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.