Monday, December 06, 2010

Climate change needs a Wilberforce

I've recently read Kwame Anthony Appiah's book 'The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen' as research for my own forthcoming book on reputation, which I expect/hope will be out in the autumn of next year. Appiah looks at a number of social changes — the abandoning of duelling and the abolition of slavery in Britain, the end of foot binding in China — and asks why and how things changed. It wasn't, he says, because of moral or legal change. The arguments against them were already well known — and had been around for millennia, in the case of footbinding — and duelling was illegal in Britain when it was most popular among the upper orders.

Rather, says Appiah, people stop doing something when it becomes disreputable. What he hints at, but doesn't fully explore, is that this change happens because social networks change. China in the nineteenth century was exposed to and influenced by western ideas, religions and so on. In Britain, the abolition movement, and the end of duelling, were brought about in different ways by a rising middle and working class, and a less isolated aristocracy. Changing connections also reflect changes in power. China's opening up to the west was the consequence of humiliating military defeats, and economic change in Britain undermined the aristocracy's political hegemony.

Likewise, I've been thinking a bit about reputation's ability (or lack of it) to solve collective action problems, particularly on carbon emissions, because that's the toughest and most serious such problem we face.

The abolition of slavery, I think, provides the best historical parallels for what we need to accomplish on climate change. In both cases, some people in the west need to make their lives a little less convenient and profitable for the benefit of people elsewhere.

Probably abolitionists were told by men of the world that ending slavery would beggar us, and that we should instead look to gradually reduce the number of slaves traded over the course of several decades, and make slave ships more comfortable. But Britain got out of slavery, not as the result of some international treaty, not because it no longer suited the nation's economic interest, and not because of some visionary prime minister, but because its people said: this is wrong. The movement had leaders, of course, but something meant they were pushing at an open door. Appiah suggests that an increasingly confident working class felt that the existence of slavery dishonoured their labour, although I suspect that the sheer vileness of the slave trade was a more important factor, and that many British people felt more solidarity with slaves than with their slave-trading compatriots.

Once one country had provided some moral leadership, it made it harder for others to carry on business as usual.

So I'd suggest that we'll see no action on climate change until someone says: it's wrong to carry on like this, regardless of what everyone else is doing. We can't wait around for a mass conversion to a low-carbon global economy. (This Nature Reports Climate Change article gives a good guide as to why not.) Any country serious about climate change needs to go it alone.

Is such moral leadership purely altruistic, or are there any self-interested benefits? Wearing my evo-goggles, I'd be inclined to see abolition as some kind of national costly signal — a display of virtue that reveals both underlying trustworthiness and the strength to do without the benefits of vice. Experiments with individuals show that people who act this way are preferred social partners, and are rewarded in private business (it's sometimes called competitive altruism). I don't know whether anything similar happened in Britain when slavery was abolished (I doubt it), and I suspect it'd be a hard idea to test.

Unfortunately, climate change is a tougher problem to frame in a moral way than slavery, because the benefits of altruism are les immediate, less obvious and less certain, and because the links between the behaviours that need changing and the harm that they do is less direct. William Wilberforce and co also had religious arguments, and a religious audience, which are less effective these days. And most countries seem to have little grassroots demand for government action on climate change.

Are there any candidates? Not really - either for nations likely to take a lead, or for the changes in power and connections between people that bring about social change. Brazil and India are large emitters, likely to be badly hit by global warming, and are big enough players that any action would send a powerful message. But what I know about the forces that drive people to make sacrifices and to treat each other well makes me pessimistic. I think that change will come eventually, once the consequences start to become obvious, but that by then we'll be committed to 4 deg plus of warming.