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Applied Ethics Plus

Reflect for a moment on the place you call home. Perhaps this is the place where you grew up, and where you return to from time to time to see family and old friends. Or maybe it’s somewhere you’ve subsequently settled and built your life. Somewhere, at least, that you have a fondness for, though strangers might not see it in the rosy same light. Now imagine that the policies of those in charge are steadily ruining your home. Left unchecked, the place will eventually be left uninhabitable. Presumably this would alarm you, and that alarm would be reflected in your motivation to do something about it.

You are probably beginning to suspect that this post has something to do with climate change. Indirectly it does, but the point I’d like to make is more concerned with why so few people seem to be motivated to do anything about moral issues that arise at the global, rather than the local, level. On Friday it was reported that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk to the smallest ever recorded. Though this was headline news, it did not appear to galvanise anybody to do anything in particular. It was just one more global climate change headline. Compare this to reaction to the UK government’s proposal to change the planning laws that may have threatened the ‘green belt’, the strip of land that surrounds the capital. The outcry was rapid and vociferous.

I should make very clear at the outset the argument that I am not making. I am not arguing that global problems are the same as local problems and that therefore we ought to address global problems in the way that we address local problems. Rather, I think that the two are relevantly different, and what might work at the local level cannot be easily transposed to the global level.

I suggest that there is in fact a tragic rationality to the destruction of the environment at the global level that is not comparable to destruction at the local level. At the local level, it makes little obvious sense to pursue policies that would destroy ones’ immediate environment. (Though there are many examples where humans in history have done this, I suspect most would be situations where those concerned did not understand the relation between their behaviour and the effect on their environment.) However, in a world of nation states that compete against each other, national policies that preserve the environment but sacrifice growth undermine competitiveness. Therefore even if the majority of states adopt green policies, if they cannot effectively prevent other states from breaking ranks, there is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem. Where the behaviour of rogue states is going to destroy the environment anyway, adopting green policies may serve to make countries that adopt green policies less competitive and thereby weaken the limited means of imposing their will on rogue states that they do possess.

Of course the dichotomy between the local and the global is not always so neat. States often possess power to influence other states at the global level, so green policies may be wise. Equally, individuals may be unable to influence their own government. Nonetheless, I suggest that the two systems are distinctive and that this may shed light on our different reactions to similar problems at the two levels.

The underlying rationality may underpin many of the patterns that we see in response to global climate change and are otherwise difficult to account for. Notable examples are the apparent apathy in response to what would (at the local level) be considered catastrophic, and notable scepticism to evidence that would in other contexts be considered overwhelming.

More fundamentally, I suspect that two distinctive aspects that make the problem at the global level so challenging are novelty and uncertainty. By novelty I mean that we humans now have the capacity to alter the environment much more significantly than ever before, and further that the consequences of environmental change may now fall on the shoulders of individuals far removed from those causing those consequences. By uncertainty I mean that although we know the destination that we need to reach, there is very little certainty about the routes that might take us there. Personally I sense that the current system of nation states with an ineffective United Nations may be practically incapable of addressing climate change. But even if this thought proved to be well founded, the very much harder questions would arise as to what global system would be capable of addressing these (and other) challenges that we face, and how we might move from the existing system to a more effective one. Given such uncertainty, one might understand why people pursue policies that promote interests that are tractable, such as competitiveness. Even where pursuing competitiveness would, if maintained, lead to catastrophe, it may be better than the alternatives because subsequent and previously unforeseen events may change the situation for the better.

I do not pretend to have an easy solution to the above problem (provided it is, in fact, a fair analysis of the situation). However, I do suggest that at the very least it may require us to exercise some caution before assuming that local and global problems can be addressed in a similar way. It may be that the usual methods of applied ethics, which emphasise reasoning and argumentation, are effective at the local level, but perhaps not at the global level. At the global level, it may be that a slightly different approach may be required. Such a different approach would need to be capable of addressing the issues of novelty and complexity identified above. Perhaps this would require specialist skills or knowledge that would permit more reliable predictions to be made about human behaviour, particularly in hypothetical or unprecedented situations.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. Very insightful Paul, thank you. I would say that the ‘apparent apathy at something catastrophic’ could also be considered a ‘mis-prioritisation’ of something catastrophic. I think Governments are particularly to blame for this. If one weighs up the proposals of an increased defence budget or a green investment policy, then the answer seems quite clear (at a VERY superficial level – uncertainty, as you stated, probably plays a role here) but, when push comes to shove, Governments always seem to bump green policies ‘down the line’.

    1. The benefits of defence expenditures are internalised by the country make the investment. This is not generally true of expenditures on climate mitigation.*

      I don’t really understand the “governments are to blame” thing. It’s everywhere in the popular media and it’s endemic in the climate research community but it’s fundamentally a result of ignorance, in my view. Governments are just being governments. They’re responding to the incentives in front of them, and trying to protect the very broad interests of their citizens across a number of domains. Going hard at any one of these domains – ie going well in excess of what you’re incentivised to do – amounts to a misallocation of resources. Imagine a small, irrelevant country like Ireland or New Zealand or Slovakia decided to go hammer and tongs at climate mitigation – say they spent 5% of GDP on it for ten years. That’s ~15% of the tax take (~health & education combined). They’d buy down a few thousandths of a degree of warming, ie have a biophysically indiscernable impact. But the cash spent on that project has large opportunity costs: either it takes away from existing fiscal priorities (if you take it from the existing tax take) or it acts as a drag on the economy (whacking a big new tax on a low growth economy). Who benefits? Everyone in the world, by a tiny amount, but those who pay face a large net cost. So it’s basically, overall, a donation to the rest of the world. Citizens of countries are usually cool with small donations to the rest of the world, but are uncool about large ones that actually have significant costs. If my elected official turns up and represents someone else’s interests, the logic goes, I think I’ll get me a new elected official. [Which is how it’s supposed to work, by the way.]

      Short summary: yes it’s a hard problem; but blaming governments for acting in the interests of their own citizens is like blaming bees for protecting their hive. That’s what they do, dude.

      *$10M spent by a govt (country of n people) is a per capita investment of $10^7/n; $1M spent on climate mitigation** is a per capita investment of $10^7/7B people around the world (to first order), which means its a smaller investment by a factor of 7B/n. Of course, that’s just the outlay – you also need to consider the amount of risk that $10M buys down. Hard to quantify in either case, but unless the climate mitigation investment is hugely more effective at buying down risk than the military expenditure, then it’s understandable why govts find it easier to write cheques for tanks than they do for non-fossil energy.

      **Mitigation at negative cost (under the zero line in MAC curves) ought to happen autonomously since those making the investments recoup savings above the level of investment (by definition). But these are usually held to be a small(ish) fraction of overall mitigation costs.

      1. Dear Jez, thank you for your comments. I tend to agree with Dave on this one, and this was one of the points I was trying to make in the post. It’s a tempting point to make that governments are either to blame, or are behaving irrationally, when they fail to respond to information about risks at the global level where similar risks at the local level (up to the national level) would be met with prompt responses. However, I don’t think this is necessarily always irrational. At the global level, a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation prevails, such that a country cutting emissions may risk growth. Where that country cannot ensure that others will behave similarly, the effect is limited benefit to the environment (and therefore to that country) with possibly significant costs to that country, and that country’s ability to promote a green agenda. It might therefore be better to go for growth in the hopes that (1) unforeseen events might change the situation for the better, or (2) becoming more successful may enable that country subsequently to have more influence at the global level.

  2. The tragedy of the commons problem exists on the local level too, yet we typically find ways of handling it (regulations, reputational impacts of littering, market solutions). Same thing for uncertainty – declines of many species are complicated, and we do not know how to manage certain problems. It seems that the real problem is that we do not have corresponding governance or civil society institutions on the global level. If reputations of nations mattered more, or global regulations could be enforced, then many of the global environmental problems would be about as manageable as local environmental problems.

    Maybe the unique aspect of the global environment is that it is indeed just one instance. If we are uncertain about how to conserve a species we can try different strategies in different areas. But we only have one, fairly well-mixed atmosphere, so we cannot try different solutions independently.

    1. Dear Anders, thanks for your comments. Yes, the fact that the situation is unique may well be a better conception of the difficulty of addressing the situation at the global level. As you point out, we cannot try different strategies independently. If the system of nation states is part of the problem, and the solution is to replace this with something else, we would have to be certain that the alternative that replaced it would be better able to fulfil people’s needs. At present, it seems to me that given the present state of knowledge, our prospects of doing so would be very slim indeed. So it makes some kind of sense to continue along our present trajectory until our chances of doing so are better. Or until the risks of doing so no longer outweigh the risks of global environmental damage.

  3. This is a fascinating issue, but my conclusion is diametrically opposed to yours.
    You state that “It may be that the usual methods of applied ethics, which emphasise reasoning and argumentation, are effective at the local level, but perhaps not at the global level”.
    My intuition is that the exact opposite is the case : those who rush to sign petitions against green belt modifications are largely those who want to be able to live somewhere “green” but insist on driving their car 75 miles every day across this same belt. I.e. It’s not at all reasoning and argumentation, but naked self-interest, that drives local level practical ethics. NIMBY rules OK.
    Sorry to appear so cynical.

    1. Paul wrote: “I suspect that two distinctive aspects that make the problem at the global level so challenging are novelty and uncertainty. By novelty I mean that we humans now have the capacity to alter the environment much more significantly than ever before, and further that the consequences of environmental change may now fall on the shoulders of individuals far removed from those causing those consequences. By uncertainty I mean that although we know the destination that we need to reach, there is very little certainty about the routes that might take us there.”

      Agree about novelty. When you say “there is very little certainty about the routes that might [work]” do you mean the technological routes, the economic routes or the governance routes? Or (presumably) all three? Because I think though there’s disagreement about all of these, we can bound some of the discussion fairly easily: (1) technological innovation will be necessary (but not sufficient) since it’s the way to lower the costs of non-emitting energy; (2) non-positive economic growth is going to be a political non-starter; (3) governments will not give up sovereignty, unless the elites that control them perceive such a transfer of limited aspects of sovereignty to serve their long-term interests.* Discussion within those bounds strikes me as fruitful; discussions that start outside those bounds (eg those conditioned on the virtues of getting poorer and enjoying worse standards of living), as much less promising.

      *See eg Douglass North & co-authors, Violence and Social Orders.

      1. Dear Dave, in terms of the routes (or means) that could be adopted, I think these would need to be routes that would ensure the attainment of our ends (or have a better probability of attaining our ends) than the status quo. As such, your (1), technological innovation, may be promising, provided it would meet that requirement. Eg, technology might identify more environmentally friendly methods of fuel generation that are less costly than fossil fuels. Your (2), non-positive economic growth might seem a non-starter, but I think that might be too definite a conclusion: given our current situation of nation states, I agree, it is very hard to see how it might benefit us to have non-positive economic growth. However, I think it is possible to conceive of circumstances (perhaps difficult to realise immediately) where this might fulfil the criteria set out above. Ie, what if the existing environmental damage could be halted, or even reversed, at the cost of all states having negative growth (this being enforced, so there would be no tragedy of the commons situation)? I think there are conceivable circumstances where this could be feasible. This leads on to (3), governments refusal to give up sovereignty. Of course, given the current global setup, (2) is not really feasible without a change to (3). Also, sovereignty is not going to be surrendered unless there is good reason to do so. Though the unwillingness of the global elite to give up power they possess may be one obstacle, I think there is also a greater obstacle. This greater obstacle is the uncertainty problem raised in the original post: there is presently no guarantee that surrendering sovereignty will be any better able to attain our ends, it might in fact make the situation far worse. That being the case, until there is a situation where we can be either certain that changing the global setup will ameliorate matters, or stand a better prospect than the alternative, it makes sense to continue on our present trajectory.

    2. Dear Anthony, no worries about the cynicism! I agree that there is often a large degree of self interest at work in people’s choice whether or not to adopt green policies. However, I think that your example might be an illustration of the dichotomy between the local and the global that I discussed in the post. It does appear hypocritical for somebody to vociferously defend the green belt, while simultaneously driving long distances across it and thereby causing significant pollution. However, protecting the green belt is a local problem that can be effectively addressed by local regulation. The pollution caused by using excessive amounts of fossil fuels is not so easy to regulate. Ie, even if you tried to prevent individuals from using fossil fuels, the use of fossil fuels in other countries who do not so regulate may cause equal harm to the environment. There is therefore not such a benefit to so regulating. If you add on top any economic cost, such as lack of competitiveness caused by such regulation, the incentives to so regulate decrease further. So while there may appear to be hypocrisy, it can also be seen as rational response to slightly different circumstances.

      This rationality is linked to my tentative conclusion: it’s simply much easier to know how to address a local problem in an established democracy. Knowing how to address problems at the global level may require knowledge or skills that are simply not possessed by the average green belt commuter. While that commuter may have a nagging feeling that something needs to be done, the challenge of doing so is so immensely more difficult and complicated, that it makes some sense to prioritise those more immediate challenges.

  4. Paul wrote: “it’s simply much easier to know how to address a local problem in an established democracy.”

    That’s because the costs and benefits of policy decisions are internalised within some political regime. Where they aren’t, the local issues are often just as toxic as we see in the global domain* (albeit with fewer players, fewer interests, more scope for bilateral horse-trading). That’s the real issue with climate mitigation policy – it’s basically overseas aid, unless it’s industry policy (ie “we think by being a leader in this technology we’ll make a pile of cash”). Your point about democracies being bad at the sorts of things mitigation requires is probably a good one – since autocracies are usually better at acting against the interests of their citizens than democracies are (in the long-run), it’s sometimes argued that autocracies are better positioned to make mitigation investments.**

    *Transboundary pollution/resource (eg water, fisheries, mineral rights) can be pretty messy, too…

    **Not really convinced by this. though. I think autocracies/oligarchies act fairly narrowly in the interests of their elites, while the wider degree of political enfranchisement in democracies means that democracies are a bit less prone to this. Given that emitting behaviour is concentrated among elites in autocracies/oligarchies, they may be even less prone to embracing climate policy than more equal/democratic societies. ie the pattern of use of fossil energy looks badly aligned with the ways in which autocracies are irrational. Bummer.

  5. I think it is simple.

    Using cars means a whole lot of atmospheric pollution. Using supermarkets means using unsustainable transport by the suppliers, and a more convenient but less healthy population since we have to expend much less effort to eat and live. Using TV and media means we mostly ignore the real relationships with people around us. Eating animals means forests are cleared on a wholesale basis to feed them.

    The net effect of our western lifestyle thus produces pollution, ill health, environmental destruction and isolation between people. Governments aren’t about changing lifestyles, only the individual can do that. But lifestyle becomes an automatic thing, rather than a wise choice. So we are sleepwalking into destruction. The only antidote or solution is if enough people become conscious of the effects of how they live on the future, and on the rest of the world.

    1. Hi Tony – the Western world is a small part of this problem. Under a business as usual fossil fuel trajectory, 75% of the warming is expected to come from the developing world by 2100.

      So the West’s ability to “solve” climate change is pretty limited (and inherently conditional on other people’s reproductive decisions).

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