Many of us are asking ourselves: How should we be responding to the climate crisis? What should we be doing? What should we not be doing?
These are ethical questions. And they are big. But you don't need
a university degree in philosophy to answer them. The answers are
rather simple. Anyway, the main issue is not whether the answers are correct from a philosophical viewpoint. The main issue is: Are we going to do what obviously needs to be done?
While agreements to reduce emissions and deforestation are always important, we no longer have time to wait for such agreements. We all have to reduce our emissions immediately and unilaterally, and on that basis encourage others to do likewise.
That may sound unfair, but it is not. We,
the middle classes of the rich countries, are living in luxury compared
to most of the rest of the world and most of human history.
That is largely because of fossil fuels. We should first of all be
grateful to those fuels for improving our standard of living.
Thank you coal, oil, and gas!
Now is the time to break the fossil fuel habit, and
that is ok too. Reducing emissions is easy and fun. I don't know about
you, but I enjoy riding a bike, taking the train instead of flying, and
mostly eating vegetarian. That is also good for my health, so I'd
be crazy or lazy not to do it. Now is also the time to get involved in climate politics, even for those who were never interested in politics before, because the issue is existential.
In other words, stop reading articles like this one and start actually doing something.
One could be excused for thinking there's no problem. What's all the fuss
about? The weather and the climate seem just fine. The scientists tell us the
situation is extremely serious, but we cannot see that with our eyes,
hear it with our ears, or feel it with our skin. We have to rely on
scientific predictions, but many are not prepared to do that. Denial is
everywhere and it comes in many different forms.
But let's not talk about the denial. Let's focus on solutions.
1. The first step is to recognize that humanity is in the process of destroying itself.
Just how far this process will go is anybody's guess. Total
self-destruction is no longer unlikely. This is not a subjective
opinion, nor is it hysterical alarmism. I
don’t believe in Nostradamus, Armageddon, or the second coming of
Christ. I’m talking about a scientific consensus: on the whole,
physicists, chemists, and biologists working in
the area of climate change agree about this. They
may use different words, but it adds up to the same thing. We are creating and witnessing the world's sixth mass extinction event (more);
many scientists believe that such events repeatedly involved sudden
increases in both atmospheric temperature and greenhouse-gas
concentrations (more). Climate feedback processes (albedo, arctic peat methane, forest fires) mean that warming will likely continue even after all human emissions stop (more).
change is today's biggest human rights issue: it will shorten the lives
of a billion children now living in developing countries. Climate change will increase (probably double) existing death rates in connection
with hunger, curable disease, preventable disease, and violence. If
things don't improve, the lives of all humans on the planet will be
shortened by climate change. In plain English: it will kill us.
3. "Wait and see" is not an option. If
we wait until most people are seriously affected by climate change
the fate of humanity will already be sealed. By that time, the
process will probably be unstoppable. Temperatures will just keep on rising
until humans are extinct. If we wait even longer until all easily
carbon reserves are burned, as some people seem to think is possible,
not only will humans die out, but the number of other species that go
extinct will be even greater. These points follow from what we
the physics of global warming, the dependency of existing
ecosystems on climate, and the projected social and political
consequences of climate change. If you don't believe me, ask an expert.
Actually, it is already too late to avoid an unprecedented climate catastrophe later this century. But it is still possible to considerably reduce the magnitude of the catastrophe by reducing emissions and deforestation.
4.If you agree with points 1-3, consider the following:
(a)Our personal contribution to global warming depends on how much money we have relative to the average person on the planet. That’s because the
economy is carbon-based. This point applies equally to individuals (more) and countries (more). Many consumer goods have a carbon footprint that is
roughly proportional to the cost. Personally, I am relatively rich, so
my responsibility is relatively high. I am guessing that most people reading this can say the same thing.
(b) Our ability to achieve change depends on our level of education.
Education helps us to understand and communicate the issues. Of course
anyone can make a contribution regardless of educational level. The
point is that it is easier for those with the privilege of better
education. Like wealth, education implies responsibility.
5.The very least we can do in such an extreme situation is to ask: "What can I do?" Here's a possible answer: (a) Significantly reduce our personal carbon footprint. (b) Encourage others in our sphere of influence to do the same.
(c) Support groups that are applying political pressure to governments and corporations.
Part (a) mainly involves cutting down on driving, flying,
eating meat, and (if appropriate) having children (more).
These are the main things,
because for most people they make up the largest part of their personal
emissions over which they have direct control. There are many ways to approach (b) and (c), but all of them
are more plausible if we are already visibly doing (a). Example: If
I’m smoking and another smoker comes up to me and says I should
give up, I’m unlikely to be impressed.
Most people are still not cutting their person emissions. That includes
people who know exactly
what is going on and could easily reduce their
carbon footprint significantly. How long to we have to wait for you
folks? Is this the ultimate proof that human beings, for all their talk
about morality, are
Part (b) is about leadership.
businesses are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint and
showing off about it. This often happens because one influential
person decides to do something and refuses to take no for an answer.
The change is fueled by their stubborn idealism and relentless
enthusiasm. Others are pretending to go green (greenwashing).
university has a successful program of promoting cycling, public
transport and electric vehicles, and building energy-efficient
buildings. These things would never have happened if certain people in
the administration had not decided to make them happen. Many other
universities have similar sustainability programs and university staff
are constantly generating new ideas.
recently organized a low-carbon conference. I experienced plenty of
resistance along the way, but I had decided in advance not to give up,
and in the end most participants approved of the new format.
If more such low-carbon conferences follow in other academic
disciplines, gradually all of academia in all countries will be able to reduce its
These examples show that everyone
has a sphere of influence and everyone has the chance to create and
implement new approaches to reducing emissions within their sphere. You will need some creativity, enthusiasm, persistence, and
tact. Don't forget to measure the total carbon
footprint of your group and show that you are significantly and
sustainably reducing it. These numbers are important.
Part (c) is about power. With an empowered sphere of influence, political progress becomes
realistically possible. Publicly visible, non-violent demonstrations
attract media attention, as do legal proceedings. Given the overriding
importance of slowing climate change, it is even reasonable to risk
imprisonment, as many climate activists have done, especially
considering the publicity and sympathy that unjust imprisonment can
The point is to actually achieve significant change, motivated not by guilt or the desire to be seen to be doing good things, but by the determination to reach specific goals. These goals must be reached to save future generations from the worst consequences.
6. The Paris agreement
of 2015 demonstrated the
importance of unilateral action. The agreement was not legally binding. Paradoxically,
that is why it was so successful relative to previous agreements
(although from a broader viewpoint it was insufficient, effectively
guaranteeing about 3°C of warming). We learned from this that it is very difficult to create a fair, binding global agreement, and besides: we no longer have time to wait for one. The alternative is for every each country to unilaterally set internal emission-reduction goals and encourage
others to do something similar.
This idea has an interesting philosophical foundation in Emmanuel Kant's categorical imperative. If I were writing "Kant for dummies", I would say it like this: First decide how you think everyone should act, then act that way yourself. We
already know what we want other people to do: we want all
individuals, groups, governments,
and corporations in the world to immediately start reducing emissions
so as to approach zero as soon as possible and by about 2040 at the
latest. Otherwise what future will our grandchildren have? In that case, Kant says our task is first to do ourselves what we want everyone else to do.
We should act unilaterally, either as individuals or in groups,
governments, or corporations, within our sphere of influence.
Dalai Lama also proposes unilateral action, but explains it differently in this this great book.
that living morally is living for others. To see the truth, we need
quiet contemplation. We also need science. We want global unity, but in
a way we already have it: the major religions of the world have similar moral
goals. If we want world peace, we have to live peacefully in our everyday lives and among our family, friends and colleagues. If
we want to change something big, we need to start small. To be
authentic, we need to change ourselves before expecting others to
be sure, everyone should be gradually reducing their emissions. But
that is actually a compromise solution. The naked truth is that all emissions should stop immediately.
The warming effect of emitted CO2 lasts for over a century, on average (more). All emitted CO2 is contributing to the future global catastrophe, regardless of who is emitting it or where or how it is being emitted. Every ton of emitted CO2 is a ton too many.
Time is running out. Everyone
could and should be taking action -- especially those of us with
relatively more money or relatively more education. We are collectively
responsible for solving this! What we do (or do not do) in these
critical years will determine humanity's fate.
thank Steve Weiss and Nicholas Baigent for insightful comments on an
earlier draft. Nick reminded me that I should be thinking
about whether my approach is Consequentialist, Utilitarianist,
Rawlsian, Prioritarianist, or Deontic and whether it involves
Distributional Justice, Natural Rights, or Aristotelian Eudaimonia.
opinions expressed on
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opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to
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