Climate Change, Broome and the Third Alternative

I’m preparing a course on climate change ethics and as a part of this I am reading again John Broome’s fascinating Climate Matters – Ethics in a Warming World book. One thing Broome does in this book is to offer a new third alternative in addition to the familiar options of doing nothing and bearing the costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation. He claims that this alternative is not morally ideal, but it is possible and perhaps more likely to gain political support for the efforts that are needed for avoiding catastrophic climate change outcomes. Here I want to quickly explain all of this and then ask a question about this possibility.


In the chapter 3 on the economics of climate change, Broome explains the familiar idea of how the greenhouse gas emissions are externalities. This means that these emissions harm some people and that compensating for this harm is not included in the price of the activities that cause the emissions. As a consequence, the benefit the emitter gets from the emission is less than the harm suffered by the receivers.

Externalities entail waste. That is, in this situation, some people can be made better off without making anyone worse off. If the emitter does not emit the relevant units of greenhouse gases, the receivers can compensate her for this in full and yet be better off than they would have been with the emission. This means that without the emission no one will be worse off and some people will be better off than in the emission scenario.

So, it looks like the business as usual model in which emissions continue is inefficient. It’s also unjust in many ways – the emitters continue to harm the receivers and this harm is serious, non-accidental, uncompensated for, done for one’s own benefit, there is no reciprocity and so on.

At this point, Broome offers two better alternatives to which we could move: a) efficiency with sacrifice and b) efficiency without sacrifice. Efficiency with sacrifice is one of the situations situation in which the full social cost of emissions is built into the price of the emission activities, which is to say that the benefit you get from emissions will equal the amount of harm the emission causes. This would mean that the activities that cause greenhouse gas emissions would be much more costly for us and that we would need to bear those costs in full. As a consequence, we – as the current generation – would have to make a significant sacrifice for the sake of the future generations being better off (because of less climate change and more adaptation). This model is the ideal that is pursued (often unsuccessfully) in the current global political process through the cap and trade mechanism.

However, Broome also offers a third alternative, which he calls ‘efficiency without sacrifice’. Under this alternative, we again build the full social cost of carbon into the price of the emission activities. This will create a significant cost for us. However, we then also transfer resources from the future generations to us in order to compensate ourselves for the initial cost. If this is possible, under this alternative we will end up being just as well off as we would be with the emissions and the future generation will still end up better off than if we emitted.

How is this possible? Here’s the full quote from Broome (p. 44-45):

“As things stand, the current generation will leave a lot of resources to people who are not yet born. We shall leave artificial resources in the form of economic capital: buildings, machinery, cultivated land, irrigation systems, and so on. We shall also leave natural resources, since we shall not use up all the natural resources that are in the ground. If we make the sacrifice by emitting less greenhouse gas, we can fully compensate ourselves by using more of those artificial and natural resources ourselves. We can consume more and invest less for the future. We shall leave less of those resources to future generations, but those generations will end up better off on balance because they will suffer less from the greenhouse gas we leave in the air.”

Broome admits that this alternative is worse than the efficiency with sacrifice scenario. It means less investment which means less well-being in total given that those investments could continue as sources of well-being for a long time. It also means that we, the current generation, are compensated for not committing a serious injustice on the future generations by harming them. But, from the perspective of the future generations, this is like paying the mob protection money so that the mob itself doesn’t harm you.

Despite this, Broome thinks that the efficiency without sacrifice option is the next best thing and also the alternative which may be the best option we can reach in practice. It doesn’t seem like there is enough political will to pursue efficiency with sacrifice. However, politicians and people generally might be much more willing to act against climate change if they had to make no sacrifices for doing so.

Here’s my question (and I accept that not understanding something isn’t really an objection): I am still not quite certain about how the efficiency without sacrifice is possible. We are told that we are compensated for the costs of emitting less greenhouse gases – for the ways in which this makes our lives worse. This compensation comes in the form of artificial and natural resources that we can use to improve our lives. These resources would have been saved for the future generations but now we are allowed to consume them as a compensation for fewer greenhouse emissions.

So, what I don’t get is how we can consume more of these artificial and natural resources and at the same time emit fewer greenhouse gases. Doesn’t consuming more artificial and natural resources in itself constitute additional greenhouse gas emissions? How does this work in practice? What are the goods and benefits we could give to ourselves to compensate for the fact that we are not allowed to drive, fly, heat our houses, leave lights on, eat meat, have huge TVs and so on? I can think of some concrete examples: you could, for example, use some of the money you are saving for your child’s education for insulating your house or putting up solar panels. But, such examples, seem too small scale to compensate for all the changes we have to make to our lives.

In principle, things look easier. Various estimates put the mitigation and adaptation costs at around 1-3% of GDP. Presumably we save and invest more yearly to help the future generations to have better lives. So, there should be enough resources. However, in practice, I am just less sure what the concrete ways are in which we can compensate ourselves for the seemingly radical changes we have to make to our lives that would not themselves cause greenhouse gas emissions. How can we improve our lives back to the level we start from if we take the necessary actions such that emissions are still radically cut? How can we consume more resources to improve our lives and yet cut emissions? This is something I’d like to see more detail on. Otherwise, it seems like we do have to make sacrifices to reach efficiency (which I think we should, personally) and that Broome’s third alternative is merely a theoretical possibility. I do hope that there is a simple answer to these questions – I hope I am missing something.

8 Replies to “Climate Change, Broome and the Third Alternative

  1. We could spend all of the “social security trust fund”.
    We could let public buildings decay instead of investing in their capital upkeep.
    We could leave great islands of trash instead of paying to tidy it up in landfills.
    We could fish all of the tuna from the oceans.
    Oh, sorry, future humans! But not really sorry. Hey, we could have screwed you much worse than this, so be thankful.

  2. Hi Jamie,
    I know the comment is not completely serious. Of course, Broome acknowledges that this isn’t the ideal solution for the reasons you give in the end. My question really is if my life is made worse because I cannot fly, how am I supposed to be able to spend the trust fund and the money I save from letting the buildings decay and letting the trash be where it is to improve my life by consuming more in a way that does not itself cause greenhouse gas emissions in a way that defeats the whole project? Eating more tuna sounds good though.

  3. Hi Jussi
    As I understand it Broome thinks that for refraining from doing some enjoyable things which generate CO2 we are entitled to compensate ourselves by refraining from doing some of the unenjoyable things that we would otherwise have done which benefit future generations. So we do not repair the machinery etc.
    The time and money saved can be spent in ways which generate relatively small amounts of CO2, for example, chatting, eating (other than red meat), drinking, attending clubs, plays, films, concerts, exhibitions, reading, philosophising, hiking, cycling, lazing around etc.. Maybe you have too expensive tastes 🙂
    Broome’s account does not document what is the right and just way to behave. Rather, as he, Jamie and you are aware, it is merely pragmatic – trying to persuade people to harm future generations less than they otherwise would. Thus objections have to focus on what is practical.
    One practical problem is that the current generation actually do not do much that is solely for future generations (if they were focused upon future generations then climate change would not be a problem). They repair the machinery because they want it to still work in ten years’ time because this will benefit them. They maintain the art galleries because they want them to still be there in twenty years’ time so they can return to them. They do not overfish because they want to be able to eat cod and tuna in thirty years’ time. And so on. Thus there is not much to be cut back on.
    Another practical problem is that either people are selfish, in which case they will carry on as they are, or they try to be ethical in which case they will try to do what is right – something that Broome does not explore. Offering them a way of behaving that is somewhat less wrong than what they otherwise would do, is unlikely to motivate them, I suspect.
    You mention you are preparing a course on climate change ethics, so you might be interested in a special issue on ‘Justice and Natural Resources. Intergenerational and Global Dimensions’ in the new De Gruyter journal, ‘Moral and Political Philosophy’. It is due out in January, with advance view papers here:
    http://www.degruyter.com/printahead/j/mopp
    My paper is here:
    http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mopp.ahead-of-print/jmpp-2013-0007/jmpp-2013-0007.xml?format=INT
    And information on how to get free access to this journal is here:
    http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mopp
    Best wishes
    Dan

  4. Hi Jussi (if I may),
    I had similar worries when I worked through this for a unit on climate change in an environmental ethics course I taught last summer. Here’s how I made sense of the suggestion. (I’m not sure if it works in the end.)
    In the supermarket, “green” products tend to cost more than their non-“green” counterparts. Using green energy tends to cost more (at least initially) than burning fossil fuels. If we can somehow extract wealth from the future, we can use this wealth to subsidize the initial cost of switching to a greener way of life by, for example, making the cost of those “green” products cheaper in the supermarket, paying for a Manhatten Project style investment in developing renewable energy, and investing in off-setting (which is something Broome argues individuals should do). So I can still use my big TV, and it won’t cost me anything extra, if future generations subsidize the cost of powering it with renewable energy. And I can still take my trip by plane, and it need not cost me anything extra, if future generations pay the off-setting costs.
    [About offsetting: Some people, such as Naomi Klein, seem to think that carbon off-setting is a scam. But given the fact that Broome argues that individuals should offset their carbon footprints, I take it that he thinks it need not be, even if every existing off-setting company is a scam. I’m not informed enough to have an opinion of my own on this matter.]
    There is still the question of how to extract wealth from the future. One way is to “borrow” the money by using economic tools (such as bonds, inflation, etc.) that in effect levy a tax on the future. I’m not an economics buff, so I don’t know the full array of tools available, nor how most of them work. But I take it that we have such tools at our disposal. Of course, the very people who are resistant to making sacrifices for future generations will also be resistant to using these economic tools (for political reasons). So in the end, it doesn’t seem likely that Efficiency without Sacrifice is actually all that more viable politically (at least in the US) than Efficiency with Sacrifice.

  5. I’m a little confused by some of the subsequent comments, but to Jussi: The way we benefit from the measures I described is that we don’t have to spend the effort and hours on constructing ecologically sound landfills, and we don’t have to use labor and materials that we want for other stuff on capital maintenance, and that sort of thing. Of course, you personally weren’t going to be working on landfills and building maintenance, but you’ll benefit from the economic goods produced by the people who would have been doing it, since they’ll be designing fun phone apps and growing avocados and cutting sushi instead.

  6. I share all your worries about making Efficiency Without Sacrifice work in practice. But I also think there is a serious theoretical flaw in the argument. The short version is that the argument works only if we measure the harms of climate change using the willingness to pay of future generations, and even Broome thinks that’s not the right measure. In case you’re interested, I’ve got a forthcoming paper on this: http://paulkelleher.net/files/Kelleher_sacfree_3.18.14.pdf

  7. Hi all
    thanks for the very helpful comments. They’ve really helped me to rephrase my question as two separate questions and I am starting to be slightly more optimistic of the answers on Broome’s behalf. Here’s the questions I am thinking of now:
    1. Currently our sources of well-being are energy-intensive and the energy is produced by burning fossil fuels which leads to greenhouse gas emissions. In order to reach efficiency, we have to vastly reduce our emissions.
    Two options: a) we generate the same energy from green sources in which case we perhaps need not to change our sources of well-being. b) we do some of a) but perhaps we will have to give up some of the energy-intensive sources of well-being to reduce emissions. The question then is are there alternative sources of well-being that are much less energy-intensive.Things like chatting, eating vegetables, plays, films, philosophizing, clubbing, phone apps, avocados, sushi and so on are suggested. The questions then are: will these really be in the end less energy-intensive enough as replacement activities and more importantly will they give us as much well-being as the energy intensive activities? I’ve got some doubts about this.
    2. The second question is how is the moving to alternative energies and the new green replacement activities funded by the consumption of the artificial and natural resources that would have been invested to the future generations otherwise. I can see how this might work with directing resources to alternative energy. I’m less certain about how this works with the suggested replacement activities. One suggestion seems to be that this has mainly to do with spending time – not necessarily by me but by the people who were carrying out the projects that constitute investing in the future generations. I’m still unsure whether this work on the right kind of scale to improve all our lives enough.
    Thanks anyway everyone!

  8. It is worth remarking the example of Germany, arguably the most successful advanced industrial economy in the world, which is transitioning its power grid over to renewables with remarkable success and also shutting nuclear plants.
    Of course, the investments in transitioning the power grid from fossil fuels are themselves economic activity.
    Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

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