With time running short to stop catastrophic climate change, there is a moral and ethical imperative for companies and consumers to act now, according to Wharton professor Brian Berkey. In this conversation, he describes why decision-making must change in order to save the planet.


Exploring the Ethics Behind Going Green

Dan Loney: Where did your interest in ethics and climate change formulate?

Brian Berkey: I wrote my dissertation on our obligations to the global poor. That was the case that focused my theorizing. One of the issues that I discussed is how demanding our obligations can be. There’s a debate in moral philosophy about what we call “the demandingness of morality.” How much are relatively well-off people obligated to sacrifice in order to make the world a better place, relieve suffering, help people who are unjustly disadvantaged, and so on?

Similar issues arise with respect to climate change, although the challenge is that it seems the main moral obligation is to protect environmental conditions for future generations, for people who don’t already exist. There are a lot of interesting philosophical puzzles about how we can have obligations to future people who don’t yet exist, what the nature of those obligations might be, how we can explain them. Our answers to these questions have implications for what and exactly how much we ought to do in the face of the threat of climate change. That was a set of issues that I took up after finishing my dissertation, when I was in my first post-doctoral position.

Loney: How much do you think the question of ethics around climate change comes up in a lot of the conversation today?

Berkey: I don’t think it comes up enough. I think there’s a divide. I think there are people who have certain kinds of approaches to thinking about the challenge of climate change that are generally about ethics, even if they’re not talking about it the way that people like me who are trained in moral philosophy talk about it. But they’re thinking about, am I required to drive less and live in a smaller home and fly less and eat a vegan diet and do all of the kinds of things that we as individuals can do to reduce our contributions to climate change?

They’re also thinking about things like what sort of public policies we ought to have, what sort of regulations we ought to have. They’re thinking about it in the way that’s characteristic of ethical reasoning. They’re thinking about what does justice require that we do for future generations, and so on.

In other circles, discussions of ethics seem to happen much less. The goal that others have in thinking about how we ought to approach climate change seems to be trying to figure out technical solutions or win-win solutions — ways that we might be able to make progress on dealing with climate change without any of the relevant actors having to really sacrifice anything.

To the extent that it’s possible to deal with climate change in this kind of way, we should take advantage of those opportunities. But the worry that I have is that it may not be possible to do that. We’re now especially short on time. We haven’t done nearly enough for 30-plus years. Limiting our discussions to something like the question of, “Is there a way that we can reduce our emissions enough to keep warming under 2 degrees, or under 1.5 degrees, without having to sacrifice anything in the way of our current lifestyles or corporate profits?” or other things that might need to be traded off against addressing climate change in a serious way — I think it’s dangerous to approach the issue only in that way.

Loney: Are we in a pivot moment?

Berkey: Action is certainly important at this point. We’ve done far too little for a very long time. The experts now seem to think that we have less than 10 years to bring about a pretty radical shift in emissions trajectories. If we’re going to reach the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, the most recent estimates suggest that we need to get to net-zero emissions globally by 2050, and we need to make significant reductions by 2030.

That requires a great deal of change in a very short amount of time. Given that what we’ve seen over the past 30-plus years is relatively little progress, the sort of shift that is required is hard to get our minds around. It would be quite transformational in ways that we’re obviously not prepared for.

The Business Value of Corporate Sustainability

Loney: What is the climate imperative for business?

Berkey: I’ve got a paper that my colleague, [Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics] Eric Orts, and I have been working on in which we argue that approaches to business decision-making that have become standard over the last 50 years or so that involved focusing, at least primarily if not exclusively, on increasing profits within the limits of the law has to be rejected in a pretty significant way in the face of the threat of climate change.

The climate imperative idea is that whatever approach to business decision-making we endorse, it has to be consistent with a serious commitment to do what’s necessary within business practices to sufficiently address the climate threat. The imperative says that each business decision-maker — say, an executive of a corporation — is obligated to take the threat of climate change into account in their decision-making in a way that leads them to ensure that their firm’s emissions are no higher than is compatible with basically doing their fair share. It’s based on the assumption that everyone else is doing their fair share, too, in order to ensure that we do enough to mitigate the threat of climate change. For a lot of firms, that would require pretty radically transforming the way that they do business, and the way that their key decision-makers go about reasoning about how operations are going to be structured and what priorities are going to be. This is just necessary if we’re going to successfully deal with the threat.

Loney: There is also the argument that climate imperative and profit-maximizing are compatible. How do you look at that?

Berkey: This is what I was talking about a little bit before. Some people suggest that firms don’t really have to give up much of anything in the way of profits in order to do their part when it comes to dealing with climate change. People talk about opportunities to shift business models in ways that will be even more profitable in the future. But there’s a degree of optimism that comes out of some quarters that seems, at the very least, exaggerated. It’s the idea that doing what’s maximally good from the perspective of profit-making will always be consistent with doing their part from a moral perspective to address the threat of climate change.

This seems so improbable that there’s just no good reason to believe it. There’s no evidence that tends to be presented for this. It’s generally highly speculative. Of course, there’s something appealing about this kind of optimism. It would be great if the world were like this, and sometimes there are these fortunate situations where there aren’t serious trade-offs that have to be made between competing priorities.

But the world isn’t always like that. One of the obvious examples to point to is oil companies, companies that are in the fossil fuel extraction business. There were some articles that got some attention back in 2019, 2020, that highlighted that a number of the major global fossil fuel firms are planning increased extraction up through 2030 or the early 2030s. That’s their current business plan.

Those who think that there’s no conflict between profit-maximizing and the climate imperative have to either think that the decision-makers at these firms are just really bad business people or they’re just making a deep mistake about what’s going to be best in terms of profits for their firms. If the optimists are right, these firms would do better by planning to reduce extraction and move in different directions. But that just seems unlikely to be true. The people who are making these decisions are well-informed. They know what they’re doing. They’re competent business people. From my perspective, they’re just making decisions that are ethically problematic. They’re not taking the moral importance of dealing with the climate threat sufficiently, seriously. But they probably are doing what’s best in terms of profits for their firms.

Loney: That brings us to the topic of greenwashing. How prevalent is it, and how much impact is it having on the overall discussion around climate change?

Berkey: Unfortunately, I think it’s fairly common. There is increasing pressure on firms to say the right things about their commitments on climate and environmental issues more broadly. Unfortunately, for reasons having to do with information that ordinary individuals can realistically process and so on, there’s less pressure on firms to actually do all of the good things that they might be claiming to do. It’s often possible for firms to engage in rhetoric that makes it sound like they have all these really good commitments without doing nearly as much as the rhetoric suggests they’re doing. And given that there’s still a dominant practice in business decision-making of aiming primarily, if not exclusively, at maximizing profits within constraints like the law, it’s not surprising that it’s fairly common for firms to exaggerate how much good they’re doing for climate or other important purposes, in large part as a marketing tool.

Improving Environmental Policies and Corporate Sustainability

Loney: What do you think needs to change, either from a corporate or a public perspective angle?

Berkey: Quite a few things need to change. We’re in a situation where we need to accomplish a great deal in a short period of time and make pretty significant changes to the way that businesses do things, the way that we as individuals do things in our personal lives, and so on. There are multiple dimensions to what needs to happen.

As Eric Orts and I have argued, the norms for business decision-making need to change in some pretty significant ways. Corporate executives and others who have impacts on the way that businesses operate need to be taking the threat of climate change much more directly into account than they have been in deciding what the policies of their organizations are going to look like, what practices they’re going to adopt. And sometimes they’re going to have to make choices that involve sacrificing at least some degree of profitability for the sake of making a greater contribution to dealing with the threat of climate change.

The other side of that is we, as consumers, need to change the way that we think about how we interact with firms, what kinds of purchasing decisions we make. Ultimately, dealing with the threat of climate change is going to require some fairly significant cultural changes. People need to be willing to make some choices about how they live their lives that are different from the ones that we’re used to making. We need to buy less stuff that’s emissions-intensive to produce. We need to be willing to take public transit when it’s available, rather than driving everywhere. It’d be good if people lived in smaller homes that use less energy to heat and cool. I mentioned earlier, adopting a vegan or at least a vegetarian diet is one way of reducing one’s personal contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s morally good for other reasons, too.

Choices at the different levels impact each other. The more consumer behavior changes in the directions that I’m describing, the more that firms will have to change their business practices to cater to the changing consumer preferences. So, if a lot of people start adopting a vegan diet, that’s going to require companies that are producing meat and dairy to produce less, and maybe move into producing different kinds of options that are less carbon intensive. The same goes for other areas in which we might change our choices as individuals.

Loney: Where do you hope we will be on these issues in five or 10 years?

Berkey: It’s hard to paint a detailed picture in our minds of what the world would have to look like if we’re going to actually succeed in dealing with the threat. One of the sources of some optimism is that younger people seem to care about this issue a great deal. That’s not surprising. They’re going to be around a lot longer than people who are a bit older, and they are going to have to live through some of troubling effects that we’re already starting to see now.

Certain kinds of policy changes that have been resisted for a long time might be possible as more and more younger people are involved in the political process and, frankly, as more members of older generations are no longer around to vote. But there’s some concern about that, too, because there are structural incentives in the climate change case to always put off action a little bit longer and a little bit longer and a little bit longer. Because when we actually start doing more in a serious way to address the threat, that’s likely to involve some genuine sacrifices for people who are around when we start making these changes.

It’s always easy to say, “Well, you know, a little bit longer won’t hurt.” There are some interesting philosophical papers that detail why this structure makes dealing with a problem like climate change so challenging. It’s unlike most of the other problems that we’ve faced in society and globally throughout history.