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Reviewed by:
  • Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World by John Broome
  • Madison Powers
Review: John Broome, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, W. W. Norton and Co., 2012

John Broome’s Climate Matters is a timely, elegant, and accessible book. His book is deliberately interdisciplinary, as is much of his work in moral philosophy more generally. The discussion of what should be done, and by whom, to prevent the adverse effects of climate change is informed by many years of philosophical engagement with economic theory, especially problems arising in the conceptualization and technical implementation of cost-benefit analysis.

The central arguments in the book are informed as well by a longstanding engagement with climate change science. Broome brings to bear a perspective forged in the work of his role as a lead author—and occasional critic—of the report of Working Group III of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At the heart of the book is a somewhat unconventional thesis regarding the way we should view the moral division of labor between nation-states and individuals in mitigating the serious harm produced by climate change.

Roughly, Broome’s thesis is that nation-states primarily have impersonal duties of beneficence—duties to bring about good consequences—while individuals have duties of justice, which on Broome’s account are largely negative duties, or duties not to cause severe, avoidable harm to specific, identifiable others.

There are, of course, critics who deny that the distinction between the domain of justice and the domain of beneficence is as conceptually sharp or as normatively significant as often supposed. Indeed, Broome concedes some lack of sharpness but asserts that the normative difference is real (50).

In particular, Broome’s claim is that “governments have a stronger moral mandate to make things better,” especially for their own citizens (188), but such duties are impersonal, or ones that are not owed to particular people (530). By contrast, the “key defining feature” of duties of justice is that they are owed to particular people who have rights not to be harmed (52).

Many of Broome’s claims regarding the distinction between beneficence and justice are not developed in much philosophical detail even though it [End Page E-1] is the centerpiece of the book. Discussions of rights, in particular, appear on only three pages, according to the index. The absence of more detail regarding rights is curious in light of two facts.

First, a great deal of the existing literature discussing the ethics of climate change relies heavily upon human rights theory. Many of the most well-known papers by Simon Caney and Henry Shue, for example, treat the predictable harms of climate change as violations of human rights. Broome’s own catalogue of the main features of the harms of climate change, which he takes to be breaches of duties of justice, mirror in much detail the catalogues that human rights theorists generate. The harms caused are the result of what we do; the harms are serious; they are not accidental; and they are normally for the sake of our own benefit (55–57).

Second, Broome’s book is published under the imprint of the Amnesty International Global Ethics Series. The aim of the series is to expand the traditional conversation surrounding human rights to include topics less widely addressed in that framework. However, on Broome’s account, because matters of justice and human rights are primarily matters of individual moral duty, and duties of beneficence are primarily duties of governments, nearly half of the book (chapters 7–10) is devoted to various problems associated with governmental duties of beneficence. Matters of justice and human rights necessarily get far less attention than beneficence.

More precisely, some form of cost-benefit analysis is assumed to be both the most appropriate framework for understanding the nature of governmental duties of beneficence, and Broome explores a number of problems that reveal some significant moral limits on their use. Problems of trade-offs among future and present generations, as well as more general problems of trade-offs among the lives and overall health prospects of domestic and global population sub-groups are central concerns...


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