Morality by numbers? Against the regulatory power of carbon metrics

Mike Hulme, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Presented at ‘Multiple Carbons: Historical and Contemporary Approaches to Governance’ Friday-Saturday 5-6 April 2019, Harvard University’s Center for the Environment


In 2007, a new web-site CheatNeutral offered an on-line service to clients for ‘offsetting’ their infidelity.  For a fee of £2.50, CheatNeutral would pay someone else to stay faithful to their partner, allowing the client to continue cheating on their partner with a clear conscience.  As the website explained: “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere.  CheatNeutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and not cheat.  This neutralises the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.”[

CheatNeutral was a spoof.  It emerged at a time of rapid growth in carbon-offset companies offering services to members of the public and corporate clients for offsetting their carbon-emitting activities (Lovell, 2010)–most frequently, but not limited to, flying.  The late 2000s also saw a rapid expansion of the moral vocabulary of carbon in public discourse (Nerlich & Koteyko, 2009), with terms such as ‘carbon sinners’, ‘carbon indulgences’ and ‘carbon guilt’ gaining salience.  CheatNeutral sought to satirise carbon-offsetting using the language of morality.  Infidelity was a bit like flying, they suggested.  ‘We feel guilty about it and the harm it does to others, but sometimes we just do it anyway’.  By following the calculative logic of ‘offsetting’, unfaithful partners–just like serial air travelers–can cleanse their consciences by purchasing a compensatory action enacted by a third party. 

Carbon offsetting manifests in various forms in the local, trans-national and global politics of climate change: through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), through private offset purchases and, more recently, through the putative deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs), which in effect ‘promises’ to offset current emissions against (as yet unrealized) future carbon dioxide capture and sequestration technologies (Reynolds, 2018).  To work, offsetting requires enumeration and commensuration.  The illegitimacy or undesirability of an action by an agent can be neutralized by the legitimacy or desirability of a different action by the same or different agent.  Constructing a metric that makes different actions fungible—i.e., comparable and interchangeable—allows the logic of offsetting to emerge.  Offsetting is itself ‘commensurable’ with the ideology of market neoliberalism (Apostolopoulou & Adams, 2019) and is a practice that has been widely introduced into the management of environmental goods and services, for example in biodiversity offset schemes or REDD+.  

The spoof web-site CheatNeutral questioned not just such market environmentalism, but also the moral legitimacy of offsetting.  Just as offsetting your infidelity is the wrong way to go about solving problems with your relationships, it asked whether carbon-offsetting is an appropriate way to go about tackling climate change.  Reducing the ethics of climate change to the calculative spreadsheet logic of carbon metrics obscures the essence of our moral duties toward others and the necessity of moral reasoning with regard to complex relationships.  The health of an interpersonal relationship is not reducible to a number; a just world is not secured merely by minimising one’s carbon footprint.

This was the substance of the original critique of Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain back in 1991 as they railed against the implied environmental colonialism of the US-based World Resources Institute, “ … no effort has been made in WRI’s report to separate out the `survival emissions’ of the poor, from the `luxury emissions’ of the rich.  Just what kind of politics or morality is this which masquerades in the name of `one worldism’ and `high minded internationalism’? (p.3; emphasis added).  Or as we might paraphrase, ‘what notion of justice lies hidden behind treating molecules of carbon dioxide as possessing equivalent moral valence?’  The more recent proliferation and embedding of carbon metrics in everyday life (Paterson & Stripple, 2010; Bulkeley, 2016) has introduced a new form of moral regulation of individual and collective behaviours.  This ‘morality by numbers’ bypasses more traditional and religious modes of moral reasoning, which are relational, rhetorical and storied (McIntyre 1981; Cruikshank, 2005; Jenkins, 2016), of which more later.

In this contribution I am interested in the confluence of the rise of carbon metrics with the new objects of moral reasoning to which climate change gives rise … and in questioning their interaction.  I explore some of the moral consequences of reducing the challenges of climate change to the governance of carbon facilitated by metrification.  What work do carbon metrics perform, politically and morally?  Should moral behavior be guided by the calculative logic of numbers?  And what alternative forms of moral reasoning might be better suited to the ethical challenges of climate change?

Governing climate through carbon metrics

Carbon calculators, metrics and markets now shape many everyday decisions about which people are challenged to rethink because of the context of climate change.  Carbon is offered as a moral vector in this task.  Whether to drink a latte or a cappuccino, to buy your books from a shop or from Amazon, whether to fly, go car free, eat less meat or to bear a child … all are questions to which carbon calculators can seemingly provide the answer (Murtaugh & Schlax, 2009; Bulkeley, 2016; Wynes & Nicholas 2017).  For example Wynes and Nicholas (2017) argue that personal lifestyle choices can be made more ethical by quantifying the different carbon burdens these choices imply, the most ethical choice then being the one with the smallest carbon footprint.  This logic leads them to conclude that the single most ethical decision a person can make is to abstain from procreation (saving 59 tons of CO2/year).  Similar reductive and calculative logics invade the personal lifestyle decisions made in respect of bodily and mental health.[2]  The less you emit (or the more you exercise), the more morally virtuous an individual you become.  And the metrics allow you to measure just how much more virtuous and to signal the fact through social media.  Carbon metrics and dietary rhetoric come together in a spiritual practice that commenced around 2012 within the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the idea of ‘carbon fasting’ during Lent. The ‘fasting’ is figurative, but in this proposal the moral discipline of the Christian ritual of Lent is manifest through micro-behaviours that seek to minimize ones carbon footprint, such as insulating walls and turning down thermostats.  The moral regulatory power of carbon metrics generates and normalizes new subjectivities.

Carbon metrics also exercise moral power on larger, collective scales.  Judgements on the stated ambitions and policies of nation states, expressed through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are subject to the moral discipline of carbon metrics.  “As no single definition of fairness emerges from current NDCs, we quantify a new combination of equity concepts that reconciles the bottom-up pledge and review architecture of the Paris Agreement with its top-down mitigation goals.  The resulting metric provides a warming assessment of countries’ NDCs under the current regime and can inform the Talanoa dialogue and ratchetting-up process without hypothesizing an international agreement on a single approach of equity” (du Pont & Meinshausen, 2018:8; emphasis added).  Metrics take the place of moral reasoning.  But as Agarwal and Narain pointed out back in 1991, carbon metrics ignore the varied and situated meanings of carbon for local and lived communities.  In the cause of commensuration they offer a one-dimensional measurement of a multi-dimensional lived reality where complex trade-offs and variable modes of ethical evaluation pervade everyday decision-making.  As Twyman et al. (2015: 636; emphasis added) observe in their reflection on the meaning of carbon, “Values associated with carbon as a resource may equally be inseparable, or at least deeply entangled with, other values, be these value systems associated with other resources, or indeed values beyond the economic, such as social, moral, and ethical values which accompany experiences of everyday life.”

Nevertheless, under the moral logic of carbon metrics, the ‘right’ thing to do emerges from a spreadsheet or a calculative model.  This is a dangerous form of carbon utilitarianism, similar in principle to seeking to reduce all human moral reasoning to the positivist logic of science as, for example, in attempts to replace deliberative moral reasoning with the ‘objective’ guidance of empirical science (e.g. Harris, 2011).  But as critics of such approaches to objectifying morality have argued, such guidance very much depends on what assumptions enter into the model’s calculative logic.  For example, India’s forests have increasingly become ‘carbonised’ following the application of carbon-centric models of forest governance in the name of managing national carbon budgets and international climate treaty obligations (Vijge & Gupta, 2014).  But this new moral landscape, shaped by carbon metrics, downgrades if not ignores the multiple and varied non-carbon functions of forests as lived habitats for the forest’s dwellers and their reliance on non-timber forest products, amenity, spiritual connection, biodiversity, etc.  Not everything of value can be commensurated back to carbon.

Resisting the reductive moral tyranny of carbon metrics

Metrification strips away the context, history and meaning of everyday practices and of lived realities.  “Everyday experience, practical reasoning and empathetic identification become increasingly irrelevant bases for judgement as context is stripped away and relationships become more abstractly represented by numbers” (Espeland & Stevens, 1998:317).  Whether thinking about the moral regulation of individual behaviours, the large-scale deployment of carbon removal technologies or the insertion of a thermostat for the planet, carbon metrics have displaced the more traditional moral language of virtue, care, prudence, responsibility, duty and respect. 

But there are other ways of thinking about ethical behaviours in relation to climate change that do not rely on the calculative logic of reductive carbon metrics.  I take MacIntyre’s defence of virtue ethics as one exemplar of advocating moral reflection and deliberation about shared stories of moral prudence and wise judgements that emerge from community (MacIntyre, 1981).  MacIntyre historicises the three main approaches to ethical theory—consequentialist, deontological (Kantian) and virtue-based.  He argues that consequentialist and deontological ethics in western tradition became detached from larger moral narratives in which they may originally have been grounded, thereby losing claims to authenticity and power.  For Macintyre this is an outcome of modernity, the same modernity—we might claim—which has placed humans as de facto regents of the Earth’s climate.  Yet as climate ethicists such as Dale Jamieson and Stephen Gardiner have argued, a condition created by modernity requires a response guided by more than the ethics of that same modernity.  For MacIntyre morals and virtues can only be comprehended through their relation to the community within which they arise.  Rather than deriving principles of justice from behind an imagined Rawlsian veil of ignorance, which abstracts and detaches us from our social relationships and cultural commitments—very similar to the lure of carbon metrics—MacIntyre argues we should derive our ethics from within these inter-subjective practices of meaning and belonging.  This offers a more credible, situated and plural way of thinking about the ethics of climate change and governance, although of course not necessarily easier.

So how might this argument work against the moral logic of carbon metrics?  Let me give three very brief examples—no more than sketches–of narrative-based approaches to moral deliberation that might offer something different from the moral calculus of carbon accounting.  They are examples of stories within which one might begin to reason morally and to thus navigate the complexities of climate and carbon governance.  A first example is drawn from the moral framework that lies behind Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical, Laudato ‘Si, On Care For Our Common Home.  Clearly focused on the pressing questions raised by climate change, the Encyclical escapes a narrow (enumerated) ethical framing of human responsibility by placing the ‘scientific evidence’ for human agency toward climate into a much larger moral vision of the world (Clingerman & O’Brien, 2016).  Rather than a focus on metrics and the coercive regulatory logic of numbers, Pope Francis offers a cosmic account of human dignity and responsibility within which duty, virtue, humility and care feature prominently.  This framework of moral reasoning offers an account of causation—e.g. “When there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones” (§211)—as well as an orientation towards moral action in the world—e.g. “Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment” (§155).

A second example highlights the powerful force of metaphor in helping cultures find moral orientation in the world.  The work of Willis Jenkins is especially helpful in this regard (e.g. Jenkins, 2016; but much other work as well).  Jenkins argues that metaphors offer the kind of imaginative creativity and ambiguity that humans need in order to think through the many-layered conundrum that climate change presents us with.  For Jenkins and other humanists, metaphors gain their power and utility precisely because they rely on the ambiguity and uncertainty that carbon metrics seek to eradicate.  “Attending to how stories narrate the integrity of human action on a planetary scale can, however, help various publics consider what criteria they have (or need) to evaluate research on climate engineering and other forms of planetary management” (Jenkins, 2016: 150).  Rather than act superficially, guided by the unyielding force of numbers, metaphors encourage us to think relationally about our place in the world and through time.  Metaphors such as stewarding, healing, restoring, cultivating, repairing are each suggestive of different ways of relating to climate and to our ecological surrounding; they offer us richer vocabularies to think not just about what sort of climate we bring into being, but what sort of role we see for people such as us.

A third example comes from a different source.  It focuses on the figure of the ‘trickster’, an archetypal mythical being found in many traditional cultures (Thornton & Mahli, 2016).  Although not embodying a fixed moral orientation, the trickster seeks to disrupt and transform taken-for-granted realities.  This myth has value when thinking about carbon governance since it challenges the illusion of controllability that is promised by the carbon metrics on offer.  The trickster introduces the virtues of humility and modesty into human storytelling and suggests that human actions in the world will always exceed our ability to predict and our desire for control.


Governing climate change through carbon metrics is another form of reductionism, or in this case a form of moral attenuation.  It not just reduces the future to climate, as I have argued elsewhere (Hulme, 2011), but even more dangerously it masks the contested politics and values diversity that lie behind different personal and collective choices—who wins, who loses, whose values count.  Metrics are alluring because they simplify complex realities into ‘objective’ numbers and because they appear to short-circuit the need for difficult moral judgement.  Metrification “… may make a troubling situation more salient, without making it more soluable” (Muller, 2018: 183).  The circulation of ubiquitous carbon metrics operates as a facilitative and immanent—almost accidental one might say—mode of power.  Morality by numbers also marginalizes other forms of moral reasoning which cannot be reduced to calculation, but which offer richer narrative contexts that enable the wisdom of different choices to be deliberated, interpreted and judged.  Wise governance of climate, as indeed in the application of wisdom in everyday life, emerges best when rooted in larger and thicker stories about human purpose, identity, duty and responsibility.  Such stories are what traditional and religious knowledge can offer.  Carbon metrics should only be used as a complement to experience and wider modes of moral reasoning, not as a substitute. 


Apostolopoulou,E. & Adams,W.M. (2019) Cutting nature to fit: Urbanization, neoliberalism and biodiversity offsetting in England  Geoforum  98, 214-225

Bulkeley,H. (2016)  Accomplishing climate governance  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 204pp.

Clingerman,F. and O’Brien,K.J. (eds.) (2016)  Theological and ethical perspectives on climate engineering: calming the storm  Lexington Books, Lanham MD, 216pp. 

Cruikshank,J. (2005) Do glaciers listen?  Local knowledge, colonial encounters and social imagination  UBC Press, Vancouver & Toronto, 312pp.

Du Pont,Y.R. and Meinshausen,M. (2018)  Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges  Nature Communications 9:4810 doi 10.1038/s41467-018-07223-9

Espeland,W. and Stevens,M. (1998)  Commensuration as a social process Annual Review of Sociology  24, 313-343

Harris,S. (2011) The moral landscape: how science can determine human values Bantam Press, London  304pp.

Hulme,M. (2011) Reducing the future to climate: a story of climate determinism and reductionism  Osiris 26(1), 245-266

Jenkins,W. (2016)  Stewards of irony: planetary stewardship, climate engineering and religious ethics  pp. 149-164 in: Clingerman,F. and O’Brien,K.J. (eds.) (2016)  Theological and ethical perspectives on climate engineering: calming the storm  Lexington Books, Lanham MD, 216pp. 

Lovell,H. (2010)  Governing the carbon offset market   WIREs Climate Change 1(3),  353-362

MacIntyre,A. (1981)  After virtue  (3rd edition)  University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 286pp.

Muller,J.Z. (2018)  The tyranny of metrics  Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 224pp.

Murtaugh,P. andSchlax,M.G. (2009)  Reproduction and the carbon legacy of individuals  Global Environmental Change   19(1),  14-20

Nerlich,B. and Koteyko,N. (2009) Compounds, creativity and complexity in climate change communication: the case of ‘carbon indulgences’  Global Environmental Change  19(3), 345-353 

Thornton,T.F. and Malhi,Y. (2016)  The trickster in the Anthropocene  The Anthropocene Review  3(3), 201-204

Twyman,C., Smith,T.A. and Arnall,A. (2015)  What is carbon? Conceptualising carbon and capabilities in the context of community sequestration projects in the global South WIREs Climate Change 6(6), 627–641

Vijge,M.J. and Gupta,A. (2014) Framing REDD+ in India: Carbonizing and centralizing Indian forest governance? Environmental Science & Policy 38, 17-27

Wynes,S. & Nicholas,K.A. (2017)  The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions  Environmental Research Letters  12, 091001

[1]  Source: New Statesman, May 2007:

[2] Moves to enumerate moral behaviours can be found in the attempts to regulate health behaviours—e.g. dietary choices (calories) and fitness regimes (fit-bits).  FitBit is a physical activity tracker designed to help you become more active, eat a more well-rounded diet, sleep better and ultimately turn you into a healthier and more virtuous human being.

[3] For example, see here: eused1 \ls