs of greenhouse reduction entirely. They can afford it. You’re right, of course, that climate science is controversial. Not much is obviously true there. But there is consensus that we face a non-trivial risk of making the earth uninhabitable. That’s the difference between this case and those others you mention – cancer, malaria, economic recession. I am inclined to rest my claim about obviousness on impersonal morality. I didn’t make the absurd claim that greenhouse gas reduction is the most effective way to improve the lives of the now-existing poor. There are many other more effective ways to be doing that, and we should be doing those things as well.

    Cheers, Roger

  4. Hi Roger,
    I’m in agreement to your response to both Marco & Colin.

    I would only add the IPPC work is quite conservative to actually get as sure as they possibly can, to get a scientific and political consensus, and as far as science goes it’s as good as it gets . The only controversy is largely coming from unqualified denialists.

    Regarding the special obligation of the US it naturally follows due to their present and historical relation to causing the problem. The Brazilian Proposal does exactly that and links a countries historical contribution to how much they should pay.

    Concerning is it the only show in town and are their other things that need to be addressed. Yes and no, of course there are other things that need to be addressed, world poverty etc, but like what happened with development being set back by that spike in fuel prices, if you look at the big picture, and if some of the climate impacts do in fact come about, the consequences dwarf all other considerations.

    Stepping back what climate change issues does at a time of looming peak resource depletion call into question the use of global resources -be they material or atmospheric– in a context of finite resources.

    Developing countries quite rightly question the ethics of countries like the US who have gained their wealth largely from the exploitation fossil resources and the atmosphere as a pollution dump, but now expect those countries that didn’t cause the problem to make serious cuts in CO2 emissions, and as a consequence stay impoverished to allow the US to continue to live their affluent lifestyles.

    It also raises the underlying justifications of global resource use, if we are to share the atmosphere as a global commons what about other global resources? Can the fact that some countries have greater economic and political clout justify dominating the consumption of other less powerful countries resources, especially when those with the clout gained much of that power through the past exploitation of other peoples and resources, and that much of the consumption deals with wants and not needs?

  5. Thx Simon. I think there’s a fair amount of agreement between us. Myself, I think morality is not, ultimately, backward-looking. So in itself the fact that some country contributed more to global warming than some other is not relevant to working out what obligations are now. I’m also an individualist about obligations. I can understand a nation as a metaphysical entity, but I can’t see how it can have genuine moral obligations over and above those of its individual citizens. But if it helps persuade US citizens to make cuts in their emissions, I’d be quite happy to employ these fictions! Cheers, R.

  6. This discussion so far is entirely naive—with regard to any notion of a special obligation, the fact seems to have escaped everyone here, except for Simon, that the propertied classes, i.e. capital, are not concerned with “human life”, a clean environment, the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental protection, etc., as ends-in-themselves, but merely as a means to the maximization of profits and the preservation of the prerogatives of private ownership of the major means of production. Any half-wit can see that the capitalist system systematically entails the ravaging of nature, that it goes hand in hand with ruination of the environment. The solution is then, not to be found in any self-deluded notion of a moral obligation (there are no moral obligations) but rather in violent and inexorable revolt.

  7. Moreover—to offer for consideration a mere ineluctable fact, the only alternative to the swift overthrow of the polluters is the absolute destruction of the natural environment, and indeed, the inevitable disappearance of civilization itself in a violent cataclysm. It is not a question of moral obligation (there are no moral obligations), but rather a question of preference, for instance: “Do I prefer to have the future of civilization held hostage to the narrowly defined class interests of a few dozen members of Congress and CEOs of major fossil-fuel corporations?” In other words, “Do I prefer the destruction of civilization to it’s preservation”?

  8. Roger I have a hard time seeing morality as only forward-looking as real world practicality means we are often dealing with past events. In fact I think morality would be nonsensical without it.

    Next I wonder if you have any trouble with nations signing and acting by the obligations in treaties even if signed by earlier generations? Or are you one of those who thinks Thatcher was onto something when saying there is no society just individuals? Does it also mean you have a problems with a corporation as a legal individual?

    Regardless to my mind it would be difficult to see how one could have complex social arrangements/societies without these ‘fictions’.


  9. Sebastian: For violence to have a decent chance of succeeding, many people would have to be persuaded of the rightness of the cause. And in a democracy, once many people are so persuaded, non-violence may be more effective. I tried to define impersonal morality in the original blog. The idea is that we have obligations (e.g. to future generations) which aren’t to specific individuals (since, in the case of future generations, the decisions we take now will affect the identity of those who are born in future).

    Simon: There are good forward-looking reasons for taking backward-looking considerations into account (so promising, for example, is a very useful practice). I’m inclined towards moral individualism because it seems to me that, in any particular case, once the blame and praise has been dished out to individuals, there is no sense in blaming and praising non-individual agents such as states. I do not agree that there is no such thing as society. But I do think it has no obligations. And of course I agree that society couldn’t exist without these fictions — indeed, without their being taken seriously beyond the philosopher’s study.



  10. Thank you for your comments Professor,

    With respect to obligations, one need only paraphrase Nietzsche to see the dilemma—he who can command, he who is by nature “master,” he who is violent in act and bearing, what has he to do with “obligations”? Non-violence is most certainly the least effective (and stupidest) strategy since it cedes to capital a monopoly (on violence), and leaves them in possession of the field—what more could they want? No, VIOLENCE is the only solution for the working classes. (for the record, I am not a Marxist; I ABHOR the working classes and everything to do with them—my very existence constitutes an untempered sneer in their faces—but I also ABHOR capital) But I digress! Once again, it is not a matter of “rightness”—the claim is that as the secular trends and contradictions of capitalism intensify (with their attendant consequences), the mob will necessarily turn to revolt. This is merely a conclusion of economic science—to quote a dear friend of mine, “the labor theory of value scientifically demonstrates that capitalism cannot survive the intensifying contradictions of capital without ultimately destroying civilization itself.” While conceding the absolute cogency of this, as inevitably one must, I nevertheless cannot help but find the prating of Marxists a little NAIVE. For it is nothing if not naive to believe that civilization will not be destroyed even after capitalism is overthrown—which is to say, it is not precisely capital who are the cause of ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation, desertification, destruction of the rain-forests, etc., etc., but rather it is simply HUMAN BEINGS who are the cause. Let us (especially the few huddling Marxists) not forget that life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, and at least, at its mildest, exploitation (of the natural environment and of others). Finally, what are you referring to when you say “democracy”? The US is a polyarchy.

  11. To reiterate two points, the existence of human life itself entails the destruction of the natural environment, and aside from it being a fantasy, pacifism is a CONCESSION. I understand an “obligation” as being something IMPOSED by society on an individual, as in an ARBITRARY FIAT, but beyond that I have no idea what you mean—because, if a man may speak truly Professor, what else is there except desire or (in Nietzsche’s terminology) the “Will to Power”?

  12. So Roger I suppose you would have opposed Libya paying compensation for the Lockerbie plane crash? Or any other payout via a nation or government body?
    I realy wonder that on a practical level you can in fact deal on a individual level like you are talking about.

  13. In fact Simon, the issues are more complex than either the Guardian or Professor Crisp suggests—to run through the facts, a comprehensive international treaty that would actually address the issue of climate change and lead to meaningful and swift reductions in carbon dioxide emissions—such a treaty is, in fact, IMPOSSIBLE for several structural and systemic reasons, namely the fact that all countries are beholden to a world economy that essentially revolves around a single natural resource: oil—Why on earth would a capitalist entity, (or the individual nation-states that facilitate their global operations), walk away from $13 trillion in investments that are tied directly to the oil extraction industry? What about the associated industries and infrastructure that have been built up over the last one hundred years of global economic development? (the car and truck companies, road and pipeline construction corporations, the asphalt, rubber, electricity, fertilizer and petrochemical companies, and steel manufacturers?) All of these are inseparably connected to fossil-fuel extraction and refining, and the location and growth of large cities and ports the world over are completely bound up with the oil industry. NINE OF THE TEN largest corporations on earth, with turnover in the hundreds of billions of dollars, make their money from oil-related activities.

    What? You think we can persuade Capital to gently forgo their own survival as capitalists for the sake of HUMANITARIAN IDEALS? You think if we ask them politely they will stop violating the environment? Can you not see that to cut the oil-lubricated umbilical cord is to sever their relationship to PROFIT? And in turning the earth into a sun-ravaged hothouse, there is so much that is profitable!

    So again, that environmental destruction is the inevitable consequence of the survival of capitalism cannot be doubted, BUT I go further than the Marxists, Communists, Socialists—in short, the HERD—to affirm (in my characteristically shrewd and brilliant manner) several things, but namely that environmental destruction is the inevitable consequence of the existence of human beings. The US knows no “obligations”—they know only the Will to Power, the Will to Profits. What then is the solution? But I have already said!

  14. A bit late:) I too think there are too many vested interests to head it off some systems cannot evolve only collapse.
    “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
    –Albert Einstein

    But I would disagree that total “environmental destruction is the inevitable consequence of the existence of human beings”. It does take a totally different mindset and maybe having billions of people dying and a century of so of upheaval will do it. It will no doubt leave a cultural memory our species won’t forget any time soon.
    I do think one consequence will be a total reappraisal of human morality. Another needed one is a multidisciplinary science/philosophy of bias, and seeing how badly we stuffed things up maybe later generations will see how irrational we can act.

Comments are closed.