What’s Wrong With the Current Climate Change Debate?

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What’s Wrong With the Current Climate Change Debate? Reconceptualising the Debate In Moral Terms

We’ve discussed science, politics and economics. Now Tom Cleary adds some moral philosophy into the mix and asks:  why should we care about climate change?

Climate change is a scientific fact. However, reducing the negative effects of climate change is not really a scientific issue; it is predominantly a moral issue. The failure of climate change activists to recognising this is part of the reason, I believe, that progress in the climate change debate has stagnated. To think that once the scientific fact of climate change is sorted then moral obligations automatically arise is to commit the logical fallacy of deriving an “ought” from an “is”. The scientific fact of climate change still leaves the moral question of “why should I care?” unanswered, and so writing off people who are hesitant or sceptical about how to respond to climate change is ignorant.

Let me illustrate this with a hypothetical conversation between a climate change activist against a reasonable sceptic.

Imagine, for the sake of argument that this is a conversation between Al Gore and a ‘reasonable climate sceptic’. The Columbian man with his sexy outift is there for moral support.

Proponent: Climate change is one of the major problems confronting society in the 21st century.

Sceptic: I agree it’s happening, but humans are not really responsible.

Proponent: There is scientific consensus that climate change is largely caused by human activities.

Sceptic: Well, there’s nothing we can do about it because  it’s largely irreversible.

Proponent: True, but we should still limit its effects.

Sceptic: China is the major emitter of carbon dioxide and both myself and New Zealand society as a whole cannot do anything that will make a real difference.

Proponent: But every little bit counts.

Sceptic: Why should I go out of my way to make an insignificant difference when the real polluters don’t? Why should I care?

Proponent: [usual response] Because other people and future generations will beaffected, especially poorer people.

Sceptic: So what? Why should I care?

Proponent: [insert response here]

To my mind, proponents for action on climate change have not presented a coherent response to this question of “why should I care?”. They have not provided a convincing reason for people to change their lifestyles to reduce climate change. Proponents have failed to provide the premise needed to convert the fact that climate change is happening (the “is”) into an imperative to remedy climate change ( the “ought”).

In the rest of this post I will first look at the arguments that people have made for why we should care and why I do not think they have been successful. Then I will discuss why the particular moral response matters.

Current reasons for why I should care about climate change

i) Utilitarianism

Probably the most common response given for why I should care about climate change is that climate change will (and does) affect many people; in some cases quite severely. Proponents of this argument will often list some of the negative effects of climate change, and there are many. Climate change will place a strain on food resources, access to water, increase damage due to severe weather, displace people(s) from low level islands or areas inland … the litany of harms is nearly endless. After outlining how climate change will harm others, the proponents of this argument then assert that we should care about these harms.

This type of moral reasoning is called “consequentialist” because the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. In particular, the harm argument comes from the utilitarian tradition. Under a utilitarian conception of morality, the right thing to do is the thing which maximises the happiness of society. This can be by increasing happiness and/or reducing unhappiness. Because of this, it is wrong to do things which reduce the overall happiness. For example, while stealing some books from a bookstore might make me happier it would diminish the owner of the bookstore as well as another future customer’s happiness. Therefore stealing the books would decrease the overall happiness and so it would be wrong.

Applying this utilitarian morality to climate change, my increased happiness in consuming something in the present is outweighed by the future increased suffering of many people globally. Therefore I should reduce my consumption to maximise the overall happiness. At a surface level this seems to be quite a powerful response to the question, “why should I care?”. However it has several problems.

One problem with this utilitarian argument is that it relies on considering the happiness of future generations, not just present generations. It is not entirely clear, from a philosophical perspective, why I should have to be concerned about the happiness of future (and therefore non-existent) generations in my utilitarian calculation. Why should I factor in the potential happiness of potential people as against the actual happiness of real people, namely myself?

It is also not entirely clear why I should care about other existing people under a utilitarian framework. John Stuart Mill, one of the leading utilitarian theorists, assumed that caring about others and maximising society’s happiness would create a better society and therefore maximise my individual happiness. However, this is not necessarily correct. Even if it was correct, it would only maximise my individual happiness if society affected me. That means that people who do not directly affect or relate to me would be outside of my calculation. Therefore the people on Kiribati or Tuvalu who will be displaced by rising sea levels do not affect me. Therefore why should I care?

Outside of these philosophical problems, the main problem with the utilitarian answer for why we should care about climate change is that it only conceives of the problem in consequentiality terms in relation to self. This is part of the problem rather than the solution. By placing the self at the centre of ethics and asking “why should I care” in consequentialist terms it is easy to ignore others, as well as the environment; especially if they do not directly affect me.

ii) The environment as part of the moral community

Because of this self-centred approach of most ethical theories, others have proposed an alternative approach to what counts morally. Instead of focussing exclusively on humans and the self as the centre of morality, an alternative view is that animals and the environment are worthy of moral consideration in and of themselves. That is not because of their instrumental worth (as measured by us humans) but instead because of their inherent worth (what they are).

This is what Aldo Leopold argued for in The Land Ethic where he argued for a “new ethic” which dealt with humanity’s “relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” This could be accomplished by expanding what we consider should count morally (the “moral community”) to include animals and the earth, as well as us humans. Expanding on this, Leopold proposed the following moral test: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The problem with this is that a thing only has moral worth in relation to the biotic community. Just because all organisms are part of an interrelated whole, this does not mean that they are all of intrinsic worth (have value in and of themselves). Neither does it mean that they are of equal intrinsic worth. For example, humans are clearly part of the whole, but how could you decide whether it was right to kill bread and then destroy yeast, or to genetically engineer plants? It seems that this new ethic does not provide much, if any, guidance here. An associated problem with this is trying to conceptualise a species or an ecosystem as an individual that can have interests outside of the interests of its individual members. So this new land ethic, while admirable, does not really stack up.

Why does it matter what reason is given?

One thing that might be bugging some people is the question of why the particular moral reason climate change activists give matters. Some people might think, “look, climate change is a fact. It’s a massive problem. Rather than talking about it and why we should care, let’s just start caring and get society to do something.” While action in addressing climate change is desperately needed, I think there are two problems with ignoring the moral reason for why we should care about climate change. The first is that society needs a positive vision to re-imagine how it should live, rather than negative commands of “don’t do x, y and z”. Secondly, the particular moral response we give affects the type of practical response we implement. I’ll briefly discuss each in turn.

The first thing is that society needs a positive vision to operate out of. We all live out of a narrative, even if unconsciously, and at present this narrative seems to be along the lines of Mill’s seek individual happiness by doing whatever you want, unless it directly harms others. Simply focussing on the harms will not really transform this vision and the underlying problem of fixating on the individual. One cannot transform society by telling it “don’t buy plastic bags”, or “don’t fly frequently”.

Secondly, the particular moral response to climate change will affect how we respond in practice. If we adopt a utilitarian view then we will attempt to make activities contributing to climate change more costly as this will supposedly reduce the happiness. So things like an Emissions Trading Scheme or a Carbon Tax are seen as ways to reduce the levels of happiness of emitting things like carbon dioxide. But some will inevitably see this as just a tax for the “right” to emit greenhouse gases and so emit to the limit and many others will simply pass on the cost to the consumer. If the current consumer mentality exists then this will probably not change much.

However, if we adopt a more community-focussed moral response then we will begin to look for ways to encourage better, more sustainable ways of living. People in New Zealand seem to have a fixation on private transport, eating vast quantities of red meat (well above the dietary requirements and perhaps at levels that are unhealthy), using plastic shopping bags, and consuming products. These problems require a community response and a transformation from a society focused on the self and consuming to a society focused on living sustainably and helping each other. (In a future blog post I will discuss what this type of vision could look like and why)

Will this change be easy? No, change is never easy. Should advocates for action on climate change wait for a social transformation? No, it will take time. But if climate change advocates want to stop being the ambulance at the bottom of the hill and move to reducing the impact of climate change then they have to acknowledge climate change is a moral issue and find ways to convince society to change the self-centred narrative that people in society are living out of. If they do this, then, as well as hopefully limiting climate change, they can also contribute to making society a much better place.

Tom Cleary has recently graduated with an LLB (Hons) and a BSc from the University of Otago. He is currently studying towards a Masters in Bio-ethics and Health Law.

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