Moral Concern about the Environment

Moral concern about the environment reflects increasing international awareness of the need for action, notably on climate change.

Some environmental issues are global: actions in one country affect the people in other countries.  Michael Sandel argued for a change in attitudes, in the fourth 2009 Reith Lecture: A New Politics of the Common Good:

“Consider the environment.  If the countries of the world are able to change patterns of energy use and bring about a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be because emissions trading schemes allow countries to buy and sell the right to pollute.  Market mechanisms can be useful instruments.  But real change will depend on changing people’s attitudes toward nature, and rethinking our responsibilities toward the planet we share.  This is a moral and spiritual project, not only an economic one.”

He saw moral concern about the environment in international terms: “the planet we share”.

Climate change is challenging in moral terms:

●  Although there is now no doubt that man-made carbon emissions are contributing to global warming, some people see any attempt to take collective action as a socialist plot (

●  Individualists are less likely to consider justice towards other countries in the world. The countries most adversely affected by global warming (e.g. Bangladesh) are not those who are contributing the most to the problem (e.g.  America) and who would have to do the most to rectify it.

●  Most people’s everyday lives are not yet dramatically affected by climate change, so they may lack motivation to act now (whereas others have a sense of responsibility for stewardship of the planet on behalf of the next generation).

●  Some people have advocated a delayed response on economic grounds, even though that would be ill-advised ( For example, in a Rural Migration News article, Climate Change, Development:

“Developing countries are reluctant to slow economic growth now to benefit future generations who are likely to be richer and to have more technologies at their disposal to cope with climate change.”

These preferences are reflected in people’s support for the politicians who are negotiating on their behalf:

●  They can put political pressure on their governments to support international action, as described previously (4.3.4).

●  They can amplify their personal political impact by supporting international pressure groups (6.4.4).

Given sufficient motivation, politicians can take action (6.7.5), using economic power ( and legislation (5.2.1) to incentivise changes in behaviour and to enforce compliance with agreements.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4353.htm.