Why Climate Change, Our Biggest Moral Challenge, Doesn’t Act Like One

by KC Golden, via the GRIP Blog

Al Gore tried to invoke the moral imperative for climate action.  “It’s not about right and left;” he said, “it’s about right and wrong.”  Climate deniers cynically pounced on Gore’s leadership as an opportunity to assert the exact opposite.

(Really, it’s about both, but we’ll get to that later.  See footnote if you can’t wait.)

Why don’t Americans accept the climate challenge as a moral imperative?  University of Oregon researchers Ezra Markowitz and Azim Shariff tackle the question in Nature Climate Change.  Markowitz blogs their conclusions here.

Their analysis draws insights from broader research on “the moral judgement system – the set of cognitive, emotional, social, and motivational mechanisms responsible for producing our perceptions of right and wrong.”  They describe why our moral discriminators have a hard time grokking climate disruption, and offer potential strategies for activating moral intuition.  It’s interesting stuff, worth a look.  Their blog post is a good summary; I’ll just poke at couple of themes that seem to need poking.

The Guilt Trip – Climate disruption is like my (dear) Jewish mother; it makes people (and especially Americans, say the authors), feel guilty.  From the Nature Climate Change paper:  “To allay negative recriminations, individuals often engage in biased cognitive processes to minimize perceptions of their own complicity.”  From my adolescence:  “I can’t hear you Mom!”

This makes sense (we are guilty!), but it downplays the importance of efficacy in the development of moral responsibility.  Bob Doppelt makes the case that motivating big changes in human behavior requires dissonance, efficacy, and benefits. Lack of efficacy often seems like the bottleneck when it comes to moral engagement on climate.  The strategies within any actor’s scope of effectiveness are not scaled to the problem.  No use accepting guilt, let alone responsibility, if you can’t do anything about it.  “May I be granted serenity…,” etc.  Moral intuition finds no traction where there is no efficacy.  (This is why we do what we do at Climate Solutions.)

The Co-benefit Conundrum – This cartoon is a staple of climate advocacy:

To build support for climate solutions, we focus on “co-benefits” – often going so far as to shun discussion of climate altogether (which, as I’ve harangued, is a big strategic mistake.)  There’s no denying the effectiveness of this approach in building bridges to new constituencies for action.  Air quality, economic opportunity, and transportation choices are intuitively positive, accessible, tractable.  Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of GHGs is not, not, not.

But the focus on co-benefits can have a perverse effect on moral intuition – like saying “Do this because it will feel good.”  The pitch allows us to infer that we don’t need to do it unless it feels good.  Or if some other thing feels better, we can just do that instead.  It’s morally disengaging.

In a classic of motivational speech, Winston Churchill said, as he was rallying the Brits to war with Germany, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” It is the stark and pointed absence of co-benefits that underscores the necessity for action and makes the rap so powerful.

Hmmm.  Big climate advocacy problem:  Either we  a) keep pumping co-benefits, even at the expense of suppressing moral intuition, because it’s an effective way to build a broader political constituency for climate solutions, or b) downplay co-benefits and just bum folks all the way out, to make the moral imperative as naked and absolute as it must be to drive climate action at scale (the Churchill approach).

Both these options suck.  I’m no Churchill, and climate disruption seems to lack the fear-focusing power (though certainly not the destructive potential) of the Third Reich.  So I’ll keep selling co-benefits, while taking every opportunity to press the case that climate action is a moral imperative, not an amenity.  But I won’t try to reconcile this tension with handwaving about “balance” between moral urgency and marketing co-benefits, at least not today.  For now, let’s just leave it hanging out there as the conundrum it is.

Footnote: Naomi Klein makes the case that it IS about right and left, but only the right gets that.  Radical conservatives view climate change as the ultimate Trojan Horse and organizing principle for progressive ideology.  Progressives don’t think about it that way at all.  It’s the right, Klein argues, who got the memo:  the only way to seriously tackle climate disruption would be with a broad, sweeping societal mobilization, built on a foundation of progressive values and ambitious government action.  The right can’t have that, and the left isn’t really pushing for it.

KC Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions and author of the GRIP blog.

12 Responses to Why Climate Change, Our Biggest Moral Challenge, Doesn’t Act Like One

  1. with the doves says:

    Great piece. Thanks. I think co-benefits aren’t gonna get it done. You need to scare people, get their attention, get them focused.

  2. Dick Smith says:

    Amory Lovins makes the co-benefits case with one hand tied behind his back–using only economic arguments. It’s not enough.

    Until people understand the urgency, we won’t act big enough or soon enough. Al Gore deserves credit for helping to create the high-water mark in climate urgency in the polls. He didn’t do it with “co-benefits.” It was Churchill.

    Obama needs to speak out. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient, step in creating a sense of urgency in the American public. We’re just marking time until he does.

  3. Anthony Paul says:

    I agree that Churchill mode is necessary based on what climate science is telling us. The efficacy issue is solved by the establishment of a large (government maybe?) program that gives each person the confidence that what they do, however small when viewed in isolation, is a necessary part of a much larger effort that is big enough to make a difference.

  4. Arthur DiPietro says:

    Unlike the Luftwaffe Blitz over London, there is no sense of urgency about climate change.
    Do you leave the SUV in the garage and bike to soccer, knowing that chronic tardiness for 8 year old pee wee league Fotbol will show up on junior’s college admission application?

  5. We need frank discussion of why urgent action is necessary AND why it is likely to be cheaper than people think. The people who only want to talk about cobenefits are making a grave error. The scope and rate of change needed are so large that it WILL cost something to stabilize global temperatures. It is equally true, however, that most folks find it hard to envision a world quite different from the one we have today, and even the economic models used to analyze the possibilities embed rigidities that aren’t reflective of real economic systems. That’s why Alan Kay said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”. For more details, see Chapter 4 of my book Cold Cash, Cool Climate.

  6. Anna Haynes says:

    > This cartoon is a staple of climate advocacy

    Why is it not publicly available? Something that effective is worth buying the rights to, & putting it into the public domain. Is there a way to do this?

    What would it entail, to be able to put that image on low priced T-shirts, on posters, etc? Right now as a poster it’s $40 ( )

  7. Dave Bradley says:

    The moral argument is, by and large, a loser issue for Climate Change. It tends to work on that small minority of wealthier, higher income, non-working class and, well educated people with liberal values. It tends to be ignored by the vast majority of Americans , who at this point want a job either or themselves and their friends, relatives and neighbors.

    Many of the solutions such as CO2 pollution taxes (alias carbon fees) will riase the cost of living of most Americans significantly, and in gneral they have seen thier real incomes, at bet, only decline slightly, but often decline significantly. The typcal “sane climate” advocacy solution is to raise the efective cost of living yet fail to deliver jobs in return. No wonder the typical response to the moral argument about Global Warming ranges from “so what?” to “bite me!”

    I have watched innumerable well meaning smart people get really excited, and really stupid, when it comes to the Climate Change debate with others less concerned anout it or more pre-occupied about other things. In particular the “wrath of god” argument about what happens if we don’t stop dumping so much CO2 pollution into the air may sound good to other liberal, climate concerned people but it s a big turn-off to most people. It’s a big FAIL even before the astroturfers paid by Exxon-Mobil & “friends” go to workon the public via advertising and bought media. And it is useless in the face of total information/media dominance via the corpratists.

    This is why Feed-in Laws are so effective in delivering renewable energy, especially ones that focus on reasonable priced renewables (and this largely excludes solar PV, becuase it costs so much to deliver such a small amount of electricty, and now the jobs argument is evaporating as PV manufacture shifts to the slave labor, made in China model). In the US, we should be having a wind turbine industry the size ofthe current auto industry, given our wind reources. And there are close to 5 million jobs associated with that – especially the supply chain (with a lot in common between auto, truck and wind turbine manufacture.

    But instead, wind turbine derived electricty is only made possible by bribing rich people and cash bloated corporations with tax avoidance possibilities, which allows wind sourced electricty to be sold in the 3 to 6 cnts/kw-hr range. This severely limits the installation rate of turbines, and keeps the industry dependent on the “kindness” of the extremely rich. By and largely community owned/small company owned wind turbine installations are a minute fraction of US installations. Most wind farms are “remotely owned”, and are operated as tax avoidance schemes,and this s not good. Then there re the insanely high interest rates/returns on investmnts “needed”, as well as the current 60% down payment/capital requirement. If a group of medium wealth investors wants to put up a decent turbine osting $5 million, they need to come up with $3 million in cash before banks will even talk to them…. And then there is the unknown future price of electricty to deal with… Which also jacks up interest rates on loans…..

    In 2006 the US installed about 2.5 GW of wind capacity, in 2007 about 5 GW and in 2008 about 10 GW. For 2012, we could be at a rate of btween 80 to 160 GW of capacity, and in less than 10 years we could replace almost ALL pollution sourced electricty and still barely scratch the surfave of the US wind turbine potential. We need about 1000 GW of wind to eliminae mst nukes, coal AND unnatural gas sourced electricity.

    So what if it IS the moral thing to do. So what if this is the lowest cost way to eliminate about 40% of our CO2 pollution. And so what f this puts us in a good place to replace most unnatural gas for heating uses in this country via groundwater sourced heat pumps (for much of the country). Big deal.

    The big deal is the millions of jobs this would create and the many trillions in real wealth creation that it would produce. And another big dealis the enormous social and business clout that would result in this new industry, where stupid threatsnto it like more subsidized nukes would be rapidly dealt with. And where the investment and business community has too much at stake to mess with a good thing.

    But until the wind biz gets made viable by being allowed to chrage a price for wind sourced electricity that is equal to the cost to make it plus a reasonable profit, it will go nowhere in this country. And then iit will be open season on fracking, and when that pipedream goes bust in less than a decade then it will be back to coal and maybe even a new plague of nukes….

    So, the moral imperative si, by and large, an immoral waste of time, and it might well be doing more damage than it is worth. Kep it confined to those who can afford it -well of well educated people who can afford to dally in such things. If you want to actually get something done, work on getting people back to work making the world a better place, and in this country, too. Right now, green jobs are just an illusion for far too many people in the US who want them and can’t get them. And if that situation persists for much longer, you will have to fight off the cynicism that goes with this wretched situation of dashed dreams, too. And if you think that we can rely on tax avoidance bribes to rich people to invest $2.5 trillion in the next decade in wind, think again (that would be something like $2 trillion in avoided taxes). Nor can your tack on the 5 to 10 cents/kw-hr in “CO2 Sin Taxes” or however you wish to phrase them and either actually get that done or survive the political backlash/recession that putting a de-facto sales tax on electricity will bring down.

    So if you want to actually get things accomplished, start creating jobs, and do that by allowing renewable electricity to charge a price equal to the cost to make it plus a reasonable profit. Now, isn’t that a reasonable request. Maybe even a moral one, too.


  8. Chris Darling says:

    One new coal plant negates personal actions by tens of thousands of people. That is just one reason why solving global warming is not primarily about personal choices such as driving or not driving the SUV.

    In the area of transportation, it is about creating a carbon tax as a negative incentive so that driving becomes very expensive and, at the same time as a positive incentive, using some of the increased tax money to create excellent public transportation that includes subways, light rail, buses, separate bike lanes, and walking trails. There are similar public policy choices for agriculture, energy efficiency, home heating, and electric power.

    Of course, given the current political climate, the unwillingness of most of the media to report about climate change, the total denial of the national Republican party, and the weakness of the national Democratic party, none of that will happen immediately.

    There also needs to be a binding international agreement so that China and India will stop building hundreds of new coal electric plants.

  9. Dan Miller says:

    Dave B: The Fee and Dividend approach, where a rising fee is paid by fossil fuel companies on CO2 and then 100% of the money goes back to the public on a equal basis addresses the issues you have. While it will raise the price of fossil energy (that’s the point), it will stimulate the economy like crazy and provides the poor with the money to afford the higher energy and product costs (more than 50% of people will make more on the dividend than that pay in higher prices).

    The policy doesn’t enlarge government and doesn’t pick winners or losers (the market does that), so conservatives could support it.

  10. Solar Jim says:

    Another perspective might be that “climate change,” that is, the complete socialization of the (existential) costs of carbonic acid contamination under a form of nation-state sanctioned militant capitalism, is not “the biggest moral challenge.” Instead, globalized corporate fascism (and other conflicts of interest and corruption of concept) is the greatest moral challenge of our time. All perverse conditions emanating from this immorality are symptoms, not causes.

    One of thousands of examples: Uncle Scam “auctions” public minerals for one percent of private revenue, and discounts to zero very substantial ecologic, economic and national security costs from this perverse corporate capture of public governance.

    It is an upside down world, with permanent contamination reported as profit and healthy economic development labeled as cost. It is truly amazing what a fuels-of-war economic paradigm can do. It all seems rather explosive to me.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As you say, every ecological disaster, every economic obscenity, every social regression and every geo-political outrage is but a symptom. The root disease is the rule over humanity of the very worst individuals amongst us, those who market capitalism favours. Humanity is doomed, and does not merit salvation as long as we tolerate the misrule of these creatures. Unless we realise that basic truth, every effort will be of no use, a postponement of the inevitable at best. If the rest of the natural world of living things could pass judgment on us, do you think that they would forgive or forget?

  12. ThisOldMan says:

    Unfortunately, they won’t because a liberal suggested it. Recall the health insurance mandate was invented by the Heritage Foundation, and cap-and-trade to cut SO2 was signed into law by a republican president. I’m sorry to say that the fanatics that have overtaken the republican party needs to be destroyed, i.e. its precepts made as illegal as racial discrimination finally was. It has become a disease that doesn’t care about anything but winning at any price. The only good thing about climate change is that it may eventually get enough of the apathetic engaged to do that. Not worth it, of course, but I’m getting desperate enough to clutch at such straws.