Carbon offsetting discussed on BBC Radio 4

John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy and author of a book Climate Matters, was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 4′s PM programme.

Engaged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to report on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Professor Broome endorsed the role of carbon offsetting saying, “I have rather strong views about that, actually, which I came to in the course of writing this book – it wasn’t something I’d previously thought about. But I think elementary common sense tells you that you are not morally entitled to do harm to other people for the sake of your own benefit.

And our carbon emissions do do harm to other people, and mostly we do it for the sake of our own benefit. This is an unjust act, so we ought not to do it. So my conclusion, rather strongly, is that we should not, any of us, emit greenhouse gas.

Now the way we can achieve that, at the moment –  or a way we can achieve it – is by the process of offsetting.

It isn’t that you should donate to a carbon charity. What you should do is pay money to a company which undertakes to take out of the atmosphere, in effect, the same amount of greenhouse gases you put in it. That way, you don’t have any – make any net contribution, and you yourself do not warm the atmosphere.”   

You can listen to the full episode on BBC Radio 4′s listen again, at 50 mins 44 seconds.

The opportunity to listen again has now ended, but you can see a transcript of this interview below:

Source: BBC Radio 4 PM

Date: 11/09/2013

Event: John Broome: “Our lifetime emissions will shorten lives by six months or so”

Credit: BBC Radio 4

People:

  • Professor John Broome: Professor of Moral Philosophy and IPCC Lead Author
  • Eddie Mair: BBC journalist and presenter of PM

 

Eddie Mair: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has engaged a philosopher to help produce its forthcoming report on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report – the fifth of its kind since the IPCC was created in 1988 – will focus more heavily on ethical issues than previous reports. Abstract concepts, such as the relative importance of non-existent people and how much we value a second bathroom, will enter the debate, alongside how to insulate millions of lofts. John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University, is one of the lead authors of the IPCC’s report on the mitigation of climate change. His book, on the ethics of climate change, is called Climate Matters. Thanks for joining us. How are you approaching this task?

John Broome: Good afternoon. Um, diplomatically. Er, the IPCC works by consensus, and I am dealing with a lot of people who haven’t had experience with working with a philosopher before. They’re very friendly, very tolerant, but they find it difficult and I have to help them.

Eddie Mair: What – what should people know about working with a philosopher, for people who have never done it?

John Broome: Er, I think that we are broad-minded. So whereas a lot of people I deal with have their own fixed views about the foundations of value, shall we say, um, in philosophy you have to take all possibilities on board, you have to consider all options. You can end up by taking a firm view yourself, on the basis of argument, but you do need to make sure that it is well-founded and you need to consider a lot of different views.

Eddie Mair: And what sort of response do you get, when people – a lot of people have very firm views on climate change – when you poke your head up and, sort of, challenge that a bit?

John Broome: I don’t know that I challenge any of the concrete views that my colleagues have about what we ought to do. But I do challenge the basis on which they argue, sometimes. So, for instance, I deal a lot with economists, and economists have a pretty firm moral theory, that all of value depends on the satisfaction of people’s preferences. Now, that may be right – it’s certainly defensible – but there are other values that one needs to take into account. For example, to take a very simple example, it’s surely a bad thing if animals suffer, quite independently of what people’s preferences are about that. So there are many sources of values other than ones that economists tend to think of.

Eddie Mair: A question which often arises, when people discuss climate change, is how much individuals can do. Some people feel a little small, a little powerless, that whatever they do will be dwarfed, inevitably, by what corporations do or what governments do.

John Broome: Well, it is true that it will be dwarfed. As individuals, we are small contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, And the problem is going to be solved, if it ever does get solved, by action from governments and from the international community. But that doesn’t mean that what we each do, as individuals, is insignificant. It’s relatively small, but nevertheless significant. I can give you, if you like, a rough quantity. So, um, the emissions that you and I typically make, during the course of a year – one of their effects is that it’s going to shorten people’s lives, around the planet, over the next century, by a day or two in total. It’s not going to shorten any one person’s life by a day or two, but there is a lot of death that will result from climate change, and when we emit greenhouse gas we add to that. We shorten lives, and in total it will work out, from a year’s emissions, to about a day or two. Our lifetime emissions will shorten lives by six months or so. Now that’s not insignificant – I don’t think anybody would want to shorten lives by that much. But that is what our emissions will do.

Eddie Mair: And – I mean, I’ve been having a read of some of your writings today, and you pose an interesting question, and I wonder if you could talk through your thinking on what the answer might be. Which is worse, the death of a child in 2018 or the death of a child today?

John Broome: Oh, I think they’re the same. Um, I don’t think that all deaths are equally bad, because I think what people lose when they die is the rest of their lives. And not all of us have so much of their life left – I don’t, for example. But if we’re talking about two children with the same life expectation, about the same age, then I don’t think that the date at which they die can possibly make any difference to the badness of their death.

Eddie Mair: What do you say to people who wrestle with carbon offsetting? They might be taking a flight and think “Well, should I donate to a carbon charity?”

John Broome: I have rather strong views about that, actually, which I came to in the course of writing this book – it wasn’t something I’d previously thought about. But I think elementary common sense tells you that you are not morally entitled to do harm to other people for the sake of your own benefit. And our carbon emissions do do harm to other people, and mostly we do it for the sake of our own benefit. This is an unjust act, so we ought not to do it. So my conclusion, rather strongly, is that we should not, any of us, emit greenhouse gas. Now the way we can achieve that, at the moment –  or a way we can achieve it – is by the process of offsetting. It isn’t that you should donate to a carbon charity. What you should do is pay money to a company which undertakes to take out of the atmosphere, in effect, the same amount of greenhouse gases you put in it. That way, you don’t have any – make any net contribution, and you yourself do not warm the atmosphere.

Eddie Mair: John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy, thank you. He’s also the author of a book Climate Matters.