A black and white silhouette of power station chimneys belching out smoke

Fergus Green discusses his latest research in which he argues that major historic shifts in moral attitudes could inspire new ways of tackling climate change.

Testing nuclear weapons, owning slaves and waging aggressive war were all once normal practices – in some cases, for much of human history. In newly published research, I argue that the processes by which such practices came to be seen as morally repugnant can teach us much about how we should tackle climate change – and why the standard prescriptions are flawed.

The political limits of carbon pricing

Since at least 1977, economists have been telling us that the best way to tackle climate change is for governments to legislate a price on greenhouse gas emissions, either by taxing activities that emit them (“carbon tax”) or by capping rights to emit them and allowing large emitters to buy or sell those rights, effectively creating a market in emissions rights (“cap-and-trade”).

These “market-based” policy instruments are justified according to a logic of consequences – specifically, the goal of minimising the aggregate net-costs (or maximising the aggregate net-benefits) of reducing greenhouse gases.

Ubiquitous, high carbon prices would certainly go a long way toward decarbonising the global economy. But the scarceness of jurisdictions with even moderately ambitious carbon pricing schemes attests to the political difficulty of getting carbon pricing laws enacted – as does the litany of political corpses from abortive battles to introduce such laws.

The power of the fossil fuel industry is undoubtedly one barrier. But there is an under-appreciated, deeper challenge here: by and large, the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels are still largely understood by citizens, consumers, workers, companies and governments alike to be appropriate and normal. And the people and companies who profit most from such projects are not widely perceived to be morally deviant or corrupt.

Campaigns for carbon pricing (or more generic “climate action”) do little to change that positive valence. Nor do carbon pricing policies themselves: their consequentialist logic is agnostic as to the moral status of fossil fuels, fossil fuel-related activities and the agents who undertake them. This puts would-be climate reformers on the back foot: introducing climate policies appears to be a costly exercise that harms innocent market actors.

How can norms change?

Historical cases of moral progress suggest that normative change precedes widespread and systematic regulation. When a norm changes, such that a product, practice, or group of agents is perceived to be toxic, harmful or morally deviant, they become much easier to regulate. Just ask the tobacco, asbestos and uranium industries.

But entrenched norms are hard to budge. Processes of dislodgement begin with “norm entrepreneurs” and their followers – typically highly motivated individuals who work to discredit an existing norm and normalise a new one.

Norm entrepreneurs must use creative and disruptive tactics to challenge the “logics of appropriateness” and vested interests associated with the status quo. Abolitionists organised consumer boycotts of sugar produced using slave labour. After peaceful tactics failed, British suffragettes chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property. Anti-apartheid activists waged divestment campaigns against high-profile institutional investors who profited from activities in South Africa.

Understood in this light, the disruptive tactics of “norm entrepreneurs” like Bill McKibben, groups like the fossil fuel divestment movement and campaigns against new fossil fuel infrastructure – from the Keystone XL pipeline to the Adani-backed mega-coalmine in Australia – are highly rational.

Domestic anti-fossil fuel campaigns such as these, which have multiplied in recent years, have proven more successful than campaigns focused on carbon pricing and generic “climate action” precisely because they engage people in socially and culturally meaningful ways rather than as abstract cost-benefit calculators. They appeal to concrete grievances, use resonant narratives, incite powerful emotions, unite diverse constituencies and build durable networks. In this way, they not only raise popular awareness, shift public discourse, alter corporate behaviour, influence electoral outcomes, and change government policy, but also build global “anti-fossil fuel normsfrom the ground up.

Towards a ‘tipping point’

But bottom-up, civil society activism is not the only way global moral norms change: states matter, too. Theory on global norm diffusion predicts that new norms spread through the international system typically via a process that starts slowly, with progressive states leading by example and persuading like-minded states to follow. But the process gathers pace as more and more states adopt the norm, since each new adopter raises the social costs of non-conformity among the holdouts. Eventually, a “tipping point” occurs and the norm diffuses widely through the international system.

Understanding this dynamic feature of norm diffusion opens up new strategic possibilities and allows us to appraise governments’ climate policies in a new light.

Most importantly, it highlights the political value of currently-feasible state policies that ban particular fossil fuel-related practices, like new oil and gas extraction, or coal-fired power plant construction. In the last few years, there has been a steady stream of announcements by states introducing such bans.

Critics demur that these initiatives don’t amount to much in terms of greenhouse gases abated, implying that they are a waste of time, “merely symbolic”, or inefficient. Carbon pricing advocates urge politicians to instead slap stringent carbon prices on industries and practices that cause lots of emissions. But where industries cause lots of emissions they usually have lots of political power, so such proposals get predictably ignored or emaciated, as we have seen.

According to the logic of global moral norm diffusion, starting by banning fossil fuel-related practices in countries where they are least prevalent is the right strategy. The bans send a clear moral signal that helps to redefine appropriate behaviour in the international community. Meanwhile, starting in countries where the relevant industry is less powerful enables a large number of state bans to amass quickly, and hence the process of norm diffusion to get going.

Consider coalmining. Most states have no coal to mine, and those that do are now mostly supplying to a shrinking market. This means that it would not be costly for most states to heed the call by the former President of Kiribati, and a cavalcade of high profile individuals, to ban new coalmines. The more states who do so, the greater the moral and political pressure that will be concentrated on countries like Australia, where no fewer than 57 major new coal projects are in the planning/investment pipeline.

Such pressure matters, because countries like Australia are not monolithic entities comprised entirely of implacable coal-lovers, but rather fluid political battlegrounds in which coal-backers vie with anti-coal activists for popular support and political leverage. International pressure would play to the latter’s advantage. (Australia already tried carbon pricing, by the way – it didn’t exactly work out how the economists imagined.)

A vital tool to tackle climate change

Of course, norms have their limits. Anti-fossil fuel norms are being, and will be, fiercely contested. Some normative changes will cause negative feedback effects, including economic production or consumption “leakage” into holdout jurisdictions. And such norms alone will not be sufficient to wean the world off fossil fuels. But anti-fossil fuel norms are an important weapon in the climate reformer’s arsenal, and for too long they have been ignored by scholars of climate governance.

If we want fossil fuel exploitation to go the way of slavery and nuclear weapons testing – to become something that only “rogue states” do – then we need to take norms seriously.

Portrait photo of Fergus GreenFergus Green is a PhD Candidate in the LSE Department of Government. He has worked on the ethics, politics and governance of climate change for more than a decade.

His research paper ‘Anti-fossil fuel norms’ is available to read in the journal Climatic Change.

Follow Fergus on Twitter – @fergusgreen


Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.