James Garvey: The Ethics of Climate Change. Continuum, 2008.
One of the pleasures of teaching is that your students challenge your ideas, and push you in directions you might never have gone. In my graduate class on climate change informatics, I thought we would just focus on applications of computer science to addressing climate change. But my students insisted we spend more time understanding the rationale for action on climate change, and in particular, they wanted a seminar on climate change ethics. Which caused me to pick up James Garvey’s 2008 book, “The Ethics of Climate Change”. It’s such an eloquent statement of the moral case, that I will explore it’s contents in great detail, and quote from it at length. I hope to inspire others to pick up the book and read it. But short of that, at least I can summarize the key points.
Garvey’s thesis is that we need a clear understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change, and that philosophers (especially those who focus on ethics) need to engage with this problem. As he gets going, he points out that existing approaches to ethics are inadequate, because they haven’t previously considered problems where the consequences of action are “smeared out across space and time”: the impacts of climate change will be felt in disproportionately in different parts of the world, often by the people who have contributed least to the problem, and the impacts will span multiple generations, and affecting people not yet born.
A key point is that although science can tell us what is happening and why, it cannot tell us what to do about it. For that, we need an ethical framework for action. He constructs such a framework based on the idea that the world’s natural carbon sinks are the limiting resource, and that over-using this resource results in suffering and death for very large numbers of people over multiple generations. In the past, this resource has been used disproportionately by the developed nations to achieve prosperity. Hence, there is now a moral imperative to design an equitable way of distributing whatever is left of this resource, in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change without denying the developing world the opportunity to achieve their own prosperity.
The book begins with a short chapter on the science, in which Garvey quickly dispatches any notion that there is a debate within the mainstream scientific community about the existence and consequences of climate change. He makes short work of the argument that uncertainties in future projections can be used as an excuse for inaction, and the myth that climate change is a distant future threat. And he doesn’t mince his words:
“We can expect a future with hundreds of millions, even billions of displaced, hungry, thirsty people in it, escaping not just sea-level rises but on the move away from scorched croplands and empty wells. It doesn’t take much to imagine conflicts happening over our planet’s diminishing or shifting resources. It also doesn’t take much to see that the world’s poorest will be the ones most adversely affected, as well as the ones with the least resources for adaptation. […] There is going to be a lot of death in the future, a lot of death which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise. There will also be a lot of extra suffering, disease, thirst, hunger, violence and the like, horrors which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise.” (p28)
In chapter 2, he then explains the role of philosophers, the importance of an explicit consideration of right and wrong, the values that allow us to separate them, and the basis by which we arrive at those values. Philosophy, he points out, “…is an attempt to answer three very large questions. What exists? How do we know? What are we going to do about it?” (p34). These three questions give rise to three kinds of philosophy, respectively, metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. By way of introduction to the basics of moral philosophy, he explores the basis for our beliefs about questions such as why it is wrong to kill innocent people, and provides a starting point for answering through the notion of justice: “…unless some morally relevant considerations intervene, justice means that burdens and benefits should be distributed among people equally.” (p42).
The ability to identify a moral foundation for our actions is vital, because it is often easy to identify relevant facts that argue one way or the other for some action, and hence, such disputes cannot be settled by an appeal to facts: “Sometimes … pointing to the facts is the wrong thing to do, because the disagreement really is a moral one.” (p42) For example, if a neighbouring country has been annexed, going to war to fight the injustice might be expensive. But the cost is irrelevant if the our moral framework compels us to act: “Sometimes morality trumps the facts, and sometimes the facts are just irrelevant. (p45)”
Of course, consistency is important here. Garvey summarizes two major schools of thought as examples:
- Utilitarianism, which says that the morality of any action should be judged solely on its consequences, and specifically on whether it brings happiness (or reduction of pain) for the greatest number of people;
- Kantian morality, which says any principle that you apply, to determine what to do, should work as a universal law. For example, making a false promise is morally wrong, because if everyone did it, there would no longer be such a thing as a promise any more, and hence the action, when elevated to a universal law, generates an inconsistency.
Whether you apply either of these two approaches, or some other basis for morality, it’s important to test your moral framework through various thought experiments, to explore its consistency.
Unfortunately, the consistency principle can run into difficulty in environmental ethics. Most traditional approaches to moral reasoning focus on the effect of our actions on (other) humans. But as soon as we argue that animals feel pleasure and pain, it becomes hard to draw a distinct boundary, to argue that value to humans is the only thing that grounds our morality. Indeed, much of environmental ethics has focussed on expanding the boundaries that constrain our thinking about what harm our actions might cause: while in the past, some philosophers have excluded women, slaves, ethnic minorities, so today it seems wrong to exclude animals, and even entire ecosystems. Talbott points out a delicious irony here: we could argue that the human capacity for moral reasoning should not entitle us to a privileged status within the ecosystems in which we exist. But that argument is only possible precisely because of our capacity for moral reasoning. In other words, the very thing that makes humans special is used to argue that we are not special. To overcome this, some environmental ethicists argue that we need a new basis for how we think about ‘value’, one that is not anthropocentric. For example, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis places value in the biosphere as a whole, with humans as just one element.
Having reviewed these approaches to environmental ethics, Garvey concludes that we don’t, in fact, need to re-think our ideas about human values to construct a compelling moral framework for action on climate change, and indeed that climate change already challenges our thinking about morality in so many other ways that perhaps it’s best to stick to a traditional human-centred ethics to reason about what we ought to do about it.
A big part of the challenge is in how we normally think about responsibility. If someone deliberately smashed a valuable vase, it’s not hard to ascribe responsibility for the action, to identify who is harmed by it, and perhaps what compensatory action might be necessary. But each of us contributes to fossil fuel emissions just by turning on lights, having hot showers, making toast for breakfast, driving to work, and taking the occasional well-earned vacation. So who is to blame for climate change, and who should address the harm that it causes?
“Our values grew up in a low-tech, disconnected world, of plenty. Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears. Further, the effects of actions, as well as the actions themselves, are smeared out in space and time in confusing ways.” (p59)
Worse, the global and inter-generational nature of the problems are entangled:
“There is a sense in which my actions and the actions of my present fellows join with the past actions of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and the effects resulting from our actions will still be felt hundreds, even thousands of years in the future. It is also true that we are, in a way, stuck with the present we have because of our past. The little actions I undertake which keep me warm and dry and fed are what they are partly because of choices made by people long dead. Even if I didn’t want to burn fossil fuels, I’m embedded in a culture set up to do so.” (p60)
Couple this, then with our ineptitude at theoretical reasoning, and the result is a global moral failing, and a global self-deception, akin to the denialism of the alcoholic and drug addict:
“We’re not much good at thinking about our long-term future, non-human animals and nature, the value of persons who might never exist, spatially and temporally smeared actions and so on. We have been able to get about our business without worrying much about any of this, so now that it matters, we lack both the wisdom and the theory to cope with it.” (p61)
So what is the central problem in thinking about climate change? Garvey likens the problems to a tragedy of the commons (where is is each person’s interest individually to over-exploit a common resource, but collectively a disaster), or a prisoner’s dilemma problem (where cooperating with the police by ratting on your accomplice might get you the best individual outcome, but the best joint action is for all members of the gang to stay silent). Nations considering whether to stick to the commitments they made in the Kyoto treaty face this type of dilemma, whereby
“polluting and enjoying the benefits of untrammelled energy use, can seem like the individually rational thing to do – particularly if, so far as you know, that’s what the other guy is going to do. Exploiting a common resource, like the carbon-absorbing properties of the planet, can seem like a good idea too. Everyone shares in the loss of the common resource, but only the polluter enjoys the benefits.” (p64)
Thankfully, Garvey is quick to dismiss the cost-benefit approaches to this problem that are frequently advocated by economists. He does this succinctly by pointing out that
“a few economists have tried to calculate some of the “non-market impacts” of climate change, by assigning a value to human life in proportion to national per capita gross domestic product: You get solid and objective answers to your questions through this assignation, but you also have to think about a Chinese person as worth about one tenth of a European.” (p65)
So while economics matters, it cannot matter if we don’t first work out what we value, and that consideration of value has to happen long before we apply economics to the problem.
The core of Garvey’s approach then is that the world’s carbon sinks are a limited resource, and furthermore they are a necessary resource: for many people, burning fossil fuels is an essential part of getting food. Hence, using up someone else’s share of the carbon sink is as wrong as using up their share of food or clean water. Garvey presents the numbers that show we’re a long way from an equitable distribution of this resource. He also considers, and then dismisses arguments that there might be a moral justification for such an unequal distribution – for example, the argument that an unequal distribution of a resource can result in benefits for everyone. The origin of this argument is often attributed to Locke, who, in the 17th century, compared the lack of property ownership among Native Americans with the unequal land ownership in England, and concluded that, since the poorest persons in England had more material goods than the Native Americans, that the inequality of ownership in England benefitted everyone. Although this particular comparison is rather dubious, similar arguments are common across many writers since, from Adam Smith who argued that the operation of markets guaranteed an optimal allocation of resources to those who could exploit them (hence benefiting everyone), through to the “trickle down” ideology of Reagan and Thatcher. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the exploitation of global carbon sinks by developed nations has benefited the poorer nations of the world in any way, as they cannot afford most of the products of our high energy economy, and those that they can afford, they have paid for many times over in the flow of money and raw materials from the poor to the rich. Furthermore, as we face dwindling supplies of fossil fuel energy (due to peak oil and peak coal), and dwindling agricultural yield due to climate change, this lack of access to the benefits will likely get steadily worse:
“Burning fossil fuels, using the planet’s sinks, has partly made developed countries what they are – it has been a large part of securing the standard of life enjoyed by those in wealthy countries. The resource which helped the developed world to do this is now effectively used up. In using the atmosphere as we have, we have not just consumed a little more than the poor. We’ve taken a possible future from them and replaced it with something much worse.” (p73)
This might be enough to provide a compelling case that the developed world bears the responsibility for climate change, and hence ought to take on the bulk of the work of mitigating further damage, and the responsibility to help the rest of the world to cope with the impacts, all while still allowing the developing world access to whatever is left of the world’s carbon sinks, lest they be denied their own chance of development. But Garvey adds one more argument, of compelling simplicity, which he introduces as “You broke it, you bought it”. The developed world has broken our climate system, and therefore bears the responsibility for paying for the damage – a principle that’s enshrined in many countries’ legal systems as “the polluter pays”.
Garvey then considers a number of counter-arguments:
- The argument that a causal responsibility doesn’t necessarily entail a moral responsibility, if an actor was unaware of the damage, and did not intend to cause it. The problem is with this argument is that in simpler cases, we still ascribe a clear moral responsibility. If, for example, I cause a car accident, even though I did not intend to, it would be immoral to drive away without stopping to check everyone was okay, help anyone who was injured, and pay for at least part of the damage. And there’s a problem with arguing that the developed world was unaware. A clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change dates back at least until 1990, with the publication of the first IPCC report, and yet emissions have grown unabated in the 21 years since then. The developed world certainly cannot claim ignorance for this period.
- The argument that individuals in the developed world cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents and grandparents. Garvey notes that this argument requires a shift in focus from the responsibility of nations to the responsibility of individuals. But even more importantly, we cannot argue that the activities of our grandparents have nothing to do with us, while enjoying the prosperity that is a direct result of those activities.
And even if we do develop some of these arguments further, and perhaps accept that we must ignore history, we can still construct an argument that the developed world bears the responsibility based just on the following observations:
- Current per capita emissions. China may have overtaken the US in total annual emissions in the last few of years, but given it has nearly five times the population (and that it been more proactive than any other nation in containing population growth), as soon as you look at per capita emissions, it’s obvious that the developed countries still burn dramatically more than their fair share.
- Room for reduction. Many of the emissions in the developing world are subsistence emissions – cutting them will remove some of the basic requirements for survival:
“Suppose that 50% of the emissions of the US Virgin Islands are luxury emissions and all of the emissions of Rwanda are subsistence emissions. It’s clear who has room for reduction and who doesn’t. Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can recharge their mobile phones.” (p81)
- Ability to pay. However you look at it, reducing fossil fuel emissions and adapting to climate change will cost money. Because the developed nations can afford it, they should pay more, not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms as well. Say it costs a few percent of the world’s wealth to pay for a massive switch to clean energy. For poorer nations, a few percent on their meagre resources will have a disproportionately high impact on their wellbeing, while to a rich country, the impact might be negligible.
- Technological capacity. The argument here is that those who are best placed to do what is right have the greatest obligation to do so. If you fail to act to save a drowning child as you stroll along the riverbank, you might have some explaining to do. If you’re a physically fit and well-trained lifeguard you’ll have even more explaining to do.
A particularly interesting aspect of Garvey’s framework is that it doesn’t rely on being able to come up with an adequate definition of environmental sustainability, nor of any idea of ‘stewardship of the earth’. When he does discuss sustainability, at the end of chapter 3, Garvey points out that most definitions of sustainability rely on us reasoning about a balance of the rights of the current generation with the rights of those yet unborn, and however you look at it, it’s hard to figure out an equitable division of resources with an unknown number of future earthlings. To argue that we must act to reduce avoidable suffering because of the impacts of climate change is one thing. But to argue that future generations must have equal access to resources as us is much harder. By way of example, he questions whether the people of developing nations, where life might only just be becoming tolerable, should pause to consider making sacrifices now for the benefit of subsequent generations.
Garvey spends chapter 4 demolishing the usual arguments put forward for doing nothing, or for delaying action. It’s eloquently argued, and makes a compelling case that those who spend time discussing uncertainties and costs are doing little more than self-interested vacillation. On uncertainty:
“The many things we still don’t understand all that well, the IPCC and others stress in various ways make us unsure of the timing and the magnitude and the regional patterns of climate change. What is not in doubt is the fact of climate change and the human role in it. […] The uncertainty, really, concerns only the timing and extent of the required cuts and preparations. We do not know how swift the changes to our societies need to be or how large they need to be. We don’t know how much longer we can get away with the high energy lives we’ve got. Maybe putting it that way makes our to-ing and fro-ing about action on climate change sound self-interested. Maybe that’s just what it is.” (p95-6)
“If you think a little about the causes and effects of climate change – our easy high-energy lives as compared to the suffering which greenhouse-gas emissions cause and will continue to cause – you can come to the conclusion that avoiding action on climate change just because it might be expensive amounts to harming people for money.” (p98)
On hoping for technological rescue:
“There’s no harm in wishful thinking, unless it stops you doing something effective when something effective needs to be done. When wishful thinking takes the place of recognizing moral responsibilities […] the harm becomes a moral mistake. The damage that might have been avoided becomes the wishful thinker’s fault. […] Opting for wishful thinking instead of action when there is so much at stake is something more like moral recklessness.” (p103)
On waiting for others to act:
“Ethical demands are placed upon the users of a scarce and valuable resource just because the scarce and valuable resource is being used. It does not matter whether a country signs a treaty, whether a country meant to deprive others, or whether other countries are pitching in too. The moral demand is there no matter what others do.” (p109)
And in summary:
“Not one of the reasons for delaying meaningful action on climate change is based on a principle. Certainly there are no moral principles to be found in the arguments. There is not much talk of justice or equity or fairness or the value of human life. This fact might give you pause, might make you suspicious, might make you wonder what the real motivation for delay might be. […] It is hard to escape the conclusion that selfishness is at the bottom of the arguments against action” (p110-111)
Having sketched out the rationale for this moral framework, Garvey then considers what action on climate change is needed. He suggests four moral requirements for judging any proposed international agreement:
- Historical responsibilities – any agreement must take account of how much of our shared carbon sinks each country has used up already;
- Present capacities – taking into account both inequality in current emissions (e.g. by comparing per capita emissions) and availability in each country of the capital needed to undertake emissions reduction.
- Sustainability – however we divide up the remaining shares of the carbon sinks it must be set up in a way that is sustainable over the long term.
- Procedural fairness – the process of arriving at and implementing an agreement must be open and transparent, as must be the measurement of compliance.
Garvey applies these criteria to assess the Kyoto protocol, and finds it seriously wanting:
“The individual targets set for countries in Kyoto are based on self-interest, not moral principle, certainly not in the recognition of past injustices or present inequalities.” (p122)
And of course, given the bullying that went on in the Kyoto process by certain powerful countries, it certainly wasn’t procedurally fair:
“A process certainly cannot be called ‘just’ if those landed with large burdens have little say in the process. There is a sense in which the poor and the weak, those least able to adapt to climate change, were landed with the worst of the burdens: rising tides, drought, failing crops, more disease, water shortages, and on and on. That fact should have secured certain countries a much larger role in negotiations. It didn’t.” (p123)
And he makes short work of the argument that we might forgive the moral failings of the Kyoto agreement on the basis that at least it was a first step, on which we can build:
“To buy into this sort of view of Kyoto, […] at the very least you have to think that the desired end is now on the cards. You have to think that future rounds of deeper cuts with more industrialized countries taking part now stands a good chance of being a reality because of Kyoto. Further you have to have good reasons for this thought; it can’t just be wishful thinking. […] It has to be true that Kyoto was the only way to secure the future good end of a meaningful treaty with substantial and binding emissions cuts. There is at least one other way to get such a treaty, and that’s to start with it.”
Which then brings us to the question of what ought to be done. Garvey draws on the paper by Bodansky et. al., which surveys more than 40 different proposals. Using his criteria, he throws out many on the basis that they only tackle part of the problem, and boils the remainder down to two basic approaches:
- Equal per capita shares, of which the best known example is contraction and convergence. Such proposals satisfy the criteria of moral adequacy, but might not be directly implementable, because, if we take past emissions into account, the developed countries, in effect, have already used up their per capita shares entirely (plus a whole lot more). Pushed to the extreme, this is then an argument that the developed nations aren’t even entitled to subsistence allowances from this point onwards. This could be addressed by some sort of monetary compensation for past emissions, instead of deducting them from future allocations. But then there are other wrinkles to sort out: the problem that people in some parts of the world (e.g. cold climates) could justifiably insist they need a bigger share than some others. And of course, the scheme might be seen to encourage population growth, and if you try and deal with this by pegging the per capita shares to population at some fixed date, you then penalize countries with younger populations who can’t immediately avoid significant population growth.
- Comparable burdens, in which the countries of the world agree to share out equally the burden of action on climate change. While this is clearly not morally adequate, according to Garvey’s criteria, he considers a number of reasons to take such proposals seriously, the chief of which is that the developed world is far more likely to sign up to an agreement that forgives them for past emissions, and perhaps also a sustainability question: each nation is less likely to defect if it can see that everyone is shouldering an equal burden. As he puts it:
“Suppose, instead, that we say that the right thing to do is to hold on to principle, even if it means that we end up with no agreement for meaningful action on climate change. Maybe this stand is admirable, until you think a little about the people who are going to suffer for it […] You can die for your own principles, if you like, but can you really insist that others die for them, too?” (p133)
In the end, Garvey doesn’t advocate for one or other of these approaches, but he does offer a clear yardstick by which to judge them. I think he’s saying, in effect, that equal per capita shares is what we ought to strive for (on the basis of moral adequacy), but that comparable burdens is the best we’re likely to achieve (in the basis of political acceptability). Of course, right now we have nothing, so there’s a lot of work to do.
Garvey’s final chapter is on individual action. He points out that what we do as individuals (e.g. worrying about how to reduce our own personal carbon footprints) is important, but isn’t going to save the planet. However, he addresses some hard truths about our personal moral failings. For example, he describes the moral outrage many people feel towards America: this is the nation that historically has done the most damage to the climate: with only 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 24% of global emissions, and yet America has done so little about climate change. And moral outrage because, as the world’s only superpower, America can most afford to take serious action, but does not. And more moral outrage because it’s a country where the vast majority of emissions are for luxuries rather than necessities. And even more moral outrage because other countries are taking stronger action on climate change, incurring immediate costs, while America acts as a freeloader, pursuing its short-term interests without caring about the consequences to the rest of the world.
And yet, if we’re capable of such moral outrage against America, we should, for moral consistency, also direct it against ourselves as individuals. For we, as the beneficiaries of a high-carbon lifestyle in the rich developed nations, are just as much to blame as any nation or government:
“If you find America’s failings morally outrageous, maybe you should find your own failings in the same connection morally outrageous too.” (p140)
And all the same arguments apply. If America is best placed to take action on climate change (because of its riches), then we as individuals in developed countries are too: we each have vastly more wealth, and vastly more choice than anyone in poorest half of the world. We should each be smart enough to figure out what we should do. We might reason that the effect is tiny when we take long hot showers, when we fail to insulate our houses, when we eat strawberries flown in from abroad, when we fly to exotic locations for vacations. But morally, the only difference between our individual actions and those of America or Exxon is one of scale. It’s still morally wrong.
To explain why so few people take a strong moral stance on individual choices, Garvey points out the psychological tricks we play on ourselves:
“When you hunker down over a drink and actually talk through climate change with real live people, when you follow debates in the media, and elsewhere, what you find are not arguments. What you bump into, again and again, are not reasons advanced for carefully articulated positions, but something closer to psychological defence mechanisms. What you find is denial.” (p143)
Garvey runs through Hillman’s list of ten defence mechanisms that people use for failing to take individual action, and points out that many of them were evident in the study of attitudes conducted by Stoll-Kleeman et al. They are all forms of denial, commonly found in dealing with addiction and anti-social behaviour:
- “I don’t believe in climate change”, which is straight denial of the facts;
- “Technology will be able to halt climate change”, which is a kind of reckless wishful thinking;
- “I blame the government, or the Americans, or the Chinese”, which is a kind of psychological projection, used to avoid facing up to personal responsibility;
- Various ad hominems directed at people calling for action, which is just an attempt to kill the messenger;
- “It’s not my problem”, which might just be straightforward dissociation, given that the evidence is all around us that it is (and will be) everyone’s problem;
- “There’s nothing I can do about it”, which is patently false, given that the way we choose to live our lives is the cause of the problem;
- “How I run my life is my own business”, except that it isn’t when what we do causes tangible harm to others;
- “There are more important and urgent tasks to tackle”, which might be true, but is hard to argue. It’s therefore likely to be another form of misdirection;
- “At least I’m doing something”, which again is a form of denial when the “something” consists of easy, cosmetic changes that don’t address the real, substantive changes that are needed;
- “We are already making a lot of progress on climate change” which sounds to me like the alcoholic insisting he is cutting down.
Garvey ends the book with a compelling argument that what we do as individuals matters a great deal, and that reflecting on climate change, and the moral choices it demands of us, should make us more reflective, driving us to a kind of living deliberatively:
“Reflection on climate change, and what to do about it in your on life can feel like something in between a moral problem or question and a crisis – better, it can seem to have some of the properties of both.” (p148)
His final section is on civil disobedience, and the inevitable conclusion that if you take a moral stance on climate change, and bear witness to the failure of governments over the last two decades to do what’s right, it leaves little option but that radical action is in order. Of course, by the logic of his arguments about individual action, if we protest, to some extent we’re protesting against our own lifestyles:
“In more than a token sense, a campaign of civil disobedience undertaken for meaningful action on climate change is nothing other than a campaign by us, against us. Civil disobedience certainly has a history of individuals standing up for their own lives or the improvement of the lives of others, but has anyone anywhere insisted that she be given less? Will we chain ourselves to airplanes and demand more expensive airport taxes?” (p152)
Luckily there is something positive here too:
“Collective action on climate change might be the demand for less stuff, but it is also the demand for more of something else: maybe justice, or goodness or whatever it is about us which is best. There is nothing irrational about insisting on a more humane world” (p153)