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Climate Change and the Defense of Ignorance

photograph of factory air pollution silhouette

Although first uncovered some years ago, a New Zealand newspaper article from 1912 touting the environmental dangers of carbon emissions has again been making the rounds. But why is information like this morally relevant? And what does it mean for the responsibility of particular parties?

Successfully combating the climate crisis will involve huge burdens for certain countries, corporations, and individuals. Some of these burdens will be in the form of mitigation – that is, taking action to do all we can to reduce the effects of climate change. In 2011, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels – the maximum global temperature rise we can tolerate while avoiding the most catastrophic effect of climate changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving this with a probability of >66% will require us to keep our global carbon expenditure below 2900GtCO2. As at the time of writing, only 562GtCO2 remains. Note that this is already 2 GtCO2 less than when I wrote another article on climate harms only three weeks ago. In order to ensure we don’t go over budget, certain parties will have to severely reduce their consumption: forgoing the cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels we’ve been exploiting for hundreds of years, and investing heavily in new, cleaner sources of energy.

But there will also be adaptation burdens – that is, costs associated with dealing with the effects of climate change that already exist. Examples of these burdens include building seawalls, fighting floods and fires, and potentially rehoming those who find themselves displaced by extreme weather events and abandoned by their insurance companies.

Usually when a problem creates costs, we look to pass those costs on to the person/s who caused the problem.

Suppose I find a large, deep hole on what I believe to be an empty plot of land adjacent to my property. I then begin to use this hole as a dumping ground for organic waste – grass clippings, tree trimmings, and the like. It seems to be a fortuitous arrangement. I no longer have to pay for the expensive disposal of large amounts of green waste, while at the same time filling in a potential hazard to others. Suppose, however, that a few weeks later I’m approached by an angry neighbor who claims that I’m responsible for going onto their property and filling in their newly dug well. Our intuition would most likely be that if anyone needs to compensate the neighbor for this wrong, it’s me – the one who created the problem. This approach is commonly referred to as the “Polluter Pays Principle.”

In some cases, however, this principle doesn’t apply so well. Suppose that I’m particularly lazy, and instead pay someone to dispose of my green waste in that same hole. In that case it seems less appropriate to place responsibility on the one who is technically doing the polluting (the person I employ). Instead, it still seems apt to make me responsible. Why? Well, even though I’m not the one putting the refuse in the hole, I am the one benefiting from the outcome – disposing of my waste and saving money. This approach is referred to as the “Beneficiary Pays Principle.”

Both of these principles play a huge role in establishing – at the global level – who should take on the mitigation and adaptation burdens required to combat the climate crisis. But they also rely heavily on something we’ve not yet discussed: knowledge.

Consider the application of the Polluter Pays Principle to the well example above. Arguably, we might say that even if I’m responsible for filling the hole, it wouldn’t be right to hold me responsible so long as I had no reasonable idea that it was, in fact, somebody’s well. It seems that I should only be responsible for the actions I take after I’m informed that what I’m doing is wrong. The same is true of the Beneficiary Pays Principle. Suppose that I pay someone to remove the green waste from my property – but have no idea that they are, in fact, dumping it down someone’s well. Once again, this lack of knowledge would seem to make it inappropriate to hold me responsible. Ignorance would be an excuse.

Nineteen-ninety is often held as the watershed hour for the climate crisis. This is when the IPCC issued their first assessment report, and when the world came to officially learn of “climate change” and the existential risk it posed to us.

Countries and corporations often attempt to avoid responsibility for any contribution to the crisis (i.e., carbon emissions) made prior to 1990 – citing ignorance. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The Center for International Environmental Law has outlined how Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil) was aware of the impending climate crisis as early as 1957, with the American Petroleum Industry coming into this same information only a year later. By 1968, the U.S. oil industry was receiving warnings from its own scientists about the environmental risks posed by the climate crisis, such that – by the 1980s – these companies were spending millions of dollars to protect their own assets, such as by modifying oil rig designs to account for rising sea levels.

And then there’s that little New Zealand article from 1912. In fact, this is predated by an even earlier warning, with Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius publishing a paper in 1896 predicting a global increase in temperature as a result of increasing carbon emissions. All of this means that while ignorance might sometimes be an excuse when attributing responsibility, no such ignorance can be claimed by those who have created – and continue to contribute to – the global climate crisis.

Is 8 Billion People Too Many? Too Few?

photograph of crowded pedestrian intersection

The United Nations projects that the world population will hit 8 billion by the end of this year.  Global challenges from overfishing to climate change are strongly affected by sheer numbers, and the figure has already served as a touchstone for public discussion. For example, comedian and media provocateur Bill Maher recently argued on his show to “Let the Population Collapse.” The phrasing was a direct rejoinder to billionaire and media provocateur Elon Musk, who tweeted about the dangers of a “collapsing birth rate.”

Concerns about overpopulation specifically are longstanding (see the previous discussion on The Prindle Post by Evan Butts). The classic text is the 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population by the English economist Thomas Malthus. His central argument was that population growth was exponential whereas food production was merely linear, so inevitably population would outstrip food supply. Malthus saw this as a limitation on utopian thinking, for by providing better conditions to everyone we only accelerate towards starvation.

By and large, Malthus’s dire predictions never materialized. Those currently pushing overpopulation as an issue stress not the global food supply, but other kinds of resource scarcity as well as the environmental fallout associated with a large population. Topping the list, unsurprisingly, are global greenhouse gasses.

With each new person comes a new carbon footprint. Ostensibly, it’s just math.

Clearly, a large global population sets constraints in place that would not exist with a smaller population. If there were fewer of us, we could all be more extravagant and wasteful without the same catastrophic ecologic consequences – not that this would justify such wastefulness.

Critics worry, however, that the analysis provided by focusing on population size is too flat, and that it neglects crucial inequalities in individual resource use and the structures that perpetuate such inequalities. It can unfairly focus attention on those slices of the world with the highest population growth – the uneducated, the global poor, the non-white, developing nations – despite the facts these very same groups tend to use the least resources.

An American billionaire and a small-scale farmer in Burkina Faso may contribute equally to global population, but they certainly are not equivalently burdensome to the environment.

These worries are not groundless, and stripes of Malthusian thinking have often been connected with eugenics and racism.

From the resource use perspective, the emphasis should be on using more sustainable technologies (e.g., solar as opposed to fossil fuels) and changing patterns of consumptions (e.g., more plants less meat) with the hope that more people can get by comfortably on fewer resources. Although unique cultural resources, like tourist sites, pose particular challenges to a global population desiring a modern Western lifestyle as scientists have yet to synthesize a lab grown Venice or Machu Picchu.

There can also be ambiguities about whether arguments against overpopulation are targeting population growth or total population. If the concern is growth, then population growth has substantially slowed with peak global population predicted to hit sometime in the late 21st century.

Factors such as urbanization, changes in the labor market, education, contraceptive availability, and economic growth have combined  into a global population slowdown.

If the concern is the ecological burden of the current population, then absent grievously unethical action, the space for intervention is limited. Any environmental challenges posed by the current population must be addressed by changing resource use.

Taking stock, two general ethical strategies are at play in concerns about overpopulation. The first are Malthusian concerns arguing that if something (perhaps something unpleasant) is not done to spur harms associated with overpopulation, then it will result in greater harms in the long-term. The evidentiary case for this is weak. The second relates to general welfare, and contends that we could on average live better lives if there were fewer of us.

Even if one accepts one or both these arguments, they may still be concerned that they deflect attention away from stark global inequalities in resource use, or that population based interventions are unethical or ineffective.

Some proposed solutions have been more controversial than others. Paul Ehrlich, the author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, prophesied (incorrectly) mass famines and suggested such tactics as eliminating child care subsidies. He even alluded to unnamed colleagues who believed forced sterilization might be necessary – as happened in countries such as India in response to population growth panic.

Others, however, worry more about having too few people than too many. Population growth is a major driver of economic growth. And economic and population growth also drive general welfare. This does, however, assume that substantive quality of life improves alongside gross domestic product – even factoring in the unintended environmental effects associated with this growth. This assumption has been challenged by the controversial degrowth movement, which advocates for an economic future that does not depend on endless growth. In response, supporters of larger populations, like the economist Julian Simon – a popular rival of Ehrlich – have long argued that more people means more ideas, means more technologies – which will ultimately overcome the negative effects of population growth.

But this dispute depends on scientific models and predictions regarding unprecedented scale: how quickly do problems multiply as growth balloons and how quickly do big answers come as we add more heads?

Finally, it is an implication of some ethical frameworks that more people is, all else being equal, simply more ethical. One of the most influential ethical theories is utilitarianism, in which the aim of ethics is to maximize “utility,” variously defined as happiness, pleasure, or well-being. The appeal of this general approach is clear when it comes to, say, vaccination, as it would encourage vaccination for the total benefit it provides (even though in rare instances there can be negative reactions to vaccines). However, because it is concerned with the total amount of happiness, utilitarian is directly connected with population size. Eleven happy people is strictly more ethical than ten.

Extending this logic, the philosopher Derek Parfit has coined the “repugnant conclusion.” Parfit argues that as long as we think in something like total happiness, for any given population of happy people, there is a hypothetical population of miserable people that is sufficiently large to have more total happiness. If true, this could spur us to increase the population even if the average quality of life dropped. Repugnant the conclusion may be, at least some philosophers have been willing to bite the bullet. Parfit’s aim, however, was not to argue for a massive population. Instead he sought to demonstrate how the intuitively appealing project of aiming for maximum total happiness can have unsettling implications, and highlight the challenging terrain of ethics at the population level.

‘Don’t Look Up’ and “Trust the Science”

photograph of "Evidence over Ignorance" protest sign

A fairly typical review of “Don’t Look Up” reads as follows: “The true power of this film, though, is in its ferocious, unrelenting lampooning of science deniers.” I disagree. This film exposes the unfortunate limits of the oft-repeated imperative of the coronavirus and climate-change era: “Trust the Science.” McKay and Co. probe a kind of epistemic dysfunction, one that underlies many of our most fiercest moral and political disagreements. Contrary to how it’s been received, the film speaks to the lack of a generally agreed-upon method for arriving at our beliefs about how the world is and who we should trust.

As the film opens, we are treated to a warm introduction to our two astronomers and shown a montage of the scientific and mathematical processes they use to arrive at their horrific conclusion that a deadly comet will collide with Earth in six months. Surely, you might be thinking, this film tells us exactly whom to believe and trust from the outset! It tells us to “Trust the Scientists,” to “Trust the Science!”

Here’s a preliminary problem with trying to follow that advice. It’s not like we’re all doing scientific experiments ourselves whenever we accept scientific facts. Practically, we have to rely on the testimony of others to tell us what the science says — so who do we believe? Which scientists and which science?

In the film, this decision is straightforward for us. In fact, we’re not given much of a choice. But in real life, things are harder. Brilliantly, the complexity of real-life is (perhaps unintentionally) reflected in the film itself.

Imagine you’re a sensible person, a Science-Truster. You go to the CDC to get your coronavirus data, to the IPCC to get your climate change facts. If you’re worried about a comet smashing into Earth, you might think to yourself something like, “I’m going to go straight to the organization whose job it is to look at the scientific evidence, study it, and come to conclusions; I’ll trust what NASA says. The head of NASA certainly sounds like a reliable, expert source in such a scenario.” What does the head of NASA tell the public in “Don’t Look Up”? She reports that the comet is nothing to worry about.

Admittedly, McKay provides us a clear reason for the audience to ignore the head of NASA’s scientific misleading testimony about the comet. She is revealed to be a political hire and an anesthesiologist rather than an astronomer. “Trust the Science” has a friend, “Trust the Experts,” and the head of NASA doesn’t qualify as an expert on this topic. So far, so good, for the interpretation of the film as endorsing “Trust the Science” as an epistemic doctrine. It’s clear why so many critics misinterpret the film this way.

But, while it’s easy enough to miss amid the increasingly frantic plot, the plausibility of Trust the Science falls apart as the film progresses. Several Nobel-prize winning, Ivy-league scientists throw their support behind the (doomsday-causing) plan of a tech-billionaire to bring the wealth of the comet safely to Earth in manageable chunks. They assure the public that the plan is safe. Even one of our two scientific heroes repeats the false but reassuring line on a talk show, to the hosts’ delight.

Instead of being a member of the audience with privileged information about whom you should trust, imagine being an average Joe in the film’s world at this point. All you could possibly know is that some well-respected scientists claim we need to destroy or divert the comet at all costs. Meanwhile, other scientists, equally if not more well-respected, claim we can safely bring the mineral-rich comet to Earth in small chunks. What does “Trust the Science” advise “Don’t Look Up” average Joe? Nothing. The advice simply can’t be followed. It offers no guidance on what to believe or whom to listen to.

How could you decide what to believe in such a scenario? Assuming you, like most of us, lack the expertise to adjudicate the topic on the scientific merits, you might start investigating the incentives of the scientists on both sides of the debate. You might study who is getting paid by whom, who stands to gain from saying what. And this might even lead you to the truth — that the pro-comet-impact scientists are bought and paid for by the tech-billionaire and are incentivized to ignore, or at least minimize, the risk of mission failure. But this approach to belief-formation certainly doesn’t sound like Trusting the Science anymore. It sounds closer to conspiracy theorizing.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, in a particularly fascinating scene, rioters confront one of our two astronomers with the conspiracy theory that the elites have built bunkers because the they don’t really believe the comet is going to be survivable (at least, not without a bunker). Our astronomer dismissively tells the mob this theory is false, that the elites are “not that competent.” This retort nicely captures the standard rationalistic, scientific response to conspiracy theories; everything can be explained by incompetence, so there’s no need to invoke conspiracy. But, as another reviewer has noticed, later on in the film “we learn that Tech CEO literally built a 2,000 person starship in less than six months so he and the other elites could escape.” It turns out the conspiracy theory was actually more or less correct, if not in the exact details. This rationalistic, scientific debunking and dismissal of conspiracy is actually proven entirely wrong. We would have done better trusting the conspiracy theorist than trusting the scientist.

Ultimately, the demand that we “Trust the Science” turns out to be both un-followable (as soon as scientific consensus breaks down, since we don’t know which science or scientists to listen to), and unreliable (as shown when the conspiracy theorist turns out to be correct). The message this film actually delivers about “Trust the Science” is this: it’s not good enough!

The Moral and Political Importance of “Trust the Science”

Let’s now look at why any of this matters, morally speaking.

Cultures have epistemologies. They have established ways for their members to form beliefs that are widely accepted as the right ways within those cultures. That might mean that people generally accept, for example, a holy text as the ultimate source of authority about what to believe. But in our own society, currently, we lack this. We don’t have a dominant, shared authority or a commonly accepted way to get the right beliefs. We don’t have a universally respected holy book to appeal to, not even a Walter Cronkite telling us “That’s the way it is.” We can’t seem to agree on what to believe or whom to listen to, or even what kinds of claims have weight. Enter “Trust the Science”: a candidate heuristic that just might be acceptable to members of a technologically developed, scientifically advanced, and (largely) secularized society like ours. If our society could collectively agree that, in cases of controversy, everyone should Trust the Science, we might expect the emergence of more of a consensus on the basic facts. And that consensus, in turn, may resolve many of our moral and political disagreements.

This final hope isn’t a crazy one. Many of our moral and political disagreements are based on disagreements about beliefs about the basic facts. Why do Democrats tend to agree with mandatory masks, vaccines, and other coronavirus-related restrictions, while Republicans tend to disagree with them? Much of it is probably explained by the fact that, as a survey of 35,000 Americans found, “Republicans consistently underestimate risks [of coronavirus], while Democrats consistently overestimate them.” In other words, the fact that both sides have false beliefs partly explains their moral and political disagreements. Clearly, none of us are doing well at figuring out whom we can trust to give truthful, undistorted information on our own. But perhaps, if we all just followed the  “Trust the Science” heuristic, then we would reach enough agreement about the basic facts to make some progress on these moral and political questions.

Perhaps unintentionally, “Don’t Look Up” presents a powerful case against this hopeful, utopian answer to the deep divisions in our society. Trusting the Science can’t play the unifying role we might want it to; it can’t form the basis of a new, generally agreed upon secular epistemic heuristic for our society. “Don’t Look Up” is not the simple “pro-science,” “anti-science-denier” film many have taken it to be. It’s far more complicated, ambivalent, and interesting.

‘Don’t Look Up’: Willful Ignorance of a Democracy in Crisis

image of meteor headed toward city skyline

Don’t Look Up spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.”

Holly Thomas, CNN

“it’s hard to escape the feeling of the film jabbing its pointer finger into your eye, yelling, Why aren’t you paying attention! … The thing is, if you’re watching Don’t Look Up, you probably are paying attention, not just to the news about the climate and the pandemic but to a half-dozen other things that feel like reasonable causes for panic. … So when the credits rolled — after an ending that was, admittedly, quite moving — I just sat there thinking, Who, exactly, is this for?”

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox

“[The film’]s worst parts are when it stops to show people on their phones. They tweet inanity, they participate in dumb viral challenges, they tune into propaganda and formulate conspiracy theory. At no point does Don’t Look Up’s script demonstrate an interest in why these people do these things, or what causes these online phenomena. Despite this being a central aspect of his story, McKay doesn’t seem to think it worthy of consideration. There’s a word for that: contempt.”

Joshua Rivera, Polygon

And so on, and so on. Critics of Adam McKay’s climate change satire all point to the same basic defect: “Don’t Look Up” is nothing more than an inside joke; it isn’t growing the congregation, it’s merely preaching to the choir. Worse, the movie flaunts its moral superiority over the deplorables and unwashed masses instead of shaking hands, kissing babies, and doing all the other politicking necessary for changing hearts and minds. When given the opportunity to speak to, it speaks down. In the end, this collection of Hollywood holier-than-thou A-listers sneers at their audience and is left performing only for themselves.

But what if the critics have it all wrong? What if the movie’s makers have no intention of wrestling the various political obstacles to democratic consensus? Indeed, they seem to have absolutely zero interest in playing the political game at all. Critics of “Don’t Look Up” see only a failed attempt at coalition-building, but what if the film’s doing precisely what it set out to do – showing us that there are some existential threats so great that they transcend democratic politics?

“Don’t Look Up” takes a hard look at the prospects of meaningful collective action (from COVID to the climate and beyond) with democratic institutions so corrupted by elite capture. (Spoiler: They’re grim.) Gone is any illusion that the government fears its people. In this not-so-unfamiliar political reality, to echo Joseph Schumpeter, democracy has become nothing more than an empty institutional arrangement whereby elites acquire the power to decide by way of a hollow competition for the people’s vote. This political landscape cannot support anything as grand as Rousseau’s general will – a collection of citizens’ beliefs, convictions, and commitments all articulating a shared vision of the common good. Instead, political will is manufactured and disseminated from the top down, rather than being organically generated from the ground up.

The pressing question “Don’t Look Up” poses (but does not address) is what to do when democracy becomes part of the problem. If our democratic processes can’t be fixed, can they at least be laid aside? With consequences as grave as these, surely truth shouldn’t be left to a vote. When it comes to the fate of the planet, surely we shouldn’t be content to go on making sausage.

Misgivings about the democracy are hardly new. Plato advised lying to the rabble so as to ensure they fall in line. Mill proposed assigning more weight to certain people’s votes. And Rousseau concluded that democracy was only rightly suited for a society composed entirely of gods.

Like these critical voices, Carl Schmitt similarly challenged our blind faith in democratic processes. He remained adamant that the indecisiveness that plagued republics would be their downfall. Schmitt insisted on the fundamental necessity of a sovereign to address emergency situations (like, say, the inevitable impact of a planet-killing comet). There has to be someone, Schmitt claimed, capable of suspending everyday political norms in order to normalize a state of exception – to declare martial law, mobilize the state’s resources, and organize the public. Democracies which failed to grasp this basic truth would not last. The inability to move beyond unceasing deliberation, infinite bureaucratic red tape, and unending political gridlock, Schmitt was convinced, would spell their doom. In the end, all governments must sometimes rely on dictatorial rule just like ancient Rome where time-limited powers were extended to an absolute authority tasked with saving the republic from an immediate existential threat.

This is the savior that never appears. The tragedy of the movie is that our protagonists know the truth, but cannot share it. There remain no suitable democratic channels to deliver their apocalyptic message and spur political action. They must sit with their despair, alone. Like Dewey, Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy come to recognize that while today we possess means of communication like never before – the internet, the iPhone, Twitter, The Daily Rip – (so far) these forces have only further fractured the public rather than being harnessed to bring it together.

By the end, when the credits roll, the film leaves us in an uncomfortable place. In documenting the hopelessness of our heroes’ plight, is “Don’t Look Up” merely highlighting the various ways our democracy needs to be repaired? Or is it making the case that the rot runs so deep, democratic norms must be abandoned?

Whatever the answer, it’s a mistake to think “Don’t Look Up” fails to take the problem of political consensus seriously. It simply treats such division as immovable – as inescapable as the comet. The question is: what then?

The Politics of Earth’s Climate

photograph of COP26 banner

This past weekend marked the end of COP26, an annual event started in 1995 to bring countries together to discuss climate change. All eyes fell on the leaders of the world’s highest-carbon emitting countries. With each passing year, the future looks more and more dire as the planet continues warming.

Shortly before the commencement of the COP26, a summit was held in Rome involving many of those same world leaders. The topic of climate change was merely brushed over. A photo of the leaders tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain quickly went viral on social media. The smiling faces and picturesque background made it seem as if these leaders were mere tourists partaking in a common ritual, rather than meeting to discuss the future of life on Earth. With such little progress made and such little attention paid to climate change at the summit, the photo suggests a carefree attitude: devastating climate disasters happen in other, far less wealthy countries.

The COP26 conference, in Glasgow, however, offered hope that global warming would be treated like the crisis it is, with serious and extensive discussions resulting in real and measurable action. Along with one of the warmest years in history, within the warmest decade in history, 2020 brought the most expensive year of weather disasters ever, carrying a $50 billion price tag. With all the money spent on disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, and flooding, you’d think world leaders would make addressing the climate crisis a priority.

The conference brought some encouraging news: COP26 represented the biggest climate meeting in history. Almost 200 world leaders managed to agree upon the Glasgow Climate Pact, which is meant to keep the Earth’s climate warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius through multiple strategies like decreasing carbon emissions. This commitment to this new, lower threshold is encouraging. The previous Paris Accord from 2015 had settled on a 2-degree target. However, this would mean the complete sinking of coastal countries and cities, encompassing millions of people. Currently, the world is on track to reach a warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius within this century, which almost ensures catastrophic climate disasters for every country on the globe. In order to reach the 1.5 goal, the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Leaders at COP26 discussed decreasing some of the most polluting activities in the world, such as fossil fuel production, deforestation, and methane emissions in order to work towards the 2030 goal. The world may have just witnessed an amount of global cooperation and delegation that hasn’t been seen in decades, and certainly never with the context of climate change. This does not mean, however, that world leaders were truly able to set aside politics, even in the face of a worldwide threat indifferent to human conditions.

One of the biggest weaknesses of these arrangements is that they depend solely on the word of dozens of world leaders. The agreements lack any sort of enforcement mechanisms to ensure that countries will actually put into action the pledges they agree to on paper. Given the grave stakes and the necessity of cooperation in achieving our goals, having no sort of penalty for defection or inaction may spell disaster. The countries who signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement are not even close to hitting those targets. The global coordination that is needed to actually take meaningful action on climate change has never been witnessed before (with consequences that are life-changing for every person on Earth), yet world leaders have refused to hold each other accountable.

This lack of enforcement sheds light on one of the biggest disparities that exists in climate change: the countries who contribute the most pollution and the countries who have felt the worst of climate change so far. Just 12% of the global population (living in wealthy countries) are responsible for 50% of the global greenhouse gas emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution. This fact has long been discussed, and in 2009 wealthy countries even pledged to help shoulder the costs of the climate disasters in countries that struggle financially with the impacts. Unsurprisingly, this funding had no sort of enforcement, so in the Glasgow Agreement it was noted

with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met.”

This time around, the pact encourages wealthy countries to voluntarily help fund lesser developed countries with the high costs of climate change that they have barely contributed to in comparison to countries like the U.S., England, China, and Russia. While the COP26 certainly resulted in world leaders making strict goals towards climate change in a way that we have never seen them commit to before, there seems to be plenty of both historical and scientific evidence to believe these goals to be made in blind optimism.

Another glaring issue at the COP26 was who was actually in attendance, or at least who was able to get there. For decades, oil company executives have had plenty of seats at the table of climate change discussions, knowing that it is their business that was going to take a hit if the world ever transitions away from fossil fuels. This conference was no different with over 500 people in attendance all from countries with major oil and gas companies or lobbying organizations in support of the fossil fuel industry. This allows the very industries that have helped bring the climate to catastrophic warming, all the while denying the impact of climate change for decades, to have a significant say in the future of a world without the need for their business. At the same time, young activists whose homelands are directly threatened by climate change struggled to afford the costs of attending the conference. These activists bring first-hand knowledge of the impacts of climate change to their lands. Unfortunately, they’ve found that their experience and perspective is not welcomed at a conference specifically committed to helping these very lands and people.

Yet another issue of access was revealed when the energy minister for Israel, Karine Elharrar, was unable to attend the conference as she could not find a transportation that was wheel-chair friendly. Another disability and climate activist, Jason Boberg, could not get in because the accessibility entrance was closed and pointed out the exclusion was bigger than the conference: “We know that disabled people are left behind in climate disasters, floods and fires, and now we are left out of the conference that is supposedly meant to address that.” The field of attendees illustrates that there are ethical issues not just in what decisions are being made at the conference, but who is able to influence, discuss, and witness these decisions. The conference was meant to be full of diverse conversations across the topic of climate change, but even these conversations were limited.

Ultimately, COP26 was illustrative of just how complicated the issue of climate change really is. In a world that is more globally connected than ever before, climate disasters will affect not just one country, but spread beyond national borders. Additionally, just as greenhouse gas emissions are not being released equally, they are not impacting countries equally. There are very serious ethical concerns in how countries that have the capability and finances to assume responsibility for their own pollution are refusing to do so. Despite the various pledges they make, nations continue to allow captains of industry, actively working against progress on climate change, to sit at the head of the table. Politicians may have been able to agree upon extensive plans for climate mitigation under the watchful eye of activists and millions of onlookers, but only time will tell whether these new pronouncements will be anything more than empty promises.

COP26: What’s the Point?

image of Sisyphus rolling bolder uphill

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. COP26 – as it’s otherwise known – has been touted by many as one of, if not the last, chance to avert the existential threat brought on by man-made climate change, biodiversity collapse, and deforestation.

In an impassioned speech, the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough urged delegates to set aside their differences, stop chasing short-term gains, and see the bigger picture. He highlighted that actions, not promises, are necessary to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and save the global ecosystem alongside countless human and non-human lives. Sir David stressed that when discussing the people impacted by climate change, we no longer think about those yet to be born. Indeed, gone are the days when we talk about our grandchildren or great-grandchildren feeling climate change’s impacts. Instead, the effects are being felt by people alive today, and these impacts will affect the next generation in ways almost unthinkable.

Despite the seriousness of the topic (and indeed, the task at hand), Attenborough struck a hopeful tone, concluding:

If working apart we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could, and should, witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope, ladies and gentlemen, delegates, excellencies, is why the world is looking to you and why you are here.

COP26 may be the turning point that so many of us hope it will be. While the effects of the increased levels of carbon already in the atmosphere will be felt for decades to come, some claim it is not too late to reverse course in the long term. Apocalyptic climate change might be avoided if every industry, country, company, and conglomerate bands together and acts not in self-interest but the interest of others. Technologies and policies need creating, not to improve things now but to benefit the planet and those living on it for decades or even centuries to come.

But, history’s shown that humanity’s terrible at thinking long-term and long-distance. After all, we’ve suspected that climate change would cause global devastation for over a century. Yet, when called upon to act, we’ve collectively shrugged and said it was someone else’s problem – that someone else being future generations. As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted, “[h]umanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It is one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now.” If our past is any indication, while we may need to act now, we probably won’t.

So, one has to ask what the point of COP26 is? If the chances of us doing anything to avoid sleepwalking (or, more accurately, apathetically stumbling while distracted by our brilliance) into a man-made climate oblivion are minute, why should we expend time, effort, and collateral worrying about the inevitable? How can we carry on knowing it’s all going to come crashing down and that our efforts are ultimately pointless?

The latter question was of central focus for the French Philosopher Albert Camus with both his philosophical essays and fictional works addressing life’s meaninglessness. Or, more accurately, how to grasp meaning when all our worldly achievements amount to nothing. As he illustrates in the opening line to his work, The Myth of Sisyphus, “[t]here is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” His reasoning for this is simple. Everything rests upon answering this question. Without knowing why life matters, we can’t be certain anything we do in our lives has a point, including morality, knowledge, passion, justice, etc. Without a clear answer to why life matters, we are left with no reason why we shouldn’t just end it all right now. As a quote often misattributed to Camus captures nicely, “[s]hould I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” Without meaning, both are valid options.

Unlike other philosophers, Camus thought the correct response to existence’s triviality was not through ignorance, evasion, or despair, but embracement. Camus proposes we should accept that our efforts will amount to naught and that our lives and accomplishments will quickly be forgotten. These things are simply part and parcel of living in a universe lacking a benevolent god’s preordained plan. It is just the way things are, and to try and do anything other than embrace those facts is to deny life itself. To illustrate this, Camus draws upon the titular Myth of Sisyphus.

In most versions, Sisyphus was a feature of ancient Greek mythology punished by the gods for twice tricking Thanatos, the literal embodiment of death. By way of punishment, Sisyphus is forced, for all eternity, to roll a boulder up a hill all day, only to have it roll back down whenever he gets near the top. Thus, never seeing any progress and benefit for his actions; a purposeless task occupying a pointless existence.

Like us, Sisyphus is trapped by circumstances beyond his control and forced to undertake a meaningless undertaking. The difference is that our pointless task is life itself. Much like Sisyphus, when we die, nothing ultimately changes. No universal plans will have been advanced, nor any of our impacts on the earth last for more than a couple of millennia.

But, Camus sees Sisyphus not as a depressive cautionary tale but as an inspiration. For him, despite being faced with an existence devoid of a grand meaning, we should simply do what we can. We must triumph over the hopelessness of life by seeking out meaning where we can find it and acknowledge that while this is absurd, so is the universe. When concluding The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Yes, acknowledging this leads one to oblivion’s edge, but it also forces one to engage with life more fully. Embracing existence’s absurdity gives one license to disregard the nay-sayers, enjoy life’s pleasures (something Camus did with enthusiasm), and “to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” Thus, Camus provides a road map for dealing with life’s meaninglessness.

This approach to existence provides us with more than mere despair when considering the likelihood of addressing climate change. It might be the case that our efforts to address the impending man-made climate crisis fail. That our nature as finite beings, devoid of divine guidance, prevents us from looking beyond our shortsightedness. But, this doesn’t mean that the task of trying to make a difference is itself meaningless. On the contrary, this task can be given meaning if we imbue it with such. Fighting against the inevitable may seem absurd, but so is everything else we do. Indeed, the universe itself, with its gravity, black holes, hummingbirds, earthquakes, x-men, and suntan lotion, is nothing but absurdity. So, why should we think that our lives should be any different? Why should the absurd task of saving the world from climate change be notably outrageous compared to everything else?

COVID and Climate Change: Taking the Long-Term Seriously

photograph of ripple on lake expanding

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, world leaders are assembling in Glasgow for COP26, the UN’s climate change conference. Both the pandemic and global warming are powerful reminders that the choices we make can have consequences that continue to unfurl over decades and centuries. But how much should we care about these hard-to-predict long-term consequences of our actions? According to some, so-called moral “longtermists,” we ought to care a great deal. Others, however, have called longtermism “the world’s most dangerous secular credo.”

COVID, climate change, and the long-term impact of our choices

The coronavirus now appears to be endemic. It is likely to continue to circulate across the globe indefinitely, causing more and more human suffering, economic damage, and disruption to our lives. The total sum of harm an endemic virus can cause is theoretically boundless. And yet, if China had better regulated its meat markets or its bio-labs (depending on your preferred origin theory), it would have likely prevented the outbreak entirely. This failure, in one place at one time, will have significant long-term costs.

The headline ambition of COP26 is for nations to commit to specific plans for achieving net zero (carbon and deforestation) by the middle of the century. Whether or not these talks are successful could have a profound long-term impact. Success could put humanity back onto a sustainable trajectory. We might avoid the worst effects of climate change: biodiversity collapse, flooding, extreme weather, drought, mass famine, mass refugee movements, possible population collapse, etc. Taking effective action on climate change now would provide a huge benefit to our grandchildren.

But the comparison between climate action and inaction does not stop there. As helping our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the benefits of effective climate action now would likely continue to snowball deep into the next century. Instead of our great-grandchildren needing to allocate their resources and efforts on mitigating and reversing the damage of climate change, the twenty-second century might instead be spent in pursuit of other goals — eliminating poverty, making progress on global justice, and deepening our understanding of the universe, for example. Progress on these goals would, presumably, generate their own positive consequences in turn. The good we can achieve with effective climate action now would continue to accumulate indefinitely.

Commitment to taking the long-view

Both COVID and climate change make a strong intuitive case for moral “longtermism.” Longtermists think that how things go in the long-term future is just as valuable, morally speaking, as what happens in the near-term future. If you can either prevent one person from suffering today or two tomorrow, the longtermist says you morally ought to prevent the two from suffering tomorrow. But if you also had the option of preventing three people from suffering in a million years, they say you should do that instead. It doesn’t matter how far events are from us in time; morally, they’re just as significant.

The second part of the longtermist view is that we can influence the long-term future with our choices today. They argue that the long-term future that occurs depends on what humanity does in the next century. And the stakes are high. There are possible futures in which humanity overcomes the challenges we are faced with today: ones in which, over millennia, we populate the galaxy with trillions of wonderful, fulfilled lives. There are also possible futures in which humanity does not even survive this century. There is, in other words, a very valuable possibility — in moral philosopher Toby Ord’s words, a “vast and glorious” version of the future — that’s worth trying to make real.

A catastrophic future for humanity is not a particularly remote possibility. Ord, who studies existential risk, sees the next century as a particularly dangerous one for humanity. The risks that concern him are not just the cosmic ones (meteorites, supernova explosions) or the familiar ones (nuclear war, runaway global warming, a civilization-collapsing pandemic); they also include unintended and unforeseen consequences of quickly evolving fields such as biotech and artificial intelligence. Adding these risks together, he writes, “I put the existential risk this century at around one in six.” Humanity has the same odds of survival as a Russian roulette player.

The cost of failing to prevent an existential catastrophe (and the payoff of success) is incredibly high. If we can reduce the probability of an existential risk occurring (even by a percentage point or two), longtermists claim that any cost-benefit analysis will show it’s worth taking the required action, even if it incurs fairly significant costs; the good future we might save is so incredibly valuable that it easily compensates for those costs.

But, for whatever reason, reducing the probability of improbable catastrophes does not rise to the top of many agendas. Ord notes that the budget of the Biological Weapons Convention, the body that polices bioweapons around the globe, has an annual budget of just $1.6m, less than the average turnover of a McDonald’s restaurant. As Ord explains this strange quirk in our priorities, “Even when experts estimate a significant probability for an unprecedented event, we have great difficulty believing it until we see it.”

Even short of generating or mitigating existential risks, the choices we make have the potential to put the world on different trajectories of radically different value. Our actions today can begin virtuous or vicious cycles that continue to create ever-greater benefits or costs for decades, centuries, or even millennia. So besides thinking about how we might mitigate existential risks, longtermists also claim we need to give more thought to getting onto more positive trajectories. Examples of this kind of opportunity for “trajectory change” include developing the right principles for governing artificial intelligence or, as COP26 is seeking to achieve, enacting national climate policies that will make human civilization ecologically sustainable deep into the future.

Challenges to longtermism

Last week, Phil Torres described longtermism as “the world’s most dangerous secular credo.” A particular worry about longtermism is that it seems to justify just about any action, no matter how monstrous, in the name of protecting long-term value. Torres quotes the statistician Olle Häggström who gives the following illustration:

Imagine a situation where the head of the CIA explains to the U.S. president that they have credible evidence that somewhere in Germany, there is a lunatic who is working on a doomsday weapon and intends to use it to wipe out humanity, and that this lunatic has a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding. They have no further information on the identity or whereabouts of this lunatic. If the president has taken [the longtermist] Bostrom’s argument to heart, and if he knows how to do the arithmetic, he may conclude that it is worthwhile conducting a full-scale nuclear assault on Germany to kill every single person within its borders. 

Longtermism entails that it’s morally permissible, perhaps even morally obligatory, to kill millions of innocent people to prevent a low-probability catastrophic event. But this can’t be right, say the critics; the view must be false.

But does Häggström’s thought experiment really show that longtermism is false? The president launching such a strike would presumably raise the risk of triggering a humanity-destroying global nuclear war. Other countries might lose faith in the judgment of the president and may launch a preventative strike against the U.S. to try to kill this madman before he does to them what he did to Germany. If this probability of catastrophic global nuclear war would be raised by any more than one-in-a-million, then longtermism would advise against the president’s strike on Germany. This is to say that if the president were a longtermist, it’s at least highly debatable whether he would order such an attack.

Of course, we can modify Häggström’s case to eliminate this complication. Imagine the chance of the madman succeeding in blowing up the world is much higher — one-in-two. In such a case, longtermism would likely speak in favor of the president’s nuclear strike to protect valuable possible futures (and the rest of humanity). But it’s also a lot less clear that such an act would be morally wrong compared with Häggström’s original case. It would be terrible, tragic, but perhaps it would not be wrong.

Maybe the real risk of longtermism is not that it gives us the wrong moral answers. Maybe the criticism is based on the fact that humans are flawed. Even if it were true that longtermism would rule out Häggström’s nuclear attack on Germany, the strategy still seems to place us in a much riskier world. Longtermism is an ideology that could theoretically justify terrible, genocidal acts whenever they seem to protect valuable long-term possible futures. And, ultimately, it’s more likely that flawed human minds perform unconscionable acts if they have an ideology like longtermism with which to attempt to justify their actions.

This last criticism does not show that moral longtermism is false, exactly. The criticism is simply that it’s dangerous for us humans to place such immense faith in our ability to anticipate possible futures and weigh competing risks. If the criticism succeeds, a longtermist would be forced to embrace the ironic position that longtermism is true but that we must prevent it from being embraced. Longtermists would have to push the view underground, hiding it from those in power who might make unwise and immoral decisions based on faulty longtermist justifications. Ironically, then, it might be that the best way to protect a “vast and glorious” possible future is to make sure we keep thinking short-term.

Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry

photograph of Louis Vuitton storefront

While the designer for Louis Vuitton was probably hoping their iconic looks would be stealing the fashion hearts of the internet, it was not the powerhouse brand’s upcoming line that was posted all over the news. During the finale of one of the biggest fashion events in the world, Paris Fashion Week, while models for Louis Vuitton were in the midst of the runway, an environmental activist, Marie Cohuet, joined the models holding a sign stating “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION.” Outside, more environmental activists from three different organizations were staging their own protest against the fashion industry’s harmful impact on the environment. Louis Vuitton was targeted specifically for its influence in the fashion industry, as well as for the brand’s recent pledge to reduce their environmental impact. The environmental group behind this protest claims Louis Vuitton is not living up to its promises — having committed to have 100% renewable energy in their production and logistics sites, and LED lighting in their stores by 2025. Are these commitments enough, however, to make a consequential impact on an environment that is becoming increasingly uninhabitable every year?

For one thing, Louis Vuitton is basing these objectives off the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement that settled on keeping global warming temperatures below 1.5- 2 degrees Celsius. This range of temperature indicates the difference between surviving the inclement weather we are currently dealing with and experiencing massive climate disasters that lead to unheard of burdens on countries and people. These two worlds look very different, especially depending on the geography of where one lives. Even at 1.5 degrees Celsius, many island nations will cease to exist, as this agreement was largely made based on the concerns of economic powerhouses, such as the U.S., that need not worry about their entire populations being swallowed by rising sea levels- just coast lines. Beyond just ignoring the potential extinction of smaller island nations, the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are almost definitely unreachable at this point. The few goals Louis Vuitton has set for the brand’s environmental impact are not set to be reached until 2025, which is far beyond what the climate needs in reality from the industry. But, Louis Vuitton is only one brand of many in the industry, so what is the total impact of the entire fashion industry on the environment? And why should the fashion industry be at the forefront of industries limiting their environmental impacts?

Making clothes, is in fact, an extremely resource-intensive process, which consumes mass amounts of water, releases dangerous levels of carbon emissions, and depends on a wasteful consumerist business model. Every year, the fashion industry uses up such a massive amount of water that it could meet the needs of five million people. This is in a world that currently 2.2 billion people do not have safe access to clean drinking water. Furthermore, the industry depends largely upon synthetic materials, which put microplastics into the oceans, reeking negative impacts on an already vulnerable marine ecosystem. In terms of carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for ten percent of global emissions, which may rise by 50% by 2030, if it stays at the same pace. Fast fashion, a quickly growing pocket of the fashion industry, relies on a consumerist model in which one posts an outfit on social media, but then must buy a different outfit for their next post. Their clothes, therefore, are cheaply made and cheaply bought, and eventually end up in a landfill. Many of these clothes end up in an incinerator, which releases large amounts of poisonous gases and toxins into the air. Despite these statistics, the consumption of clothing is expected to rise from 62 metric tons in 2019 to 102 million tons in the next decade. These are environmental impacts that undoubtedly affect human’s health, however, there is a more direct connection to the endangerment of human life and the fashion industry.

Part of the reason fast fashion is able to sell its clothes at such a cheap price is because they do not pay the people in warehouses making the clothes a livable wage. This has essentially led to modern-day slavery practices in the production of the fashion world. Women make up the majority of the 40 million people worldwide that are enslaved in modern slavery networks and the fashion industry, from the workers in the warehouses to the collection of the raw materials, contributes to this network. The complicated supply chains that the fashion industry depends on make it difficult to track where the raw materials have come from and make it easier to hide the connection between a cute top on an Instagram model and an enslaved woman, or even child, in a dangerous factory. These factories and warehouses are often in countries that already struggle economically and therefore have populations of people vulnerable to the cheap wages and dangerous working conditions due to the risk of poverty. This present-day situation can undoubtedly be traced back to the roots of colonialism and the imperialist missions of the “Global North” against countries in the “Global South.” At the root of the fashion industry’s ethical issues lie not only environmental problems, but also complex race and gender issues. After all, the impacts on the climate will be felt first by the most vulnerable populations in the most vulnerable countries, both geographically and economically.

In order to address the mounting problems facing the fashion industry, some brands have turned towards more sustainable methods of making, packaging, and transporting clothes. For example, technology has allowed for companies to use recyclable fibers, which lack the toxins found in other sources. This also requires far less water than it would using the usual cotton material. Oftentimes, however, these sustainable brands can be extremely expensive, carrying a price tag of $550 for a simple white cotton t-shirt. This is simply unattainable for most of the population. One brand, CHNGE has managed to create a brand whose ideology is centered around sustainability, ethical practices, and activism. Their clothing is 100% carbon neutral as they protect hundreds of thousands of trees, they use an organic cotton that saves 500 gallons of water, and use recycled packaging for their clothes that can then be recycled again. They also own the factory that produces their clothing and guarantee fair and safe working conditions for their employees. They manage to do all of this while keeping the price of their shirts around $30.

Whereas brands like CHNGE seem to be taking active and important steps towards offsetting the impacts of their clothing production, it seems other brands like Louis Vuitton are failing to recognize the precarious place the world finds itself in. While individual fashion brands, and ideally the fashion world as a whole, can pledge and promise to decrease their environmental impacts, the impending climate doom does not rest solely upon the shoulders of fashion CEOs. Surely, they have a great responsibility given the impact of the fashion world, but our continued survival is largely dependent upon world leaders to make and enforce the real and necessary changes needed to prepare for the future. While the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement may have been historical in the global community’s acceptance of the need for change towards the climate, that agreement is failing. World leaders, from both poles of the globe, need to work together in a way that the world has never seen before in order to prepare for the worst that climate change is sure to bring.

What Toilet Paper Can Teach Us About Climate Change

photograph of empty toilet paper rolls stacked

One of the stranger parts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been people’s sudden obsession with bathroom sanitation. While there was never any pandemic-related disruption to the supply chain, nor the risk of even the strongest lockdown measures in place preventing people from buying essential groceries, many found themselves overcome by a desperate need to panic-buy vast quantities of toilet paper. Ultimately, this created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which paranoid hoarding led to the very shortage that had been feared. A similar scenario played out earlier this year when a cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline led to gasoline shortages throughout the East Coast. Panic-buying ensued once again, with individuals stockpiling vast quantities of fuel and further exacerbating an already struggling supply line.

Many of us might have the intuition that hoarding of this kind is wrong. But why? There are many ways we might try to determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. One of the simplest is to see whether it causes harm to others. But that’s not hugely helpful here. Suppose I hold a one-hour exam information session for my class of sixty students. In order to be fair, each student is given one minute in which to ask any questions they might have. Suppose, then, that one student ignores this guideline, and instead monopolizes a total of two minutes for her queries. It seems wrong of her to do this. But why? It’s not clear that her actions harm her fellow classmates. The extra minute she takes only subtracts slightly more than a second from each of their times – hardly enough to make an appreciable difference.

One way of explaining the wrongness of this student’s action is instead to claim that she is taking more than her fair share. We often find ourselves having to divide a finite resource amongst some group of individuals: time in a meeting, pizza amongst friends, holidays between family members. And in each of these scenarios there is, presumably, a fair way of making that division – one that gives full consideration to the interests of all individuals concerned. Once that allocation has been made, exceeding your fair share is wrong, regardless of whether it results in actual harm to others. This is precisely the kind of approach we might take toward food in a famine and water in a drought – and it explains what’s wrong about taking more than your fair share of toilet paper during a pandemic, too.

For many, the fair share approach may be so obvious as to appear trivial. But it can help inform our approach to far more complicated problems – like climate change. In 2011, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels – the maximum global temperature rise we can tolerate while avoiding the most catastrophic effect of climate changes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, achieving this with a probability of >66% would require us to keep our global carbon expenditure below 2900GtCO2. As at the time of writing, only 605GtCO2 remains. Divided equally amongst the 7.9 billion population of earth, this comes out at a lifetime carbon allowance of 76.6 tonnes of CO2 per person — or around 0.9 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan.

Of course, it might be the case that a fair share isn’t necessarily an equal share. Another way of dividing up the carbon budget might be to instead require a proportional reduction in carbon emissions by all emitters. Put another way, this requires that everyone’s emissions peak around 2020, drop 50% by 2045, and fall below zero by 2075. The problematic side of this approach is that it allows historically high emitters to continue to emit at a much greater rate than many others around the world. As such, it provides a far more generous carbon budget for those living in a country like the U.S. According to Carbon Brief, a child born in the U.S. in 2017 will – on this approach – have a lifetime carbon budget of 450 tonnes of CO2, or 5.3 tonnes per year over an 85-year lifespan. By contrast, a child born in the same year in Bangladesh will receive only 4 tonnes of CO2, or 0.05 tonnes per year.

Of course, other factors may come into play in determining what a ‘fair share’ of carbon emissions is for each individual. One such factor is need. Suppose, for example, that I live in a part of the country where the only electricity production I have access to is derived from a coal-fired power plant. In such a case, I might necessitate a higher budget than someone who lives in a location with renewable energy options.

But the precise method by which we determine a fair share of carbon emissions is largely academic. This is because – even on the most generous allocation – we are all still horribly over-budget. In 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available), the per capita carbon emissions of a U.S. citizen was around 16 tonnes of CO2. Ultimately, this means that there is a moral imperative on each of us to do all we can to reduce our future emissions in any way possible. Some actions – like recycling and patronizing public transport – may be easy, but other changes (like the one I suggested in a previous article) may require much greater sacrifice. But without these changes, we – like those who hoarded toilet paper and gasoline – will continue to take far more than our fair share, and subsequently treat others unfairly in the process.

Reproductive Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of stick family carved into beach

Last week, fellow writers Daniel Burkett and Marshall Bierson debated the ethics of having children against the background of climate change. Burkett defended the view that we should have fewer children due to the negative impact each child (throughout their lifetimes) has on the climate (and therefore others). Bierson, among other arguments, pointed to the positives that a child’s life might bring about, including donating to effective climate causes. Bierson also discussed reasons to have fewer children he finds more convincing, including the opportunity costs. “I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need,” writes Bierson, “but instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.”

Both of their approaches to the ethics of childbearing are interesting and well-argued. But neither writer engages with the value of personal choice and reproductive autonomy. Burkett worries that the moral calculation of putting another human on Earth doesn’t pay off due to the climate harm it causes. Bierson worries that he could have maximized the good more effectively. What is implicit in both these worries, I think, is what the philosopher Bernard Williams called a “totalizing” and “impersonal” conception of morality.

To get a grip on Williams’s point, let’s take a clear example of a totalizing and impersonal conception of morality: maximizing act utilitarianism. This moral theory states that an action is permissible only if it would produce the best possible consequences. Of any choice in life, whether it is whether to have a child or an ice cream, we can always ask if it produces the best possible consequences. So, since every choice has some consequences, good or bad, every choice is actually a moral one. Williams describes utilitarianism as “totalizing” because it suggests that morality’s demands relentlessly reach out into every domain of human life and tell us what is permissible and what is impermissible.

Williams thought of utilitarianism as “impersonal” because it suggests that, regardless of our personal wishes or life projects, we all have exactly the same moral duty in every case: to maximize the good. He asks, “But what if [morality’s demand] conflicts with some project of mine? This, the utilitarian will say, has already been dealt with: the satisfaction to you of fulfilling your project, and any satisfactions to others of your so doing, have already been through the calculating device and have been found inadequate.” The utilitarian view is that any personal choice based on your own deeply held commitments and desires is only acceptable if it just so happens to generate the best consequences. Williams’s complaint is that this picture provides very little space for the values of autonomy or personal integrity.

Having such a sprawling, demanding, and inescapable conception of moral obligations can come to eclipse the value of individual freedoms like reproductive autonomy. But the vast majority believe we have not just a legal right to choose whether we reproduce or not, but also a moral right to exercise that discretion over our private affairs. In other words, there is an intuitive moral right to reproductive autonomy.

Consider, for example, how you would feel if an ethicist approached you and insisted that you morally ought to conceive a baby in the next month, regardless of your actual wishes or particular situation. You would, presumably, not be terribly interested in having this stranger dictate permissible options to you. You might think the choice to have a baby or not is a personal one, yours alone. Indeed, to “give in” to the stranger’s demands might threaten to seriously damage your personal integrity, your sense of self.

If Williams is right, then there must be limits to the demands impersonal utilitarian morality can make on us: areas of our lives that make room for individuals to decide things for themselves. Perhaps our choices about reproduction are one such domain which must allow an ethical role for personal choice.

This is not to say that reproductive choices are free from all moral considerations. But perhaps the relevant, weighty moral considerations will be more personal (and interpersonal) than those impersonal considerations on which the utilitarian focuses. Rather than maximizing the impersonal value of your actions’ consequences, we might focus on more personal and interpersonal moral questions might such as “Would I be a good parent to my child, if I had one?” Or, “Would I be able to live a life I find meaningful, with children?” It is these more individual, more human-scaled, sorts of ethical questions that most of us seriously consider when we consider bearing children. And perhaps we are right to do so.

On the Permissibility of Procreation

photograph of four silhouetted youths at sunset

People are, increasingly, citing climate change as a reason to not have children. Two kinds of arguments are generally made. Some argue that it is cruel to bring a potential future child into a rapidly warming world. Others argue that having children harms other people by contributing to climate change.

While I think both arguments are mistaken, in this post I will address the second argument since that argument has recently been made quite powerfully by fellow Prindle Post author Daniel Burkett.

Daniel’s Case

Our children, Daniel calculates, will produce approximately 16.16 metric tons of carbon per year. Multiplying that by an average life expectancy of 85 years, he finds that the carbon cost of procreation is, on average, 1373.6 tons of CO2 per child. And this leads Daniel to conclude that the choice to have a child will contribute far more to global warming than any other choice you might make in your life.

But even if having a child is the biggest contribution we will make to climate change, just how big a deal is that contribution?

To try and answer that question Daniel cites an article by John Nolt which argues that an average American’s lifetime carbon contributions will, over the next millennium, cause the suffering and/or death of two future people. (Though note, because Nolt wrote his article a decade ago, he was using a much higher per capita emission figure of 1,840 metric tons — 500 metric tons higher than the number Daniel cites for life-time emissions.)

So, Daniel argues, in choosing to have a child you are making a choice which will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people (or 1.5 future people if we adjust for the now lower per capita emissions rate).

This leads Daniel to the conclusion, expressed in a related article of his, that if individuals bear responsibility for their carbon emissions, then “we have strong moral reasons to refrain from choosing to procreate, reasons which – for many – amount to a moral obligation to refrain from choosing to have children.”

My Response

I believe this argument, while compellingly presented, is wrong. Trying to fight global warming by having fewer children strikes me as an unbelievably inefficient strategy. We end up fighting global warming by sacrificing all the goods of a human life. This, it turns out, is a terrible trade no matter how concerned you are about global warming.

To demonstrate this,  I want to raise a number of objections to Daniel’s argument. Some descriptive, and some normative.

Descriptive Disagreements

First, these numbers are misleading. Even if we agree with Daniel that having one fewer child would decrease total emissions by the per capita emissions rate (something you might doubt given economies of scale), these estimates are far too pessimistic. Per capita emission rates are already dropping. In the year 2000, the annual U.S. per capita emissions totaled 20.472 metric tons, in 2018 that number was down to 15.241 (my data source only goes to 2018).

While some climate models do assume emissions will remain constant, the authors of these models acknowledge that this is because the point of the models is to show what would happen if we don’t lower emission rates. The point of such models is not to show what is actually likely to happen in the future.

But what should matter to a prospective parent is what the future emissions of their child will likely be, not what they would be if everyone throws up their hands. Once you account for expected future policy shifts, the apparent benefits of not having a child plummet. This was shown in a report by the Founder’s Pledge (an organization dedicated to finding the highest impact solutions to climate change). If emissions stay the same, not having kids looks like a great idea. But once you account for expected policy shifts, not so much…

I expect the Founder’s Pledge report is overly optimistic; many states will not hit their emission goals. However, given that we have already seen a 25% drop in per capita emissions over the last 20 years, and given that we have every reason to expect that drop to continue or accelerate, the Founder’s Pledge report seems to better reflect the reality.

Are Humans on Net Bad?

But what if you accept Daniel’s predictive claims? It would, I think, still not give us a good reason to not have children. This is because not having a child is one of the most costly things you could do to fight climate change.

It can sometimes be hard to assess these costs when looking at potential people. So instead let’s look at an actual person: yourself. Ask yourself, “would the world on the whole have been better had I not existed, and so had the world been spared my carbon contributions?”

When I ask this question about my own life, the answer seems clearly to be no — even if my carbon emissions will cause the suffering and/or death of two future people.

I have probably already, very early in my career, donated enough money to prevent at least that much suffering. If, over the course of my lifetime, I donate a measly one percent of my future income to effective aid organizations then I will prevent far more suffering than I cause in carbon contributions.

It might be worth pausing here and unpacking just what is meant by the phrase: “the suffering and/or death of two people.” John Nolt included under this category anyone who will be “adversely affected” by “increased coastal flooding, reductions in water supplies, increased malnutrition and increased health impacts.”

Why is this important? Because the sort of suffering caused by global warming, and so caused by my carbon contributions, is the same sort of suffering that someone in a developed nation can prevent for an absolutely tiny percentage of their lifetime earnings. If I donate ten percent of my income to combat malnutrition or improve childhood health outcomes, still far less than what I think we are morally required to donate, then the amount of suffering I prevent will dwarf the harms I produce through climate change by several orders of magnitude.

We live in a world where it is easy for those in developed nations to do a huge amount of good at very low cost. But this means that bringing even moderately good people into the world has extremely high positive value. It turns out your child may only need to donate a mere 1% of their future income to carbon offsets to sequester more carbon than they will produce (using Daniel’s numbers for the cost of carbon offsets).

If you factor in that carbon emissions are likely to decrease, or that the cost of carbon capture will likely go down with scale, or that — as people like Matthew Yglesias and Tyler Cowen point out — more children increases the chances of discovering technical innovations necessary to reach carbon neutrality in developing economies, or that your child might donate, 2%, 3%, or even 5% of their income to climate causes, then suddenly having a child looks like the overwhelmingly best thing you can do for climate change.

To suggest you should not have a child because of climate concerns strikes me as bizarre. It is making one of the costliest sacrifices imaginable, the entire good produced by a complete human life, for the comparatively tiny benefit of lowered carbon emissions.

Adding in Generations

The case becomes even clearer if we consider future generations.

In considering our impact over time, Daniel mentions a paper by Murtaugha and Schlax estimating that the true carbon costs of an American having a child are approximately 9,441 metric tons of CO2. This number is derived by looking, not just at your child’s emissions, but also your children’s children’s emissions, and your children’s children’s children’s emissions, and so on. Murtaugha and Schlax then weight these numbers by relatedness (so I’m responsible for half my child’s emissions, a quarter of my grandchild’s emissions, an eighth of my great grandchild’s emissions, and so on).

But here is the thing, 9,441 metric tons was the number you get if you assume “constant emissions” across ALL future generations. In other words, you get this number if you assume that the 25% decline in U.S. per capita emissions we’ve seen over the last twenty years suddenly halts and never resumes.

Murtaugha and Schlax acknowledge this assumption is implausible, the number was not intended as a prediction of the future, but an illustrative model of a possible scenario. For example, they also consider an ‘optimistic scenario’ where we meet the UN’s 2100 emissions goals. In that scenario, you are responsible for only 562 metric tons of CO2 — one sixteenth the original number.

Now the optimistic scenario is, indeed, too optimistic (just as the “constant emissions” scenario is far too pessimistic). That is not the point. Rather, the point is that we should expect with each generation that per capita carbon emissions in developed countries will go down. However, we have no reason to predict that the amount of good a person can do will decrease nearly as quickly. The average person has the resources to do far more good now than the average human at any previous point in history. And that potential to do good is only likely to increase, at least in the immediately foreseeable future. (Eventually we will gather all the low hanging fruit for high impact interventions, but also by then technological development and economic growth will likely have expanded our resources even further.)

If carbon costs will decrease faster than our ability to do good — as they almost certainly will — then as you consider each subsequent generation the case for having children gets stronger and stronger. This is important, because remember that John Nolt’s study looked at the suffering and death caused over the next millennium. If you take the long view on costs, you need to take the long view on benefits.

A Deontological Rejoinder

But, you might object, even if children will do more good than harm, does that really justify the harm that they do? It is wrong to kill one person to save five, so then isn’t it wrong to have a child if that will cause the suffering or death of one even if it helps avert the suffering and death of many?

Deontological constraints, however, do not apply to the diffuse and temporally distant effects of our actions. If they did, just about every action would be deontologically constrained. Anything you do, by setting off a ripple of changes in the causal ether of the world, will result in a radically different future. By driving to work, and so slightly altering traffic patterns, you probably change each and every human who will exist five hundred years from now.

This, in turn, means that every particular murder that happens five hundred years from now would not have happened had you not driven to work. Of course, any number of different murders might have occurred, and so we have no reason to think that driving to work is a bad idea.

There is no particular person in the next millennium who will suffer and die as a result of my child’s carbon emissions. So, there is no concrete death or instance of suffering that I either intend or cause by having a child. Since deontological constraints require such causal particulars, there is no deontological constraint against procreation.

Conclusion

Having a child does not violate any deontological constraint against causing harm. Nor does it make the world a worse place. Having a child does more for the good of the world than almost any choice you can make because it enables the good of an entire human life.

Of course, none of this is necessarily a reason to have a child. There is something odd about bringing someone into existence just so that they can fight climate change. You are having a child, not summoning a genie. But, even if these considerations don’t show you should have a child, they undermine the thought that climate change gives you a reason not to.

Of course, there are other worries about the ethics of having a child — worries that have given me much greater pause. But a discussion of those worries will have to wait for a future post.

The Worst Thing You Can Do for Climate Change

photograph of NYC at rush hour

Last month, the United Nations marked World Population Day – the anniversary of the 1987 date on which the world’s population first surpassed 5 billion people. It took hundreds of thousands of years for us to reach the first billion humans, then only two hundred more years to increase that number sevenfold. The UN projects that our current global population of 7.9 billion will grow to 11.2 billion (an increase of roughly 140%) by the end of the century.

Such explosive growth would be concerning at the best of times. The resources of our planet are finite, and research suggests that our global population level is already at 2 to 3 times the sustainable level. But we are also in the midst of a climate crisis, the effects of which will be devastating for both the environment and our society. As a result, many believe that we each have an obligation to do all we can to avert climate catastrophe. Despite this, little mention is made of the worst thing you can do for climate change: namely, have a child.

Why might we think that having fewer children is a viable way of combating climate change? Consider the numbers: In the U.S., giving up your car will save approximately 2.4 tonnes of CO2 per year, while recycling and going vegan will save an additional 0.21 tonnes and 0.8 tonnes respectively. Yet the choice to have one less child will instead save a whopping 9441 tonnes of CO2or 59.8 tonnes per parent per year. To put this into perspective, the carbon cost of a single child is enough to undo the lifetime recycling of 684 other people.

This figure may seem outlandish, particularly given that the per-capita carbon emissions of an individual living in the U.S. is around 16.16 tonnes per year. Why, then, is the carbon cost of procreation so high? The main reason is that, in deciding to have a child, a parent chooses not only to create that child, but also all of the future persons who result from the existence of that child. To use an analogy: choosing to roll the snowball down the mountainside makes you responsible for the avalanche at the mountain’s base. Each parent is therefore taken to be responsible for 50% of their child’s emissions, 25% of each grandchild’s emissions, 12.5% of each great-grandchild’s emissions, and so on. Using average fertility rates, lifespans and projected per capita carbon emissions, it is then possible to calculate the average carbon added to the atmosphere as the result of an individual’s choice to have a child.

But perhaps this is unfair. If I’m morally responsible for my choice to have a child, then surely my children are also responsible for their procreative choices. So maybe I should only be accountable for the children that I directly choose to have. But even if we limit our responsibility to only our first generation of descendants, this is still a carbon cost of 1373.6 tonnes of CO2 per child. Even at this discounted rate, having a child remains the single worst thing an individual can do for climate change. It’s damage that a lifetime of going carless, recycling, and eating vegan doesn’t even come close to counteracting. To put it into stark terms: the carbon cost of a single child born in the U.S. is enough to cause – through climate-related harms – the severe suffering and/or death of two other people. Of course, climate-conscious parents could attempt to offset these emissions by purchasing carbon credits. But at current rates (around $4.99 per 1000lbs – or $11.00 per metric ton), this would cost them $15,109.60 per child. Offsetting the full carbon cost of their future descendants would instead come in at an astronomical $103,851.00.

But in spite of all of this, our procreative choices rarely factor into discussions of climate action. A study of ten Canadian high school science textbooks yielded 216 individual recommended actions on how to address climate change – but none of these suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions. And this silence goes far beyond textbooks, with The Guardian, The New York Times,  and The Huffington Post all omitting procreative choices from their lists of the best ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint.

I recently wrote a paper on this inconsistency in our attitudes towards climate action. In response, many are tempted to point to the far greater emissions of industry, and claim that the burden is on those companies – not us – to address the climate crisis. But this is a bad argument for several reasons. Firstly – as I demonstrated in a previous article – attempting to avoid your responsibility by pointing to the greater responsibility of others simply doesn’t work. Secondly, this argument misses the important fact that industries don’t simply emit carbon for no reason. Rather, the coal burned by power plants and the gas used by Amazon delivery trucks is a by-product of profitable activities carried out to meet consumer demand. Fewer people means less demand, which means less pollution by industries in the long run. Thirdly, there’s no reason to treat this as an either/or scenario. Morality may very well require both systemic changes by companies and the modification of our own personal behavior. In fact, a recent study shows that 59% of emissions savings between 2020 and 2035 must come from individual behavioral changes. Such ‘dual obligations’ are nothing new. Consider the fast-fashion industry: It’s clear that corporations might have a moral obligation to stop utilizing rights-violating sweatshop labor to manufacture their clothing. But at the same, we as individuals also have an obligation to modify our own behavior and buy less sweatshop-manufactured products.

Finally, redirecting blame towards industries isn’t just an argument against reconsidering our procreative choices – it’s an argument against taking any individual action at all. If industries are the only ones who can fix the problem, then we, as individuals, might as well give up doing anything to combat the climate crisis. Driving less, recycling, and going vegan all become pointless from a climate perspective. If, however, we truly believe that what we do as an individual matters, then it only makes sense to focus on those actions that are most effective. While small positive changes are to be lauded, it’s important not to lose sight of other choices that are far more important – like the choice to have or not have children.

LEGO and the Building Blocks of Environmental Salvation

photograph of children playing with LEGOs in the grass

Last month, the LEGO Group unveiled its first prototype recycled plastic brick. The brick — made from discarded water bottles — is the result of three years of work by a 150-strong team of material scientists and engineers attempting to make the world’s most valuable toy brand more sustainable. But how should we receive such news? Are companies that adopt positive environmental practices deserving of moral praise? Or are they merely doing what they should have always done?

LEGO’s announcement is only the latest in a line of promising environmental developments for the brand: Its new, recycled bricks join its plant-based polyethelene bricks that first hit shelves in 2020. Together, LEGO plans to use these bricks to ensure that all of its elements are produced from sustainable materials by 2030. In addition, LEGO has announced that it aims to send zero waste to landfills by 2025. The company is on track to this goal, with 91% of their waste (including 100% of all plastic waste) being recycled in 2020. The previous year, LEGO also became balanced by renewable energy – with the energy output from their investments in renewables being greater than the total energy used in LEGO factories, offices, and stores.

And the LEGO Group is by no means the only corporation debuting positive environmental policies. In January 2020, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced the company’s new sustainability commitment. Central to this commitment is an aspiration to become resource positive: storing more carbon than they emit, eliminating waste, and providing more clean freshwater than they use. In concrete terms, this has seen Starbucks set three preliminary targets for 2030:

  1. A 50% reduction in carbon emissions in their direct and supply chain.
  2. 50% of their water withdrawal for direct operations and coffee production will be conserved or replenished with a focus on communities and basins with high water risk.
  3. A 50% reduction in waste sent to landfill from stores and manufacturing, driven by a broader shift towards a circular economy.

A cynical eye may see these declarations as a simple exercise in public relations. And we’re right to be wary. Many corporations engage in ‘greenwashing’ – that is, spending a great deal of time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, while doing little to minimize their actual environmental impact. Chevron went to great lengths to proclaim their environmental conscientiousness in their 1980s “People Do” campaign – all while the company violated the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and spilled oil into wildlife refuges. More recently, Amazon has announced its plans to have 100,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2030. But Amazon remains silent on how these vehicles will be charged. With more than 60% of USA’s electricity generation still being derived from fossil fuels, there’s every chance that the impact of these electric vehicles is overstated.

Nevertheless, there is a very real sense in which the commitments of large, multi-national corporations may play a pivotal role in addressing climate change. With a disappointing outcome at the latest COP conference, and many countries already failing to meet their own emissions reduction pledges, there is a strong incentive for “sub-national actors” to take up the slack. Ordinarily, we think of these actors being state governments and cities – that is, political communities. Large corporations, however, hold significant sway over consumer behavior and consumption, and may be just as important in avoiding catastrophic climate change.

But are the environmental policies of corporations like the LEGO Group and Starbucks deserving of moral praise? To answer this question, we have to make a distinction between when a particular action is merely morally good, and when it is morally obligatory. Suppose, for example, that I live on a busy road, and elect to go out to the curb and spend the remainder of my day helping elderly pedestrians cross an otherwise harrowing intersection. Clearly, it would be morally good of me to do this. It’s a kind, thoughtful gesture that minimizes the risk of harm to these pedestrians. But there’s certainly no moral obligation for me to spend my afternoon doing this. To say that there was such an obligation would be to say that it’s morally wrong of me to spend my afternoon doing something else (like writing this article). This, it seems, goes too far. Contrast this with a case in which I clearly do have an obligation to do something: say, for example, feeding my cat. In that case, I would be doing something wrong if I failed to act (thereby causing my poor feline companion to go hungry).

Note something interesting, however: Where a moral obligation exists, we seem less inclined to praise an individual for their actions. While I may deserve moral praise for helping elderly pedestrians cross the road, I don’t deserve similar praise for feeding my cat. I’m simply doing what I’m supposed to do.

This distinction between morally good and morally obligatory actions can be helpful in deciding how we should respond to corporations like LEGO and Starbucks. The question we need to ask ourselves is: do these companies already have a moral obligation to take positive environmental action? Our answer will depend on how we think we should assign responsibility for things like climate action. Here, some of the same principles I discussed in a previous article can be of use. We might, for example, think that responsibility should fall on those who have directly contributed to the climate crisis (the Polluter Pays Principle), or who have benefited from those same activities (the Beneficiary Pays Principle). These principles would certainly place a moral obligation on corporations like LEGO and Starbucks. But even this may not be required. Unlike states (who are mired in internal and external politics) and individuals (who may have insufficient resources at their disposal), corporations have an enormous amount of freedom and financial resources to engage in positive environmental action. This alone may be sufficient to place a special obligation on them to do the right thing (what is often referred to as the Ability to Pay Principle).

With more than 30,000 stores worldwide, and an almost 40% share of the U.S. coffee market, there is no denying that what a corporation like Starbucks does, matters. Even small policies – like offering a discount for drinks served in reusable cups – can have a significant positive environmental impact. And while such action does serve a marketing purpose – lifting the value of their brand in the public eye – it may also play a vital role in our global efforts to avert catastrophic climate change. Whether or not such actions are deserving of moral praise is another question entirely, however. If there already exists a moral obligation on these companies to act in such ways, then praise is undeserved. Instead, companies like LEGO and Starbucks are merely doing what they always should have done.

Ethical Obligations to Climate Refugees

photograph of waves threatening coastal city

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.


According to projections, by 2060 the lower third of Florida, home to 8 million residents, will be underwater. Within just a few decades many of Miami Beach’s landmarks will be lost. In response, some areas plan to fight rising sea levels with new infrastructure and new sea walls while other areas plan for a “managed retreat.” However, there are many more places around the world where there isn’t the money or capability to prevent homes from slipping into the water. People losing their homes to the sea means that they will need to go somewhere, and as time goes on we can expect to see a rising number of climate refugees. So, what are our ethical obligations to those being displaced?

Climate change is causing the melting of ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of sea water. Current estimates show that sea levels are rising by 3.6 mm per year. A 2019 study projected that sea levels will rise by 69-111 cm by 2100. (In February, however, a paper in Ocean Science argued that previous projections have been conservative and that sea level rises will be higher.) What this means is that by 2100, we can expect significant threats to many areas of human habitation. In addition to Florida, which faces a number of climate challenges, Brazil, Egypt, Cameroon, China, India, and Indonesia will all face serious problems. For Bangladesh, rising sea levels represents a growing existential threat. Flooding owing to rising sea levels could result in the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Indeed, while 2011 estimates had 187 million people potentially having to flee their homes, recent figures now project that as many as 630 million people (that is roughly 12% of Earth’s population) may be displaced.

But this is not simply a humanitarian crisis where we might feel obligated to lend a hand. The fact that the relationship between rising sea levels and climate change is generally well known changes the moral situation. Our intervention is demanded not (only) as a response to those desperately in need of help, but as a matter of justice given the harms we’re responsible for. If a nation or group of nations emits carbon, which in turn raises sea levels, and thus causes people to be displaced from their homes, surely there is an added moral dimension concerning what aid is owed to climate refugees. Given their particular contribution to the problem, what unique obligations might Western nations, for example, bear?

First, there are potential legal obligations. According to international law, people who are fleeing persecution in their country can seek to enter another. However, the current definition of “refugee” doesn’t apply to people who flee their homes because of climate displacement. Recently this controversy was addressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, who in 2020, ruled that climate migrants cannot be returned to countries where their lives might be threatened by climate change. Unfortunately, this is not binding; the issue is controversial and remains disputed. There are some who believe that the original 1951 convention on refugees should be interpreted to include those who are fleeing climate disasters. Others, like Alexander Betts and Nina Birkeland have argued against trying to redefine what it means to be a refugee because it would be impractical; renegotiating the convention would likely result in a worse deal for refugees.

Where does this leave us? According to the “conventional view” as described by Joseph Carens, states are free to exercise considerable discretionary control over the admission and exclusion of immigrants. As this is a power often considered an inherent part of what it means to be sovereign, it would seem that nations are not obligated to help climate refugees. Indeed, international libertarians argue that the only obligations that extend beyond a state’s border concern respecting other nations’ right to self-determination and refraining from harming them. (Though an important exception to this is refugees who are governed under international agreement.)

Putting aside the legal matter of potential obligations, there are those who argue that a state should provide aid and accept climate refugees if that nation has disproportionately benefited from the combustion of fossil fuels. Since many Western nations are largely responsible for the increased carbon emissions, the rising sea levels, and thus the environmental disasters that follow, it is argued that the developed world has a special responsibility not only to restrict emissions, but to protect and assist the global poor who are facing fallout from said disasters. On the other hand, there are critics who argue that historical responsibility as a justification for an obligation to assist migrants is problematic.

The polluter pays principle, for example, holds that those who pollute should bear the costs of managing the fallout. In other words, responsibility is tied to historical facts. It suggests that a nation like the United States should be obligated to aid climate refugees because of its role in causing the problem. However, there are difficulties in attributing blame in this way because of our inability to identify the specific harms done and to trace them back to specific causal factors. This complicates our ability to say that any particular nation might be obligated to accept certain refugees. There is also disagreement about how far back this kind of responsibility goes. Should a nation be held just as accountable for emissions dating back to a time when the effects of climate change were not well known? Theorists, like David Miller, have argued that emissions prior to the 1980s were not inherently harmful and so don’t count towards historical responsibility.

On the other hand, some philosophers argue that considerations of historical responsibility are beside the point; what we owe to climate refugees need not depend on establishing causality. For example, Jamie Draper argues that high-emitting states have a responsibility to climate refugees because even since the 1980s there has been a foreseeable connection between rising carbon emissions and harmful consequences of climate change. Because of this a nation like the United States can be said to be obligated to help regardless of the specifics concerning the causal relationship. These nations were well aware of the risks; they knew their emissions would generate harmful effects. Their failure to take the appropriate precautions render them a guilty party. For Draper, it isn’t a causal connection, but a failure to take due care that obligates nations to aid climate refugees.

It is to recognize that this is a problem being felt today, not merely one we must plan to confront in the future. There are already millions of people facing the prospect of fleeing their home. Addressing this problem means answering difficult questions: Does it matter who caused climate change? Should one’s ability to bear these costs be factored in? Do nations, or regions, or corporations, or individuals bear the blame? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility that we all share? Will our moral and legal frameworks catch up before it’s too late?

Why Trivial Contributions to the Climate Crisis Still Count

photograph of water pollution with skyscrapers on opposite shoreline

Countries resistant to meaningful climate action often point to the relatively small size of their contributions to global carbon emissions. It is this very point which conservative Australian broadcaster Alan Jones sought to convey with his infamous grain-of-rice demonstration. The argument against Australia taking climate action, it seems, goes something like this: Even if anthropogenic climate change is a concern, and even if Australia is adding to this problem, their contribution (about 1%) is trivial compared to the exceedingly large contributions of other nations (such as China and the U.S. with 28% and 15% of global emissions respectively). Given this, it is these emissions heavyweights that should bear most — if not all — of the responsibility for taking climate action. Call this the Trivial Contribution Argument.

But is this a good argument? For starters, let’s ignore the fact that — despite their relatively small total emissions — Australia has the third worst per capita emissions rate in the world. Let’s also ignore the fact that when emissions from coal exports are taken into account, Australia’s total contribution to global carbon emissions is closer to 3-4%. Assuming that Australia is responsible for only 1% of global carbon emissions, does this excuse them from taking meaningful climate action?

In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper into how the Trivial Contribution Argument works. One underlying assumption seems to be that a trivial contribution, when remedied, will only ever provide a trivial solution — one that is unlikely to solve the problem in question. Suppose, to borrow a vivid illustration provided by one philosopher, I am currently pouring a jug of water into a flooding river. Suppose, further, that the river is about to breach its banks downstream and cause devastation to a nearby town. Am I under some kind of obligation to curb my behavior? My contribution to the flood is trivial, and — for this same reason — any remedy to my actions will only provide a trivial solution. Sure, I can refrain from pouring the jug into the river — but this won’t prevent the flood. Given this, there seems to be no compelling reason for me to modify my behavior; it makes no difference either way.

This, it seems, is the fundamental reasoning behind a country pointing to its trivial carbon emissions as a way of avoiding their obligation to engage in meaningful climate action. Unless larger polluters (like China and the U.S.) do more, there is little to be gained from the remedial actions of smaller emitters. Given that climate action always comes at a cost — both economically and otherwise — why would countries decide to bear this burden when it won’t solve the problem?

Such reasoning, however, is deeply flawed. Consider another example to show why this is the case. Suppose that official waste disposal is expensive in my neighborhood, and that — instead of paying for this service — my neighbors begin dumping their garbage on my front lawn. The damage to my garden (and property value) is predictably severe. I eventually catch one of my neighbors tossing a burger wrapper on to my property and confront him about his behavior. He shrugs his shoulders and says that he isn’t the culprit I need to worry about. He surveys the accumulated rubbish pile and estimates that he’s responsible for less than 1% of the waste. He identifies two of my neighbors as littering heavyweights, claiming that they, together, are responsible for more than 40% of the waste. He explains that curbing his own behavior won’t do much to help until I convince those neighbors to do something about their own behavior. With that, he shrugs his shoulders, flings a banana peel onto the heap, and departs.

In this context, the unreasonableness of my neighbor’s defense is plain to see. Yes, there are those who are more responsible for the problem. But he is still responsible for at least some of the problem, and thus responsible for at least some of the solution. While ending — or at least reducing the extent of — his littering will not remedy the issue entirely, this does not excuse his complete inaction.

In fact, the Trivial Contribution Argument isn’t merely flawed — it’s actually paradoxical. Suppose we accept that a 1% contribution is small enough to excuse a country like Australia from any obligations regarding climate action. What percentage, then, would require them to act? Those emitting 2% will point to those emitting 5%, and those emitting that amount will shift the blame on to those emitting even more. Inevitably, the buck will be passed upwards until only the largest emitter is held responsible. But herein lies the paradox: While China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, they are still responsible for ‘only’ 28% of total global emissions. Thus, any remedial action taken by China would be limited to solving no more than a quarter of the problem. Indeed, China could shirk their own responsibilities by saying “even if we do all we can, it won’t be enough, as the remaining countries (combined) are doing far more damage than we are.” In this way, the rationale behind the Trivial Contribution Argument would allow China to shift blame back on to the smaller emitters — leading us full circle, with no responsibility attributed.

The only way to avoid this is to deny the validity of the Trivial Contribution Argument; that is, to deny the claim that a trivial contribution to a problem should be treated like no contribution at all. This is why — when considering the demands of climate justice as they relate to climate action — philosophers tend to take a more pluralistic approach. While the extent to which an actor has contributed to a problem (often called the Polluter Pays Principle) is relevant, we also take into account other principles — such as the extent to which an actor has benefited from the problematic behavior (the Beneficiary Pays Principle) and the actor’s capacity to provide a solution (the Ability to Pay Principle). This more nuanced approach is vital if we wish to engage in real and effective climate action on a global level.

On Climate Refugees and Captain America

image of faded Captain America shield

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for all six episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+.

After the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the 2018 entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that ended with the villainous Thanos snapping his fingers to magically erase half of all life in the universe, the internet lit up to debate the (im)morality of his actions. According to the movie, the character’s motivations were, arguably, altruistic (because after seeing his own planet succumb to resource depletion and overpopulation, the “Mad Titan” reportedly wanted to prevent similar sufferings elsewhere). In this way, Thanos joined Black Panther’s Eric Killmonger, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, and Captain America: Civil War’s Baron Zemo in the ranks of “MCU Bad Guys who might be making some Good Points.” Of course, however defensible or understandable their philosophies might be, the murderous brutality exhibited by each antagonist has consistently kept the MCU’s moral dichotomy more-or-less clear; just as superhero comics have been called “moral pornography” for their oversimplified and exaggerated depictions of good and evil, superhero movies are rarely different.

Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, a movie, the latest MCU story — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited-series on the Disney+ streaming service — follows basically this same vein, featuring an enemy whose message is far more sympathetic than her methods. In brief, the six-episode miniseries focuses on Avengers characters Sam “Falcon” Wilson and Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes as they work to smooth out the geopolitical chaos provoked by their team’s defeat of Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Although the Avengers were able to undo Thanos’ Snap and bring the people killed in Infinity War back to life, it took them five years to do so and, in the meantime, the world soldiered on. During the period between movies (now referred to in-universe as the “Blip”), humanity had done its best to rally together in the anarchy that followed half the globe’s sudden disappearance; the equally sudden return of all those missing people a half-decade later, although joyful in many ways, once again upset the fragile balances built during the Blip. As the series opens, the international Global Repatriation Council has taken charge of the situation and is in the process of essentially “resetting” Earth back to the way it was before the Snap; against this, Karli Morgenthau leads a team of insurgents called the Flag Smashers in an attempt to salvage the more unified way of life they had created in the Blip.

A key thread in the series is the upcoming GRC vote to deport refugees displaced by Thanos’ Snap back to wherever they lived before the Blip. From the perspective of the Council, this would solve many problems: as one character insists in a later episode, imagine a situation where someone was killed by the Snap, returns to life five years later, and discovers that someone else has moved into their house in the interim — who is the house’s rightful owner? In order to simplify these kinds of murky questions, the series sees the GRC poised to forcibly displace thousands of people, many of whom had managed to forge better lives for themselves after the Snap. As Sam explains at one point: “For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that had kept them out using barbed wire. There were houses and jobs. Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild. It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together.” In short, although Karli and the Flag Smashers are initially described as just wanting a “world that’s unified without borders,” their actual goals are more focused on the often-ignored needs of the world’s refugees — particularly those who would be demonstrably harmed by simply “going back to the way things were” before the Blip.

Granted, the Flag Smashers are also revealed to have acquired Captain-America-esque strength and stamina (after double-crossing a Madripoorian crime boss) and they use their newfound superpowers to kill more than a few GRC agents in their crusade to stop the vote — no matter how sympathetic the cause, comic book logic (not to mention corporate incentives and, at times, outright propaganda) demands that Karli and her friends ultimately play a “Bad Guy” role for the MCU (even as one of their own is savagely executed in broad daylight by John Walker, an enraged American agent). Still, the show ends with Sam — as the new Captain America — chastising the rescued GRC leadership for effectively ignoring the refugees, giving at least some credence to the (at that point, mostly dead) Flag Smashers and their message.

Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathize with a group of people who, through no fault of their own (and as an explicit consequence of others’ recklessness) are displaced from their homes and forced into poverty. In a similar way, real-world philosopher Rebecca Buxton has argued that we should attend more carefully to the needs of real-world refugees forced to flee their homes as a result of climate change. Although rising global temperatures make for much less exciting action sequences than a purple-skinned alien fighting the Hulk, their threat is significant and their result is roughly the same: recent years have seen as many as 20 million people become climate refugees for one reason or another. Buxton points out, though, that these displaced citizens are predominantly not from those nations most responsible for the carbon emissions and other pollutants contributing to climate change; for example, the nation of Tuvalu was projected to become the first carbon-neutral state, but is now facing submersion as sea levels rise. Consequently, although debates about climate refugees tend to focus on compensation for certain, specific harms, Buxton instead contends that refugees are owed reparations (which can only be paid by those who actually bear responsibility for the damages). Although this burden of proof is more difficult to satisfy, Buxton argues convincingly that it is possible, at least in principle, to identify specifically who owes who what before leaving it to policymakers to work out the applications for specific cases.

So, if you enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and found yourself agreeing with the new Captain America that Karli and her friends should not simply be written off as “terrorists,” it might be prudent to consider some of the real-world counterparts of the refugees that the Flag Smashers were trying to help.

(It might also be wise to consider how Buxton’s defense of reparations might relate to the story of Isaiah Bradley and the other ways that the miniseries engages with race and racism in America, though I’ll leave that topic for a different article.)

Under Discussion: Global Warming and the Right to Risk Wrong

photograph of industrial chimney stacks polluting air over natural landscape

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

There is an increasing call to use climate engineering as a solution to global warming. Rather than simply try to decarbonize the economy, some think we should work to develop new technology that will allow us to prevent global warming even while fossil fuels are used. Some think we can use carbon sequestration to leech carbon out of the atmosphere even as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Others think that even if carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere, we can counteract the greenhouse effect by reflecting more sunlight away from earth. (For a great introduction to the questions surrounding climate engineering check out this great episode: Pushkin podcast Brave New Planet.)

Some support the use of climate engineering because they think the global coordination required for decarbonization is politically unfeasible; some because they think global warming is already too far gone and we need to buy time; and some because they think the real costs to decarbonization are too high.

There are, of course, also compelling objections to climate engineering. In particular, many worry about the inevitable unintended consequences of messing with the environment even more to fix our initial mistake (remember the old lady who swallowed a fly?). (Though for myself, I think it unlikely that the negative impacts of carefully studied intentional environmental intervention are as bad as the uncoordinated and unintended effects of carbon industrialization.)

However, I don’t want to spend this post investigating the prospects of climate engineering. I’m not nearly expert enough to do that. Instead, I want to talk about an odd sort of moral obstacle to climate engineering.

Here is a simple question: who has the right to run a massive program to change the earth’s climate? Would it be right, for instance, for the United States to unilaterally decide that the risks of global warming are great enough that it justifies a massive cloud seeding project? Any such decision will affect every other country, but of course the citizens of those other countries do not get a vote in U.S. politics (you might worry, then, that this is profoundly undemocratic because those deeply affected by a policy should have a say in its shaping, for an overview to these questions of democracy see Robert Goodin’s paper on the ‘all affected interests’ principle). So perhaps the United Nations should make the decision? But, of course, many nations are not voting members of the UN, nor is the UN a particularly democratic institution.

Even if geoengineering is the right solution to climate change, it is not altogether clear who should be the one to make that final determination? If I, Marshall, personally decide climate engineering is the way to go, and also come into a lot of money, then do I have the moral right to change the climate for everyone else (even if I’m trying to counteract what was already a negative artificial change). Or to make the scenario more realistic, if the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided it was time to act unilaterally, would it be right for them to do so?

Now, here is where things get puzzling. How could we have had the power to mess up the environment, and yet not be morally empowered to fix it?

There are two possibilities here. One, it might be that countries were acting wrongly when they messed up the environment. Perhaps we are all blameworthy for the amount we have contributed to global warming; but just because we did damage does not mean we are thereby entitled to find our own way to clean it up.

Second, it might be that actually many did not act wrongly in using carbon. There is something of a collective action problem here. Perhaps each person only produced a small amount of carbon, such that no one person really impacted the climate of anyone else.  It is only in aggregate that the bad effect occurred. However, we cannot fix the climate in a similarly disaggregated way. It might be that each of us could plant some trees, but it would require systematic and careful coordination to adopt a more aggressive climate engineering strategy (and no one has the right to act as the global enforcement coordinator).

Global warming, then, is an instance of an annoying type of moral problem. Sometimes we do things which could be fixed, but which we are not morally empowered to fix. Sometimes we say something cruel and want to apologize, but the person we hurt wants nothing to do with us and we have no right to impose on them even to apologize.  Sometimes we spill stuff on a carpet in a party, and the host waves us out of the way and insists that they will fix the problem. Sometimes we do wrong things, things we’d like to make up for, but which we cannot make up for acting on our own. While often unfortunate, it remains a fascinating problem.

Under Discussion: Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change, and the Crisis of Trust

photograph of several snowballs at the bottom of hill with tracks trailing behind

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On February 26th, 2015, Republican Senator James Inhofe carried a plastic bag filled with snow into the Capitol Building; in his now-infamous “Snowball Speech” criticizing the Democrats for their focus on climate policy, the senior senator from Oklahoma said “In case we have forgotten — because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record — I ask the chair: you know what this is [he holds up a softball-sized snowball]? It’s a snowball that’s just from outside here. So, it’s very, very cold out.”

Of course, Inhofe’s snowball disproved the reality of climate change no moreso than a heat wave in January disproves the reality of Winter (at least for now). But that didn’t stop Inhofe from chuckling through his hasty generalization of what’s proper to conclude about historical trends in temperature and other metrics from a random snow sample he happened to see on his way to work. The difference between climate and weather is a basic distinction that Inhofe simply ignored for the sake of a quip.

Given Inhofe’s career of expressed skepticism towards the science supporting climate change (something about which Inhofe himself said he “thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost”), we might think this was just a political stunt. However, it was one that resonates with a not-insignificant chunk of our society. While popular consensus still technically leans towards recognizing the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change (something about which expert consensus overwhelming agrees), there remains a stubborn minority of Americans who are convinced (to varying degrees and for various reasons) that climate change either does not warrant significant political or financial attention or that it is simply a hoax — just one more example of so-called “fake news.”

The Prindle Post has spent the past week exploring the complicated issue of how to address climate change — a thorny problem that interweaves questions of political risk, economic uncertainty, and genuine danger for both present and future generations. But the hope of successfully coordinating our efforts in the ways necessary to shift current climate trends seems particularly unrealistic when climate change deniers (who make up between 10 and 15% of the population) continue to spin conspiracy theories about the scientists, the science, and the “real” schemes secretly motivating both.

For example, in a video created last year by the conservative media production company PragerU, Alex Epstein (author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels) argues that “climate change alarmism” exaggerates the threat of the “genuine” science while intimating that such distortions are actually motivated by a desire to justify “an unprecedented increase in government power.” For another, prior to taking office, former President Donald Trump claimed that global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” — a sentiment he echoed during his first presidential campaign when he explicitly called it a “hoax.” And as recently as this month, Fox News host Sean Hannity criticized President Joe Biden’s aggressive climate plan as something designed to benefit “hostile [foreign] regimes”: “Mark my words,” said Hannity, “this will not end well.” In different ways, each of these suggest that the real story about climate change is some terrible secret (often involving corrupt or otherwise evil agents), so the “official” story (about how human activity has provoked wildly unprecedented global temperature shifts) should be doubted.

At least some forms of climate change denial are easy to explain, such as ExxonMobil’s well-documented, decades-long disinformation campaign about the evidence for a link between human activity (in particular, activity related to things like carbon emissions) and global temperatures; given that ExxonMobil’s nature as an energy company depends on carbon-emitting practices, it has always had good reason to protect its operations by deceiving the public about matters of scientific fact. In a similar way, politicians hungry for votes can use the rhetoric of climate skepticism to signal to their supporters in return for political capital; when Ted Cruz said recently that the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) prioritizes the “views of the citizens of Paris” over the “jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh,” the junior senator from Texas was clearly more concerned about scoring partisan points than accurately representing the nature of the PCA (which, for example, received no substantive input from the people of Paris).

But conspiracy theories about climate change — like conspiracy theories about anything — don’t require elite figures like Cruz or Hannity to be maintained (however helpful celebrity endorsements might be); much of their viability stems from the naturally enjoyable experience of the cognitive processes that underlie conspiratorial thinking. For example, in his book Conspiracy Theories, Quassim Cassam explains how the story-like nature of conspiracy theories (especially grandiose ones that posit particularly complicated connections or conclusions) provides a kind of cognitive pleasure for the person who entertains them; as he says towards the end of chapter two, conspiracy theories “invest random events with a deeper significance, which they wouldn’t otherwise have” in a way that can satisfy apophenic desires of all stripes. Moreover, conspiracy theories allow the conspiracy theorist to imagine themselves as superior to others, either for cleverly figuring out a puzzling truth or for being a hero “who doggedly takes on the forces of the deep state or the new world order in the interests of making sure that the public knows what’s really going on beneath the surface.” The ease with which we can access and disseminate information online only exacerbates this problem (for just one example: consider the recent spread of the QAnon slogan #SaveTheChildren).

Similarly, Tom Stafford discusses the biases at play when we take the time to think through things for ourselves (or when we “do our own research” about an already much-researched topic); at the end of that process, we might well be loathe to give up our conclusions because “we value the effort we put in to gathering information” and “enjoy the feelings of mastery that results from insight” (even if that “insight” is targeting nothing true). In short: if you build it yourself, you’re more apt to experience feelings of loss aversion about it — and this apparently applies to mental states or beliefs just as much as to other things in the world. Furthermore, given the web of suspicion about many different agencies, studies, scientists, and data points that is required to maintain doubts about something like climate change, Stafford’s “epistemic IKEA effect” seems useful for explaining not only the phenomenon of climate change skepticism, but how climate skeptics are more likely than most to believe in conspiracy theories about other topics as well.

So, importantly, contrary to the stereotypical image, conspiracy theorists are not just half-crazed hermits with walls of photographs connected by string; careful thought, reasoned argument, and even the citation of evidence are common elements of a conspiracy theorist’s case for their position — the problem is simply that they’re applying those tools towards objectively invalid ends. Sometimes, conspiracy theorists (such as those who believe that JFK, Princess Diana, or Jeffrey Epstein were killed by various complicated networks of culprits) might be relatively harmless. But when conspiracy theories have political consequences, such as in the case of climate change denial, they have ethical consequences as well.

Of course, what to do about conspiracy theories regarding climate change is far from clear. Although various proposals have been put forth for how to deal with conspiracy theories in general, researchers currently seem to agree mainly on one practical thing: straightforward confrontation of conspiracy theorists’ beliefs is almost certainly a bad move. An attempt to debunk an interlocutor, particularly in public, will (perhaps understandably) tend to trigger a backfire effect and simply provoke them into a defensive posture, rather than maintain a common ground of trust from which conversations can proceed. While some might find the sarcastic ridiculing of climate deniers entertaining, those jokes also feed a standard component of the kind of echo chambers that fuel conspiratorial thinking: distrust of outsiders who believe things that contradict the conspiracy theory.

In his work on echo chambers, C. Thi Nguyen has highlighted the role of trust for breaking through the epistemic barriers around conspiracy theories that end up fueling (and being fueled by) political and other social divisions. Though we often take it for granted, trusting strangers to tell us the truth is a fundamental component of living in and contributing to the collective project of society together. In a very real way, our collective scientific processes — and, hopefully, the governmental policies based on them — depend on the presumption that the people involved are trustworthy. But by rejecting that starting point, conspiracy theories (about climate change or anything else) reject one of the fundamental elements that makes public cooperation possible.

This crisis of trust cannot be fixed simply by shoehorning legislation through committees, regulating social media posts, encouraging companies to deploy trendy, green-themed advertising campaigns, or shaming relatives who roll their eyes at the near-unanimous consensus of climate scientists — indeed, however commendable (and, in some cases, necessary) such tactics are for quickly calming the rapidly-changing climate, they also encourage the continued entrenchment of climate skepticism and denial. If we wish to make comprehensive headway on tackling climate change together, we must at least pragmatically attend to even the most anti-science perspectives for the sake of promoting respectful discourse that can help repair the broken relationships which have rent our social fabric into its hyperpartisan state. Such a project might even serve to mitigate the effects of other echo chambers along the way; an ebbing tide calms all conspiracy theories, as it were.

How to implement such a policy at an effective scale is a problem for a different expert (what would a “trust-promotion campaign” even look like?). In the end, destabilizing echo chambers might well be the kind of thing that governmental (or otherwise “official”) action can’t accomplish: the respectful discourse required to manifest what Nguyen calls a “social-epistemic reboot” might well fall to individuals building relationships with other individuals, enriching the soil of our social lives so that our epistemic lives can collectively grow strong.

But one thing is clear: the deep roots of conspiratorial theorizing in America about climate change must be considered and addressed if we hope to untangle this knotty existential problem. Without doing so, any substantive attempt to take action on climate policy stands a snowball’s chance on the rapidly-warming Earth.

Under Discussion: The Moral Necessity of International Agreements

photograph of national flags from all over the world flying

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On his first day in office, newly elected President Joe Biden signed an executive order officially rejoining the United States to the 2015 Paris Agreement. President Obama initially joined the treaty during the end of his second term. However, one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president was to withdraw the U.S.’s pledge, and this process took over 3 years, only technically going into effect just before he lost the 2020 election.

The Paris Agreement is by no means the first international environmental treaty. Many prominent international environmental treaties followed the 1972 Stockholm Declaration. These international environmental agreements have tackled everything from acid rain to whaling. One of the most famous international environmental efforts was the 1987 Montreal Protocol in which countries pledged to drastically decrease their CFC consumption in order to preserve the ozone layer. While the context might be different, the essential function of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement are essentially the same: sideline national interests in order to address a pressing global environmental problem. In fact, the issues are so similar, that these two agreements have been compared.

There are many moral considerations when assessing whether or not international agreements are the most efficient and fair method for addressing environmental problems. Below are some to consider.

Are international agreements which impose differing standards across nations fair and equitable?

Then-President Trump cited many reasons for pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but chief among them was the assertion that the agreement was unfair to the United States. Trump was technically correct in his assertion that there were different mitigation expectations across participating nations. For example, under the Paris Agreement, Europe and the United States are responsible for cutting a larger part of their emissions compared to higher emission countries such as China. However, Trump’s criticism fails to recognize two major considerations of this arrangement which make it more equitable.

Climate change is an environmental problem which has its origins in over a century of industrial pollution. Though China may currently be emitting more greenhouse gases than the United States, the majority of the existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were emitted by the United States and European countries. For this reason, the United States and Europe might be fairly expected to reduce their emissions by more because they technically share a larger portion of the responsibility for the current crisis.

Additionally, imposing larger restrictions on Europe and the U.S. fairly acknowledges the economic privileges which countries in the West and Global North hold. Historically, international environmental agreements have acknowledged the tension between the history of colonialism, economic development, and environmental protection. The modern recognition of this tension is due in large part to a 1967 declaration to the United Nations by the Group of 77 (G77), a coalition of countries in the Global South, which demanded that the United Nations recognize the positionality of their environmental issues compared to those of powerful, former-colonizer, industrialized countries. The G77 were largely successful in pushing for economic considerations to be included in international environmental agreements.

Though Trump’s criticisms of the Paris Agreement may be unfounded, there are those who criticize the content of the agreement for not going far enough – either in terms of equity or addressing climate change. The Paris Agreement has been criticized as not aggressive enough by environmental activists. Some might also point out that “developed countries” are still not obliged to carry their historical and population-weighted burden in the Paris Climate Agreement. Outside of these valid content-driven criticisms, is there something more to critique about the Paris Agreement from a procedural perspective?

Do international agreements present an irresolvable conflict between national and international interests?

Many prominent Republicans have painted the Paris Agreement as a pledge to put the well-being of the citizens of foreign nations before those within the United States. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “By rejoining the Paris Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.” Ignoring the questionable analogy drawn by that statement, is Cruz correct that this international climate agreement unethically sacrifices the interests of the United States’ citizens?

While there might be other types of environmental damage which provide a more unbalanced benefit/detriment scheme in terms of aggressors to victims, a pretty fundamental aspect of climate change is that it will affect climate across the globe. Though some geographical areas will experience more intense changes in climate compared to others, the United States stands to suffer largely from climate change. Climate projections for the next 50 years predict that the United States will have to change the way people farm in the Midwest, the way people use water in the West, and where people live relative to the coasts. These changes, and more, will likely usher a social and economic crisis without mitigation of greenhouse emissions and adaptation to the changing climate. Ted Cruz’s assertion that joining the Paris Agreement forsakes national interests in the name of internationalism is evidently untrue. The United States stands to gain a lot from promoting a cooperative effort in which all nations pledge to reduce their carbon emissions.

Does the nature of climate change necessitate international agreements to actualize solutions?

Setting aside the half-century’s worth of international cooperation in reference to environmental issues, can one still make the case for the importance of an international agreement to address climate change specifically? The function of international agreements is to not only declare and acknowledge, as a world, that certain issues are worthy of our effort and attention, but also to create incentive to actively and cooperatively address major environmental catastrophes. Technically, all nations within the Paris Agreement can perform any of the actions within their pledge without joining the agreement itself. So why go to all the trouble to structure, debate, and sign the treaty? International agreements address both the moral and practical considerations raised by climate change and other international environmental catastrophes. Practically, cooperation is a more effective method for combating problems for which there is no clear and direct cause and effect, a conundrum common in collective moral harms. To collectively combat climate change, countries must share resources, technology, and scientific data. Without an organized structure in which to participate, climate change would likely be impossible to efficiently address. Another reason why international agreements play an important role is that climate change requires moral obligations staked in cooperation in order to effectively and fairly tackle the issue. Without international agreements, countries which contribute the most to climate change could simply choose to do nothing – a track the United States appeared to be on during the Trump presidency. The stark injustice, geographically, economically, and racially, which climate change threatens to unleash, morally demands a widespread cooperative effort to combat.

Do nations have an individual moral obligation to prevent harm to other nations?

Putting aside practical and justice-based concerns, is there a moral obligation on an individual basis for countries to limit their contributions to climate change? Generally, the principle of do no harm is recognized in international environmental law quite frequently. This principle is so fundamental to international environmental cooperation, it appeared in the first international environmental agreement, Principle 21 of the Stockholm Convention. Principle 21 strikes the balance between national interest and moral imperative and has since been referenced by modern international environmental treaties. Aside from the consistent international recognition of this moral principle, it is also quite intuitive.

It is clear at this point that the emission of greenhouse gasses causes harm in the form of climate change – both to human beings and to the environment. Based on this consideration alone, there is arguably a moral imperative as a nation to do everything within our power to prevent our contribution to climate change. Joining the Paris Climate Agreement is an important step in this process, as it holds the United States accountable within the context of our collective obligation to prevent climate change.

Under Discussion: Economic Concerns for a Green Future

photograph of power plant smoke blotting out sun

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

Since taking his oath of office on January 20, 2021, President Biden has quickly taken steps toward fulfilling his promise to make combating climate change a key policy priority for his administration. This agenda marks a dramatic change from the actions of the Trump administration, which systematically rolled back over one hundred environmental protections and regulations. One of the first steps President Biden took was to begin the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, an international commitment to roll back carbon emissions. President Trump began the process of withdrawing the United States from the agreement in 2017. The central climate goals of the Biden administration are to decarbonize the U.S. power sector by the year 2035 and to make the U.S a 100% clean energy economy with zero net emissions by the year 2050. In the short term, he is pausing new drilling on public lands. President Biden intends for the United States to be a global climate leader during his administration, using climate demands as leverage in deliberations with foreign powers to encourage other countries to also put climate first.

The responses to President Biden’s climate agenda are not all worth considering. Anthropogenic climate change deniers continue to exist and probably always will. Some deniers are more inclined to believe climate conspiracies than they are to trust the consensus view among experts in climate science. Some people, politicians in particular, continue to deny that anthropogenic climate change is happening because they receive donations from the fossil fuel industry or because they know that their voting constituency values fossil fuels over climate. These segments of society can be loud, but the arguments that they are offering aren’t compelling.

Dissenting voices that pose more of a challenge come from those who are afraid of losing their jobs or worry that the economy will become weak if we abandon fossil fuels. Energy is a significant part of our economy, and the fossil fuel industry is the biggest part of that sector, comprising roughly 63%. There is no doubt that pursuing a green energy future will be a substantial change that will displace many workers in the U.S. and abroad. Those that think that these economic considerations should outweigh other consequences seem to be operating according to a principle that says something like: “If a policy leads to loss of employment in a particular field on a large scale, that policy should be rejected.” Do we have good reason to believe that such a principle is true? Several arguments speak against it.

First, if the concern is that the economy will collapse under the pressure of abandoning the fossil fuel industry or that large segments of the population will be permanently out of work, we can look back to other major shifts in our economic system which demonstrate that this is not so. For instance, before the emergence of the modern fossil fuel industry, we used products extracted from the carcasses of whales. Whale oil provided flammable material for lanterns and candles. It was used to make soap, margarine, and to grease mechanical equipment. Before the discovery of plastics, we used baleen (essentially whale bones) to construct the ribbing of corsets and to make children’s toys. We used the bodies of whales to make and do so many things that for some time, whaling was the fifth largest segment of the economy. When we shifted from whale products to fossil fuels and plastics, some jobs disappeared but other jobs were created.

Despite the usefulness of whale products, there were plenty of good reasons to put an end to the whaling industry. Not least among these reasons is that the practice drove whale populations to the brink of extinction. Countless sentient beings were killed and those who were not were frequently seriously wounded during attempts on their lives. The whaling industry was also very dangerous for the humans who participated in it. Often, entire vessels would sink. On other occasions, whalers would be seriously hurt or even killed in battles with whales fighting for their lives. The work involved for the people who actually put themselves in harm’s way was tremendously exploitative; it was not the typical sailor who would get rich from the endeavor. Instead, it was the captain of the ship or the financier.

Despite all of this death, destruction, and exploitation, the whaling industry persisted for centuries. Arguments against it were not taken seriously. How would society function without whaling? What would people who earned their livelihoods from whaling do if the industry suddenly came to an end?

Though some whaling still occurs, the presence of market alternatives brought an end to the whaling industry as a pervasive practice. In the mid-1800’s, we started extracting oil from reservoirs in the ground. In the early 1900s, we developed plastics. In the end, moral arguments didn’t kill the whaling industry, market alternatives did. Those who did the perilous work of killing whales found employment in different sectors.

The threat posed by anthropogenic climate change is many degrees of magnitude greater than the threat posed by whaling. It isn’t just human lives or the lives of whales that are at risk; climate change presents risks for all life on earth, for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Those that contribute to the problem least will be the hardest hit. We can hope that these moral arguments won’t be similarly ignored.

Happily, market alternatives to fossil fuels have existed for quite some time, but the United States has been reluctant to pursue them aggressively. If the concern is loss of jobs, the green energy sector has the potential to replace those that are lost. One of President Biden’s goals for his first term is to make changes that will result in 10 million clean energy jobs that pay high wages and offer benefits and worker protections.

What’s more, we don’t apply the principle, “If a policy leads to loss of employment in a particular field on a large scale, that policy should be rejected” to all possible jobs, only those that preserve our existing systems of power. When a Wal-Mart moves in across the street and puts a mom-and-pop shop out of business, politicians rarely raise concerns about the jobs lost. In those cases, “that’s just the way the market works.” In the case of fossil fuels, the concern doesn’t really seem to be about loss of jobs, it seems to be fear that the people who currently have power will lose it. People with money and power rarely want to give up the source of those things, regardless of what might be at stake.

President Biden’s climate goals are ambitious and it’s far from certain that we can achieve them, especially given the fact that many of these proposals will require collaboration between political parties. That seems close to impossible to achieve in this political climate. It is unfortunate that there is such political gridlock on this issue. If there weren’t fortunes to be defended, one would think that everyone could come together on this. A green energy future would be indisputably better for the lives and health of everyone and for the natural beauty of this planet.

Under Discussion: The Marginalization of the Future

photograph of human shadow stretching out over dry lakebed

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

Predictive models projecting the course of global temperature rise and general climate change have been largely accurate. As the anticipated effects have become clearly manifest in weather effects, governments, businesses, and individuals have begun to consider the grim future that awaits. And yet across the world, especially in the United States, many people continue to deny that human action is responsible for climate change. Or, even where people acknowledge the reality of climate change, they do not deign to take action. Frequently this inaction stems from a conflict between the scope of the needed action, and a belief in individualist and free-market ethics.

Proponents of free-market views on economics and ethics argue that what is most efficient or most ethical, respectively, is to allow individuals to negotiate one-on-one exchanges in accordance with their preferences. This is the rationale behind at-will and right-to-work employment laws and the repeal of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, among other things. Anathema to a free market is centrally-coordinated action from strong governments or monopolistic corporations. This is where the reticence of even those who recognize the looming danger of climate change enters. They disagree that either massively and centrally-coordinated actions are necessary or that such action, even if in some sense pressing, is not politically or ethically acceptable.

Why not? What could be unacceptable about massive and centrally-coordinated action? The idea is that such action necessarily tramples on individual preferences. If most individuals want to act on climate change, then they will make deals in the market to affect that change and top-down institutional action will be superfluous and risk creating a tyranny that outlasts the current emergency.

What can easily evade our attention here is what does not get mentioned: nothing is said about the people and creatures that will inherit the world as shaped by our choices. People who do not yet exist do not have preferences and so the free market had no direct mechanism to factor in their interests. This difficulty is highlighted by a constellation of issues known as the non-identity problem, future individual paradox, or intergenerational justice. (Note: intergenerational justice also covers the rights and interests of past and deceased persons.)

The marginalization of future persons within a free-market decision-making structure is a deep-seated, structural problem. A free-market exchange assumes that interested individuals are directly interacting to advocate for their preferences or interacting through an agent who will do so. And future persons are not the only entities marginalized in this way: any lifeforms that cannot secure meaningful advocacy for themselves are effectively marginalized. The forms of racism, misogyny, and other invidious bigotry with which we are all too familiar also operated (partially) through this mechanism. Whereas future persons do not exist to advocate for themselves, oppressed groups have been — and are — deliberately prevented from such advocacy. Like future persons, non-human animals and the inanimate environment are, by the nature of their existence, incapable of advocating for themselves.

But don’t people with the ability to advocate for marginalized entities do so? Can’t that solve the problem? In short, no. In the case of currently existing human beings, there has proven to be no substitute for self-advocacy or advocacy through others who share a meaningfully similar perspective. Hence the importance of historic firsts in political representation, like Kamala HarrisRaphael WarnockDeb HaalandIlhan OmarSarah McBrideRashida Tlaib, and Jon Ossof. However, there is no way to extend the power of political participation to animals, the environment, or future persons.

While there is rhetoric to the effect that we must consider how our actions will affect the world inherited by those that come after us, its reach is often limited and the motivations behind it sometimes suspect. Deficit hawks in U.S. politics wring their hands and rend their garments about the debt we are foisting on our children and grandchildren as a way to avoid spending money on current problems that aren’t in line with their preferences. Many young people are concerned for the world that they will have to live in imminently and seethe at the injustice of having to clean up the mess made by their predecessors. This latter concern is not illegitimate — it simply isn’t the same as concern for people who do not yet exist.

COVID-19 to Climate Change: Who Can Act?

photograph of national flags flying at UN

Many parts of the world have been isolating for months. These measures have caused a drastic reduction in the processes that represent individual’s impacts on the environment, including gasoline consumption related to commutes and transportation to visit loved ones and eating out. Airlines and cruise ships have not been able to make port calls in the US and have largely cancelled vacations for months. The unprecedented human isolation has led to a number of reports about how cities are “returning to nature,” running the gamut of dubious to reliable (no, dolphins weren’t returning to the canals of Venice, but some penguins and goats hopefully had a fun time exploring their local cities free of humans noisily lugging ourselves about).

However, a number of expert trackers report that all of these different and dramatic behaviors on our part have made only a slight impact on the climate efforts that nations have been pushing for in the recent decades. If this were true, we could be dispirited – even with this much change in our behavior, perhaps there is no hope in fixing or altering our climate reality. Luckily, environmental ethics have been framing this question for decades with this very assumption in place.

There are two issues related to individual impact on climate change: empirical issues and normative ones.

The empirical question is whether individuals contribute to the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment? This question gets at the sort of behaviors that are making changes for flora, fauna, and climatic conditions on our planet. For instance, we see plastics in the ocean killing turtles and altering their habitat. We see the Great Pacific Garbage patch, making a huge impact on untold oceanic conditions. We see the deep sea fishing trawlers disturbing seabeds that make up habitats of a great number of creatures and disturb the water conditions that go on to impact many more.

When we look at these issues from the lens of individual behaviors, we think that to help the number of plastics in the ocean killing sea turtles, for instance, we should use sustainable straws; to help the Great Pacific Garbage patch, we should recycle and create less waste. To reduce the impact of deep-sea fishing, we should be mindful of our seafood consumption. The underlying assumption there is that individual behaviors contribute to the current conditions, and therefore altering them can make a difference to them. However, evidence is mounting that individuals will not resolve the climate issues we are facing. Individuals recycling and reducing plastic use will not make a sufficient dent in plastic pollution, for instance. According to Ted A. Warfield in “Eating Dead Animals,” the individual choice to refrain from consuming or purchasing meat will not make a significant difference in the damages of the meat industry.

These adjustments have largely been hypotheticalit’s hard to get masses of people to change their habits. Let’s turn to the current impact of isolationone of the most drastic mass adjustments to individual behaviors in this generation. Consider the amount that carbon emissions have actually dropped since isolation measures began in the US: they are down approximately 6% according to some sources, a feat that regulations and treaties have failed to accomplish. Significantly, this drop in emissions seems to be the result almost solely of individual behavior shifts. However, it is important to note that this drop is STILL lower than the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and according to the UN we need to cut emissions by 7.6% every year to stand a chance of avoiding the catastrophic heating of our planet. As Guardian correspondent George Manbiot says, “The lockdown exposes the limits of individual action. Travelling less helps, but not enough. To make the necessary cuts we need structural change.”

The second, normative, issue related to the individual impact on climate change is the extent to which individuals are responsible or the ones at fault for the current issues we are seeing affecting the environment. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that it is not the responsibility of the individual to reduce the impact humans are having on climate change. Because climate change is a global challenge, groups that exist at the global level hold the responsibility for addressing it: governments. The way that governments can address climate change include enforcing regulations on corporations and industries that have high carbon emissions (airline and cruise companies), that create waste that harms biomes (chemical, paper, and paint manufacturing), and whose practices inhibit the healthy functioning of habitats (deep sea fishing, intensive animal farming).

When governments fail to address these global, shared problems, the responsibility for fixing them does not necessarily disseminate to individuals. Problems that exist that require more than individual efforts to solve, like repairing bridges and tunnels, and building roads, create group responsibilities. The fault for not addressing climate change is at the level of governments and members of international communities that are in a position to regulate the operation of corporations and industries that are causing damage to our collective resources.

Thus, the implication of the empirical issue is that the contribution of individual behaviors to mitigate or reverse climate change is minimal. The implication of the normative issue is that it is the responsibility of governments and international organizations to mitigate or reverse climate change. Hopefully, one of the results of this time of international crisis can be the realization that it is not just pandemics that require the development of international will and coordination in times of global need.