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Climate Matters (Amnesty International Global Ethics) [Paperback]

John Broome
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

8 April 2014 Amnesty International Global Ethics
John Broome examines climate change through an invigorating new lens. As he considers the moral dimensions, he reasons through what universal standards of goodness and justice require of us. His conclusions - some as demanding as they are logical - challenge and enlighten. Eco-conscious readers may be surprised to hear they have a duty to offset all their carbon emissions, while policy makers will grapple with his analysis of what is owed to future generations. From the science of greenhouse gases to the intricate logic of cap and trade, Broome reveals how the principles that underlie everyday decision-making also provide simple and effective ideas for confronting climate change. Climate Matters is an essential contribution to one of the paramount issues of our time.

Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (8 April 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393937968
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393937961
  • Product Dimensions: 20.6 x 14 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 291,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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John Broome is uniquely qualified to help us think through some of the more important questions. His new book is sometimes controversial and surprising, but always insightful and clear. --James Garvey"

About the Author

John Broome is the White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is also a lead author on Working Group III of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Heavy Going 4 Oct 2013
By Richard
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a very serious book, and about a very serious subject. However, Bill Bryson seems to be able to cover such matters in a much more light-hearted manner - so be prepared to slog on if you buy this book.
Jolly hard work to read it - but well worth it in the end.
More people should be better informed about this argument/discussion topic - but most are not, preferring to repeat ill-informed propaganda from either the "Green" side or the "Don't Care" side.
Well done John Broome for writing this book !! (PS - well done me for getting through it !!! )
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delivers on its goal 9 Aug 2012
By Jorge Madrazo - Published on
As a concerned citizen on the climate, I am looking for guidance and this book offers it.
The strongest part of the book for me was the straight assertion on how carbon offsets are a great way to deal with the CO2 crisis on an individual level.
I plan on acting on Broome's recommendation.
I also find comfort in the simple assertion that by emitting CO2 in you consumption, you are harming the environment and other individuals. No need to hedge on this point.
Why comfort? So many discussions on personal responsibility for climate change do not explicitly say this. This cuts through the clutter for me.
If you let the marketing folks at Coke and others influence you, you would think that you are helping the environment by consuming.
I also enjoy introduction of the abstraction of moral and ethical issues involved in the debate. For instance, who do we discount for future generations? What is a life worth?
He asks these questions, and again, unlike public discourse on TV, we needn't faint or shout on these discussions.
What didn't I like?
I think Broome's ultimate faith in the democratic process steering the direction falls short. When most people can't manage their lives how could we expect thoughtful results from the people on this issue?
Especially when the moneyed interests so easily influence the debate.
The possibility for democracy to come through seems to me to depend on the moneyed interests coming through.
Broome doesn't quite say this stridently enough in my reading.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Review of "Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World" 11 Sep 2012
By Mark J. Palmer - Published on
A Review of "Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World" by John Broome, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 210 pp.

By Mark J. Palmer
Associate Director
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute

In dealing with the dangers of global warming of our planet, what is the best way to consider our responses, both as individuals and as a society?

Ethicist John Broome walks us through this process in his new book "Climate Matters," a review of our human responsibilities towards our fellow people and our Earth. Broome is a lead author on Working Group III of the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body addressing the science of global warming, and White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He is thus well placed to explain, in great detail, the process of finding morality in our response to the crisis of a hotter, more dangerous world.

This is not a book about warming itself - Broome briefly outlines the science and general thinking behind global warming and what it will mean in the near and far future. You will have to go elsewhere to find the detailed facts and science.

Here, Broome explains how we should think about our own actions to reduce the threat of global warming and how governments should take their responsibilities for the future. Along the way, Broome has some surprises in store.

For activists, for example, Broome claims that it is not enough to reduce our own energy footprint (and thus reduce our own contributions to global warming gases like carbon dioxide) and to urge our governments to take action. He feels we should offset ALL of our carbon emissions in total, doing so by supporting carbon-offset programs. He is skeptical of setting aside forests (which he feels are too likely to burn or be cut in the foreseeable future to make lasting contributions to reducing carbon emissions); instead, he prefers carbon offset programs that purchase solar ovens and solar panels for people in third world countries, thus immediately reducing the overall carbon emissions that enter the atmosphere.

He differentiates between the responsibilities of individuals and governments towards global warming. Individuals have a duty, as a matter of simple justice, to reduce our own carbon footprint and support offsets. Governments, he contends, have a different moral responsibility to make the world a better place. Personally, I'm not sure I agree with this hard and fast distinction, as it seems to me more of a sliding scale as to whether an individual or government should engage in acts to be more moral or to improve justice.

Broome goes into detail about how governments should gauge their actions to address global warming and reduce the adverse impacts. But here his analysis comes up against the classical question of how we value things, especially such intangibles as the worth of a human life or the worth of nature's bounty. While economists and environmentalists have come up with different ways to address these questions, such as valuing ecosystems for the mechanistic "goods" they provide such as clean air and water, eventually his arguments break down. He admits very candidly that economists are still stumped by the question of how to measure the worth of a human life in addressing the future. It is easy to say that one lost life is too much, yet we have people dying all the time in car accidents, yet society has not eliminated cars. How do we make judgments now about putting money into solutions when the results may or may not pay off, when we can't decide how much human life is worth in the first place?

But as Broome emphasizes throughout, his purpose with this book is not to tell us what to think, but how to think - how an ethicist works through the various different alternatives to arrive at the best solutions in a moral way. We cannot be certain, but that doesn't mean we have to be paralyzed.

This is a book that makes you think. The world is a complicated place, and global warming raises many issues of political will (of which US leaders seem to have so little), economics and practical alternatives. As part of that process of finding solutions, Broome argues that we must include basic morality - what is right and what is wrong - in our thinking. His book is a great start.
5.0 out of 5 stars "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." -- Mark Twain 16 Nov 2013
By Paul Froehlich - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) made the news in September 2013 when it issued a report stating it is “extremely likely” that the globe is warming and human activity is the main cause. John Broome is author of Working Group III on the IPCC, the leading international body on this issue. A Professor at the University of Oxford, Broome is one of the world’s experts on climate change.

His book briefly reviews the science, which includes uncertainty about precisely how and when the climate will change. He also discusses how to cope with that uncertainty, considers how justice is involved, and compares harms and benefits that are widely separated in time, (since the costs of alternate energy are borne now to produce benefits in the distant future).

This review will not repeat most of the familiar science, but some facts aren’t denied. One is that the melting of the Arctic ice cap is proceeding rapidly. In 2007 and 2011, summer ice floating on the Arctic Ocean covered little more than half the area it covered in 1979, when satellite observations began. The volume has diminished even faster than its area, because the ice is thinning: Volume is estimated to be about one-quarter of what it was in 1979. “A time is likely to come within only a few years when there is no ice at the North Pole.”

It matters whether ice melts because ice reflects sunlight energy back into space, but water absorbs most of it, which amplifies global warming. In addition, a lot of methane is locked up in permafrost around and under the Arctic Ocean, and its release will accelerate global warming, since methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Losing one of our polar ice caps, writes Broome, will conspicuously signal the climate’s warming. It may also provide a sufficiently dramatic event to teach us how large the unforeseen consequences of our acts can be.


The world recognizes that humanity must reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses, but we’ve made little progress in that regard. One reason for inaction, Broome explains, is the harm from climate change is slow and insidious, while the costs of alternate forms of energy are conspicuous. “Predicting the effects of greenhouse gas is extremely difficult because the causal system involved in climate change constitutes the entire surface layer of the Earth.” Unless and until we can better predict the costs of inaction, then inaction will seem cheaper than action.

Since uncertainty permeates predictions for the future climate, uncertainty also permeates the ethics of climate change. Some people, writes Broome, use uncertainty as an excuse for inaction, which was the Bush administration’s choice. Most people, however, buy insurance due to uncertainty instead of waiting indefinitely for certainty. We don’t know if our house will catch fire, but that’s not a good reason to delay buying a fire extinguisher. It’s not advisable to act on the basis of what is likely to happen, since our house is unlikely to catch on fire. But the unlikely possibility, when it occurs, would be extremely bad.

We all assess the probabilities of predictions. The IPCC assigns probabilities to various predictions, giving a two-thirds probability of temperature increases over the next century of between 1.4 and 3.8 degrees. There is a five percent chance that temperatures will rise as much as 6 degrees or more, which would cause drastic climate changes.

During the last ice age, global temperatures were about 5 degrees lower than they are now. Six degrees of warming would give us drastic changes in the other direction from the ice age. Ten degrees of warming would be a great catastrophe, causing dreadful destruction and suffering. A terrible result multiplied by a low possibility leads us to take precautions, much like buying a fire extinguisher for our home.


Broome contends that emissions of greenhouse gasses are normally unjust. Our emissions are unjust since they are the result of our actions that benefit ourselves, while imposing harm upon others whom we do not compensate. Among the people harmed are those who live in low-lying Pacific islands that must be abandoned due to rising sea levels. The harm is serious; the gasses we release now will stay in the atmosphere for centuries, and the harm they cause to people will multiply in the future.

We do an injustice when we know our actions have caused significant harm, but fail to compensate the victims of our harm. The harm is not reciprocal, since rich people inflict more harm than poor people who use a fraction of the energy the world’s wealthy do. Rich people have alternatives to easily reduce their emissions, while the very poor have fewer choices. While our emissions harm people currently living, the suffering will be borne primarily by future generations.

It’s easy to decry the lack of action by governments, Broome writes, but private individuals have duties as well. Our individual decisions about how we live have consequences when it comes to emitting greenhouse gasses.

An average person from a rich country born in 1950 will emit about 800 tons of CO2 in a lifetime, which it is estimated will cost more than six months of healthy human life. Even if we’ve already passed the point of no return with climate change, our individual emissions either accelerate or delay catastrophe. On the other hand, individually reducing our carbon footprints won’t solve the problem since everyone would have to do it; the solution requires government action.

One approach is offsetting emissions. That means for every unit of greenhouse gas we cause to be added to the atmosphere, we also cause a unit to be subtracted from it. The goal, Broome writes, is to on balance add nothing to the concentration of greenhouse gasses, and therefore to commit no injustice on others. One way to subtract gas from the atmosphere is to grow trees, since trees remove carbon in order to grow. When the trees die, however, the carbon is released. What’s needed is a mechanism to ensure our trees are replanted perpetually, again and again.

Offsetting works for individuals, but significant progress on reducing emissions is going to have to come from governments, just as it did with reducing CFCs. Reducing our individual emissions to zero, however, does fulfill our individual duty to do no harm.

How should we value future events compared with present ones? People prefer their own well being over that of their descendents they will never know. There’s an argument that the government should be a trustee for unborn generations as well as for present citizens, defending exhaustible resources of the country from rash and reckless spoliation.

How should we value human lives that will be lost due to climate change? Dick Cheney is known for his one percent doctrine: He argued that terrorism is so bad, if there is a one percent likelihood of having a terrorist attack, we must do everything in our power to reduce that one percent - even if certain aspects of our freedoms are compromised; it was a matter of saving lives. It’s obvious that the Bush administration was highly selective in applying the one percent principle.

Global warming is already taking lives via more extreme weather. Our challenge is to calculate how much it is worth spending to save how many lives. A rise in temperatures of 8-10 degrees would put most of the world’s farmland under water, and make it difficult to grow on the remaining land, leading to a drastic drop in population, even to extinction.

The only means we have at present for dealing with uncertainty is democratic public debate, to which this book is an admirable contribution. ###
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophically informed 28 April 2013
By Kalle Grill - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
John Broome is a distinguished philosopher and in this book he covers several important and complex aspects of climate ethics, going beyond the common focus on taking collective responsibility and various ideas on how best to share the costs.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful But Uneven Arguments; 3.5 Stars 9 Mar 2013
By R. Albin - Published on
This book is a serious effort to present a broadly accessible account of ethical bases for response to climate change. This includes both what ethics broadly in terms of responses and crucial ethical issues in policy choices and policy tools. Broome is highly qualified to write a book of this type. An economist who became a moral philosopher, Broome has been writing on this topic for a number of years. This is not a moral tract but rather an effort to introduce readers to some of the major issues and offer some conceptual tools for analysis. Where Broome feels he can offer firm recommendations, he does so, but he does not shy away from discussing uncertainties. Given the complexity of many of these issues, writing a concise, generally accessible book is a tall order. Broome is a good writer who does generally well, though there are some defects of analysis and presentation.

Broome opens with a couple of introductory chapters on the science and economics of climate change. He then introduces a pair of parallel distinctions; private versus public morality and duties of justice versus duties of good (beneficence). The former distinction concerns how we should respond to climate change in our private lives versus how governments should respond. The latter distinction concerns the ethical basis for private versus public responses. Broome argues that as private individuals, we have duties of justice not to harm others. Governments, however, have duties of beneficence to improve lives. This analysis leads Broome to some concrete and generally well defended recommendations. As private citizens, we are obliged to limit our CO2 emissions. Because we can't reduce these to zero, Broome makes a good case that considerable use of offsets is a moral requirement for private citizens. The duties of beneficence, however, fall on governments are require a vigorous response to climate change.

Much of the remaining parts of the book deal of the problems of policy analysis for dealing with climate change. These sections are, to a considerable extent, an analysis and critique of economic methods for policy analysis. Broome puts forward a qualified endorsement of methods used by economists for making policy prescriptions. He generally endorses a decision analysis approach. He has some useful analysis of the highly contentious topic of discounting. He generally endorses the concept but argues that advocates of a high discount rate have made basic ethical and technical errors. He concludes with a couple of chapters discussing the problems of assessing the value of life and population changes. These chapters are largely about the lack of clear answers on these questions.

While the general thrust of Broome's arguments and his expositions are solid, there are some drawbacks to Broome's presentations and some questionable arguments. Because this is a short book covering a lot of ground, I suspect that some readers will find some of the arguments difficult because of Broome's very short explanations. Supplementing the text with a few key charts or figures, as Broome did a few years ago in very useful Scientific American article, would have enhanced the presentation. Broome points out that our present inability to capture the externalities of CO2 emission is inefficient, but he is using efficiency in the Pareto optimal sense. Broome then suggests that this fact would allow appropriate social adjustments without asking anyone to sacrifice, and that this would be politically useful. This seems formally possible but Broome offers no concrete policy suggestions that would support this argument and its hard for me to see how this would be possible. Broome's parallel distinctions of private/public morality and justice/beneficence strike me as wrong. If democratic governments are a reflection of their constituent citizens, then, as national communities, we have duties of justice. Broome argues well for use of rather low discount rates, but his argument may still overestimate discount rates. If discounting is based on assuming economic growth and, as he points out, climate change will eventually cause economic regression, then, given the uncertainties of predicting the inflection point and the long residence time of CO2, only a very, very low, perhaps close to zero, discount rate is acceptable. His discussions of economic methods has a disquieting aspect. He repeatedly suggests that economic methods are crucial for formulating policy response but his discussions suggest that economists have not reached consensus on fundamental theoretical and methodological issues, will limit the utility of economic analyses. Finally, in his discussion of private duties of justice, he invokes Derek Parfit's famous non-identity argument, which strikes me as irrelevant.

Broome raises a lot of important issues, which was one of his major goals for this book, but there is still room for good and accessible book on this topic.
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