Reflection on the ethics of climate change can get you into trouble. It can get you into philosophical trouble, because it’s easy to make mistakes when thinking about rights and wrongs on a planetary scale. Morality, whatever it is, seems to waver out of focus when applied to the big picture. It doesn’t like that sort of thing and feels more comfortable in homey contexts, probably because it grew up in small towns and copes best with little wrongs. Reflection on the ethics of climate change, even on a smaller scale, can get you into other sorts of trouble too. Primarily, it annoys other people. Not only can it end up sounding like moralizing, rather than moral philosophy, but it gets us where we live. It issues in the conclusion that our comfy lives of high-energy consumption have to change, that we in the developed world should make some serious sacrifices for other people. Arriving at this conclusion isn’t all that difficult, but seeing it clearly and acting on it certainly is. We’ll have a go at the bare bones of it in what follows.
A lot of people accept the fact that the present state of play is somehow unjust or wrong. You can arrive at this conclusion in a paragraph. Burning fossil fuels thickens the blanket of greenhouse gasses which swaddles our world and warms it up. The warmer our planet becomes, the more suffering we are in for – suffering caused by failed crops, hotter days and nights, rising sea levels, dwindling water supplies, altered patterns of disease, conflict over shifting resources, more dramatic weather, as well as the suffering of our fellow creatures who are also struggling to adapt. This is partly because our planet’s carbon sinks cannot absorb all of our emissions. The sinks are therefore a limited and valuable resource. Some countries on the planet, the richer, more developed, industrialised ones, have used up more than a fair share of the sinks and therefore caused more of the suffering which is under way and on the cards. If you think a little about fairness or justice or responsibility or the importance of doing something about unnecessary suffering (pick one which works for you), then you will quickly be drawn to the conclusion that the rich countries have a moral obligation to reduce emissions, probably dramatically. Maybe they should pay for a few sea walls, possibly foot the bill for a bit of disaster relief, too. The fact that they haven’t taken meaningful action is an obvious wrong. It seems easy enough to see it.
Peter Singer, who is better at this than I am, needs only two sentences to make the point in his book One World: “To put it in terms a child could understand, as far as the atmosphere is concerned, the developed nations broke it. If we believe that people should contribute to fixing something in proportion to their responsibility for breaking it, then the developed nations owe it to the rest of the world to fix the problem with the atmosphere.”
What are the proportions actually like? Brace yourself for a few numbers (all from www.unstats.un.org). The USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, is responsible for the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions by country each year, about 26% of global emissions. China is second on the list, with 14.5% of global emissions. Try to bear in mind, as you think about this, that China has about a billion more people in it than the United States. The numbers then drop off pretty quickly, with Russia responsible for about 6% of the global total of emissions. You can come to the conclusion that the US is most responsible for the damage being caused to our planet. It therefore has the largest obligation to do something about it. Others in the West have similarly-sized obligations. The fact that so little has been done is a moral wrong.
Thinking a little about room for reduction and capacity for reduction can cement this thought in your mind. Consider room for reduction first. Not all emissions have the same moral standing. The greenhouse gasses resulting from a long-haul flight for a weekend break are not on a par with the emissions resulting from the efforts of a subsistence farmer toiling in the field. As Henry Shue puts it, some emissions are luxury emissions and others are subsistence emissions, and if cuts must be made, it’s the former which have to go first. It goes nearly without saying that the West emits more luxury emissions than the developing world, and it therefore has more room for reduction.
Think now about capacity for reduction, the varying abilities of states to make cuts in emissions or otherwise shift resources around. It’s pretty clear that the West is best placed to make large cuts in a number of senses. The developed world has the strength to move mountains; it has the infrastructure and the technological know-how, the manpower, the money, and on and on and on. It has not just the room for reduction, but also the capacity to do what’s right. Again, the fact that it has done so little smells like a moral wrong.
You can come to the conclusion that the present situation is morally outrageous. The developed world is primarily responsible for a problem which results in a lot of unnecessary suffering. If the sharp end of some predictions has it right, maybe the amount of suffering ahead is nearly too horrible to contemplate. Worse, the developed world has the room and capacity to do what’s right, but fails or refuses to do so. If, like me, you see all of this as clearly wrong, a moral outrage, you might be drawn to an uncomfortable conclusion. It might be that our individual lives are morally outrageous too. It’s consistency, nothing else, which leads to this unpleasant fact. Don’t take it personally if that stops you from taking it seriously. If it helps, it’s not just you, but me and everyone else living lives of high energy-consumption.
Consistency is at the heart of reflection on moral matters. Morality, whatever else it is, insists on a kind of humane consistency. If I am in a certain situation and contend that I should be treated in such and such a way, then morality demands that I conclude that others in a similar situation are entitled to that sort of treatment too. It’s why the categorical imperative enshrines the notion of universalizability, and why a utilitarian thinks everyone’s pain matters. If the thoughts just scouted above lead you to the conclusion that the behaviour of the West is a moral outrage, then maybe consistency of principle will lead you to the conclusion that your own behaviour is a moral outrage too.
If it’s correct to think that the US and other countries in the West are wrong to do nothing despite being responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, then it’s correct to think that we are wrong to do nothing in our everyday lives despite being responsible for the lion’s share of emissions per capita. If you live in the US, your yearly activities result in more than 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide on average. Australians contribute 19 metric tons, Canadians emit about 18 metric tons on average, and UK residents are responsible for about 10 metric tons. Many people, residents of more than a third of the countries on the planet, are responsible for less than a metric ton each year. Some are responsible for no measurable emissions at all.
If it’s correct to think that the West does wrong by doing nothing despite having the room to reduce emissions and the capacity to do so, then it’s correct to think that we’re doing wrong too, in our everyday lives. Plenty of your emissions are luxury emissions; most do not result from securing the real necessities of life. Probably, also, you’ve got the brains to work out the right course of action. If that’s too rich for you, then maybe you’ve been formally educated for longer than most people on the planet. At least it’s true that you’re the sort of person who reads philosophy without being forced to do so, which maybe suggests that you’re a bright spark. You probably also have a bit of cash to spare, as compared to others on our planet. You have a healthy disposal income, if you think about it. You’ve got the brains and the money and the resources generally to do something about your emissions if that’s what you want to do. Doing something, by the way, means a bit more than buying the bulbs and recycling. Your emissions might be as much as 20 times more than others in the world; you might be doing as much as 20 times the damage to the planet compared to other people. The bulbs are not enough.
I’ll calm down now. The point of these reflections is not to attack my fellow recyclers or to tell you that the long, hot showers in your life are a kind of sin. The aim is to get past a clutch of thoughts which stands in the way of thinking about the ethics of climate change. The thoughts have something to do with the belief that our little effects can’t matter all that much. What difference could overfilling the kettle make? What difference could a flight abroad make? What difference could leaving the DVD player on standby make? If you’re a consequentialist, and it turns out that your effects have insignificant consequences, then how could they possibly be wrong?
Those are good, tough questions, and they come up a lot when one is hunkered down over a drink, arguing about morality and our warming world. I try to answer them with the consistency move I’ve just sketched for you. If you think, for example, that the US does wrong for such and such a reason, then consistency demands that you apply the same principles operative in your thinking about the US to your own life, and see what you get. Sometimes I have to point out that I’m not arguing by analogy or mistaking the properties of a state and the properties of a person. We’ve all read the Republic and know what sorts of trouble you can get into by doing that. The argument is just a demand for consistency in our thinking, and that’s as legitimate a move in a moral debate as you are likely to get.
Thinking about your own, minimal consequences can lead you to one last conclusion. Suppose you conclude that your life has to change, that the individual choices you make every day have to be much more green. Good for you. However, given the way our societies are set up, given the fact that we are all enmeshed in a fossil-fuel burning world, it’s hard to make those sorts of choices. You can worry that every well-intentioned effort to reduce your carbon footprint results in some backhanded wrong. You can choose to ride a bike to work and depress yourself with the thought that you’ve just made room for one more car. Having breakfast without doing some sort of damage can seem impossible. Maybe no choice you make on your own can get you entirely clear of moral trouble. Thinking along these lines can tug in two directions. Some people find themselves dragged back to the thought that nothing they’ll ever do can make a difference. Others surprise themselves with the thought that we have to change not just our lives, but our societies.
This sort of change is something you and your little consequences can’t bring about on your own. It can go either way. You can fall back into the thought that nothing you can do will make a difference. Or you can set your jaw, give in to a high-minded hope or two, and push with others for a greener world.
James Garvey is the author of The Ethics of Climate Change (Continuum).