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Is Climate Change an Ethical Issue? October 28, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.

Last week I linked to an article by David Roberts at Grist who argued that although the majority of Americans think climate change is happening and is a threat, most people are not angry about it or motivated to do much about. So the intensity is on the side of those who deny climate change.

Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.

In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.

But, in the end, Roberts was optimistic because he thinks generational change will replace the denialists with armies of young, committed environmentalists that will gradually shift the debate in favor of mitigating climate change.

I am not as optimistic as Roberts because I think climate change, from the standpoint of ordinary moral agents (i.e. non-philosophers) is not easily conceptualized as a moral issue.

By “ethics” or “morality”, I am referring to the actions I ought to take as an individual.

With regard to the causes of the predicted harms of climate change, the contributions of individuals are tiny, the actions that lead to climate change are otherwise innocent—they don’t involve any sort of obvious wrongdoing—and the effects of each individual’s actions are displaced over vast amounts of space and time. It is not obvious then how an individual is responsible for the harm, so it isn’t obvious why individuals have a responsibility to do anything about it.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, even if we felt an obligation as individuals to do something about climate change, there is very little we can do about it. Because our contribution as individuals is so inconsequential, any reduction we initiate with regard to our personal discharge of CO2 will also be inconsequential as well.

So, in other words, we have a very big collective action problem on our hands. I can do nothing to solve climate change on my own. And in the absence of global consensus among governments to take action in consort to solve the problem, which in the current political environment seems implausible, I as an individual can do very little.

As a result, people don’t see climate change as an ethical problem. It may be an engineering problem or a technological challenge, or a political problem for governments to solve, but not an urgent ethical problem that demands individuals take action.

The question is can philosophy help to conceptualize climate change more clearly. Do any of our moral theories explain why climate change ought to be a moral issue?

I think the answer is no if we consider only traditional moral theories. I will have more to say about this next week.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. klem - October 29, 2010

“he thinks generational change will replace the denialists with armies of young, committed environmentalists that will gradually shift the debate in favor of mitigating climate change”

That’s not what I’m observing. The kids in my son’s school have been repeatedly shown ‘An inconvenient truth’ and they are almost all climate deniers now. They have been saturated with climate fear mongering, they hear it in school and they hear it on the radio and TV and read it in print media. And now they are rebelling I guess. They are rejecting the hypothesis, to my amazement. If you think the next generation will all be environmentalists I think you might be in for a surprise.

2. Asur - October 29, 2010

Dwight, I enjoyed reading your analysis of why people tend not to feel individually responsible for mitigating climate change, even though they may recognize the general need for action; your reasoning on this is clear and strong.

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