Climate morality

Richard Parncutt 

June 2019


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 similar problem.

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 carbon budget.

Clearly, the 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 fly.

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, either.

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:

Morality 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 "rightness".

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:

Ethics 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 renewables.

Individual strategies. 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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