Climate ethics for dummies

Richard Parncutt

November 2018

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). 

2. Climate 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 before acting, 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 accessible fossil 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 know about 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 deeply immoral? 

Part (b) is about leadership.
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 bring. 

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.

The Dalai Lama also proposes unilateral action, but explains it differently in this this great book. He argues 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 follow.

7. 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 emittedEvery 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.

Acknowledgments. I 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. Interesting! The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage