Category Archives: Environment

If having children is bad for the environment, what should parents do about it?












Here’s a thought many of us find uncomfortable. When we tally up the ways our individual behaviour increases carbon emissions – flying, driving, eating animal products – there’s one thing we should put at the top of the list: having babies. Each time you do that, you effectively create another lifetime’s worth of pollution. On one estimate, the average US woman increases GHG emissions by 5.7 times her own lifetime average by having a child. Continue reading

Tim Hayward – Constituting Finance as a Global Public Good

PTRG 10 May 2017

Photo: Glenda Alvarez

Summary of the paper

The economic premises of the Western liberal democracies are unsustainable in the light of social justice and ecology.  This indicates the ‘necessity’ of conceiving of an alternative to the existing global economic institutions.  The global financial system, too, needs to be reorganised and reoriented.  But how?  Answering this question may indicate the ‘possibility’ of conceiving of alternative constitutional arrangements concerning global finance.  Continue reading

Elizabeth Cripps – Justice, Integrity and the Green Parenting Duty

Political Theory Research Group series 2016/17: 12 October

Source: Vinoth Chandar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Source: Vinoth Chandar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This week we had the pleasure of discussing Dr Elizabeth Cripps’ paper, which introduced the idea of a “green parenting duty” as a requirement of climate justice and of respecting one’s child as a future moral agent. The work is to be presented later this month at the Aristotelian Society.

Continue reading

Population and Justice: Facing up to hard choices

Those of us who care about global justice and climate justice need to take human population growth seriously. Or so I argued in the first instalment of this two-part blog. On current population forecasts, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren might have to decide between basic rights for their own generation and protecting future generations from climate change. We owe it to them not to bequeath this tragic choice. However, it is also morally crucial to address population in the context of concerted efforts to tackle both global injustice and climate change, not as a standalone problem.

Continue reading

How not to talk about population

Do we need to talk about population and justice? Climate change, as terrifying a threat to future generations as you could find, is partly the result of growing human numbers, along with consumption and the lack of sufficient technology to turn one planet into the 1.6 we’re pretending we have. That’s just the IPAT equation: Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Moreover, those human numbers – 7.3bn in 2015 – are predicted to go a long way up before stabilising: to 9.7bn by 2050, and 11.2bn by 2100.

Climate justice campaigners, Copenhagen 2009. Photo: lightsinmotion, Creative Commons

Continue reading

Tim Hayward – A Global Right of Water

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 27 Jan 2016

Photo: United Nations

Photo: United Nations

This week’s PTRG saw Professor Tim Hayward present his paper ‘A Global Right of Water’.  In the paper, Tim answered several important questions such as: whether a right regarding safe and clean water is a ‘basic right’ without which no other right can be enjoyed; who has what responsibility to fulfil the material demands that this right entails; whether the traditional paradigm of thinking is appropriate to address real ecological challenges of a changing world; what political institution would be needed to realise everyone’s secure access to safe and clean water. Continue reading

Yukinori Iwaki – Temporal Debt, Ecological Debt, and the ‘Absolute’ Harm to the Disadvantaged

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 13 Jan 2016

Photo: International Labour Organization

Photo: International Labour Organization

This week’s PTRG saw Yukinori Iwaki present his paper ‘Temporal Debt, Ecological Debt, and the “Absolute” Harm to the Disadvantaged’. In the paper, Yuki introduces two novel concepts to explain how the world’s advantaged population are complicit in absolute harm towards the disadvantaged: the accumulation of ‘temporal debt’ and ‘ecological debt’. He identifies five components of human well-being whose denial constitutes harm: continued life, bodily health, bodily integrity, practical reason, and human affiliation. Subsequently, he argues that time and space are the overarching dimensions within which a human lives her life, and therefore infringements on these two dimensions lead to harm. Crucially, the paper attempts to locate the origin of this harm. Instead of simply noting the existence of the harm, Yuki asserts that the harm to the disadvantaged stems from injustices and debts caused by the advantaged. Thus, he enters well-known debates in global justice, mostly associated with Thomas Pogge, on the relation and responsibility of global injustices but with a more comprehensive account of how and why these injustices (or harms) occur. Continue reading

Five Bad Arguments Against Divestment

Photo: Augustine Ruiz.

Last year, Glasgow University became the first university in Europe to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Since then SOAS and Bedford have followed suit. Who, one wondered, would be next? The obvious answer was Edinburgh. Edinburgh has long prided itself on its ethical credentials. It was the first university in Europe to sign up to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. In 2014, it set up the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which swiftly launched a consultation on investment policy. The Just World Institute contributed by issuing a response document and collaborating in a packed out public debate. Finally, in the autumn, the matter moved to another level: the university set up a committee to formally consider the future of its £290 million endowment.   Divestment seemed like a real possibility. Continue reading

Human rights and ethics in a crowded planet

Any renewal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has to acknowledge the fact that we live in a crowded planet – crowded in the sense that the demands placed by the world’s human population on its ecological space are such that some members do not have adequate for their health and well-being.

The growth of human numbers is clearly a major concern, but in framing that concern we need to think carefully how the naturalistic element of the problem – the size of a population in relation to its ecological support system – is affected by the social relations that distribute rights of access to it.  The connection between the ecological and the social is not always reflected on clearly, if at all, in discussions of human rights and ethics. Continue reading

Climate Change and Me

I know this is a problem of unprecedented gravity, but what should I be doing about it? As individuals in the era of global climate change, each of us faces this dilemma.

We face it all day, every day. If I’m cold, do I turn up the central heating? If it’s quicker and cheaper to drive, should I get the bus? We face it even assuming that we are already committed to doing something: that we are motivated to act as we ought on climate change, however that might turn out to be. Should I fly to international summits to protest at intergovernmental failure to curb emissions, or stay at home and save the air miles? Should I direct my charity donations to the victims of a tsunami in Bangladesh, or to international activist efforts such as those of Greenpeace?

This sense of bewilderment – of individual powerlessness – is what prompted me to write my book Climate Change and the Moral Agent. But to answer such questions, I think we need first to address a philosophically bigger one: why should we be doing anything at all? If what each of us does would be harmless in isolation and if we are not acting intentionally collectively, at a global level, so as to bring about the harm, where do my climate duties come from? Many of us feel sure that we have them, but it takes an expansion of standard moral thinking to explain why.

I begin, then, with this broader challenge. I defend what I call a weakly collective duty, requiring us to organize at a global level to mitigate climate change, to enable adaptation, and to provide compensation. This organization might be via existing institutions, but equally we might have to cooperate to bypass them and perhaps ultimately create new ones. Such a duty can be grounded in at least four ways.

Firstly, for younger generations, mitigation is a matter of moralized collective self interest. It would be to the fundamental advantage of each of us, but can only be secured collectively, so we can be said to owe it to one another.

Secondly, many would accept that individuals or organized groups have a duty to prevent serious suffering if they can do so at less than significant cost to themselves. This is known as the principle of beneficence. Others – including Virginia Held, Larry May, Robert Goodin and Henry Shue – have extended this to cases where we are not yet a group capable of collective action but could become so in time prevent the suffering. On such reasoning, the affluent, wherever they are in the world, should organize to secure climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The third argument rests on a principle even harder to deny than that of beneficence. This is the no-harm principle, which requires us not to do serious, foreseeable harm to other human beings. I contend that this, too, should be collectivized. While not individually responsible – or even necessarily blameworthy – we are weakly collectively responsible for serious harm resulting predictably from our combined individual actions. Given this, as polluters we have a stringent duty to organize to secure climate change mitigation, adaptation, and compensation.

In this context, let us return to the well-intentioned but perplexed individual. The question is not simply: what should I be doing about climate change? It is rather: given what we should be doing, but are not, what is my primary moral duty?

My book considers three options. We might have mimicking duties, to do what we would have had to do if there were a fair, effective collective scheme in place to fulfil the weakly collective duty. Individual emissions cuts are the obvious example. We might have promotional duties, to try to bring about collective action. Or we might have duties to aid victims or to mitigate the harm directly.

Mimicking duties have widespread appeal. In particular, there is strong intuitive force – brought out in Liam Murphy’s compliance condition – to the view that it is unfair to ask more of anyone than she would have to do if everyone else were cooperating. However, I consider various possible philosophical arguments for mimicking, including appeal to consequentialism, to Kantian reasoning, and to virtue ethics. None convincingly demonstrates that mimicking is all, or even the first thing, that is required of us, against the background of a weakly collective duty. Instead, considerations of effectiveness, efficiency and fairness put the primary emphasis on promoting collective action, supplemented by fulfilling direct duties.

That’s not to say that we should not be doing the things conventionally thought of as ‘green’. Individual emissions cuts can be a necessary part of promoting wider level change, not least because many people, unswayed by abstract philosophical reasoning, would perceive an individual who did otherwise to be hypocritical. There might also be a character-based case for such actions, where they don’t conflict with fulfilling promotional or direct duties. But they are very far from all that can be asked of us and they do not take priority in cases of such conflict.

Of course, there are limits to what any of us can do without significant sacrifice. In saying that we should act otherwise than might be required if there were an effective global scheme in place, I do not suggest that we should give up everything. I am not acting wrongly because I do not put myself absolutely on the breadline or abandon my family in pursuit of collective action on climate change, although I might reasonably be blamed for not giving up my Starbucks cappuccino habit in order to promote it.

However, it is the fact that climate change can present us with such choices at all that prompts my fourth moral case for collective action. Even if we can’t be blamed for how we respond in these extreme scenarios – and most of us, of course, never get anywhere close to them – they are hard to live with. The truly motivated individual would face a more or less constant tug of war between central elements of her own life, her own relationships, and the moral pull on her of the very great harms for which she is one of those weakly collectively responsible. Given that this unhappy situation is collectively avoidable, we acquire a weakly collective duty to ourselves, as both moral agents and human beings, to organize to make it simultaneously possible to tackle climate change and fully to pursue our own lives and relationships.