Ethics and Global Climate Change

The global climate change debate has a lopsided empirical basis – in the economy of nature but not political economy – and this has contributed to a peculiar moralising trajectory. I have three main concerns with this:

i) climate change has displaced other important concerns, for example of the 1 billion people living in unacceptable poverty;
ii) a fixation on global CO2 levels alone distracts from what we can practically do, and even from caring about other aspects of the environment that we want to protect;
iii) the debate has induced a kind of millennial meltdown in which otherwise sensible people have lost all sense of proportion and hope.

The science of climate change is not my target. It is clearly a fact that the world’s regional climates are changing substantially and at unprecedented speed, and this is a result of greenhouse gases produced by human activity (in particular by the industrialisation of the West). Denying the science is just silly. But ’science’ does not have the legitimacy or resources to tell us what we should do about climate change. We have to work that out for ourselves.

It is often said, and very plausibly, that climate change is difficult for human minds and our political institutions to grasp and act on because of its global scale and long-term and complex causal mechanisms. One way of dealing with such problems is to moralise them. This seems to be the strategy currently favoured by mainstream environmentalists. Morality concerns strict but simple universal rules that everyone should follow without regard to personal situations or consequences – on the model of laws. On this model, one’s carbon footprint is a crime (against the planet presumably) which one should feel guilty about and strive to mitigate. As of course are other people’s carbon emissions: they deserve to be shamed or otherwise forced into submission by the righteous ones.

In trying to tackle climate change by directly dealing with the causal mechanism we face an enormous collective action problem – how to persuade 6.7 billion people to adopt the morality of carbon rationing (and prevent free-riding). Everyone but the most delusional accepts that this is impossible without enormous government coercion (which explains many climate change warriors’ antipathy to democratic principles on this point – easier to persuade 200 governments than all those people). However even the coercion approach fails – see the failures of every inter-governmental treaty, from Kyoto to Copenhagen – and the reasons are obvious.

The moralisation approach undermines itself since it introduces the pernicious issue of blame and compensation and gets bogged down in a blame-game about who had their industrial revolution first. In addition, poor countries have a clear and over-riding moral duty to help their citizens achieve the high quality of life which the West takes for granted, and which is inevitably energy (carbon) intensive. And then there is the economics: the world still has lots of coal, especially in the poor world, that can produce electricity at 3c per kwh (which renewables cannot possibly compete with without radical technological breakthroughs). No comprehensive global political solution to greenhouse gases is possible. We need to go back and think again.

The moralisation approach contrasts with a fuller ethical thinking in which values are considered and debated explicitly and openly. Righteousness simplifies but it doesn’t try to understand. No-one emits carbon deliberately ‘for fun’, but rather we engage in activities which are more or less valuable to us – such as flying across the Atlantic to visit grandparents – which happen to emit carbon as a byproduct. To ignore the value of these human activities and see them instead as moral crimes is to do a violence to the very humanness of the lives (including those of future generations) that we are supposed to be so concerned about preserving. The single-minded focus on carbon reduction even distracts us from protecting other valuable parts of our environment, like the wilderness areas that would be industrialised with biofuel plantations, dams, and windmills. We need a broader ethical debate about what the consequences of climate change will be for what we humans have reason to value (e.g. polar bears – not that important; rising sea levels – very important) so that we can take really credible actions to protect them.

This is an essentially pragmatic approach – breaking the ‘end of the world’ into human-sized and human-relevant problems and solutions and ordering them by their importance, feasibility and (opportunity) costs. It builds on the fact that while the principal causal mechanism behind global climate changes is greenhouse gas emissions (important to understanding and modelling the phenomenon itself), solutions need not directly engage with that causal mechanism in the short term. After all, it is the effects of climate change on the things we care about that is important, not some abstract CO2 molecule count. We do not need to fixate entirely on CO2 emissions when other options exist to mitigate the effects of climate change that actually concern us, and seem much cheaper and more effective. (In this regard, Bjorn Lomberg’s pragmatic analysis of the economics of climate change is particularly interesting). Piecemeal actions are easier to achieve and even at national and regional levels can be significant. For example, soot emissions from old-fashioned coal-burning power stations are particularly bad for climate change but relatively easy to regulate and mitigate.

In the longer term, the greenhouse gas build-up must be dealt with, of course, and that will have to be by technological advances that remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as genetically modified algae and trees, and reduce the carbon intensity of our high energy life-styles, such as cheaper safer nuclear power stations. Such innovations require no prior global agreement to set in train. A high price on carbon in a few rich countries (preferably with a non-regressive carbon tax) and research subsidies would provide the necessary incentives. Nor do they require global agreement for take-up since they will be attractive on their own merits (clean, efficient, cheap).

The pragmatic approach does not require global agreement on a perfect solution through moral or political coercion but actually respects the interests of the human beings concerned. In contrast to the moralising approach which places excessive burdens on the world’s poorest, the pragmatic approach naturally pushes the greatest obligations and costs onto those (rich governments) most able to act. There will of course be new humanitarian demands which the rich world must honour – e.g. from low-lying Bangladesh or the Maldives – but we already know how to build sea-walls and they’re much cheaper than stopping the economy and much more likely to work.

At present too many supporters of tackling climate change are guilty of the same moral and cognitive melt-down in the face of its complexities that they accuse their detractors of. They are wrong to see the development of human freedoms and well-being as a distraction or even a threat to the world. They are wrong to fixate on an abstract and impossible problem (350 CO2 ppm) and seek a perfect solution without reference to wider ethical, political, and pragmatic issues. They are wrong to give up so easily on our human ingenuity and commitment and settle for retreating into the darkness of ’sustainability’. We best fulfill our duty to future generations by making this world a better place for all the people in it – not by leaving them the world in the same exact state we found it, but by ensuring that we leave them all with possibilities enough and as good as we in the rich world have had for living good lives. If not better!

Leave a Reply