To Stop Climate Change, We Must Grow Movements of Moral Force

Today, from Syria to California, climate change is costing us lives and livelihood. The headlines are new, but our knowledge of the problem is not. The Nixon administration was warned about climate change in 1969, and fossil fuel companies and the U.S. Congress were aware of it in the 1980s. Since then, 30 years have passed and progress has been inadequate.

International negotiations have produced little of tangible value. Half of the American government denies climate change's existence. And many of our great institutions of learning (such as my alma mater, Harvard) still insist that it's their God-given right to profit from the most damaging of fossil fuels.

Even accounting for the progress that has been made, if we are to succeed in stopping climate change, we cannot let the next 30 years be like the last.

Until now, the issue of climate change has been confined primarily to the technocratic and elite spheres of society. In essence, technocrats deliver climate change solutions to political elites, who then try to implement those solutions through market-based policies. The main problem with this strategy is that it hasn't worked: technocrats and elites alone have not been able to overcome the vested interests and ideologies that oppose action. And, at the end of the day, the cost to technocrats and elites for failure on climate is low.

As a society, we can't keep pursuing this failed strategy. We must do something different.

To stop climate change, we must break the monopoly that technocrats and elites have on the issue and empower the moral and popular spheres of society. This is how long-term, unignorable political pressure can be generated on climate, and social movements are the vehicles by which this is done. Today, organizations like and others are hard at work creating these social movements. Ultimately, to stop climate change, these movements must be grounded not just in political goals but also in moral force. That is to say: they must redefine right and wrong within societies.

Why must we invoke morality in fighting climate change?

The physics of climate change, itself, points to the need for movements of moral force. Climate change has a long-term nature: the lag between cause (released greenhouse gases) and effect (climate change and impacts) is roughly half a century. So although the harms of climate change are completely real, the battle in any given moment (despite the protestations of some technocrats) is always -- inescapably -- one of principle.

Climate change also has a collective nature: it is a global commons problem, meaning that purely self-interested behavior provides short-term individual benefit but long-term collective harm. The result is that a norm of selfishness leads to collective destruction, and the straightforward conclusion is that selfishness on climate must not be permitted as an acceptable behavior. (Note that many university trustees -- confronted with fossil fuel divestment campaigns -- currently argue that they are obligated to engage in purely self-interested behavior, even though they know that this behavior, writ large, is disastrous and therefore grossly irresponsible.)

The long-term and collective characteristics of climate change are and will always be unavoidable. In response to such long-term, collective problems, technocratic decision-making tools (which typically consist of short-term, self-interested cost-benefit analyses) tend to rationalize inaction. But moral reasoning can motivate action in response to these problems, and that is one reason why moral reasoning is a socially and evolutionarily powerful force.

Additionally, the need for social movements of moral force is evident from climate politics. Technocrats and elites are insulated from the ravages of climate change: failure costs them sleep, not their crops or businesses or lives -- and that makes democratizing climate politics right and just. And there is also a need to generate much greater political pressure on climate; that makes democratizing climate politics pragmatic. How are political issues democratized? By bringing them into the moral sphere, because moral reasoning is the most democratic form of reasoning.

Fortunately, these social movements of moral force are today being grown. Acts of civil disobedience erode the authority of the status quo. Litigation forces us to examine the injustice of climate change in detail. Fossil fuel divestment confronts institutional complacency around the world. And grassroots civil society groups change politics in homes and statehouses. But we must grow these movements further -- and create more. We need more leaders to rise up -- both the good and the flawed. And we must find common moral ground with those whom we disagree with politically, because to disrupt deadlocked politics, we must destroy old battle lines.

There are some who dismiss humankind's ability to rise to the challenge of stopping climate change, and they tend to proclaim themselves (often rather seriously) as realists. In truth: they are merely apologists for failure, and ignorant of history as well. The past and present show us well that movements of moral force can and do transform societies. The potential efficacy of such movements is not in doubt. Therefore, the question is not whether we can rise to the challenge, but how far we are willing to go in that mission.

Today, when we assess the problem of climate change, we know that we can't let the next thirty years be like the last. Now, we must be pragmatic. We must do what success requires. And the very nature of climate change tells us: to succeed, in the end, we must grow movements of moral force.