Six Texts on Enemies of Climate Action

Guest post by Emeritus Professor Henry Shue of Merton College, Oxford.

Henry Shue has been writing about climate change since the early 1990’s, and he has been at the forefront of the climate justice literature ever since. His work articulates a powerful moral case against climate inaction, providing particularly strong criticism of the approach of the US and other ‘laggard governments’ towards just international climate agreements. What’s more, his work helps us understand how we could make a just transition away from fossil fuels. Central to this vision is the conviction that the energy transition must not come at the cost of perpetuating present and future poverty. The question is, what has Henry Shue chosen to put in the Climate Ethics Library?

General Comment:

Limiting climate change will be a political struggle.  Eliminating fossil fuels will mean eliminating the source of wealth of large numbers of the most powerful and richest people in the world.  In many cases serious efforts to reach net zero carbon promptly are existential threats to giant investor-owned enterprises (e.g., Chevron, Shell, BP, ExxonMobil) and giant state enterprises (e.g., Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, Rosneft, Sinopec, Equinor) as long as they cling to current business plans.  These enterprises have consistently fought back with deception and stealth, first by funding climate denial and now by claiming in greenwash to have plans for net zero carbon while in fact continuing to pour capital into exploration and extraction of fossil fuels and into petrochemical factories to maintain the market for natural gas.  On the principle “know your enemy”, I recommend the following books.  The last three focus on the United States, but I believe that many of their insights are transferable to the United Kingdom and other countries.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.
Rachel Maddow.
2019, (Crown [Penguin Random House]).
Comment: In the style of an exciting detective novel, Maddow tells accessible stories of the despoliation of land and manipulation of politicians by fracking interests in the United States and stories of Putin’s power-concentrating kleptocracy in Russia, as well as interconnections between the two countries’ carbon industries like the Rosneft-Exxon Arctic Sea project, demonstrating how democracy is undercut by owners of fossil fuels.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power.
Steve Coll.
2012, (Penguin).
Comment: ExxonMobil is now in decline, surpassed by Chevron and dumped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but this massive case-study of its global operations and its role in the politics of many countries shows in depth how what is still a global ‘supermajor’ operates in poor nations least able to defend their own interests, often because they are ruled by kleptocratic dictators.  For a more theoretical study by a political philosopher, see Leif Wenar, Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World (Oxford, 2016).

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil .
Timothy Mitchell.
2011; paperback with new Afterward, 2013, (Verso).
Comment: Sophisticated historical account of how the dominant forms of energy affect democracy, including, for example, the power of coal miners in UK prior to post-WWII-dominance of oil over coal engineered through the Marshall Plan.  The battle to control climate is also the battle to restore democracy.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.
Jane Mayer.
2016, (Doubleday [Penguin Random House]).
Comment: Fascinating study of the careful and successful decades-long campaign by billionaires (not all with interests in fossil fuels) to market libertarian ideas through secretly funded ‘think-tanks’ and ‘research institutes’ and to spread resistance to climate action portrayed as ‘excessive government regulation’.  Similar initiatives are underway in the UK.  For more than most people would ever want to know about the most influential billionaires, the Koch brothers, also see Christopher Leonard, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America (Simon & Schuster, 2019).

Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics.
Matto Mildenberger
2020, (MIT, paperback).
Comment: We know that powerful corporations have supported climate denial and resisted necessary change, but this study by a political scientist shows that labor unions, understandably concerned about losses of jobs that are often exaggerated by corporate leaders in the industry, frequently work with their own industry’s corporations to oppose change.  This gives opponents of climate action ‘double representation’ by both owners and workers.

Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States
Leah Cardamore Stokes
2020, (Oxford, paperback).
Comment: A low carbon world will depend on sophisticated electricity grids supplied with non-carbon energy.  Political scientist Stokes analyzes how current electric utilities relying on coal or gas have denied climate change and resisted the innovations that are necessary for the transition to renewables.  Many of the same tactics are used by others in the fossil fuel industry.  Stokes argues that one cannot simply ‘move on’ without first displacing entrenched power.

Six texts on the hubris concern

Between Babel and Pelagius – in Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management ( eds C Preston).
Forrest Clingerman
Comment: Clingerman draws on religion and applies it to the ethics of geoengineering. This leads to engagement with considerations of hubris from a theological perspective and compares the Tower of Babel to geoengineering. By doing so he shows that both can be understood through a hubris lens and that the concern of hubris present in the Tower of Babel is also present in certain forms of geoengineering.

Climate engineering and the playing god critique
Laura Hartman
Comment: Hartman provides an in depth exploration of the hubris concern as it pertains to geoengineering. Demonstrating when formulations of the hubris concern are weak and may even invite the idea that humans should play god. By doing this Hartman’s article helps us think about how hubris concerns should be formulated and the implications that they have.

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
James Fleming
Comment: Fleming’s book provides a thorough account of humans seeking to control the weather and climate, by doing so it provides an excellent resource to think about humans relationship with the climate and when concerns of hubris arise.

Intentional Climate Change
Dale Jamieson
Comment: Jamieson’s paper is one the earliest on geoengineering and the ethical challenges it presents. An appeal of the paper is that it provides one of the earliest accounts of the hubris concern in regards to geoengineering. Jamieson understands the hubristic concern as a common-sense concern held by many. He considers the implications of the hubris concern such as if geoengineering is wrong, can it truly right the wrong of climate change?

The Ethical Foundations of Climate Engineering, In Climate Change Geoengineering (eds, W. C. G. Burns and A L. Strauss). Also Earth Masters.
Both by Clive Hamilton
Both 2013
Comment: Hamilton presents the idea that the complexity and unpredictably of the natural world means that humans are mistaken when they think they can achieve complete control over it. This idea is vivid in the chapter by Hamilton, but also present in his Earth Masters book.

A general comment: from the above texts the Hubris objection can be understood in at least two way. One way is that it is concern about a god like control over nature which humans should not have (Jamieson, 1996). Or there is the claim that humans simply cannot have the knowledge to understand the impact of using geoengineering and that this should at least have implications for how we approach the use of geoengineering (Hamilton, 2013).

Six texts on who should act on climate change

Climate Change and the Moral Significance of historical Injustice in Natural Resource Governance
Megan Blomfield
Comment: This chapter seeks to contextualise conversations about historic wrongs of past emissions in a broader context of other injustices regarding natural resources.

Climate Matters Chapter 3
John Broome
Comment: The text holds a controversial position in climate justice literature due to arguing that our response to climate change should not be determined by considerations of justice. Consequently, it endorses the idea of efficiency without sacrifice which is when future generations pay for the cost of tackling climate change, due to this being.

Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility and Global Climate Change
Simon Caney
Comment: Provides an exploration of different possible principle to determine who should pay of climate change, and illustrates problems with some common sense positions, such as the polluter pays principles.

Do Parents have a Special Duty to Mitigate Climate Change?
Elizabeth Cripps
Comment: This paper considers the duties of parents in responding to climate change, and argues that parents owe it to their children and grandchildren to mitigate climate change.

Global Environment and International Inequality
Henry Shue
Comment: Argues that three common-sense principles of fairness converge on the conclusion that industrialised states should pay the initial cost of tackling climate change.

One Atmosphere
Peter Singer
Comment: Considers four principles of fairness for distributing global emissions, and proposes an emission trading scheme as the solution.

Six texts to help you think about climate ethics

Climate Justice: An Introduction
Dominic Roser and Christian Seidel
Comment: Helps the reader make sense of the moral questions around climate change by clearly explaining the different theories and principles we have available to us.

Climate Matters
John Broome
Comment: Multidisciplinary approach to explaining the challenge of climate change.

Debating Climate Ethics:
Stephen Gardiner & (v) David Weisbach
Comment: When thinking about climate change what is the scope for ethics? Gardiner argues in favour of ethics having a big role to play, whilst Weisbach argues that ethics makes responding to climate change unnecessarily tricky.

Governing Climate Change
Harriet Bulkeley and Peter Newell
Comment: Makes sense of climate governance and shows that such governance exists in many places, not just the international level. Helpful for thinking about how we can respond to climate change.

Reason in a Dark Time
Dale Jamieson
Comment: Accounts for how we ended up in the climate crisis, considering many factors including the roles of science, economics, politics and ethics.

The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values Poverty, and Policy
Darrel Moellendorf
Comment: Highlights the problems which climate change creates and shows the role that normative theory has in addressing these problems.