Thursday 26 June 2008

Climate Change, Ethics and You

The author of The Ethics of Climate Change makes the moral case for action

In the next few paragraphs, I hope to convince you of just one thing:  that climate change is a moral problem for you, right now.  We’ll start by getting the moral dimension of climate change into clear view.

Science can give us a grip on the fact of climate change. (For a start, have a look here: We know that temperatures are rising; the sea level is rising too; sea ice is thinning; permafrost is melting; glaciers are in world-wide retreat; El Nino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense; and on and on. We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards.  It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value, with what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way through it. It helps to start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing.

Think a little about the connection between an individual’s capacities and morally demanded action. You would have some explaining to do if you saw a child drowning in the Thames and walked past without doing anything to help. You would have a lot more explaining to do if you were a fit and well-trained life guard. The difference has something to do with a connection in our thinking between being well-placed to do what’s right and doing what’s right. If it’s easy for me to stop a thief (because I’m a martial artist) or give up some time to the homeless (because I have plenty of free time) or contribute some cash to the poor (because I have a large disposable income), then my failure to do these good things stands out a little. You can apply these everyday thoughts to action on climate change.

The industrialized, developed, rich world certainly has the capacity to take action on climate change. It has the economic might, the room for reduction, the technological know-how, the influence, the brains, the brawn (put it however you like) to take serious action on climate change. It could move mountains.  It could reduce its own emissions and help the developing world leap-frog into green energy sources. It could help pay for the costs of adaptation too.  The rich world has the capacity to do something about the changes ahead, changes which will involve human suffering. The fact that it does little or nothing stands out a little. 

If walking past a drowning child is wrong, particularly when one is well-placed to help, then the West is doing something wrong by carrying on with business as usual. It amounts to walking past, to doing nothing, in the face of human suffering. It stands out even more given the West’s capacity to do the right thing. Maybe it’s a kind of moral outrage.

It’s not difficult to see the actions of the rich world as morally lacking in this connection. What’s much more difficult to look in the face is the possibility that we are doing something morally wrong too, something morally outrageous in our everyday lives. Don’t take the thought personally if it stops you taking it seriously. For what it’s worth, it’s not just you but me and everyone else living a life enmeshed in a fossil-fuel burning world. 

If you think a little about it, you’ve got the capacity to do what’s right too, just as the West has the capacity to take serious action on climate change.  Compared to most people on the planet, you have the economic might, the room for reduction, the technological know-how, the influence, the brains, the brawn (put it however you like) to reduce your carbon footprint dramatically. Compared to a lot of people on the planet, your emissions are probably enormous, and so is your wealth. If you come to the conclusion that the West is doing wrong in doing nothing about climate change, apply the same thinking to your own life and see what you get. 

Philosophers are exercised here and there by thoughts about so-called ‘applied moral problems’, questions associated with cloning, abortion, GM crops, euthanasia, just war and on and on. But you can look at those problems from a safe distance and hope that you’ll saunter through your life without encountering abortion or euthanasia. Probably no one is going to clone you. You won’t have to decide whether or not to invade a neighbouring country.  But climate change is a moral problem for you, right now. 

Most of the choices you make in your everyday life involve the use of energy, the burning of fossil fuels, the thickening of the blanket around our planet, the changes to our climate and, finally, the suffering of human beings. Clearly seeing that connection isn’t easy. Doing something about it might be harder. But if the connection really is there, then doing something about it is morally required. Doing anything less is on a par with walking past a drowning child.

James Garvey is the author of The Ethics of Climate Change, and keeps a blog of the same name. The book was reviewed on Culture Wars on 29 May 2008.


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