(de)moralizing climate change

Written by tom


Long time readers will recall we have an affinity for Steven Pinker, although we no longer hire him as a copywriter (the Canadian exchange rate was just burning us).

What you may not know is Pinker is quite the polymath, and proves his mettle in a brilliant essay on morality in last week’s New York Times Magazine. Among his theses: our moral instincts are chemical, cultural, hard to change, and interfere with progress on substantive issues. Among his examples, climate change:

And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness. Though voluntary conservation may be one wedge in an effective carbon-reduction pie, the other wedges will have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and atmosphere. Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Or to twist our favorite folks around: when Al Gore says climate change is a moral issue, he’s right, fighting climate change is a moral issue. But when it comes to how we fight it, we’d be better off letting logic drive our plans.

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