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The Speaker’s Climate Change Skepticism

photograph of Louisiana state flag before clouded sky

After a tumultuous election process House Republicans finally elected Louisiana representative Michael Johnson as Speaker of the House on October 25th. As the relatively unknown politician takes up one of the most powerful positions in American governance, he has come under scrutiny for his strident Evangelicism, denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and climate change skepticism.

Beyond his staunchly oil and gas voting record, a crucial red flag was a 2017 comment: “The climate is changing, but the question is, is it being caused by natural cycles over the span of Earth’s history. Or is it changing because we drive SUVs?” There is little reason to believe Johnson has become any more serious about climate change since then. For the majority of the American public, who want the government to do more to address climate change, Johnson’s position is disturbing. Such comments are also at odds with the consensus of the scientific community. But are they morally wrong?

Typically, we would consider someone’s position on climate change a factual matter, as opposed to a moral one. However, the factual and the moral are often entangled. First, because our belief in certain facts often has direct moral implications. Lives are literally on the line with climate change. Second, and more controversially, we might consider some beliefs themselves to be immoral, for example, pseudoscientific beliefs about the different intelligence of races. Part of the reason this is controversial is because some philosophers hold that people should not generally be held morally accountable for their beliefs, but only their actions.

Let us assume going forward that Speaker Johnson’s climate change skepticism is sincere. As a Representative from a state boasting a sizable oil and gas industry and as a recipient of oil and gas campaign donations, it can’t be ruled out that he is simply cynically lying about his personal beliefs to fatten his pockets. This would not be good of course, but it would hardly present a moral conundrum. More challenging is what to make of sincere climate skepticism.

To be clear, sincerity does not legitimate climate skepticism. Johnson is not a scientist, he is a lawyer, and it is unlikely that his position is formed based on serious confrontation with the scientific evidence. Like most of us, his stance on climate change probably came from some casual reading and the views of his social circle. We might suspect that motivated reasoning – where what he wants to believe subconsciously impacts what he does believe – is at play.  But none of this seems especially unethical, it’s merely human. In fact, given the long history of disinformation deployed by the fossil fuel industry to promulgate doubt about human-caused global warming, to hold someone accountable for sincere climate change skepticism is essentially to condemn them for believing someone else’s lies.

On the grounds that Johnson is sincere, and he did not “choose” his climate change skepticism, most philosophers would find it difficult to hold him morally accountable for this ignorance. But it is not impossible. One option would be if his climate skepticism is not so accidental after all. Imagine for example that Mike Johnson’s clerks prepared a report on the evidence for human caused climate change, and Representative Johnson declined to read it because he worried it would lead him to doubt his oil and gas initiatives in Louisiana. Here, in an important sense, Johnson chose ignorance.

Alternatively, we may argue that Johnson failed to live up to a reasonable expectation to form more accurate beliefs about climate change. This argument may apply especially strongly to someone in his position. As a member of Congress he has access to extensive resources and, so the argument goes, he should have used some of these resources to understand climate change more fully. In other words, this line of argument contends his ignorance is unreasonable, and therefore worthy of moral condemnation.

We can slightly tweak this, arguing that it is not simply about the resources he has available, but rather the nature of his position. He is a public servant with a responsibility to the people, and therefore his climate skepticism could be viewed as a failure to uphold the obligations of his office. Under this analysis, the moral concern about climate change skepticism does not attach to everyone, but rather specifically to those with certain kinds of responsibilities, such as politicians. Although the precise ethical contours of Johnson’s responsibilities to his voters, his party, his state, and his country is a complicated question in representative democracy, especially with so few republican voters seeing climate change as a priority.

Then there are attributionist approaches. Attributionist theories of moral responsibility aren’t concerned with whether or not Speaker Johnson chose to be a climate change skeptic, but rather what him being a climate skeptic says about him as a person and how he regards others. In some cases, like racist beliefs, it is clear how one’s belief leads to a negative evaluation of their moral character. If you learn that someone holds a bushel of racist beliefs, you learn something about who they are. Climate change skepticism does not involve vicious beliefs about others in the same way as racism, but could there be relevant similarities? Mike Johnson’s home state of Louisiana is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and has been deeply affected by hurricanes, tropical storm, heat waves, invasive species, and other environmental harms at least partly stemming from a warming climate. From an attributionist perspective, one can argue that Johnson’s dismissal of the human harms of climate change, illustrates a morally troubling callousness and he deserves moral condemnation on this ground.

Outside of challenging metaphysical considerations of when people are morally responsible for what beliefs, we might also focus on the real world expressions and practices of moral blame in response to Mike Johnson. For even if public moral condemnation does not intersect with some ultimate truth about moral responsibility, it can tell a story about what Americans care about, and what beliefs they will or will not accept in their leaders.

Nematodes, Climate Change, and Extinction Level Events

microscopic image of nematode

Human-driven global warming is having devastating impacts around the world. The Earth is warmer now than it has been since records began. Indeed, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the planet is hotter now than it has been in 125,000 years. This has led to record temperatures across the globe, with doctors in some places, like Arizona, having to treat people for third-degree burns after simply touching the pavement. Combine this with the deadly Mediterranean wildfires, the rapid rise in sea temperatures, and the shifting ocean currents, and we are on course for a bleak future.

However, while scientists have been predicting many of these impacts for decades, some more unusual happenings have come a little out of left field: case in point, the survival of ancient nematodes, a type of roundworm.

Now, I know that worms do not seem exciting compared to entire islands being ablaze or the seas getting so warm that there is a mass die-off of ocean life. Yet, these worms are fascinating as they are old, very old.

In an article in PloS Genetics, scientists recount how they discovered the frozen worms while excavating a fossilized squirrel burrow in northeastern Serbia. After bringing them back to their lab, the scientists thawed the worms, which are less than a millimeter long, and immersed them in a nutrition-rich environment. A couple of weeks later, the worms began wriggling and eating. Sadly, they died after only a few months, but not before reproducing, and now scientists and researchers are studying their descendants.

What makes this interesting is how long the worms had been in suspended animation. Similar species to the one excavated tend to live a total of 20-60 days. Yet, the worms recovered from Siberia were over 46,000 years old. This means that before they had gone into suspended animation, they were sharing the planet with Neanderthals, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers. In itself, this is incredible. Those worms excavated from the permafrost could have been the oldest living multicellular organism to have existed. At the very least, they are contenders for the crown of the oldest reanimated multicellular creature.

While these worms will not help humanity’s quest for functional cryopreservation, their discovery does have immediate implications for the study of biological evolution; as Professor Teymuras Kurzchalia notes, “Our findings are important for the understanding of evolutionary processes because generations times could be stretched from days to millenia, and long-term survival of individuals of species can lead to the refoundation of otherwise extinct lineages.” In other words, the scale at which some species play out their lives has been extended dramatically.

The reason these worms were accessible to those scientists is because the Siberian permafrost is melting, and it is melting because the planet is heating up. As the frost recedes, scientists and explorers will gain access to more natural time capsules like stumps, crevices, and maybe even small caves. This means that more and more discoveries of this nature might be possible, and even more worms and other invertebrates species could be revived. In turn, this could provide even more insight into the natural mechanisms that underpin life on this planet. After all, if it has happened once, that is some reason to believe it could happen again.

This possibility, however, is not all sunshine and rainbows. While learning about how life came to be is an inherent good, not every organism that emerges from the newly revealed earth might be as harmless as a worm. Some could be actively dangerous. That is not to say that dinosaurs could be exhumed from the ice, brought back to life, and immediately go on a rampage (despite what films like Dinosaurus! tell us). Instead, it is far more likely that global warming could release ancient viruses and other pathogens from their icy slumber. If this happened, it could have devastating consequences.

The prospect is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Jean-Michel Claverie, emeritus professor of medicine and genomics at the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in France, has been testing samples taken from the Siberian permafrost to see what viruses are contained within and whether any could still be infectious. He’s managed to revive viruses from samples over 48,500 years old. Fortunately, these viruses are harmless to humans, targeting only amoebas. This, however, is a result of his deliberate choosing, as he wishes to avoid reviving anything which might infect humans. Indeed, pathogens we are susceptible to could be buried just below the surface, simply waiting for global temperature to rise enough to release them.

This is not simply scaremongering either. In 1997, a body discovered in Alaska contained the genomic material from the virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (which killed roughly 500 million people). In 2012, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that mummified remains could be reservoirs of DNA fragments from ancient pathogens, including smallpox (which has killed more than 300 million people since 1900 alone). Finally, scientists traced an anthrax outbreak in Siberia directly back to the burial grounds of long-dead animals that had, until recently, been covered in permafrost (Anthrax being 100% fatal without treatment and only 55% survival with it).

In addition to the horrors we know about, the permafrost could harbor viruses and pathogens about which we have no idea, and more importantly, which our immune systems have no way of combating. As temperatures rise and increasing amounts of previously isolated ground are revealed, the danger grows that a disease that has not seen the light of day for hundreds of thousands of years, and to which we have no natural defense, could be released.

What does this mean for us? Well, in one sense, it should motivate us to up our efforts to reduce our carbon emissions, slowing and eventually reducing the global warming for which we are all responsible. On the other hand, however, we have already got a plethora of reasons to stop climate change, from ecological collapse to increasing the likelihood of war and famine. Is another potential danger going to tip us over the edge into more drastic action? Probably not.

Unfortunately, it seems that we may have to live with the ever-possible danger that the price for our modern way of life is the release of an ancient pathogen; one which could be as innocuous as the common cold, as deadly as smallpox, or potentially something far worse.

Good To Be Skeptical? Evidentialism and Climate Change

photograph of tree in the desert

When it comes to climate change, defining the limits of reasonable skepticism is not only a matter of intellectual curiosity, but also moral and political urgency. In contemporary scientific circles, skepticism is generally celebrated as a virtue. However, those who reject the near-consensus about anthropogenic climate change also claim the “skeptic” title. This raises an important question: What does it mean to be skeptical, and when is skepticism no longer praiseworthy?

Philosophers have often pondered the extent of human knowledge. Skeptics argue that our understanding is more limited than we tend to believe. Some skeptics even claim that we can never know anything, or that none of our beliefs are justified and we ought to suspend all judgment on all issues.

Many climate scientists claim the title “skeptic” for themselves and attach the label “denier” to their opponents. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, for example, has called on the media to stop using the term “skepticism” to refer to those who reject the prevailing climate consensus and to instead use the term “denial.” We can, according to Washington and Cook, authors of Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, think of the difference like this: “Skepticism is healthy both in science and society; denial is not.” However, when it comes to climate change, the term “skeptic” continues to be associated with those who reject the prevailing scientific consensus, blurring the line between skepticism and denial.

To better understand the differences between skepticism and denial, let’s consider a concrete example: the existence of ghosts. A ghost skeptic denies that we are justified in believing that ghosts exist. They neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts, as they think there isn’t enough evidence to justify a belief in ghosts. A ghost denier, conversely, decidedly believes that ghosts do not exist. They disbelieve in ghosts, arguing that ghosts are incompatible with our best understanding of how the laws of the universe work, and that, absent good evidence for ghosts, we should conclude they do not exist. In general, it is not necessarily better to be a skeptic than a denier. Whether we ought to disbelieve something or merely suspend judgment depends on the particular issue and the strength of the evidence we have.

So why do Washington and Cook think that denial is always a bad thing? Ultimately, they are referring to a very specific sense of “denial.” They mean someone who clings “to an idea or belief despite the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” This is a sense of denial that draws on Freudian psychoanalysis, which characterizes denial as a pathological defense mechanism that involves denying something because one wishes it weren’t true. Denial in this sense is the result of some kind of emotional or psychological incapacity to accept reality.

It is clearly bad to be a climate change denier, or any kind of denier, in the pathological sense Washington and Cook have in mind. However, we can’t assume everyone who denies the scientific consensus on climate change is suffering from a psychological disorder. Some genuinely believe the evidence they have seen does not justify a belief in anthropogenic climate change. Whether it is a mistake to disbelieve in man-made climate change depends entirely on the strength of the scientific evidence. In my own view, the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change is very strong and this, rather than some psychological defect, is what makes denial inappropriate.

However, it is worth noting that most of those who reject the consensus on climate change identify as “skeptics” rather than “deniers,” claiming that they have not yet formed a conclusion on the matter. But plenty of scientists who defend the prevailing view on climate change also think of themselves as still embracing skepticism. This raises the question: who is the real skeptic?

To answer that question, we first need to understand a distinction between philosophical skepticism and the scientific skepticism advocated by figures like Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. Shermer defines skepticism as striking the “right balance between doubt and certainty.” As William James notes, this contrasts with a philosophical skeptic who says, “Better go without belief forever rather than believe a lie!” Philosophical skeptics only think we should believe things that are absolutely certain. Scientific skeptics try to believe whatever the evidence suggests has a greater than 50% chance of being true. These are very different standards. To philosophers, scientific skepticism is just “evidentialism” – the principle that our beliefs should be based solely on available evidence.

So who are the real skeptics? Perhaps some climate skeptics are philosophical skeptics. Perhaps they think it is more likely than not that anthropogenic climate change is real, but that we still aren’t justified in believing it. In this case, climate skeptics might be the “real skeptics,” but only on an interpretation of skepticism that most scientists would think is deeply objectionable.

But most climate skeptics are not philosophical skeptics. As the philosophers Coady and Corry observe, the debate between climate change proponents and climate skeptics is not a dispute between two groups of skeptics, one scientific and one philosophical. Instead, it is a disagreement between two groups of evidentialists, who differ in their interpretations and evaluations of the evidence and hence in their beliefs. Of course, one side must be wrong and the other must be right. But both sides appeal to the evidence, as they see it, to justify their respective views.

Proponents of anthropogenic climate change often accuse climate skeptics of disregarding the wealth of evidence supporting their stance. Conversely, climate skeptics argue that climate change advocates are swayed by personal desires, emotions, or political ideologies. But, at bottom, both criticisms reveal a shared commitment to evidentialism. These are accusations of forming beliefs based on things other than the best available evidence – of violating evidentialism. Neither side of the climate debate adopts the extreme skeptical position of suspending all judgment and belief, regardless of the evidence at hand.

Acknowledging that most people on both sides of this issue are committed to an evidentialist approach is crucial, because it encourages both sides to engage in a constructive dialogue that focuses on the merits of proof, rather than resorting to ad hominem attacks or accusations of bias. By emphasizing the importance of evaluating the strength and reliability of the evidence, it becomes possible to move beyond the polarizing and confusing labels of “skeptic” and “denier” and engage in a more fruitful discussion. Perhaps this could help reverse the current trend in public opinion toward climate skepticism.

Given that both sides of the climate change debate are committed to evidentialism, instead of squabbling over the label “skeptic,” which neither side should want to claim given its philosophical meaning, our focus should return to simply assessing the facts.

Gas Stoves: A Kitchen Culture Clash

photograph of gas burner being lit

Progressive and conservative media flared up last month over an issue tucked in the side of your kitchen: gas stoves. This surprise episode in America’s culture wars aired after a Biden administration official, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, suggested that it is considering restricting or even banning gas stoves in the wake of a new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a study that alleges that gas stoves threaten public health and damage the environment. This kitchen equipment drama featured conservative media lambasting the administration for its latest show of “paternalism” and “green extremism,” progressive media rushing to deny that the administration was moving to ban them and yet also to defend the soundness of gas stove bans that have already been passed in states like New York, and the Biden administration itself denying that it wants to ban them entirely while supporting states that did.

In the midst of all this political hubbub, many are left to wonder: why does it matter whether gas stoves are banned?

The pro-ban crowd shares a few reasons for its case. First, gas stoves pose a risk to public health. The study that prompted the ban debate alleges that gas stoves emit enough detrimental fumes that children who inhale risk developing asthma. Second, gas stoves damage the environment. The fumes from gas stoves contain enough greenhouse gasses to contribute to climate change. Thus, to slow the rate of climate change, one small but meaningful change we can make to our lives is to switch out our gas stoves for electric ones. Even if the change might pale in comparison to other solutions — like moving away from fossil fuels in our electricity supply — we should do it anyways because, as some say, we must treat climate change as a World War II-esque threat and mobilize of all our available resources to fight it. Thus, to protect public health and the environment, the pro-ban team says we should ban gas stoves.

The anti-ban crowd shares a few reasons for its case. First, they allege that the study used to justify public health and environment concerns lacks scientific merit and is only being touted for aligning with the partisan motives of the Biden administration. They say that the study’s findings are misdirected; if true, this would not only undermine the case for banning gas stoves but would erode trust in the Biden administration: surely it is wrong to distort science to further one’s political agenda, an especially nefarious type of virtue signaling.

Second, they allege that even if there were some slight detrimental effects of gas stoves concerning public health and the environment, the cost of keeping gas stoves is surely lower than the cost — to consumers’ wallets and freedom — of replacing all gas stoves with electric stoves. Thus, it would be imprudent to ban stoves; this side may recognize that climate change is real, but they also recognize that unchecked, militaristic zeal to “fight climate change” might create graver problems than it solves. Such a climate crusade might keep the Earth’s average temperature less than 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels, but it could spark inflation, arrest economic growth, and thus also cause chronic unemployment.

Third, along similar lines, the anti-ban crowd alleges that there is a glaring inconsistency in the principles behind support for banning gas stoves: if equipment that risks harm to public health and the environment should be banned, then shouldn’t we ban cars, trains, ships, and planes? Thus, according to the anti-ban crowd, we should reject the mentioned principle that underlies the logic of the pro-ban crowd, for, if we followed it to its logical conclusions, we would have to commit ourselves to policies that we cannot undertake.

Fourth, perhaps more obviously, the anti-ban crowd fears that banning gas stoves would violate the principle of consumer autonomy through excessive government oversight in the kitchen. In short, the anti-ban crowd objects to gas stove bans on the grounds that they are motivated by the wrong things, are imprudent, and derive from an untenable principle.

Thus, there are two main camps on the gas stove issue, and neither seems willing to budge. Yet, the responsible citizen should resist the temptation to turn to tribalism and deny that the other side has good points. Although an anti-ban zealot might claim that the pro-ban crowd represents the side of green hysteria and government nannying, no one can disagree that public health and environmental care are important. Likewise, although a pro-ban zealot might claim that the anti-ban crowd is motivated by feigned outrage, fanned by the specious reasoning and spicy rhetoric of conservative media, no one can deny that honesty in science, prudence in policy, and soundness in principle are noble aims toward which we should all strive.

Ultimately, each side takes its respective stance with admirable intentions, and the responsible citizen should authentically engage with each side, listening to its reasoning and judging the issue for theirself.  In doing so, they should ask themself: what is the key ingredient to a healthy, environmentally clean kitchen — individual responsibility or government intervention?

Justice and Climate Change

photograph of oil pumps in the desert

A recent analysis by Harvard researchers vindicated the work of ExxonMobil’s internal scientists. As far back as the 1970s, Exxon not only knew about human-caused climate change, but had impressively accurate predictions regarding the global temperature over the next several decades. This analysis adds to the pile of documentation concerning the oil giant’s role in climate change misinformation.

Since the story broke in 2015, it has been clear that Exxon was aware of the threat of global warming – to the planet and to company profits – and shifted gears from open discussion to the seeding of doubt. The new research establishes just how good their early internal science was, and accordingly, just how deliberately obfuscatory their tactics.

And so we come to “climate justice.” This slogan designates that anthropogenic climate change is not just an ethical issue, it is a moral one. Typically the concern is one of fairness, and how the burden of fixing climate change should be distributed. What is each country’s responsibility? How does this intersect with their wealth, their historical benefit from fossil consumption, and their expected impact from climate change? Nonetheless, this does not exhaust the space of justice. Lady Justice holds a sword as well as scales.

What should climate justice, in the sense of holding people accountable, look like?

One approach is “atmospheric trust litigation” championed by the organization Our Children’s Trust. They are currently involved in a number of lawsuits against the United States government exemplified by the ongoing case Juliana v. United States which alleges that there is a general right to an atmospheric system capable of sustaining life that has been violated by the actions of the government, and seeks injunctions that would curb the use of fossil fuels.

The core idea is that the atmosphere is a public trust held by the state for public use and the government has failed as trustee, that is, failed to protect and maintain the atmosphere adequately for the public.

It remains to be seen whether this is a good approach to seek legal remedy for anthropogenic climate change, but if one wants to penalize or deter the actions of specific individuals or companies this approach will not work. For ultimately it is the United States government broadly understood that is the target of the lawsuits. An alternative is to not just pursue civil cases against the government, but hold corporations or select actors within, directly accountable for their actions in either causing climate change or deliberately deceiving politicians, shareholders, or the public about climate change.

William Tucker, a lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has argued (in an individual capacity, not on behalf of the EPA) that fraud is another possibility for holding certain actors civilly and criminally liable. This is nearer to a retributive or deterrent understanding of climate justice. A number of cases have been filed against companies like ExxonMobil for their deceptive business practices, including one in New York (which ended in failure) and an ongoing case in Massachusetts.

A different tack is found in the work of lawyer and activist Polly Higgens. She sought to make ecocide, or the deliberate destruction of ecosystems, a crime under international law. The campaign to make it a law is ongoing, but if successful, people could be criminally prosecuted for gross environmental harms in countries that accepted ecocide as a crime. The notion is increasingly prevalent in European debates on climate change. A similar proposal by political theorist Catriona McKinnon is the inclusion of postericide among international criminal law, for those who engaged in “reckless conduct fit to bring about the extinction of humanity.” These proposals both focus on the harms of human-caused climate change, not just the coverup. The United Nations has also indicated its intent to see criminal prosecution for environmental and climate harms, although their approach is not yet clear.

Especially for Americans, a more crime-based approach to dealing with climate change is unfamiliar.

Narratives of climate change, partially spread by fossil fuel companies, tend to focus on who is responsible for the burning of fossil fuels and often hold a mirror to the modern Western lifestyle. Beef eating, plane travel, and even having children emerge as climate sins. (See the Prindle Post’s ongoing discussion regarding Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change.)

And yet, while climate change has literally billions of contributors, it is only a small number of people in select positions that truly could have acted differently and made an appreciable difference in the current climate crisis. Almost all of us have left a light on, but few of us knew about climate change in the 1970s and chose to launch a multidecade campaign to obscure the truth.

One potential concern is that treating climate change as a crime is inherently retrospective. It may feel good to get the bad guys, but it will not solve the fundamental problem. Although this concern is not unique to climate change – it applies just the same in cases of murder. The dead cannot be brought back to life simply by punishing the wrongdoer.

Different approaches to justice answer this challenge differently. A retributive stance alleges that criminals deserve their due even if it does not undo the harms they committed. Whereas a deterrent perspective focuses instead on discouraging similar behavior in the future.

ExxonMobil’s climate change disinformation campaign is not an outlier, but is a textbook example of a very modern – and challenging – form of immoral action. The public relations strategy of big oil to cast doubt on climate change was the exact same pursued by big tobacco to cast doubt on the health effects of cigarettes. Even the same public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton Strategies, was involved.

People placed high-up in the vast institutional structures erected during the 20th century, like the modern corporation, make decisions – perhaps for profit, perhaps for power – that can have the downstream effect of harming many, many people. Such actions are ill-fit to our intuitions of crime and punishment. A potential crime such as spreading climate change misinformation with the resources of a multibillion-dollar company is characterized by the incredible scale of potential harms, but also by a complete lack of viscerality. It is not gruesome, it is not personal. The causal connection between an executive decision to cast aspersions on climate science and someone dying in an extreme weather event is complicated by the convolutions of corporate structure and the mercuriality of weather. (Although there are scientific methods to tie climate change to specific weather events.)

Nonetheless, a societal answer to this question – of how to ground meaningful accountability for actions mediated by giant institutions – is vitally important. For the harms conducted by a lone murderer pale compared to the damage that can be done with the resources at the hands of governments and corporations.

Climate Justice and COP27

image of earth for international climate summit

The 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (known more simply as COP27) is currently underway. These conferences are an opportunity for countries to agree upon policies that will limit global temperature rise. They also provide a forum for discussing ways in which current climate harms can be addressed. This year, climate justice is at the forefront of discussions – with the COP27 Presidency launching the Sharm el-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda. This agenda would attempt to provide assistance for the four billion people living in the most climate vulnerable communities.

But what, exactly, is “climate justice”?

Usually when we think of justice, we think of judges and courtrooms. And while justice might include things like crime and punishment, it extends much further than that. In the context of ethics, “justice” might best be understood as fairness – or as people getting what they deserve.

It is just, for example, for one of my students to receive a good grade for the brilliant essay that they write. It would be unjust, on the other hand, for me to give them a low grade merely because I don’t like their choice of font.

How, then, does justice apply to the climate crisis?

Despite our attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the world is already getting warmer – and this rise in temperature is leading to an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. It’s behind the heatwave in the U.K., the fires in Washington, and the floods that have left more than one third of Pakistan under water. These climate harms are disproportionately experienced by certain countries. What’s more, those most affected by the negative effects of climate change are some of those least responsible for the crisis. Pakistan, for example, emits less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Adaptation Agenda being discussed at COP27 would establish a “loss and damage” fund to assist countries that suffer climate-related severe weather events.

The important question, however, is who should pay for such a fund. One approach would be to have all countries contribute equally to such a fund. Alternatively, we might look to the idea of justice to establish which parties should contribute – and to what extent.

Generally, three different approaches to justice crop up in these discussions: (1) The Polluter Pays Principle, (2) The Beneficiary Pays Principle, and (3) The Ability to Pay Principle. The differences between these principles are subtle, and can perhaps best be understood by way of an analogy.

Suppose that we’re heading into a severe winter, and that I diligently accumulate a generous woodpile to keep my fireplace lit – and my home warm – for the duration of the chilly season. Suppose, however, that one of my neighbors – Neighbor A – sneaks into my yard one night and steals my entire woodpile. Neighbor A isn’t greedy, however. They already have enough wood for the winter. Instead, Neighbor A delivers the wood to Neighbor B – a neighbor who did not yet have any firewood. I, however, am now entirely without firewood. To make matters more dire, let’s assume that I don’t have the ability to collect or pay for more firewood. Who, then, should be responsible for helping me? Who should restock my woodpile?

While there might be certain exceptions, we generally hold people responsible for the problems they create. If I spill a bottle of milk, I should clean it up. If I break my friend’s phone, I should replace it.

We might refer to this as the duty to clean up your own mess. In the firewood example, this would put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Neighbor A. This is the neighbor who stole my firewood in the first place, so this is the person who now has an obligation to restock my woodpile.

In the context of environmental ethics, this approach is referred to as the Polluter Pays Principle. Put simply, it holds that the polluter (or polluters) are responsible for any harms resulting from their actions – and that the cost of remedying these harms should be shared proportionately among those polluters. It’s easy, then, to see what the Polluter Pays Principle would say regarding the loss and damage fund: those who have created the most greenhouse gas emissions should be contributing the most to the fund.

But instead of focusing exclusively on who has caused harm, we might also look at who has benefited  from that harm.

Returning to the firewood example, Neighbor A hasn’t really got anything out of the theft of my firewood. Neighbor B, on the other hand, has. They are now in possession of an entire winter’s worth of free firewood. Given this, we might argue that they – the beneficiary of the theft – are the ones that are best placed to replace my firewood. This approach is what’s known as the Beneficiary Pays Principle.

This approach is particularly useful when it comes to the climate crisis, since those who are benefiting from greenhouse gas emissions aren’t always the ones creating those emissions. Take Australia, for example. Australia is the second largest exporter of thermal coal in the world. When this coal is burned, Australia technically isn’t the one doing the polluting. They are, however, benefiting enormously from selling fuel for others to pollute. In fact, if the emissions from their exported coal were taken into account, Australia’s annual per capita carbon emissions (which are already the eleventh highest in the world) would more than double.

There is one final approach that we might consider, however. Suppose that, throughout my firewood theft saga, there is a third neighbor: Neighbor C. This neighbor plays no part whatsoever in the theft of my firewood. They do, however, have an enormous cache of firewood; enough to keep their home – and many other homes – warm throughout the winter. Given this overabundance, we might argue that they have some obligation to step in and come to the rescue. This is precisely what the Ability to Pay Principle suggests: that those with the means to help are under a moral obligation to do so.

When it comes to something like a loss and damage fund, then, the Ability to Pay Principle would recommend that we don’t waste time trying to figure out who polluted or benefited. Instead, it is the wealthiest countries that should be providing the lion’s share of the assistance.

The Polluter Pays, Beneficiary Pays, and Ability to Pay Principles, then, all take very different approaches to justice. As a result, they will often identify entirely different parties as being responsible for solving a problem – just as they did in the firewood example. This can stall discussions of justice, as parties quibble over which approach should be taken – usually favoring the approach that doesn’t put the responsibility on them. When it comes to climate justice, however, this should be less of a concern. This is because there is an enormous amount of overlap across these three approaches. Put simply: those who have created the most greenhouse gas emissions (like the U.S.) also tend to be those who have most benefited most from those same emissions. And they also tend to be among the most affluent countries. For these nations, then, it will not matter which approach to justice we ultimately decide to take – they will have a moral obligation to help those ravaged by climate-related disasters all the same.

Pick Up My Slack: Is Outsourcing Emissions Cuts Objectionable?

photograph of coin tip with "thank you" note

The 27th annual Convention of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) began November 6th in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and will continue until November 18th. The meeting has, and will involve, the numerous parties to the UNFCCC discussing climate change, steps taken to meet previously agreed upon commitments to mitigate climate change’s worst consequences, as well as potential future action. The matter of who ought to foot the bill for addressing climate change, as well as compensating developing nations for damages, received considerable attention at COP26. This issue will again take center stage at this year’s meeting – representatives from Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Germany have recently pledged funds to address climate effects in developing nations. Further, the U.S. has announced a plan to incentivize corporations to purchase carbon offsets that aid the developing world, although details of the plan are scarce.

The moral justification for a climate reparations policy is straightforward. Wealthy nations are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are the product of economically beneficial activities. However, climate change stands to cause both economic harms and humanitarian crises which will disproportionately affect the developing world. Essentially, industrialized nations have benefited from causing climate change, while countries in the Global South will face its most severe consequences.

The moral principle of fairness deals with the distribution of benefits and burdens. Specifically, fair distributions are those where whoever is burdened the most by a policy or decision should receive the greatest benefits, while those who face lesser burdens should benefit less.

For instance, it would be unfair to assign equal grades on a test – the students who took on the burden of studying and working hard would not be rewarded, while those who coasted would benefit most. This same rationale reveals the distribution of benefits and burdens related to climate change is grossly unfair; those who contributed least to climate change will suffer the most, while those who caused it will both face lesser consequences and have historically benefited.

However, recently some polluting nations have aimed to meet their own climate goals by benefiting developing nations. Switzerland has apparently adopted a policy of funding emissions-cutting programs in developing nations and then counting those reductions towards their national commitments. For instance, the Swiss government is funding a program that will install energy efficient lightbulbs and clean burning stoves in Ghanian homes. The resulting emissions reductions will then count towards Switzerland’s climate goals. The Swiss government has reached similar agreements with Senegal, Georgia, Vanuatu, Dominica, Thailand, and Ukraine. Call the general practice of funding emission reducing programs in poorer nations, for the sake of meeting a wealthy nation’s emissions targets, “International Offsetting.”

One might think that International Offsetting is morally cut-and-dried. On the surface, it is simply a mutually beneficial agreement.

Governments like the Swiss government are better able to reach their emission reduction goals, while comparatively poorer nations can now fund efforts that would otherwise go unfunded. Or in the case of programs that were already funded, they now have additional capital to spend elsewhere. Viewed through this lens, it seems like everyone wins.

Yet there is ample room to question this seemingly simple justification. For instance, wealthier nations would certainly aim to fund programs that provide the most bang for their buck – those that reduce emissions the greatest amount, for the cheapest cost. This would leave developing nations on the hook for more expensive projects, such as changing electrical infrastructure away from fossil fuels to renewables.

By funding programs that reduce emissions, developed nations would leave the other parties to the agreements with no option but to eliminate emissions in order to meet their own reduction goals.

This might be seen as exploitative. Typically, exploitation involves taking advantage of the situation that another party finds themselves in, for the sake of benefiting oneself. Exploitation is similar to coercion, in the sense that both involve someone using another to get what they want. However, coercion typically involves threatening another with something negative. In contrast, exploitative acts may still nonetheless benefit the party that is exploited. The moral problem with exploitation is it fails to appreciate the exploited party’s status as an entity deserving of respect.

For an analogous example to International Offsets, consider the following case. Imagine you live with a very messy and very wealthy roommate. You do your fair share of “damage” to the apartment, sure, but your roommate is far messier and far less likely to clean up. The problem comes to a head after the apartment develops a vermin problem. So, you approach your roommate and ask him to stop making a mess of the apartment, or at least to clean up after himself. He rolls his eyes at your suggestion, and merely offers to pay you a modest sum weekly to clean up after him.

The messy roommate’s offer might seem beneficial at first. He clearly does not want to clean up after himself, you stand to profit from helping him, and at the end of the day you will both have a clean apartment.

Nonetheless, making this offer, rather than agreeing to help, seems to suggest something about the underlying attitudes of your roommate. Although he is causing the problem, he views it as unimportant for him to address.

Rather than taking measures and making sacrifices himself to contribute to solving this problem, he instead thinks he can simply pay others to make the problem go away. As a result, we might describe his attitudes in two ways. First, he does not seem bothered by the burdens his behavior has placed upon you, as he is making no effort to change his behavior. Second, he does not seem to view the both of you as equal members of the apartment, whose interests count equally.

Economically advanced nations seem to be exhibiting the same attitudes as the messy roommates, when they engage in international offsets. Both refuse to change their behavior and instead decide to pay others to perform the work that they ought to do themselves. However, the economically advanced nations may be even more blameworthy than the messy roommate. Afterall, the largest polluters have significantly profited from their pollution. Further, the money which they are offering through International Offsetting (as well as reparations programs) is a small fraction of the wealth generated through this pollution. If the behavior of the wealthy roommate is objectionable as exploitative, then the behavior of International Offsetting seems troubling to an even greater degree.

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. Much like John 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 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.


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 articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “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.