Should we feel guilty about driving, flying, or eating meat? Should there be a public discussion about climate morality?
Some climate activists think not. The idea of (universal) morality has
been repeatedly abused by major world religions, often with terrible
consequences. Besides, it may be counterproductive
to talk about morality in the context of climate change. This
terminology may not help us achieve our sustainability goals.
Some claim that we cannot expect individuals to change their behavior.
Instead, the politicians and the big corporations have to make big
decisions that will lead to a gradual reduction in emissions. We should
therefore focus our efforts on getting governments to change.
It would be nice if it were that simple. If it were, we individuals
would not have to worry about our emissions. We would not have to feel
guilty. We could pretend to be innocent as we drove our cars, flew in
planes, ate meat, encouraged our friends and family members to have
more children, and voted for parties that don't care.
In fact, it is difficult to get anyone
to change their behavior. At some level, it doesn't matter if that is
your neighbour with an SUV or your climate-denying political
representative. If you want someone to change, you are up against a
To get around this, I wish instead to argue from a purely pragmatic standpoint.
Yes, we can and must continue to try to get governments and
corporations to change, without necessarily at the same time motivating
individuals to change. But this strategy is unlikely to
be sufficient. Here's why:
Why this is important
The most important goal in the world today is to stabilize CO2
concentration in the earth's atmosphere -- to stop it increasing. If we
don't do that, we are risking the end of human civilisation. After
that, we are risking human extinction.
If and when CO2 concentrations are stabilized, the next most important
goal will be to ensure that CO2 concentration gradually decreases,
heading for the (probably) "safe" level of 350 parts per million
(rather than 415, where we are at the moment).
The reason why this is the most important goal in the world
today involves human rights. A billion people depend on us
achieving that goal. If CO2 concentration continues to increase as at
present, at least a billion people will die prematurely. In all of
human history, there has never been a more important issue.
The next point to understand is that a steady global reduction in CO2
emissions can only be achieved if individuals reduce their carbon
footprint to about 3 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year. That is roughly
the amount that can be extracted from the atmosphere by trees and soils
(carbon cycle) so that the overall CO2 concentration remains constant.
Let's call it the "individual CO2 budget". Currently, the global
average individual carbon footprint is 5 tonnes. In rich countries it
is between 15 and 25 tonnes. That's about 5 to 8 times the individual
problem can only be solved if individuals reduce their carbon
footprints. That is true regardless of what governments and
corporations may do. That is a central point, and almost everyone is in
denial about it.
Technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere are only starting
to work. It will take decades before they can have a significant
impact. We don't have time to wait for that.
It follows that people will have to stop flying, almost completely.
Consider this: An intercontinental return flight in economy produces
about 3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per passenger. Just one trip can use
up one's CO2 budget for the whole year! Besides, in rich countries we
are indirectly producing perhaps 3 tonnes of CO2 per year just by
eating regular (vegan) food, living in a well-insulated flat without
much heating and no air conditioning, and using ordinary electronic
equipment and devices. (I am assuming here that we don't drive a
fossil car and instead get around by bicycle and public transport.)
After that single intercontinental flight, there is nothing left in the
budget to fly, drive or eat meat. That's it! Obviously we can no longer
What about electric planes? They should be developed, of course. But it
will take decades before they can respond to the demand created by
fossil-fuel planes, if at all. We don't have time to wait for that,
Therefore: driving, flying, eating meat, encouraging people to have
children, voting for political parties that don't care (and so on) --
all these things have become IMMORAL in the 21st century.
Morality versus ethics
But is the word "immoral" appropriate in this context? Well, here is
what Wikipedia said about "morality" when I read it on 28 June 2019:
is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between
those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper.
Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code
of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion or culture, or it can
derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal.
Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or
It's obviously not "proper", "good", or "right" to create more than
one's fair share of CO2 if it means contributing to the future
destruction of human civilisation. Nothing could be clearer than that.
Therefore, it is IMMORAL to knowingly do that.
Those who still object to the word "immoral" may prefer "unethical". Again Wikipedia can come in handy:
seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such
as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.
As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy also is related to
the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.
Ethics and morality are similar concepts, but ethics is more
theoretical, philosophical, academic. Is that a good thing? Think of
this: we already have a problem with the denial of science. A theoretical, philosophical, academic
discussion may backfire in the public domain. Instead, we need to use
language that everyone can understand. While I have no problem with the
term "climate ethics", especially in an academic context, for public
use I prefer "climate morality".
One might still ask whether such a moral proclamation is likely to be
productive in the struggle to mitigate climate change. That's an
important question and I cannot be sure of the answer. But I do know
that we urgently need to pursue multiple strategies to reduce
emissions. Most strategies divide into two categories:
Collective strategies. These
often involve politics and corporations. Governments can encourage
industries to switch to renewable energy, or farmers to switch from
meat to vegetables. Corporations can improve their public image by
being seen to lead a transition away from fossil fuels and toward
These might involve a new culture of emissions avoidance. History
shows that one of the best ways to motivate changes in behavior is by
discussing morality. What is morally correct and what is not? Another
option is to change the law. We could simply make it illegal to
produce more than one's CO2 budget, and when things get tragically
serious in the future, that is what might really happen. But most
people at the moment agree that prohibition is a bad idea. For the
moment we need a workable compromise between banning CO2 production and
giving people complete freedom. A public discussion about climate
morality seems like an effective and practical compromise solution.
We urgently need both collective and individual strategies. Besides,
the two are barely separable: people who can be convinced to reduce
their individual CO2 footprint (for "moral" reasons) are also likely to vote in elections for
politicians who will push forward big social and economic changes. A public discussion about moral issues can therefore contribute positively to such a development.
In discussions of this kind, it is important to remember that climate
change is a matter of life and death for at least a billion people.
Since everyone agrees that killing is immoral (the word unethical seems embarassingly inadequate in this case), it follows that producing far more than one's fair share of CO2 is also immoral.
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