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Under Discussion: The Marginalization of the Future

photograph of human shadow stretching out over dry lakebed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 to Climate Change: Who Can Act?

photograph of national flags flying at UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water Scarcity and Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”

photogrpah of cattle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains

On March 2nd, the journal Nature Sustainability published the results of a multi-layered study that explored the effects of human behaviors on water flow patterns in the western United States. Overall, in addition to cities diverting river waters for public use and the evaporative effects of global climate change, the study’s authors pointed to one particularly large culprit responsible for water resources shrinking in the west: the cattle industry. As they explained, the data indicates “irrigation of cattle-feed crops to be the greatest consumer of river water in the western United States, implicating beef and dairy consumption as the leading driver of water shortages and fish imperilment in the region.”

To anyone with a passing familiarity with environmentalist conversations, this news might be unsurprising; the resource-intense requirements of industrialized agribusiness have been well-documented, but this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate an empirical connection between specific business practices and specific, localized environmental effects. But the news fits well with well-known facts: agricultural irrigation accounts for as much as 90% of water use in many western states and at least a third of that is devoted to the raising of livestock – the study’s connection between beef/dairy products and increasing water scarcity problems makes sense. Much of the concern for developing ‘sustainable’ agricultural practices is precisely to counter the looming shortages of necessary resources as various interests and industries continue to compete for ever-dwindling supplies of water, land, and the like.

Solving this puzzle about resource-competition is complicated, particularly given the size of the economic supply chains involved in these industries. As environmental engineer Megan Konar explains, it is not enough to simply scold hamburger-eaters in Florida about the ramifications of their dinner on fish habitats in Colorado, “This is a collective action problem; we can’t leave it up to individual consumers to solve it.” Although it is true that widespread personal divestment from meat and dairy production chains might provoke bigger, structural change, such individual commitments are unlikely to be coordinated into sufficiently powerful statements. Instead, say the study’s authors, organized political action is required.

Interestingly, the temporary solution that the Nature Sustainability study’s authors call for might also be familiar to environmentalists: “offering financial incentives for the voluntary, temporary, rotational fallowing of farmland as a means for reducing consumptive water use.” The notion that, rather than farming via methods known to cause environmental degradation, farmers should be paid by the government to not farm (or to farm in more environmentally-conscious ways), is a long-standing element of American agricultural policy, both specifically regarding western water stocks and generally in a variety of other areas. By providing economic incentives via governmental subsidies, policymakers seek to encourage better farming habits overall.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear that such incentives actually work – or, rather, it’s never been clear that their positive effects last once the money runs out.

Writing in 1949, Aldo Leopold reflected on a five-year policy enacted by the Wisconsin legislature over a decade earlier to pay farmers to adopt various practices designed to rehabilitate regional topsoils; as Leopold explains, “…the offer was widely accepted, but the practices were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic gain for themselves.” From this and other examples, Leopold developed his now-famous contrast between ethical rules predicated on economic values and those built on what he called “value in the philosophical sense.”

To Leopold, any sort of policy operating from the assumptions of the former could never truly motivate genuine perspectival change because it cannot cultivate the sort of ethical and aesthetic appreciation of the land as a thing to be valued for its own sake. If natural lands aren’t viewed as valuable in-themselves, then Leopold was convinced that economic debates about their use will inevitably allow for all manner of incremental, self-interested arguments about the ‘usefulness’ of a particular resource to trump the overall importance of the system of which that resource is an inextricable part. Against this, Leopold argued for a “land ethic” that would limit how people could act in various ways regarding natural areas and habitats; much like how we cannot ethically murder one innocent human simply to make the lives of several other people better, Leopold insists that we cannot desecrate natural environments simply for the purpose of making the lives of people marginally better in arguably unnecessary ways.

So, although financially incentivizing western water-users to seek out alternative production methods might function as a temporary stop-gap measure for limiting the current ecological impact of the beef and dairy industries, it is impractical to think that such policies would promote the sort of environmentally virtuous outlook – what Leopold called “the ecological conscience” – that could promote genuinely sustainable practices over the long haul. And, ultimately, this is the same conclusion that the Nature Sustainability study draws: long-term “water security and river health in the western US will depend on the willingness of urban and rural water users to collaborate in design of demand-management strategies, the ability of political leaders to secure funding to implement those strategies, and the willingness of beef and dairy consumers to reduce their consumption or select products that do not depend on irrigated cattle-feed crops health.” That is to say, economic incentives on industries won’t have lasting effects: we all must do our part, individually (via our consumption choices) and collectively (through policy making and other socially-regulative measures), to promote ideal sorts of non-destructive environmental outcomes.

In the mid-20th century, Leopold prophetically warned that “By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steamshovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” Here at the start of the 21st century’s third decade, Leopold’s call for a “Land Ethic” is as pertinent as ever.

Fighting Fire with Smoke: On CPAC’s “Anti-Greta”

photograph of climate protest signs ("Not Cool")

This week it was announced that Naomi Seibt, dubbed the “Anti-Greta Thunberg,” will be speaking at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Seibt, 19, preaches to her ~50,000 YouTube followers the dangers of “climate alarmism,” and reveals the “despicably anti-human ideology” at the foundation of our climate change discourse and fearful prognostications. In contrast, Seibt says “I don’t want you to panic,” and assures her flock that “These days, climate change science isn’t a science at all.”

The Washington Post’s front-page profile of Seibt Monday following the announcement was met with criticism. “Why,” asks one reader, “would The Post print a profile of the efforts of a European teenager to dismiss, distort, distract and show dismay at the climate movement?” The paper’s choice to dedicate so much time and space to Seibt, they argue, threatens to normalize fringe beliefs, further derail the climate conversation, and promote obvious propaganda.

Propaganda? While the German YouTube influencer has claimed to be “without an agenda, without an ideology,” Seibt is currently under the employ of the Heartland Institute, a conservative “think tank” once dedicated to discrediting the science behind secondhand smoke, and now devoted to climate change denial. The Institute remains committed to protecting the interests of big business and seeks to reverse the “negative impacts of overreaching environmental regulations.”

It’s not hard to read the playbook and see the strategy at play. As Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab, explains,

“The tactic is intended to create an equivalency in spokespeople and message. In this case, it is a false equivalency between a message based in climate science that went viral organically and a message based in climate skepticism trying to catch up using paid promotion.”

This is not merely misinformation; it is not the product of unintentional error. This is a disinformation campaign intentionally and strategically designed to muddy the waters.

While these kinds of campaigns have proven incapable of moving the needle on public opinion when it comes to partisan politics–given the strength of our preexisting political beliefs–they can be extremely effective on swaying opinion on medical and scientific questions–given our lack of knowledge and weaker starting points. You won’t sway a Trump supporter to vote for Bernie, but you might be able to convince a parent who vaccinates to consider your anti-vaxx pamphlet. By continuing to promote voices like Seibt who say, “I don’t want to get people to stop believing in man-made climate change,” but also argue, “Are man-made CO2 emissions having that much impact on the climate? I think that’s ridiculous to believe,” entities like the Heartland Institute hope to erode public support and stifle legislative action. Given these modest goals, recruiting true believers would be great, but simply encouraging agnosticism will do just fine.

So with the terms of success so low and the stakes so high, should The Washington Post be condemned for playing into climate change deniers’ hands? Has the news organization acted against public interest by giving climate change denial a platform? Is it accountable for normalizing fringe beliefs?

Some argue that The Washington Post is in the wrong for lending credibility to the notion of “climate skeptics”–“a euphemism coined by climate-change deniers to disguise their rejection of massive volumes of peer-reviewed science as reasonable skepticism.” By adopting the language of Seibt and Heartland, the paper legitimizes an unsound and dishonest position. As such, the piece represents an obvious failure to uphold professional ethics. “At the very least, journalists have a responsibility to avoid amplifying bad faith nonsense spread by corporations looking to pollute the public discourse.”

Others see The Washington Post’s piece as an exploration of Seibt’s claim to expert testimony (a concept Ken Boyd wrote about Wednesday). It evaluates the reasons on offer for considering Seibt a credible and reliable source of information about how to respond to climate change (from her affiliation with Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the story of her recruitment and marketing by Heartland). It’s damning without needing to tell us so, and lets its subject speak for itself.

In the end, our diverging opinions on whether The Washington Post’s coverage represents uncritical acceptance or the relaying of fact free of judgment likely depends on our confidence in the reasoning abilities of The Post’s readership. It’s true that public attention is a finite resource. To pick from a crowded field any particular subject and direct readers to it rather than some other subject is to exercise an enormous amount of discretion. And there are clear cases of media outlets violating this trust. But the elevation of Seibt by CPAC makes The Post’s profile relevant, even if it’s for no other reason than to know thy enemy.

Human Rights in the Age of Ecological Breakdown

photograph of dead field of crops

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 and aimed at setting forth a list of fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

We must acknowledge the issues with the very concept of human rights: the philosophical problem of how rights are grounded; the practical problem of how they are enforced; and the definitional problem of whether certain things (like the right to private property) ought to even be rights.

Nevertheless human rights outline and afford protections for people, their life, livelihood and dignity, family, culture and community. As such, they have been, and remain, an important tool in establishing a more just world. At the core of the very idea of human rights is the recognition and acknowledgement of the basic dignity of all human beings.

Even though the international community has made significant gains in the expansion and protection of human rights in many places over many decades, human rights are now under pressure from the developing climate and ecological catastrophe. These rights’ reach and strength may be in danger of regressing as the effects of global heating and other environmental disasters worsen.

In reality, the corrosive effects of climate and ecological breakdown on human rights has already taken hold in some contexts: the root causes of the crisis, like the expansion of oil and mining interests known as extractivism, have already decimated the rights of Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world where traditional lands have been stolen, livelihoods robbed, cultures destroyed, and activists murdered.

As the crisis worsens and greater numbers of people are affected, there are many ways in which human rights could be impacted. We can think of the charter of human rights as a kind of checklist of human goods – of conditions under which human life can flourish. Considering these conditions against the inevitable, worsening effects of the climate and ecological crisis, we can form a picture of how those impacts will affect human wellbeing.

At 1C warming we are already seeing significant environmental impacts: melting ice and rising sea levels, more severe storm activity with once in a century flooding events occurring every couple of years, drought, salinity, desertification and unprecedented wildfires.  As environmental impacts take hold so too will social impacts and the capacity for many basic human rights to be met and secured will be compromised.

At 1.5C to 2C warming there will be major coastal inundation and many low-lying coastal cities will flood. Small islands will be lost. Severe storms will damage infrastructure, and less developed communities will struggle to cope. Rights like those enshrined in Article 25 pertaining to standards of living including access to food and clean water, to safe housing and medicine will be in question.

According to Article 27 “everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” As climate breakdown takes hold and some places become uninhabitable – for example, as small Pacific Islands sink and areas in the Central Australian deserts become too hot for human habitation, as glaciers in Northern Canada melt, indigenous peoples will be forced to abandon their lands, and a loss of tradition and cultural identity will be inevitable.

One of the biggest geopolitical and social issues the world faces due to accelerated global heating will be large numbers of climate refugees – people forced by climate and ecological impacts to abandon their homes. Experts have warned that even in the next decade tens of millions of people could be displaced by climate change.

According to Article 14, everyone has the right “to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” It is not clear that climate refugees will be considered “refugees” in the sense defined by the Human Rights Declaration which defines refugees as persons ‘fleeing persecution.’ Though being forced to flee because one’s home is uninhabitable or has disappeared beneath the tide clearly fits our general understanding of what constitutes a refugee, which rests upon the acknowledgement of persons forced to seek refuge in circumstances in which their home is no longer safe.

However climate refugee’s rights will be in question under a number of other articles outlined in the UN Declaration.

Given the current predilection of many countries, such as Australia and the United States, for draconian treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, rights such as “recognition before the law” (Article 6), the right not to be “subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” (Article 9), and even the right not to be ” subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 5) will be under pressure, and are so already.

The worsening effects of the climate and ecological catastrophe endanger the rights outlined above, and others. The upshot is that those conditions upon which human dignity is maintained and upon which human life is able to flourish will be degraded; and this degradation will be part of the erosion of society that may, if unabated, lead to the collapse of human civilization.

But human rights can be an ethical double-edged sword. While they do in general, find their basis in human dignity and flourishing, the philosophical question of how specific rights further these aims, and what specific rights should or should not be recognized in order that they be furthered, is not entirely settled.

Given that the climate and ecological catastrophe is upon us, if we as a global community are to have any hope of abating it, mass drastic action is required, some of which may be impeded by the existence of certain inalienable rights.

It could for instance be argued that the right (enshrined in Article 16) to found a family may be problematic, since each child born in a developed nation adds a significant carbon footprint. Or perhaps the right to freedom of movement (Article 13) is problematic if we factor in how much carbon pollution the aviation industry is responsible for. It might therefore be necessary, as part of a global mitigation strategy, to curtail certain rights and, for instance, restrict access to air travel.

Consider the right, (Article 19) to freedom of opinion and expression, which has been exercised, and abused, by the fossil fuel lobby for decades in a concerted, and ultimately successful, attempt to obfuscate the truth about carbon pollution and shut down attempts to prevent global heating. This effort continues unabated, as the Murdoch press are still printing mendacious untruths about the climate crisis.

In conclusion, though we need to be flexible enough in our understanding of human rights to be aware of the ways in which they can, in some situations, affect our capacity to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate and ecological breakdown, as a legal and practical framework for improving lives and reaching social justice outcomes, human rights have been instrumental, and their role in promoting human wellbeing and protecting human dignity is now more important than ever.

Why Isn’t Everybody Panicking? Scientific Reticence and the Duty to Scare People

photograph of gathering clouds

In 2017, journalist David Wallace-Wells published an article, The Uninhabitable Earth, which told a frightening tale of possible scenes from a bad to worst-case scenario outcome of the effects of global warming, ecological degradation, and widespread pollution – effects ranging from extreme weather, sea-level rise, and wildfire to mass migration, food scarcity, and social collapse. “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” writes Wallace-Wells, “no matter how well-informed you are.”

The knowledge of how bad it could be has been around for a while. James Hansen first presented the case for possible harms of global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, to the US congress in 1988. Given that the scientific evidence has always been out there for anyone to see (even though media reporting has usually been lean), why is it worse than we think?

There is an epistemic failure occurring: people in the affluent, industrialized world do not, in general, appear to know how bad the climate crisis is, and do not, in general, appear to appreciate how much worse things will get if we continue to burn fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere.

There are two distinct but related knowledge gaps opening up – between previous scientific prediction and what is actually happening, and between what scientists know is really happening and what the public thinks.

The first problem arises from factors about the nature of climate science itself, like in-exactitude of knowledge. We cannot be sure, for instance, what precise degree of warming will result from exactly what new concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The world appears to be warming faster, as ice melt and other such indicators are accelerating much faster that was predicted only a decade ago. A year ago, scientists concluded that the Earth’s oceans were warming 40 per cent faster than previously believed.

The second problem, that the public does not really know what scientists know, is not simply a problem of dissemination. The possible ramifications, from possible physical changes to the environment, to the social and humanitarian effects of these does not come straight off the data – it takes interpretation, thought, and imagination.

Doubtless, part of the knowledge difficulty, the epistemic deficit, is a form of cognitive dissonance. It is hard to imagine the scale of the problem. “Climate induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term” writes Professor of Sustainability Jem Bendell, “it may be too late to avert environmental catastrophe.” Part of the problem is that this does in fact sound like a crazy dystopian fiction.

This failure of the imagination is related to the problem of scientific reticence, which some have recently argued is having an adverse effect on policy action, and is even a dereliction of an ethical duty to seriously entertain possible (if extreme) scenarios. Scientific reticence arises both methodologically and stylistically. It takes the form of a tendency to understate the risks of global warming.

For instance, much of the scientific modelling, such as that used by the IPCC, has tended to largely underestimate the risks. IPCC climate modelling does not account for tipping points that result in non-linear, rapid, and irreversible chunks of damage, and trigger uncontrollable impacts. Melting sea ice and permafrost are some well-known tipping points. When sea ice melts, temperature rises are compounded by the reduction in reflective surfaces; and when permafrost thaws, large amounts of greenhouse gasses will be released and warming will leap.

Added to the difficulties of prediction and blind spots in the modelling capabilities is the generally conservative nature of science as a discipline. A great deal of the surrounding scientific literature to emerge over several decades has been conservative in its estimates of effects. That conservatism has meant that scientists are not conveying bad or worst-case scenarios to the public or policy makers.

When Wallace-Wells published his article, there was some pushback from climate scientists. Some felt that the science was not served by dramatizing the outcomes, and that really dire predictions might undermine scientific integrity with alarmism. There are some signs this attitude is beginning to change, but there are deeply embedded methodological, stylistic, and even ethical reasons for scientific caution.

Wallace-Wells says that he wrote The Uninhabitable Earth to address the fact that possible worse cases were not being talked about in scientific papers. (James Hansen is a notable exception to this, and he has written about the phenomenon of scientific reticence.)

Drawing attention to the dangers of global warming has at times caused cries of alarmism, and it has been suggested by Hansen that cautious or hesitant predictions are often perceived to carry more authority. The problem is that, now, it is looking like some of those worst-case scenarios are going to be much closer to the truth than the conservative underplay of catastrophe.

In any case it is becoming clear that science has not been effective at communicating the worst risks of climate change, therefore those who need to know these possibilities – the public and policy makers – have been ill-informed and ill-served.

In their paper What Lies Beneath, which explores the failures and blind spots of climate science’s understanding of the effects of global warming, Spratt and Dunlop write: “It is now becoming dangerously misleading, given the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower-probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.”

Scientific reticence has hindered communication to the public of the true dangers of global warming. This may in turn have directly (and indirectly) hindered action, which in turn has worsened the problem. Given that the findings of climate science research have existential implications for us, it could be argued that not entertaining the worst potential outcomes is a dereliction of moral duty as well as our duty to science.

There is a view that it is dangerous to frighten people too much, that the relevant information and worst risks worth considering are enough to scare the public into a sense of fatalism. Indeed, the news is bad, and at this critical time, resignation may be the last nail in the coffin (so to speak).

On ordinary scientific standards, incontrovertible confirmation will happen only when an effect has played out, or begun, and it will then be too late to abate it. The central ethical issue here is that ethics seems to be making an unusual demand on scientific communication, and on the translation of research data into conclusions needed by the public and policymakers – the demand to be a little more scary.

One could argue that man-made effects, which are likely to be harmful, should be treated differently from other types of observations and predictions, by virtue of what is at stake – and because caution could in this instance be a vice.

People aren’t scared enough about global warming. It is, as Wallace-Wells says, worse than people think – and though it may not be as bad as his picture, the trend so far points in that direction.

Having made that case, though, it must be acknowledged that scientific reticence might be peanuts next to the obfuscations of fossil fuel corporate rapaciousness, as a cause of the epistemic deficit our societies are in the (hopefully loosening) grip of.

Collective Action and Climate Change: Consumption, Defection, and Motivation

photograph of dry, cracked earth with grass growing on a few individual pieces

Last month, the United Nations held talks regarding international climate agreements in hopes to abate and adapt to the changes to our global environment due to the industrialization and emissions by humans. With the president of the United States vocally skeptical about the moral imperative to action, other countries have been considering defection from previous joint commitments. If the United States continues to consume resources at its current rate, the United Nations’ climate goals will not be possible. This is a feature of climate change agreements: they impact nations differently, irrespective of any country’s particular contribution to the problem. Thus, tied up with the responsibility to commit to taking action is the question of whether there should be different burdens depending on the level of industrialization and development (i.e., consumption) of the nation in question.

Environmental ethicist Martino Traxler distinguishes between two approaches in assigning the duties and burdens for responding to climate change. The first approach would be “just”, in that it takes into consideration the historical context in which we now find ourselves, as well as the power/structure dynamics at play. For instance, placing identical duties on all countries to reduce energy consumption equally doesn’t attend to countries’ differing ability to pay, varying causal contributions to the current state of things, and the extent to which various countries have unequally benefited from previous policies and activities that were environmentally damaging. For instance, some developing nations are improving economically by taking advantage of some less-clean technologies, and it is arguably hypocritical for developed nations with a history of colonialism, imperialism, or military interference/manipulation to intervene at this stage and charge the developing nations with the responsibility to reduce their pollution. Such a policy would slow the progress toward leveling the international playing field. Countries that are developing now and changing the shape of their economies in order to grow out of poverty may have greater claim to use resources that have damaging effects on the environment than countries that have put the globe in a place of climate crisis while at the same time creating conditions for global poverty that allowing the use of environment-damaging resources would go some distance to alleviate.

Thus, some examples just approaches to alleviating the impact of climate change would be to make:

  1. Benefiters pay (in proportion to benefits)
  2. Polluters pay (in proportion to responsibility)
  3. Richest pay (in proportion to their ability)

This would distribute burdens unevenly internationally, and typically nations that have more industrialized infrastructure would bear heavier burdens than those nations that are in the process of building their economies. This can be concerning for the most-developed nations and the nations that have experienced the most power and privilege historically. For nations that already have systems of infrastructure that involve emitting greenhouse gases, for instance, committing to being more environmentally responsible according to the just approach can amount to committing to a strikingly different way of life. Some still may recall George H. W. Bush’s declaration at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” In 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, delegates noted that a child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one born in the developing world, emphasizing the different relations to resource consumption depending on the ways of life established in one’s society.

These features highlight how a “just” approach to burden sharing may disincentivize the richest, most internationally powerful nations from agreeing to combating climate change. The alternative approach style is a “fair” model of burden allocation, which has each nation share evenly in the responsibility to remain in a safe zone of resource consumption and emission standards. The fair approach presents a clean slate and looks forward, rather than backward at the contextual perspective of the just approach. The approach is fair in the sense that there is even distribution of responsibility, but most find the just approach more appropriate. Are there reasons why we might find the fair model appealing? The breakdown at the UN last month suggests several reasons why.

When we face an issue like climate change, nations need to determine how to act together. It’s difficult enough to determine the path for a single country or nation, but collective action like this requires agreement and commitment that structurally resembles classic dilemmas from game theory and economics. Traxler argues that because of these structural similarities, we should opt for fair rather than just allocations. In short, because the cost of the rich countries deferring is so great, we need to construct agreements that don’t over-burden them. As we see this year with countries like China and India hesitating to make commitments to change if the U.S. isn’t on board, Traxler may be onto something. In modeling climate change agreements in terms of incentivizing the related parties to not defer, Traxler is suggesting that we face an international Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic problem in game theory. The puzzle arises when what is in the best interest of a collective diverges from what is in the interest of an individual. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is set up as follows: two burglars (or criminals of some sort) are arrested and separated so they cannot coordinate. The authorities are attempting to get a confession from at least one of the burglars to aid in their investigation and conviction. If both burglars remain silent, they will each receive a sentence of 1 year. The authorities are attempting to incentivize cooperating with them because they would get information and successful convictions. However, the information will be most useful if one burglar cooperates and turns on the other, allowing the authorities to “throw the book” at one of them. Therefore, if one of the burglars betrays their comrade and gives information to the authorities while the other remains silent, this would result in the betrayer going free and the silent conspirator getting a 3 year sentence. If both burglars attempt to achieve this end (confessing in hopes that the other remains silent), the authorities have information on both of them and neither can go free. Instead, both will serve 2 years. Each burglar thus faces the decision of whether to cooperate with their conspirator or betray them and confess to the authorities. The possible combinations and outcomes are displayed in the table below.

The reason this poses a game theoretic dilemma is that the ideal outcome for each burglar is to exploit the cooperation of the other (i.e., to betray while the other stays silent). This creates a scenario where what is in the individual’s best interest is at odds with what is in their collective interest; if we consider the burglars together as a group and evaluate what would get the best outcome overall, then they should both remain silent. If, however, the individual aims for his or her best individual outcome, then there is great pressure to defect so as to potentially receive the best individual outcome (go free) and always avoid the worst (3 years).

As individual nations, it is in our best interest to over-consume and hope that the rest of the international community behaves responsibly and attempts to save the planet. That way we enjoy the benefits of our consumption of resources AND the benefits of the rest of the international community’s conservation efforts. BUT! If everyone in the international community behaves this way (parallel to both burglar’s betraying their partnership), we end up in a bad scenario. What is in the interest of the collective is for everyone to cooperate, but individual interests encourages us to over-consume.

The structure of the Prisoner’s Dilemma arises in a few areas of public life, not just among police bargaining with alleged criminals. The key to the dilemma is that what is collectively rational comes apart at times from what is individually rational. This is also the tension in Tragedy of the Commons cases. The Tragedy of the Commons describes cases in economics or scenarios in shared-resources situations where the best thing to do from an individual level is to consume more than others, but this focus on immediate use leads to a situation such that our shared ability to use the resource over time is undermined.

Described by William Forster Lloyd in the 19th century, we could imagine a case of the Tragedy as a river by a village that sustains an ecosystem containing fish. If the village fishes in the river some reasonable amount over time, the river is sufficient to replenish itself and feed the village. So, collectively speaking, it’s rational for the village to maintain fishing levels at this restrained rate. However, at an individual level, each villager is in a position where they have access to a resource that is potential income, and though it undermines the future use of the river and the other villagers’ potential use of the resource, overfishing to get more food and more resources is in the individual’s best interest. Thus in a similar way that the burglars have conflicting strategies in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in shared-resource scenarios, there is tension between individual and collective interests.

In order to avoid countries defecting and not living up to the commitment to abate climate change, we may need to “sweeten the deal” a bit, according to Traxler and not go with the just approach that would perhaps be too burdensome to the richest, most industrialized nations. This would give them fewer reasons to over-consume and ignore the agreements. However, it would also perhaps produce less pressure for the richest and most able countries to aggressively researching “cleaner” alternatives to the technology so that they may continue something like their current ways of life.

Australia’s Apocalyptic Summer

photograph of smoke on horizon from Australian bushfire

Summers in Australia are always hot. During the break over Christmas and New Year tens of thousands of people are abroad, traveling to holiday destinations up and down the coast. Mallacoota on the east coast of Victoria, is one small seaside town among hundreds whose numbers swell with holidaymakers at this time of year.

In Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve of 2019 an escalation in Australia’s month-long bushfire crisis gave rise to truly horrifying scenes when thousands of tourists and locals were forced to flea and shelter on the beaches as bushfire ravaged the town. As the sun rose on December 31, the sky was glowing orange. Some observers described the scenes that followed as Armageddon. At around 9am the sky blackened, to the visibility of midnight, and for the next four hours those who had fled to the waterfront huddled as fire ripped through the town and burned forest virtually up to the water’s edge.

The devastation wrought on this small town was so severe that all roads in and out were, and remain at the time of writing, closed. Advice for those still trapped in Mallacoota is that roads may not be reopened for up to two weeks. Many thousands of people remain on the beachfront. The Australian Navy have sent a vessel to collect just under one thousand people, an operation which is currently underway at the time of writing. This was just one town, similar scenes were repeated up and down the south east corner of the country.

Tens of thousands of people are, at the time of writing, attempting to evacuate coastal towns in Victoria and New South Wales ahead of a weekend during which even more dangerous conditions loom, as temperatures are set to rise to up to 44C (112F) in places. Many are trying to exit areas already hit by fires, with highways closed, and stores running low on food and petrol supplies dwindling.

Emergency services are struggling to cope. Three volunteer fire-fighters have been killed in extraordinary fire conditions. One fire-fighter was killed when a cyclonic weather system created within the fire overturned an 8-ton truck. Where previous fire seasons have seen large-scale disasters, they are normally single events. Never has there been a situation like this with multiple emergency level fires burning simultaneously in every state.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and has always been fire prone, but this is different. After three years of severe drought, the air and the land is so dry that it is literally combusting. We are in no way prepared or equipped to deal with the scale of this event, which has overwhelmed emergency services. The descriptor we are hearing over and over again, from emergency workers, is “unprecedented.”

This is the very outcome climate science has been warning about for at least 2 decades. And, more recently, this is the hellish scenario that a group of fire and emergency chiefs have been trying to warn the current government about. Back in April 2019 a group of former fire chiefs tried and failed to get the attention of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, in order to warn that the coming fire season would be the most severe the country has ever seen by a long way. The Prime Minister refused to meet with them. The reason is that the Australian government does not want to talk about climate change.

I wrote a several articles for this publication in 2019 about the climate emergency, examining the issue from different ethical angles. I emphasized how dangerous the situation is becoming, and how urgent is the need to act. I discussed Australia’s inadequate climate policy, the current government’s refusal to acknowledge the problem and its addiction to the coal industry. I wrote about the new generation of civil disobedience and community mobilization in the face of government inaction and the moral case for nonviolent disruptive tactics. I have argued there should not be a moral conundrum here, and in my most recent piece I noted that moral arguments seem simply not to be working.

Yet nothing has prepared me for the severity, the shock, of what is happening here right now, and even with what I understand about the Morrison Government’s intransigence, yet I am still shocked by its lack of empathy and understanding in its response to the crisis.

The Prime Minister refuses to call the crisis ‘unprecedented,’ saying that we have always had fires and recalling smoke in Sydney when he was a child. This belies what everyone else acknowledges: that it is totally outside our past experience of the bushfire season. Morrison cheerfully suggested that Australia is ‘the best place to bring up kids’ while picture after picture emerged of children fleeing holiday houses, or worse, picking through the wreckage of their own family homes; of melted bicycles, pools filled with ash and kids playing on swings wearing masks to filter out the hazardous air. He has counseled people not be anxious and doubled down on his blithe defense of Australia’s climate policy. He continues to suggest that the cost, to the economy, of a more ambitious climate policy is greater than the the cost of inaction:

“…our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move towards either extreme, and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment. Getting the balance right is what Australia has always been able to achieve.”

I can offer no further analysis of these remarks. The country is burning and the whole world should take a look in our direction, because this is what the cost of inaction really looks like.

Eventually economics will catch up, and the economic costs of global warming will overtake those of the transition to clean energy and carbon abolition. If such considerations are the only factors that can motivate some leaders (like Morrison) then how long that takes will determine how much worse this gets.

What is certain is that it is going to get worse, and soon such events, in Australia and elsewhere, will indeed no longer be unprecedented.

When Moral Arguments Don’t Work

photograph of machines at a coal mine at dawn

In 2019, the global issue of the climate emergency has taken center stage, with the School Strike for Climate movement, led by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, mobilizing 4 million people on September 20 to strike in the largest climate demonstration in human history.

It is of course well understood, by scientists and by much of the public, that burning fossil fuels is trapping carbon (and other greenhouse gasses) in the atmosphere and causing the world to warm. Since pre-industrial times the world’s climate has warmed by an average of 1C, and on the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions, will warm more than 3C by the end of the century.

Though it is becoming harder for climate change deniers to evade the existential implications of inaction, globally, governments are still prevaricating and fossil fuel companies are doubling down.

The climate and ecological emergency is clearly a grave moral issue, yet for many of those within whose power it is to act, moral imperatives to do so are either unrecognized or unheeded. This raises the question of whether moral arguments on this issue are defunct, in terms of their power to move those within whose power action lies.

Right now Australia is a case in point; the country is in the grip of an unprecedented bushfire emergency.

More than 3 million hectares has burned just in the state of New South Wales (NSW) already this bushfire season; in excess of 20 percent of the national park area of the Blue Mountains, adjacent to Sydney, has been razed, and a ‘mega-fire’ that emergency crews say can not be extinguished continues to rage. The state capital, and Australia’s largest city, Sydney, has been blanketed in toxic bushfire smoke for several weeks, and the city’s already low water supply is in danger of being poisoned by toxic ash. Out of control fires are burning as well in the states of Queensland and Western Australia.

This horrifying start to the summer has sparked a national conversation about the reality of global heating for an already drought and bushfire prone country, and also about the exponential costs of government inaction. It has elicited pleas from large sections of the public, and from professional organizations representing front-line health and emergency services, for the government to own up to its moral responsibility – all of which appear to be falling on profoundly deaf ears.

Back in 2007 then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated: “Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.”

Yet, here we are in 2019 with a Liberal-National government that is determined to continue subsidizing the coal industry and whose refusal to countenance climate action is scuppering hopes of an effective international agreement.

Just last week, as the country burned, the latest round of climate talks in Madrid ended in stalemate, and Australia was accused of cheating (by claiming ‘carryover credits’ to meet its Paris target) and of frustrating global efforts to secure meaningful action.

The moral argument for climate action is not registering at a political level here, and it is impossible to miss the fact that this failure is inversely proportional to the government’s support for Australia’s coal industry.

This week 22 medical groups have called on the Australian government to phase out fossil fuels, and close down the coal industry, due to what it is calling a major public health crisis. Dr. Kate Charlesworth, a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said: “To protect health, we need to shift rapidly away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, healthier and safer forms of energy.”

At the same time the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action are calling for a national summit to address climate change, and are criticizing the government for its failure to address the climate emergency.

Yet Michael McCormack, Deputy and currently the Acting Prime Minister told a press conference, which was being held in the incident control centre for a state-wide bushfire emergency that “… We need more coal exports.”

Given that moral imperatives are traditionally thought to be some of the strongest motivations we have for action, why aren’t the moral arguments cutting through?

The obvious, though depressing, answer is that the rapacious demands of neoliberal capitalism have managed to drown out the principled stance of moral analysis.

There is a plethora of literature available on the relationship of capitalism, neoliberalism, overconsumption and climate change. One need read no further, for example, than Naomi Klein’s 2014 book ‘This Changes Everything’ to understand the mechanisms by which neoliberal capitalism has caused the climate crisis and has systematically frustrated efforts to combat it.

If climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation, it is rapidly becoming its great moral failure. But since moral language is not working it is perhaps time, for pragmatic reasons, to deploy another set of concepts.

One suggestion is to recalibrate our analysis from the ethical to the clinical by thinking of the problem as one of addiction. Caution is obviously needed here – we do not want to make the mistake of assuming diminished responsibility. The point is, rather, that the concept of addiction allows the compulsive, subconscious elements to be taken into account as part of our understanding of the degree of difficulty we face in solving this problem.

Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming (a chemical, drug, activity, or substance), even though it is causing psychological and physical harm. A person with an addiction uses a substance, or engages in a behavior, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences. Traditionally, at least in western thought, ethics is a rational activity but we seem to be facing a situation where the rational is struggling to break through the dark and self-destructive compulsions of the addiction.

The coal industry is killing us, and the degree of difficulty of interrupting deeply entrenched patterns of addiction reflects the degree of difficulty of interrupting the Australian government’s commitment to the coal industry. Of course the issue is vastly larger than just the coal industry as such, but the Australian government’s relationship to coal is emblematic of the entrenched patterns of consumption to which all of us in rich countries are similarly addicted.

As we try to free ourselves from the grip of what is now threatening our very existence, moral arguments may be less effective than existential ones, and thinking in clinical terms may possibly arm us with the practical understanding we need to appreciate the difficulty of the kind of work that has, now, to be done.

Climate Justice: Whose Responsibility?

photograph of power plant smoke stacks

Now that the effects of global heating are happening and ecological collapse has begun, we are confronted with a set of urgent questions about justice and moral responsibility in responding to our climate emergency. Climate heating is of course a global problem – and one that is already disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people. It is also a problem caused by people in rich countries continuing the unfettered consumption of resources and the failure of our governments to create policies and laws to curb this consumption, to safeguard the environment, and to transition to green economies through the decades of warnings leading up to this crisis.

The moral question of whether we must act is surely answered in the affirmative, and yet a set of questions remain about how to understand that imperative in relation to the issues surrounding disproportionate greenhouse gas outputs of developed, industrialized countries compared to the minuscule contribution of many smaller or less industrialized countries, who are often those experiencing the worst effects.

This is important because the way we understand our responsibilities has the potential to influence how solutions are pitched to the public and how policy might be implemented. Some of the arguments traditionally used to ground the moral duty of people in affluent countries giving money to the poor of the Global South are transferable, with little adjustment, to the area of climate policy.

Firstly, it is a common feature of normative moral systems that ethical ‘rules,’ ‘duties,’ or, more broadly, ethical actions are universalizable. That is, what is right for one person is right for all, and that when a rule prescribes that we act in a certain way towards one person, that is also a general rule, that we act in that way with respect to all persons.

In a globalized world, we often assume the moral community extends to all people. This ‘cosmopolitan’ argument maintains that the sphere of moral concern is global, that no individual falls outside of it. This means that where moral duties or requirements can be shown to exist, they would also extend to include people in different socioeconomic and geographical situations from our own.

Since the 1980’s Australian philosopher Peter Singer has been advocating for what he calls the expanded moral circle, using this basic idea to challenge some of our behaviors. In particular, Singer argues for the alleviation of poverty by those with the means to do so. Using his now famous drowning child example, Singer has argued that if we have a moral duty to save a drowning child who we might otherwise pass by, without sacrificing something of comparable moral value, then we have an equal duty to save a child dying from poverty-induced disease and malnutrition halfway across the world. The only difference is proximity and that, argues Singer, constitutes a logistical, not a moral, difference.

This is the expanding circle of moral concern that our moral duty to alleviate suffering is as strong for children in far away places as it is for our own children or the children next door. On Singer’s view, it would be immoral to spend our disposable income on expensive clothes, toys, or games that we do not need when there are children elsewhere dying in poverty.

Singer’s argument is a version of the argument from humanity, which says that, no matter our relationship to that suffering, whether or not we in some way caused it, our moral duty to alleviate it inheres in the fact that we are able to help. That, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we can send aid to the world’s poor means we have a duty to do so. This humanitarian argument has broad application: our moral duty exists regardless of the cause of the suffering.

There is a different kind of argument a duty of justice according to which we have a moral duty to help others in need only where, and to the extent that, our actions have caused their suffering. This is an argument from responsibility; the exploitation of the Global South has enriched those in the Global North, and the moral imperative for those in rich countries to alleviate poverty is derived from causal responsibility we have a moral duty to provide redress in the form of reparations as a matter of justice.

This argument is narrower in scope. One only has a moral duty, here, according to the extent to which one has been responsible (directly or indirectly? knowingly or unknowingly?) for the suffering of others in far-flung places. But, on the other hand, this argument does embed the need to change our behavior in a way that the humanitarian argument does not.

It should be clear how this is directly transferable to the climate crisis. From a justice perspective, rich, industrialized nations have been burning fossil fuels to power their citizens’ lifestyles at such a rate that the whole global climate system is now tipping out of control. Those least responsible and least able to cope with the effects are already being disproportionately impacted. Therefore rich countries have a moral duty to alleviate the suffering of those in poor countries. (From a humanitarian perspective, rich countries have the capacity to alleviate the causes and provide aid, therefore the moral onus exists because the capacity exists.)

Whether we recognize a duty based in justice because of “polluter pays” kinds of arguments or on humanitarian grounds we owe reparations on the basis of being most able to help could make a significant difference when we start talking about managing aid and paying reparations to those affected by the climate crisis. It might, for instance, be possible to argue, along the lines of a duty from justice, for diminished responsibility based on the argument that no country meant to cause global heating and that those who have are not, or not entirely, culpable. This can be countered by reminding ourselves that there have been enough warnings, and claims about intentions are at best moot, and at worst false. What’s important to note is that these justice arguments rely upon the extent to which responsibility is admitted or can be established.

On the other hand, it might be at least as important to ask which is more likely to persuade people into action. Though for both these questions the best answer would surely be a combination of both, it is worth pursuing the implications of each a little further.

The question of which argument will be most persuasive might just seem like a pragmatic question, not necessarily a moral one. But it could easily be made to work as a moral argument, framed in terms of the moral imperative to get people to act, and act fast.

For example, Philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith argues that there are reasons to believe that people are more likely to be motivated to act by the justice argument. The humanitarian argument tracks a correlation between the existence of suffering and a moral duty to alleviate it. Everywhere there is suffering, there is also a duty to minimize it. But one might object that this is too morally demanding, and that some may not be willing to accept it. Lawford-Smith suggests this argument relates to people’s intuitions about moral omissions versus moral acts. Research shows that people are inclined to think of omissions as morally less serious than actions in scenarios where an action and an omission have the same outcome. (For example, people tend to think that killing someone through an act is morally worse than letting a person die because of an omission.)

On the other hand, according to the justice argument, the moral duty derives from culpability. The way people act and benefit from unjust institutions makes them culpable for creating the suffering in the first place. Lawford-Smith argues that people are more motivated to act if they feel that some behavior of theirs has caused the suffering. As such, she suggests that it may be more efficacious to argue from justice than from humanity to make a case to the public for why they are duty-bound to act (lobby, agitate, strike, vote, or whatever) on the climate emergency, and for appropriate aid and reparation schemes to achieve global climate justice. If the ultimate moral outcome here is, in fact, urgent action, then the moral and the pragmatic line up, and we must get on with the business of explaining to governments and citizens of rich, industrialized countries why they are, and will be, the cause of massive untold global suffering.

One final observation: at this crucial time, the need to motivate a critical mass of the world’s citizens to rise up and push for change is dire. This is the proverbial eleventh hour. If people cannot be motivated by the moral arguments for humanity or for justice, they may be motivated by arguments from self-interest which are of course not moral arguments at all. In that case, one might point out this is already no longer a crisis affecting just other people in other places. If the climate emergency has not affected you yet, it soon will. If it does not affect you, it will affect your children. Moral arguments should work, because we are a moral, altruistic, and cooperative species, by and large. But if they don’t, let’s hope that existential self-interest ones will. Sadly, though, if only these kinds of reasons will persuade people to act, those people on the planet who are not in a position to cope with the crisis, will find neither humanity nor justice.

Is This an Emergency?: Why Language Matters

image of emergency road sign

Last September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered an address on climate change, calling it a ‘climate emergency’ echoing the terminology employed by the prominent climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The language we use matters a great deal; and itself has ethical implications.

Given the severity of the situation: warnings coming from a raft of recent reports from agencies such as the IPCC and the UN, have scientists sounding the alarm that human society is in jeopardy from the heating atmosphere, the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, and other forms of ecological destruction, it is manifestly necessary to speak about the situation with an appropriate level of alarm and urgency.

There is a concern that the media have, for decades, failed to adequately report the dangers of greenhouse emissions and the scale of their increase. In fact it seems clear that some of the mainstream media – primarily right-wing and conservative presses – have been chronically under-reporting on the dangers of climate change while deliberately subverting the problem with skeptical reporting.

Many governments have been treating the issue with the same mixture of obfuscation and ignorance. In the past several years some have become much worse, notably America under Trump and the Australian government now under Scott Morrison. Morrison, recently responded to the impassioned speech given to the UN Climate Conference by Greta Thunberg by saying that “the climate change debate is subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety.”

The first ethical implication of language choice is about truth. If we have any hope of addressing this issue, then the truth must be widely, openly, and adequately acknowledged.

It is the responsibility of government, in its role as sovereign state, to inform its citizens. Democratic governments have this responsibility in virtue of the fact that the people are needed in order to grant authority legitimacy. To function in this role, citizens must have the relevant knowledge to choose the right candidates and correctly instruct them in how to serve the community. (A free press has a democratic responsibility in this regard as well. A free press is only free when its agenda is not set by special interests.)

Recently, The Guardian made a decision about changing some of the language it uses to report on the climate and ecological emergency, introducing: “terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the new terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favored over “global warming.”

We’ve used the term ‘climate change’ for several decades in reference to what is also often called ‘global warming,’ or sometimes ‘the greenhouse effect.’ But, to many, this terminology makes the problem sounds like a gradual, natural, and passive event. But in reality we are now using it to denote something that has been caused and is rapidly being accelerated by human actions – so is neither gradual, nor natural.

António Guterres told the gathering of leaders in September 2018: “We face a direct existential threat,” adding that we have until 2020 to change our behavior or “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” Given that this is the case, the language of crisis and emergency is not alarmist – it is warranted and necessary.

Professor Richard Betts, of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, has called for a change from ‘global warming’, which many have also noted sounds rather too benign, to ‘global heating’ which more accurately reflects the reality of what is happening.

Future life on Earth and future and present human society is now in serious jeopardy. With so little time left to turn the situation around, we are going to have to start acting like it is an emergency, but complacency is still rife, and it is now the greatest barrier to urgent change.

Language has been part of the complacency, and changing the language we use is necessary for action. To combat the problem, we first need to understand our situation, and to do so we must be able to name it. We also need to reorient ourselves in the way we talk about our current predicament to reflect the fact that the effects of climate change are happening now.

The outcomes will be so bad that there is no other mode to adopt than emergency-mode if we are to mobilize in time, and our language needs to reflect that. We can talk about ‘climate change’ and then turn back to topics of ordinary life – we can drift away from ‘climate change.’ But we cannot as easily drift away from an emergency. Once you start talking about an emergency, about breakdown and collapse, then it is much harder to turn away. We are in a crucial moment – a window of opportunity, a vanishing window, we can ill afford to turn back to other, everyday subjects.

We need for our language to be unequivocal about the seriousness of the situation; to help reduce cognitive dissonance and allow us to conceptually make the connections we need to make in order to act. That is why the question of what we are calling this is a moral question.

The analogy of the burning house, evoked by Thunberg in her speech, is apt here:

The building is on fire, and all occupants need to move very quickly or face serious injury or death. If in that situation I merely say to the occupants something like: “it’s getting warmer in here” instead of something more like: “the house is on fire, quick, run for your life!” then I have essentially lied to them through omission and am guilty of moral negligence.

I can say I didn’t at first know it was on fire, or did know but didn’t believe the situation to be serious, it will still be surprising that it has taken so long to reach the conclusion that the building is on fire and we must get out. That is, as soon as one comes to the conclusion that we are in very serious trouble, one immediately wonders how we can possibly be in such serious trouble when we could easily have prevented from becoming a serious problem.

On one view, our language ought to change as the changing situation demands; but one wonders where we might be if our way of talking about the situation (our way of comprehending it) reflected its seriousness from the beginning.

Those are very important questions, and the answers we can provide to them might in the long run have a bearing on our continued survival – but not if we don’t get out of the burning building now.

There seems to be a clear moral duty here for governments, the media, and whoever else is participating in the discussion to tell it like it is – to stop softening the truth. That duty is, I believe, connected with any hope we might have of taking urgent action to mitigate the impending crisis. In one sense our language-choices seems immaterial – this is an emergency, whether we say so or not. But our survival probably depends on our saying so and then acting like we mean it.

Climate Emergency and the Case for Civil Disobedience

photograph of "to exist is to resist" mural

In Plato’s Republic, during a sustained dialogue on the nature of justice and the structure of a just society, Socrates remarks that we are talking of no small matter, but of how we should live. If that question remains central to moral philosophy, any contemporary answer the question of ‘how we should live’ must acknowledge that to ask it in ‘our’ time is fundamentally different from asking it in any other time in history. The question of what a good human life is in an age of environmental crisis cannot be answered without considering our individual and collective responsibility to mitigate the damage which no longer lies ahead of us, but which is happening now.

Governments, policy makers, corporate institutions, et al, have failed to respond to decades long warnings from scientists that CO2 emissions from industrial and domestic activities pose serious risks to human life and human society, to the world’s ecosystems and perhaps ultimately to much of life on Earth. Those scientists, conservationists and activists who have understood this, have nevertheless failed to effect the change necessary to prevent an ecological and climate emergency. There are complex reasons for these failures, and though it is vitally important that we try to fully understand them, I will not speak to them here.

I want to focus on the urgent question ‘what do we do now?’ by considering the response emerging from the new and quickly growing environmental mobilizations such as Extinction Rebellion in which people are beginning to resort to techniques of disruption and civil disobedience in the face of governmental and systemic inaction. Are these measures necessary, are they are morally justified, and are they perhaps even morally required?

Civil disobedience (which I shall assume is necessarily non-violent) has historically played an important part in effecting change, as for instance in the suffragette and the civil rights movements. In one of the most famous endorsements of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau (in 1849, after refusing to pay taxes to a government which legally sanctioned slavery) wrote:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

Thoreau’s point is simple and obvious: morality or justice does not necessarily line up with the law.  Are we reaching a point now at which the inefficiency of governments and the tyranny of corporate interests have become unendurable; where the refusal to adequately address the climate emergency can no longer be tolerated?

A brief (and incomplete) survey of where we are paints a sobering picture: The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that countries must triple their emissions reductions targets to limit global heating to below 2C. Even a 2C increase is not safe, but on the current trajectory heating is likely to result in an increase of between 2.9C and 3.4C by 2100. This will bring about catastrophic climate change globally. The social and geopolitical outcomes of such a scenario are deeply frightening. Rising seas will displace billions of people. Not only will costal habitations be inundated, arable land will be poisoned by salinity and made barren by drought. The effect will be devastating, widespread famine, which, along with water scarcity, will almost certainly cause political instability and conflict. It is likely that humans cannot adapt to an increase of 4C.

Clearly, urgent and serious action is needed. Two of the things that most threaten the possibility for action lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of responses to these predictions. The first is climate denialism  – including the views that climate change is not real, is not caused by human activity or that the likely effects are being wildly exaggerated. The other is climate defeatism – the view, (espoused by Jonathan Franzen in a recent article) that we are already too late. However, many argue that there is still a cause for hope because there is still a window in which to act to keep warming below 2C. Scientists and activists including Tim Flannery and Naomi Klein, are calling for radical action because that window is small, and vanishing quickly.

The question of what kinds of radical action we need brings us back to the question of what role acts of disruption and civil disobedience can play, and how those actions are to be morally reckoned with, given the situation we face.

Civil disobedience can be defined as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about change in laws or government policies.” The main objection to engaging in civil disobedience is that in a stable, functioning democracy there are effective and non-disruptive pathways to change through campaigning and electoral process. Indeed, the democratic system itself is based on the principle that citizens hold a type of sovereign power in that governments receive their legitimacy through ‘the will of the people.’

But what if democracy is not functioning properly? What if politicians, rather than representing the views and interests of their constituents, seek to dictate those views and interests. And what if they do so to advance their own views and interests? For democracy to function properly, for a citizenry to be self-determinate, citizens need the opportunity to make informed choices about their own welfare. People can only make informed choices if they are in fact informed, and governments have a responsibility, which they are currently abrogating, to tell the truth.

The Australian government is not telling the truth about the climate emergency, and has absolutely no intention of addressing the problem. It is resisting and frustrating renewable energy investment while actively pursuing new fossil fuel projects, of which coal is a major part. In Australia (as elsewhere) the powerful vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby have direct lines to government. The country’s policies and laws under these circumstances do not represent the best interests of the people but rather, at their expense, advance the interests of the few. This triple whammy of government obfuscation, policy inaction, and active support of heavy carbon emission activities is creating intense anger and frustration for climate realists from across the political and social spectrum, and support for disruptive, direct action is rapidly growing.

There is, of course, the question of how creating disruption by, for example, blocking bridges, swarming intersections and surrounding government buildings or corporate offices, would achieve the desired results. On one hand it is unlikely that the government will cave to the demands of protestors. On the other hand, Extinction Rebellion’s sustained protests across London in October 2018 resulted in the UK government declaring a climate emergency. Some dismiss this as merely symbolic, as indeed without meaningful policy change it is – but nevertheless, it is not nothing, and it has given impetus and hope to the movement for solving the climate crisis.

Those engaging in acts of civil disobedience do not know with any certainty if these tactics can or will work, but they do know that ordinary, legal forms of protest can not now be effective enough quickly enough. In this sense civil disobedience is a resort taken by people to express their anger and frustration at a destructive and intransigent system. Disruptive action has a cost – to the individuals risking arrest by disobeying the law and also to society. Those taking such action recognize that the stakes are very high, and that the costs of inaction are far greater.

I do not think it is difficult to make a case that under these circumstances civil disobedience is morally justified. Can we, though, defend the stronger claim that it is morally required?

Ahead of the September 20 School Strike for Climate, an open letter was published from over one hundred Australian academics from a variety of disciplines and universities endorsing and supporting Extinction Rebellion and its activities. The letter concluded that:

“When a government willfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty, to rebel to defend life itself.”

This statement clearly makes the move from acts of civil disobedience being justified to their being required – as a moral duty. Though I agree with the claim, its defense is trickier.

For example, exactly whose duty is it? Who is morally required to engage in civil disobedience? Even if someone feels that they, morally, have no choice – are they justified in making that demand of others? Our moral intuitions would suggest that there are reasons for rejecting that inference. And this appears to put it – as a moral duty – into conflict with one of the fundamental features of moral duties, which is that they are universal. If I recognize something as a moral duty for myself, then, all things being equal, I recognize it as such for others as well.

I do not see this as an insurmountable problem for the claim that we have a moral duty to rebel against a fundamentally unjust system in the face of looming existential catastrophe. Perhaps one way of fleshing out an answer would be to return to the ‘all things being equal’ clause. Perhaps also there is a way to acknowledge that while each person must freely choose – and be free not to choose – to take such action, there is still a collective responsibility governing the moral musts. These are difficult philosophical issues and they require further reflection.

I began by saying that at the core of ethics is the Socratic question of what it means to live a good human life. Humanity is at a crossroads, and how we understand Socrates’ question, and how we choose to respond to what it asks of us, needs to be reassessed in light of where we are. It seems clear that, given the current situation, living a good human life cannot mean going about one’s business as if the world might not be ending.

The Ethics of Climate Change Protest: Should Protest Be Funny?

climeme protest sign

The Global Climate Strike, which took place last September and involved over 150 countries, counted nearly 4 million young people among its numbers. This admirable show of support perhaps seems less shocking given the increasing prominence of young people in climate change activism. Greta Thunberg is perhaps the most famous of these, but others like Autumn Peltier and Xiye Bastida have also become important advocates for the fight to save the planet.

Because political protest itself has become increasingly visible online, signs from the climate strike inevitably went viral. The vast majority of signs spoke to the unblunted rage and helplessness inspired by political ineptitude (a perfect example, seen in the header of a Vox article on the climate strikes, simply reads “DON’T FUCKING KILL US”). However, many other drew on the language of memes and online humor to articulate frustration. In one example, a teenage girl holds up a sign with the words “THIS IS NOT WHAT I MEANT WHEN I SAID…DIE LIT” floating above a planet half-engulfed in flame. Another sign reads, “Winter is Not Coming,” a distortion of a Game of Thrones quote that has become a meme in itself. These signs, and many others like them, require fluency in the language and culture of social media. Almost all young people are equipped with this form of literacy. As Bridget Read notes in an article for The Cut, “Gen Z has a knack for incorporating its politics into its internet-inflected, ironic, and earnest self-expression so uncannily, so it’s to be expected that its IRL signs would be as funny, charming, and devastating as the best ‘climemes’.”

Read coins a startling new word in that last sentence, though climate change memes were hardly invented by the protests of last September. While “climemes” is a useful way of describing the ever-growing phenomenon of climate change memes, it should prompt us to ask what the moral ramifications of “memeifying” political protest are. Does humor have a place in our collective reckoning with the environmental catastrophe, or does it impede active and sustained engagement in social change?

On the one hand, memes are more likely to be seen by younger people who aren’t already actively engaged in environmental activism. Because they are made to be shared, memes certainly increase the visibility of issues like climate change for a diverse audience. If many people didn’t read lengthy articles about the climate protests, most at least saw images of funny protest signs on their Twitter feeds. However, memes inherently have an expiration date, and it eventually becomes blasé to share older memes. Given that climate change will have long-lasting ramifications, is such a short-lived format really best for fostering long-term engagement?

This leads into another question, of whether or not memes encourage those who share them to physically participate in activism. The idea of “armchair activism,” or activism that involves nothing more than sharing information with others online, has become controversial in recent years, but one could argue that sharing memes falls under this category. However, it should be clear that the protestors who make such signs are by no means working against their own cause, or that encouraging engagement is even the goal of climemes. A bitter sense of humor may be all we have in the face of looming catastrophe, a way for us to vent frustration and grief.

This issue is rooted in a much older debate about the overall purpose of humor. Aristotle, for example, was skeptical about the purpose of humor, and separated it sharply from tragedy. In Chapter 5 of The Poetics, he states that,

“The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction […] the comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless. The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out.”

His argument is that both tragedy and comedy are rooted in contradiction. This could be the contradiction between appearance and truth on which much of comedy hinges, or the contradiction between desire and reality which is often at the center of tragedy. Contradiction is just one thing climate change protests are pushing back against; namely, the contradiction between grim reality and the insulated world in which many politicians are living it, the contradiction between the urgency of the situation and the lack of response to it.

Aristotle’s definition of humor vehemently excludes pain. However, the kind of humor utilized by protestors has a painful edge. As Aristotle said, tragedy and humor are closely linked, but as climate change alters every aspect of life on earth, the lines between tragedy and comedy become indistinguishable. This is evident in all climemes, and whether or not circulating them is fully ethical, their existence speaks volumes about the modern day tragedy of environmental destruction.

Are Green Burials an Ethical Good?

image of burial mound in field

Roughly 7000 years ago a group of hunter-gatherers in Chile began to mummify their dead. According to Helen Thompson, the evidence suggests that this change was locally driven rather than being introduced from elsewhere. In fact, this cultural practice may have been influenced by climate change, which has spurred other past cultural developments as well. With climate change now becoming a major concern, there are those who argue we now have good ethical reasons to rethink what we should do with the dead. Several new environmentally-friendly ways of dealing with the dead have developed in recent years and this raises a moral question about what we should be doing with dead bodies.

Generally, there are two ways dead bodies are commonly dealt with; they are either buried or they are cremated. Cremation has become far more popular over the last century, and in some countries it is the far more common method. In Canada, for instance, cremation occurs roughly 65% of the time. In the United States the rate of cremation is far lower (only 47%), but this is an increase from only 25% in 1999. One of the reasons cremation is a popular method is because it is fairly cost-effective. In especially populated regions the difference between the cost of a burial and the cost of cremation can be several thousands of dollars. Cremation can also be less wasteful since it doesn’t inherently require cemeteries, headstones, or concrete burial vaults.

However, arguments have made about the moral superiority of burial over cremation. In an article published in the journal The New Bioethics, Toni C. Saad argues that cremation deprives a local community of a shared memory of those who were once apart of it and made the community what it was. He notes,

“of course, gravesite maintenance and location might become tiresome, but the continuing possibility of family memory-pilgrimage is not negligible. Additionally, since the memory of private loved ones is permanently tied to a public physical location, there remains a visual reminder to all, not merely relatives, of the significance of this person who is now dead.”

He suggests that private cremation contributes to a privatization of memory whereas a public cemetery allows us to connect to our local ancestry and allow us to better process the idea of death and mortality.

Both practices of the standard burial and cremation have become socially-engrained and there may be an argument that they are both morally important as part of our culture. However, there is a growing argument that these practices, as typically performed, are not environmentally friendly. Every year 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used to bury the deceased. In addition, cemeteries take up large amounts of land and require pesticides in their upkeep. A single cremation requires two SUV tanks worth of fuel. It can also release substances like dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Such practices do contribute to climate change, and if we have moral obligations to do something to reduce the threat of climate change, then we may be morally obligated to reconsider our rituals regarding death.

In the last few years several eco-friendly alternatives have been presented. For example, instead of an expensive wood casket, biodegradable caskets are now available and can ensure that bodies that decompose over time will become part of the local ecosystem. Instead of burial in a traditional cemetery, burial options are now available in more natural landscapes. Instead of a headstone, a tree may be planted over the burial site. A similar option is available for those who are cremated; ashes are placed into a biodegradable urn that contains a seed. Or, ashes can be placed underwater as part of an artificial reef.

Even the embalming process offers new possibilities. As opposed to formaldehyde, natural and essential oils may be used to preserve the body. In place of the standard cremation one alternative allows for the use of pressure and chemicals to dissolve the body. This process called alkaline hydrolysis uses 90% less energy than traditional cremation. There are new technological possibilities as well. Promession involves freeze-drying a corpse with liquid nitrogen and then breaking the body apart. Mercury fillings and surgical implants are removed and the powdered remains are buried in a shallow grave. This allows water and oxygen to mix with the remains and turn them into compost.

The fact that there are these alternatives and the fact that they may be more environmentally friendly does not necessarily mean that they are more ethical. However, given the climate crisis, there may be ethical reasons to adopt such new practices. In an article for the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Chen Zeng, William Sweet, and Qian Cheng argue that green burials reflect a number of ecological values including a harmonious relationship with nature, recognizing the worth of nature, the rights of all living things, and the limits of resources. They note,

“Green burial offers a way to minimize ecological pollution during the process of funeral, interment, and related religious rituals; it offers a means by which the affected environment can return to its prior, ‘natural’ state in a short time. Thus, the practice of green burial manifests a positive environmental and ethical attitude towards life.”

This only raises more questions. If it is more ethical to adopt eco-friendly practices than traditional practices for dealing with the dead, should we carefully study which practice is the least harmful the planet, and if so, are we then morally obliged to adopt that practice uniformly? As I began, climate change has affected the way humans deal with death. But how exactly should climate change today affect how we deal with death? Are we obliged to change our usual practices regarding death and would be it be morally wrong not to?

Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of father walking with daughter in the water on the beach

From record-setting wildfires raging the Amazon to rising sea levels and melting ice caps, the devastating effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent. Scientific data maintains that much of the rise in average global temperature is a direct result of human activities that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The effects of climate change that we are currently facing are a consequence of a one-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature when compared to pre-industrial times. At this rate, we will experience up to a 4°C increase in average warming by 2100, which will only exacerbate and magnify the already rampant environmental degradation.

Fortunately, this future is avoidable as long as mitigating measures are rapidly implemented at the individual, community, and national levels. Recent analysis suggests that if immediate changes to halt climate change are made, carbon emissions can be lessened within 12 years, which will keep the rise in average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Given that our actions now are crucial to the future of the biosphere and consequently the future of all people, climate-conscious individuals recognize the urgent need for change.

Even though scientific consensus asserts the existence of climate change, to global warming and climate change skeptics, this is still a point of contention. But to the rest, the numerous impacts of climate change can raise valid concerns over the sustainability of natural resources, and the kind of dystopian reality future generations will be grappling with in their lifetime if we do not act now.

A contentious resolution that has been proposed is factoring in climate change when deciding whether or not to have children and how many, if at all. Climate change has forced people to contemplate the ethics of having children in a consistently warming and thereby deteriorating world. Curtailing the population means the environment will suffer a reduced impact due to human activities, which will translate to a higher standard of living for the remaining population in terms of an increase in per capita availability of natural resources. Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism from conservatives following her Instagram live stream in which she pondered, “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

For BirthStrikers, the answer is decidedly tough but evident. UK-based environmental activist Blythe Pepino set up BirthStrike, a voluntary organization for people who have made the decision to not have children given the inevitable environmental deterioration looming in the future. Pepino maintains that BirthStrike does not aim to dissuade people from bearing children but to instead spotlight the exigency of the ecological crisis. BirthStrikers are a part of a growing movement of people who have made this decision and the movement continues to gain momentum as conversations regarding the ethics of bearing children are fostered in groups of climate-conscious people.

On the other hand, some are quick to dismiss the notion of limiting procreation due to climate change as absurd, such as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who in March, stated that the solution to climate change is having more babies. On the Senate floor, Lee shared his solution in a presentation, declaring that, “More babies will mean forward-looking adults, the sort we need to tackle long-term large-scale problems.”

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University echoes Lee’s thoughts on climate change and bearing children. Cowen argues that having more children and increasing the population of a nation would also increase the chances of nation coming up with innovative solutions to climate change. Cowen states, “If progress on climate change is at all possible, someone will need to contribute to it,” and goes on to explain that the most promising people who will do so is our potential children, especially if we are climate-conscious.

However, Lee and Cowen’s reasoning does not account for the series of carbon footprints our descendants will be producing which will collectively continue to add to the problem we are aiming to solve. Lee and Cowen also fail to address scientific data that deals with decisions made at the individual level, with recent research pointing to having children being detrimental to the environment given its already fragile state. Researchers calculated that having one less child would result in a family in an industrialized nation conserving 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is much more efficient than other proposed solutions to limiting carbon dioxide production such as giving up cars (saving 2.4 tons) and flying (saving 1.6 tons per transatlantic flight).

Discussing the prospect of not having children as a legitimate solution to climate change gives rise to other ethical concerns such as our right to bear children and the innate value of procreation. Procreative autonomy is one of many forms of autonomy people can employ to govern their lives and an extension of one’s right to liberty. In the context of human reproduction, exercising procreative autonomy means having total freedom in their choices regarding bearing children and, ultimately, retaining dominion over one’s body. Implementing policies to curb procreation interferes with individual procreative autonomy. While this value is of great significance, we might wonder whether whatever right we might have to it is absolute. If every individual possesses an inherent right to bear children, does this right also mean that an individual should have as many children as they want without any regard for the environmental consequences of their decision?

The instinct theory of human procreation states that all animals including humans have an inherent and fundamental desire to procreate, which is why almost all animals reproduce. This theory goes on to explain that if humans do not procreate, having left their purpose unfulfilled, will be unhappy. This theory is not without its flaws – the notion of an intrinsic desire for progeny lacks supporting empirical data. The urge to procreate is not universal amongst humans – people have and still choose not to experience parenthood simply because that is not what they want. In this light, the procreation-instinct theory comes across as an oversimplification of human nature.

If population growth is to be regulated to resolve climate change, can governmental restrictions on the number of children one can bear ever be justified? Sarah Conley, a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College argues it can indeed be justified in her 2005 journal article, The Right to Procreation: Merits and Demerits. Conley explains that if procreative autonomy is considered a right or an extension of the freedom to live life on our own terms, then restricting the number of children one can have would be an encroachment of this right. But Conley also notes that, “Imposing one’s children on an overpopulated world is also a kind of interference […] in the lives of others in that world. Whose desire should trump?” Comparing the significance of different people’s rights, Conley points out how one person’s right to something can outweigh another person’s right to something else, and how the more basic a right is, the more difficult it would be to supersede. Even though it would be repressive for a government to regulate the number of children one can bear, it may be even more repressive to rob others of the right to basic needs of life by contributing to overpopulation, which would deplete finite natural resources. Hence, Conley believes that governmental restrictions on childbearing is ethically admissible because unlimited procreation would impinge on others’ fundamental rights even more so than governmental limitations on procreation would interfere with one’s procreative autonomy.

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, decisions about bearing children remain deeply personal. While all people have the right to bear children, the fact is that overpopulation and the resulting increase in human activities are contributing to climate change. Whether you regard the climate impact of having a child an important consideration or not, taking action to remedy climate change is becoming ever more pressing and contemplating the ethical concerns climate change presents can serve as a driver to help us arrive at an equitable solution.

Pacific Islands Forum: Climate War in the Pacific

photograph of shoreline

The fight to mitigate full-blown climate catastrophe last week suffered a blow thanks to Australia’s intransigence at a meeting of Pacific leaders, which culminated in a plea from the president of Tuvalu, a tiny Pacific country already being inundated by rising seas, to the world: “We ask, please understand this, our people are dying.”

We should not be in the grip of moral uncertainty here. There is no more time to dispute the science – or to try to argue that it is in dispute. The science is in and evidence of the rapidly worsening climate crisis is all around us

Consider this analogy: Imagine you are walking past a pond, you hear someone pleading for help and you see a drowning child.1 You have the capacity to save the child’s life, at some cost to yourself. The cost may be something relatively minor or it may be something more serious – perhaps you will be late for a class, or miss an important meeting; ruin an expensive suit, or even lose your job. None of these things, even losing your job is (without serious qualification) morally equivalent to the child’s life. It should be uncontroversial that you are morally required to save the child. 

Now imagine that you are a large wealthy country strolling past a small poor nation being inundated by water as the seas rise from the effects of climate change. Imagine you hear that country pleading with you to help, to save it from drowning. Your help would of course require some sacrifice, but it will not threaten your life, or even your livelihood. It may be a major inconvenience to you, but it is a matter of life and death to the other. It should be equally uncontroversial that you are morally required to do whatever you can to come to its aid. 

Something like this happened last week in the tiny Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu where leaders from a host of smaller nations along with Australia met for the annual Pacific Islands Forum. The most pressing topic of the summit was the climate emergency, as the Pacific islands are on the front line, and Tuvalu, like many other low-lying, small Pacific Island nations is facing immediate peril from rising seas. Many regional leaders had their sights set on Australia, which is becoming a notorious laggard on efforts to combat climate change and honor its commitments made in the Paris agreement. It was hoped that an agreement could be reached at the leaders summit that would reflect the urgency of the crisis and forge a cooperative strategy to address the emergency. 

However, this is what those Pacific Island leaders were up against: just two years ago Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, (then federal treasurer) stood up in parliament brandishing a lump of coal and shouting that coal is nothing to be afraid of, to the guffaws of other government ministers. Morrison fronted the forum this week with his guile fully intact. Australia’s current conservative government (Liberal-National Party), now in its third term, began its tenure by repealing the previous government’s progressive and effective carbon tax, and has been defined by its ideological and pecuniary resistance to weaning Australia’s economy from its reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal, towards the many great opportunities the country affords for clean renewable energy generated by solar and wind. 

Australia is one of the richest nations per capita, owing to its vast fossil fuel resources and relatively small population; Australians also have one of the highest carbon footprints per head of population and Australia is the third largest exporter of fossil fuels behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. Because of Australia’s massive coal exports, the country is a major contributor of carbon heavy fuels and bears responsibility for its own carbon output as well as that of the nations to whom its coal is exported. Australia’s lack of action on climate change, together with its plans to continue to open up new coal mining prospects is having direct impact on the imminent existential crisis faced by Tuvalu and other Pacific nations. 

In his opening speech Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama said: “I appeal to Australia to do everything possible to achieve a rapid transition from coal to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change,” he said, adding that coal posed an “existential threat” to Pacific countries.

In an effort to head off criticism the Morrison government announced $500m in climate resilience and adaptation for the Pacific region. In response Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga said: 

“No matter how much money you put on the table, it doesn’t give you the excuse to not to do the right thing, which is to cut down on your emissions, including not opening your coalmines.”

During the leaders’ retreat where a communiqué was debated which will be used as the basis of regional decision-making, Australia refused to budge on certain ‘red lines’ – including insisting on the removal of mentions of coal, limiting warming to under 1.5C, and setting a plan for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, to the grief and frustration of the other nations. 

The Fijian prime minister expressed his anger with the difficulties in negotiating with Australia during the leaders’ retreat, telling The Guardian that Morrison had been “very insulting and condescending.”

So, to return to the drowning child scenario, it is meant to help us see that where it is in our power to help someone whose life is in danger “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” Australia has failed the test. It has walked past the child, refusing to help on the basis of reasons which are not morally equivalent – as Sopoaga said he told Morrison at one point during discussions: “You are trying to save your economy, I am trying to save my people.”

But there is another stratum of moral bankruptcy to how the broader conversation in Australia went. Australia’s deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, offering his own commentary back home from a business function as the forum was underway in Tuvalu, told an audience 

“I also get a little bit annoyed when we have people in those sorts of countries pointing the finger at Australia and say we should be shutting down all our resources sector so that, you know, they will continue to survive,” 

The current Australian government not only doesn’t understand its moral obligations or isn’t prepared to meet them, but has no compunction about flouting its preference for its resource sector (lets say its expensive suit) over the survival of its neighbors (the drowning child).

1 I am here borrowing, and adapting an analogy used by Peter Singer in his paper Famine, Affluence and Morality, published in 1972.

Legal Personhood and Nonhuman Rights

photograph of two elephants on marshy plains

In July 2019, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh granted all of the country’s rivers status as legal persons. Doing so makes it possible for the newly created National River Conservation Commission to bring legal action against anyone whose activity is deemed “harmful” to the country’s rivers. Other countries, and states within the US, have enacted similar rules (see Meredith McFadden’s “Who and What Is a Person: Chilean Rivers” on this site). There have also been extensive efforts on the behalf of non-human animals to establish for them legal personhood. For example the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2018 sued the Bronx Zoo to obtain a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, an Asian elephant housed at the zoo since 1977. In short, they got a court to compel the zoo to justify the lawfulness of their captivity of the elephant. 

The reasoning in each case has been distinct and so no consistent framework has yet emerged to ground the efforts to extend (the recognition of) rights beyond human beings to non-human animals and non-organisms. The Nonhuman Rights Project has focused on arguing that long-standing legal definitions in the Anglophone tradition already recognize the rights of animals—and that humans largely fail to act consistently on our own legal principles. The Bangladeshi ruling leverages a cultural belief that the river is a mother figure to the country. A broad ruling on the rights of nature made in 2011 by Bolivia’s government appeals to existence of conditions on the integrity and balance of natural systems—in short, nature’s wellbeing. This raises the question of what consistent basis, if any, can be articulated for such cases going forward. As attempts to abate climate change and eliminate animal cruelty increase, there will be a need for a powerful and consistent legal-philosophical framework to undergird these types of claim. 

One possible framework relies on an anthropocentric and social utility view of rights: that is, one which determines when, and to what, rights should be extended by calculating the benefit to humanity the rights would yield. Under such a framework the ability of current and future humans to secure food, water, and shelter gives sufficient reason to treat non-human animals and non-organisms as bearers of legal rights. Most of the arguments geared toward motivating people to deal with climate change fall under the auspices of the anthropocentric framework. However anthropocentric accounts of rights only extend rights to non-human animals and non-organisms on a provisional basis: these entities are considered as bearers of rights for only as long as it benefits humans. This framework does not make sense of the language found in measures like those taken by Bangladesh and the Nonhuman Rights Project. In these cases it is for the sake of the animals and the rivers themselves that rights are being recognized—not for the sake of the humans who benefit from them.

The Nonhuman Rights Project highlights the following definition from Black’s Law Dictionary: “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.” To this they add, in the case of Happy, that she is cognitively sophisticated enough to pass the mirror test—a psychological exam argued by some to demonstrate the existence of a sense of self (see McFadden’s “Passing the Mirror Test” for discussion). Hence they offer cognitive sophistication as a criterion for being capable of rights or duties. Other defenses of animal rights appeal to sentience—the ability to feel pain and pleasure—as the relevant criterion establishing animals as bearers of rights. Peter Singer wrote in his 1979 Practical Ethics, explaining the views of John Stuart Mill, “[t]he capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way.” However neither of these lines of reasoning extend to non-organisms, like rivers and lakes. These entities do not have cognition at all, much less sophisticated cognition. Moreover Singer, continuing on after the passage quoted above, forecloses upon the possibility of non-organisms having interests: “It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.” This directly contradicts the language of the measures taken in Bolivia and Toledo, Ohio which discuss the rights of nature “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

Taking the idea of the rights of non-organisms like lakes and rivers seriously may require a significant departure from mainstream moral philosophy, according to philosophers of so-called “radical ecology” frameworks. Proponents of radical ecology contend that the project of extending rights of personhood to non-humans can never fully account for the moral standing of non-humans, viewing the project as a thinly-disguised version of anthropocentrism. Instead they argue for a fundamental revision of how human’s view the natural world. For instance the very division of the world into the categories of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ is a misstep according to radical ecology—one which is at the root of problems like those addressed by Bangladesh, the Nonhuman Rights Project, Toledo, Bolivia, and others. Hence while the radical ecology framework gives full breath to language about nature’s rights to flourish, it objects to the method of extending legal personhood to non-human entities. 

Meeting the challenges of climate change and generally reforming humanity’s relationship to the rest of the natural world is no simple task. The steps taken by various jurisdictions and organizations to extend legal personhood to nonhuman animals and organisms represent a strategy that is in its first iteration. The strategy has so far met both with mixed reception and mixed results. Regardless of their success, similar measures and strategies are likely to arise as jurisdictions grapple with environmental and animal rights issues. Likewise, scholars will continue trying to develop powerful and consistent philosophical frameworks to undergird the legal work.

The Ethics of a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax

photograph of traffic gridlock for multiple blocks

“It’s just an excuse to take more money from us.” As Canada has implemented a carbon tax, this is the commonly voiced complaint. This kind of skepticism appears to be grounded in the belief that a) climate change either is not real or not a threat and that b) a tax is an inappropriate reaction to the situation. When first confronted with the idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax people’s response is often one of puzzlement. However, after explanation, skeptics often become receptive. But is a revenue-neutral tax ethically better than one that is not revenue-neutral? 

A revenue-neutral tax is a tax that does not increase the revenue for the operating expenses of the government. All of the money collected through taxation is distributed back to people, usually in the form of rebates directly to taxpayers or through reductions in income taxes. The government’s net revenue does not increase, hence the tax is revenue-neutral. Those who favor such taxes like the idea that the size of government does not increase. It also answers the skeptic from earlier; it isn’t just an excuse for a tax because it does not contribute to the government’s net revenue. 

If every taxpayer receives a rebate of the same amount, then those who use the least carbon get to keep the largest amount of money. Those who use the most carbon either save the least or have to pay more. Thus, the economy as a whole is incentivized to use less carbon and to invest in products and technologies that are better for the environment. Ethically, a tax like this seems prudent; it helps address climate change and it does so in a way that it can address the concerns of tax skeptics. 

On the other hand, a revenue-neutral tax potentially overlooks important ethical concerns. For example, climate change is likely going to lead to infrastructure and public health problems. Philosopher Simon Caney has described some of the ethical duties in adapting to climate change. These include spending money on building sea-walls to protect people in coastal areas, subsidizing people to move from threatened coastal settlements, and spending money to inoculate people from infectious diseases that will become a greater danger due to climate change. Often, these kinds of expenses fall on governments to fund. 

British Columbia was the first jurisdiction in North America to implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax. One of the legal requirements of the tax initially was that carbon tax revenue be offset through income tax reductions. 

As one can imagine it is difficult to raise those taxes again after they have been cut. Thus, as costs relating to climate change begin to fall on governments those governments may find it more difficult to raise additional revenue to pay for additional expenses because of a revenue-neutral tax.

Further, the effects of climate change are going to be most felt by future generations. Climate change will be expensive as well as economically disruptive. This means that those most affected by the costs of climate change will be worse off when it comes to managing the effects. A non revenue-neutral tax would allow governments to provide additional funding and investments for future generations and thus better fulfill ethical duties of adaptation to climate change. Indeed British Columbia recently opted to change their revenue-neutral policy so that those tax funds can be devoted towards energy retrofits and public infrastructure in order to support climate adaptation.

Often carbon taxes are considered justifiable according to what is called the polluter pays principle. According to Mizan R. Kan this principle has a long standing and widespread rationale. It holds that those who cause damage through pollution should pay for it. While not universal, many interpretations of the principle hold that the polluter should not only pay for engaging in pollution, but also to compensate for that damage. This would mean that there are duties of funding adaptations to climate change. 

A revenue-neutral carbon tax does require polluters to pay for their pollution but it does not require them to compensate for the damage that their pollution costs. Thus, the polluter pays principle may better justify a non revenue-neutral carbon tax over one that is revenue neutral. If we interpret this principle not only as an economic principle but as an ethical one, then a non revenue-neutral tax that uses funds for adaptation would seem to be more ethically justified then a revenue-neutral one.

Of course, a carbon tax is not the only way to meet ethical duties of preventing and adapting to climate change, and a non revenue-neutral tax may be a harder sell to the public and to politicians. Conservatives can support a revenue-neutral tax because it does not increase the size of government and proposing the alternative may increase political gridlock, making it more likely that nothing will be done at all. This is why the choice between a revenue-neutral and a non revenue-neutral tax presents an ethical dilemma. 

A non revenue-neutral carbon tax offers the opportunity to use funds to meet ethical duties both to prevent climate change and to fund adaptations to climate change. This can not only help us today but it can satisfy duties that we may have to future generations. Thus, as a single policy it better satisfies our ethical duties. However, it may be more difficult to get bi-partisan support to pass such a tax given skeptical attitudes and cynicism regarding efforts to tackle climate change. If no tax is passed at all and no other policy proposal (such as a cap-and-trade scheme) is enacted then even fewer ethical duties are met. Thus, because a revenue-neutral tax may be more practical in that it has the best chance of being enacted, it may be the most ethical option. 

Perhaps the best solution is to ensure that the public is better informed about the differences and merits of both kinds of taxes so that a more rational and fact-based conversation can be had. For the public to best articulate its needs and determine which is the most effective option, it will likely require an open and honest discussion about what the needs of local communities are and will be, and what will allow the public to see a carbon tax as a legitimate option for addressing climate change.

Population Growth and Anti-Natalist Philosophy

photograph of tightly-packed crowd

July 11 marked World Population Day, observed by the United Nations (UN) each year since 1989. It was established after the human population of Earth reached 5 billion on July 11, 1987 to, “…focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.” As of July 11, 2019 the human population has reached 7.7 billion and is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Continued overall positive population growth, combined with a general upward trend in worldwide human life expectancy, has created concerns about overpopulation: that is, a situation in which the resources of particular regions—or the planet in general—are outstripped by the needs of the human population. 

Concerns about human population are not new. Throughout history, legislators and scholars across cultures have been concerned with either depopulation, overpopulation, or population density. In Ancient China, Kongzi (Confucius) advocated government policy to ensure a balanced distribution of people across the arable land of China. Mozi, though a critic of Confucianism, also advocated government policy concerning population. One of the three  moral/political criteria for beneficial actions (, “lì”) in Mozi’s philosophy was that it promoted population growth. In Ancient Greece, Plato fixed the ideal population of a city-state at around 50400 (accounting for 5040 citizens, and then other non-citizens such as women, children, and slaves). Aristotle criticizes Plato’s calculations for not taking into account issues with fertility rates, mortality rates, and the size of territory required to sustain a population. In the Middle Ages, the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote extensively on population dynamics, advocating for denser population centers to facilitate social and economic prosperity.

Much of the contemporary discussion of human overpopulation is traceable to Richard Malthus’ 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus provides a mathematical argument as the basis of his thesis that overpopulation was a problem that would steadily grow worse: human population grows exponentially while the food supply only grows linearly. That is, the increase in food production occurs at a rate which remains the same over time whereas the increase in population occurs at a rate which itself increases over time. Malthus’ view of the problem focused on the poor and destitute, whom he viewed as those whose position was more vulnerable to famine and disease. These twin killers are examples of what Malthus referred to as positive checks on population: calamities that arise naturally from overpopulation and serve to check population growth. Allowing population to grow until checked by such natural forces was cruel in Malthus’ view. He argued that the better measures were so-called preventative checks: e.g., abstaining from or delaying procreation. 

In the current day, there is significant sympathy with the preventative aspect of the Malthusian position. In light of the growing population, and ever-increasing evidence that human activity is a primary driver of climate change, some people believe that having children is immoral. Or, at least that it is a decision which has to be made in response to the issues facing the world—and not narrower personal or familial ones. Other contemporary scholars have generated their own strands of reasoning to argue against procreation—or at least against the presumption that a decision to have children stands in need of no special justification. In general, arguments to the effect that procreation is immoral are referred to as anti-natalist views. Canadian philosopher Christine Overall and South African philosopher David Benatar both provide their own versions of anti-natalism.

Overall, in her book Why Have Children, canvasses the usual arguments both for and against having children and finds them all lacking. She concludes that the decision to have children always stands in need of justification, and that the justification must be given in terms of the possibility of a healthy relationship developing between parents and children. Benatar, on the other hand, argues that human existence is generally characterized by misery. Because of this he argues that it is always bad to bring new life into the world. In other words, whereas Overall claims that having children can possibly be justified—though not in any of the usual ways—Benatar argues that having children is always unjustified. In his Better Never to Have Been, Benatar claims that life is bad—but so is death and dying. The only way to avoid this double-bind is to never have existed in the first place. (Incidentally, the sort of arguments Benatar gives are among the types of arguments Overall finds lacking.)

In the broad sweep of history, anti-natalist views rise and fall with the population itself. At times when populations have significantly decreased, arguments arose advocating having more children. Barring the success of a general anti-natalist argument like Benatar’s, issues about overpopulation are broadly about resources and climate. Given the dire warnings and predictions about the state of Earth’s climate future, sympathy with anti-natalist positions will likely continue or even increase.

Discussing Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

close-up photograph of dried lakebed

Concerns about the climate are becoming more pronounced in politics and policy discussions with each year. In the recent E.U. election, Green parties witnessed a marked increase in support. In Canada, the Green Party recently doubled their national caucus and managed to come second in a recent provincial election. In the U.S., there is hope of a Green New Deal. However, the federal administration in the U.S. has issued new directives to various national agencies to strip references to climate change or to omit worst-case emission scenarios. Public debates and media coverage emphasize the near universal consensus of climate scientists, but, on specific issues, this level of consensus simply does not exist. The nature of scientific consensus on the issue of climate change makes public discussion difficult, and this has ethical implications for how the public should be educated on matters of science. 

Studies show that the American public tends to believe that the consensus on climate change is around 72%, while many in the media (John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight being a good example) focus on the point that 97% of climate scientists agree on the issue of human-caused climate change. Getting the public to understand the degree of scientific consensus is important; it allows the public to be better able to address the dangers of climate change and assess the merits of various policy proposals. However, an important issue that is often not discussed is what exactly is meant by “scientific agreement.” The degree of scientific consensus isn’t constant given different questions and projections. While there may be a risk in underemphasizing the degree of current consensus, there may also be a risk in overemphasizing it as well. Is it worth it to potentially muddy the waters and attempt a more complex and nuanced public discussion about the nature of this consensus and the implication of climate change? 

Consensus on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is often considered important. However, a 2007 paper by Oppenheimer et al. warn policymakers about the extreme possibilities of climate change that are downplayed or excluded for the sake of consensus. It notes that the report tends to minimize uncertainty by excluding less understood processes. Because of this, various models may be subject to a “premature consensus.” 

Similarly, a 2010 paper by Dennis Bray discusses surveys of climate scientists and found even amongst IPCC participants there is not uniform consensus. On topics ranging from future changes to precipitation, only 54% of IPCC respondents state that the IPCC report reflects a consensus view. Bray’s paper also mentions a 2008 survey which examined participant agreement with official IPCC projections on extreme event projections of climate change, almost 50% indicated that they disagreed or strongly disagreed.  

As the papers suggest, the issue of scientific consensus is more complicated than it is often described in public discussion. While there is broad agreement between climate scientists, that consensus evaporates when considering the finer details. Given the seriousness of global climate change, it is obviously beneficial that the public takes the threat seriously and that they are confident in what scientists are telling us. No doubt this is why the “97% consensus” point is so compelling. 

But emphasizing consensus at the expense of considered disagreement and uncertainty comes with risks. This is important knowledge for policy debates; the public has a vested interest in knowing if official projections are under- or overestimating the potential harm. This may be especially important at the local and regional level since, for example, coastal regions are likely to be disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. Vigorous public input in these regions may be both desirable and necessary. 

Appreciation of scientific consensus is important for depoliticizing the facts around climate change. But the more the details and limitations of this consensus are discussed, the greater the risk that the facts become politicized by a public who may not have the time or expertise necessary to process the information. Is it worth it then to have the public be informed about disagreement when there is concern that the consensus view may underestimate projections about extreme events? More specifically, is it worth it if the result is that in the public eye scientific consensus is weaker than originally thought and ultimately less is done about climate change overall? Even if there is broad consensus on the notion of human-caused climate change, climate change deniers would likely use the opportunity to use reports on disagreement on specifics to undermine the broad consensus that climate change is human caused. 

Deliberately not covering cases of climate scientists diverging from the consensus view can make for a less informed public and we generally consider this a bad thing.  It can undermine public trust in science and in the public’s ability to make well informed democratic decisions. However, if there is greater coverage of scientific disagreement the facts could become twisted. If public confidence in scientific consensus falls then the public may be more inclined to be skeptical of climate change and thus such actions may result in an even less informed public overall. 

These questions pose a moral problem for both those who report on scientific findings as well as  members of the public who may have a moral obligation to be as informed as possible. Perhaps the long-term answer is to focus on science education, but that can take time. Plato’s Republic advocated for a “noble lie” in order to ensure social cohesion and harmony. Reporting only on consensus and glossing over areas of disagreement may constitute a lie of omission, but is it noble to do so?

Individual Obligation in the Face of Global Climate Change

photograph of earth from space with one-half illuminated and the other half in darkness

The planet is currently home to 7.7 billion humans. This number is steadily increasing, along with earth’s temperature. Environmental change is happening because the earth is overheating, scientifically referred to as the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by several gases, emitted in excess because of human activities and industries. The long term consequences of environmental change are predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of over 1,300 scientists from multiple countries including the United States. They predict a rise in earth’s temperature ranging from 2.5 to 10 degrees in the next century. Although it may not appear impactful, it has been historically proven that small changes in temperature can cause enormous environmental impacts. NASA cites an example on their website: “. . .at the end of the last ice age. . . the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.” Long-term effects of environmental change, as reported by the National Climate Assessment Reports three and four, will extend beyond this century and include rising temperatures, longer frost-free seasons, changing precipitation patterns, more droughts and heat waves, stronger hurricanes, a rise in sea level, and the arctic losing all ice.

Consensus within the scientific community is that environmental damage is caused by human activity. Environmental damage is carried into the future, it is cross-generational, and will impact all those who are not yet born. Thus, the actions of those today affect the lives of those tomorrow. Does this mean current society has an ethical obligation to protect the environment for future generations?

Society acknowledges the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every individual is born with. But what about those who are not yet born? Are they deserving of the same rights? Some would say no, that there is no ethical or logical reason to extend rights to people who do not exist. Others might disagree, arguing that unborn people are entitled to the same natural rights as the living.

Maybe one barrier to having empathy for future generations is the “short-termism” oriented society we live in. This term refers to the difficulty in thinking seriously about the future and how our actions now will impact it. So much of current culture is focused on the now, that it can be hard to think about the then. Sociologist Elise Boulding described it as “temporal exhaustion,” if we are so tired from the present, how can we think about the future? And “if we are prone to neglecting the wellbeing of our own future selves, it’s even harder to muster empathy for our descendants.”

On the other hand, protecting those who are not yet living could harm those who are alive, the people who may bear the burden could be the currently disadvantaged. How can we worry about the environment when there are people starving to death today?

In reality, the effects of climate change are felt by many today as their homes are damaged or destroyed and their lives are threatened by natural disasters. If these acts were committed by an individual, they would face the punishment of the law. If we do not accept a behavior that directly results in infringing upon one’s natural rights as a society, then why should we allow societal behavior that indirectly results in infringement on these same rights? Death and destruction occur in both instances. The difference, however, is in the distance of the action from the result, and the lack of a single culprit. If an arson burned someone’s house down they would go to prison. In 2018, 85 people died in California’s deadliest forest fire, but who will be held responsible for this? Climate change is the product of the collective actions of society members, but this does not lessen the severity of its effects.

Approximately 108 billion people have lived and died on the Earth over the past 50,000 years, while 6.75 trillion people are projected to live and die on the Earth over the next 50,000 years. We may have an ethical obligation for societal efforts and resources to be focused on combating existing inequalities and improving the plight of the currently disadvantaged. But we may also have an obligation that lies in spending our collective energies on protecting the future generations, so they do not inherit a world and a life of a lesser quality than those that came before them.

Fixing What We’ve Broken: Geoengineering in Response to Climate Change

underwater photograph of reef

Extending over 1,200 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on the planet. It is the only system of living beings visible from space and is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reef is home to countless living beings, many of which live nowhere else on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef is valuable in a number of ways. It has tremendous instrumental value for the living beings that enjoy its unique features, from the creatures who call it home to the human beings that travel in large numbers to experience its breathtaking beauty. One also may think that functioning ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is the position taken by notable 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold in his work Sand County Almanac. Leopold claims that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The idea here is that the ecosystem itself is valuable, and ought to be preserved for its own sake.  

When something has value, then, all things being equal, we ought to preserve and protect that value. Unfortunately, if we have an obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we are failing miserably. The culprit: anthropogenic climate change. As David Attenborough points out in his interactive series Great Barrier Reef, “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence.” One result of this process is what is known as “coral bleaching.” Coral has a symbiotic relationship with algae. Changes in ocean temperatures disrupt this relationship, causing coral to expel algae. When it does so, the coral becomes completely white. This is more than simply an aesthetic problem. The algae is a significant source of energy for the coral, and most of the time, coral does not survive bleaching. Devastatingly, this isn’t just a problem for the Great Barrier Reef — it’s a global problem.

One general category of approach to this problem is geoengineering, which involves using technology to fundamentally change the structure of the natural world. So, as it pertains specifically to the case of coral bleaching, geoengineering as a solution would involve using technology to either cool the water, lower the acidity levels, or both. For example, one such approach to rising ocean temperatures is to pump cooler water up from the bottom of the ocean to reduce surface temperatures. To deal with acidity, one suggestion is that we use our knowledge of chemistry to alter the chemical composition of ocean water.

Geoengineering has been proposed for a broader range of environmental issues. For example, some have suggested that we send a giant mirror, or a cluster of smaller mirrors, into space to deflect sunlight and reduce warming. Others have suggested that we inject sulfuric acid into the lower stratosphere, where it will be dispersed by wind patterns across the globe and will contribute to the planet’s reflective power.

Advocates of geoengineering often argue that technology got us into this problem, and technology can get us out. On this view, climate change is just another puzzle to be solved by the human intellect and our general propensity for using tools. Once we direct the unique skills of our species toward the problem, it will be solvable. What’s more, they commonly argue, we have an obligation to future generations to develop the technology that will give future people the tools they need to combat these problems. Preventing climate change from happening in the first place requires behavioral changes from too many agents to be realistic. Geoengineering requires actions only from reliable scientists and entrepreneurs.

Critics raise a host of problems for the geoengineering approach. One of the problems typically raised concerns the development of new technologies in general, but is perhaps particularly pressing in this case: How much must we know about the consequences of implementing a technology before we are morally justified in developing that technology? The continued successful function of each aspect of an ecosystem depends in vital ways on the successful function of the other aspects of that ecosystem. There is much that we don’t know about those relationships.  In the past, we’ve developed technologies under similar conditions of uncertainty; we tried to control the number of insects in our spaces through the use of pesticides to devastating and deadly affect. We don’t have a great track record with this kind of thing (as the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change itself demonstrates). There is potential for good here, but also the potential for great and unexpected harm.

Another problem has to do with which parties should be responsible for implementing geoengineered approaches. Who should get to decide whether these approaches are implemented? All life on earth will be affected by the decisions that we make here. Should such decisions be made through a mechanism that is procedurally just, like some form of a democratic process? If so, representative governments might be the appropriate actors to implement geoengineered strategies. That may seem intuitively appealing, but we must remember that our actions here have consequences for global citizens. Why should decisions made by, say, citizens of the United States have such substantive consequences for citizens of countries that, for either geographic or economic reasons, are more hard hit by the effects of climate change? What about the sovereignty of nations?  

An alternative approach is that entrepreneurs could pursue these developments. Often the most impressive innovations are motivated by the competitive nature of markets. This approach faces some of the same challenges faced by the governmental approach—it is counterintuitive that people who have primarily financial motivations should direct something as critical as the future of the biosphere.

Finally, critics argue that the geoengineering approach is misguided in its focus. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the way that we think about the planet. The geoengineering approach encourages us to continue to think about biosphere as a collection of resources for human beings to collect and manipulate any way that we see fit. A more appropriate approach, some argue, is for human beings to make fundamental changes to their lifestyles. They must stop thinking of themselves as the only important characters in the narrative of the planet. Instead of focusing on fixing what we break, we should be focusing on avoiding breaking things in the first place. Toward this end, they argue, our primary focus should be on reducing carbon emissions.