Exploring a “sacrifice-free” solution to climate change

Jasper Hedges has been awarded a supplementary PhD scholarship by the Climate Change Institute for his interdisciplinary research. Jasper Hedges has been awarded a supplementary PhD scholarship by the Climate Change Institute for his interdisciplinary research.
29 November 2019

Inadequate action on climate change at a societal level is an issue that has motivated philosophy student, Jasper Hedges, to undertake his PhD.   “It’s shocking that it’s been 40 years since the First World Climate Conference, and yet global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise steadily since then,” he said.  In response, his research evaluates an alternative proposal for how we might motivate effective global climate action.  

There are obviously many reasons why climate change action isn’t being given the priority it deserves.   These include the fact that many people believe that taking action on climate change will cost too much (particularly if a strong carbon price is implemented.)  Parts of the fossil fuel industry have also been very successful in spreading uncertainty, undermining strong climate action.  Thirdly, international collaboration may have failed to deliver results because of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, where individual countries act according to their own self-interest, contrary to the common good.  Many current climate policies are politically unpopular. 

This has led to calls for a new approach to address climate change.   One mechanism, proposed by philosopher, John Broome, as well as many economists, is based on the concept of “efficiency without sacrifice”, an approach that is designed to make some people better off and no-one worse off, also known as ‘Pareto improving climate policy’.   Broome argues that appealing to people’s morality is not sufficient and that additionally we need to appeal to self-interest by acting strongly in a way that won’t negatively affect us now.  This roughly translates to borrowing money to fund strong climate action now, including via market mechanisms such as carbon pricing, with full compensation for those impacted now and the costs paid by future generations.  This feasibility-based approach aims to overcome the political unpopularity of some current climate policies. 

But there are also many possible problems with this “sacrifice-free” approach.  Obviously, it pushes a huge amount of debt onto future generations, even though they would be better-off overall due to having a relatively stable climate (or so the “efficiency without sacrifice” argument goes).  There are also issues around international collaboration or the lack thereof.  It may require the establishment of a “World Climate Bank” and there could be just as much political opposition to this kind of borrowing as to current climate policies.  It also depends upon most governments being supportive, and there are clearly many different responses. 

Jasper is keeping an open mind on the viability of the “efficiency without sacrifice” approach.   Regardless of what his research uncovers, he expects that it will have direct policy relevance.  .  “In the event that we adopt carbon pricing, should we compensate people fully or use those funds to invest in green infrastructure?” he said.   “My research will provide perspective on  questions such as this.”

Jasper has been awarded a supplementary PhD scholarship by the ANU Climate Change Institute.  He plans to use the funds to participate in conferences and visiting student programs that are relevant to his research.