In Depth Analysis Of Climate Change Philosophy
After a strong run as vice-president in Clintons administration, Al Gore ran for the oval office himself and as we all know just nearly missed. How different would the world be, if he had made it? If not George W. Bush, a Texas grown oil-magnate1, would have become president of the country in the world, that produces, according to the official trend-calculations of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (by far) the most greenhouse gasses (IPCC website, 2007). Many people tend to believe everything would be different if Al Gore, the worldwide face of the battle against climate change, would have won the elections. Well, Al Gore might not be as sincere as he appears to be in his documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth', where he calls upon all of us to change out lives 'RIGHT NOW!' while Al Gore's own household uses over ten times as much electricity as the average household in the USA (USA Today, 2007). And most of it isn't the environmentally friendly 'green' energy he promotes. How should we interpret this? Maybe this means our individual responsibilities as a consumer are different than ours as a politician. Or maybe Al Gore is just a hypocrite in desperate need of attention and fame.
The climate is changing and both we and our offspring will have to carry the burden of a confused mother nature. After ten years of debate and scientific dispute as to who or what is the cause of this change, we start to focus more and more on how we are going to deal with it. Sea-levels will rise, local climates will change dramatically, species will extinct, the economic damage will be vast2 and the health of humanity will be effected and maybe even human lives will be lost3. The big question is of course whether we as consumers can be held responsible to solve this? Many scientists belief that the solution for this problem is that every consumer should individually work on producing less greenhouse gases in such a way that we emit altogether a sustainable amount. I will not discuss the validity of this statement, but what I will talk about, is that even if this is true, whether that makes us morally responsible to drastically change our life-styles. In this paper I will show that in no way, individuals can be held morally responsible for climate change because of their consuming habits.
Just for clarification of the argument, in this paper, I will not discuss the validity of the scientific standpoint that we as humanity indeed can do something about the climate change. As there is a lot of dispute among scientists whether this is true, I will stick to the official standpoint of the UN and the IPCC, that mankind indeed influences the outcome of the ongoing climate change. I mean by this that we as mankind can reduce or enhance the change of the climate, and thus all the negative consequences of it.
First of all, before I will start talking about the real problem, I want to give a brief deliberation of certain conditions that have to be met before someone van be held responsible for something. After that I will give a clear outline of what I think is missing in the discussion about the problem we are facing. (i.e. Who should clean up this mess? Who is responsible for dealing with this problem?) From this I will conclude that when we take on the discussion in the more practical sense I propose, it is impossible to hold individuals as a consumer accountable for the effects of climate change. I will discuss the main counterarguments against this and show with examples these are fully based on misconceptions.
As I said, before I will discuss who can be held responsible for the effects of climate change, I think it is useful to consider which conditions should be met before someone can be held responsible. Since this paper is not on responsibility in general, I will not give a full deliberation on all conditions that should be met, but focus on one essential condition. By essential I mean that if the condition is not met, no matter how many other conditions are perfectly met, a person cannot be held responsible for something. This condition I pose it that you cannot be held responsible for things you cannot possibly influence. This influence is not meant in a superegatory way, that it goes beyond our capabilities, because it's just to much to ask, but a literal impossibility to influence. I must add immediately that this qualification is usually effective on actions rather than on persons. For instance a citizen from the Netherlands cannot be held responsible for the outcome of the elections in Belgium because he didn't vote. This doesn't mean he cannot be held responsible for the outcome as a person, he could have helped campaigning or promoting certain political parties for instance. But for the omission of voting, he is certainly not responsible.
So if we now look at the discussion of who to solve this problem, the focus in my view should be on what each individual can do to solve it. Climate change is going to effect the entire world and thus should we all contribute to the solution. Only than a moral judgment can be made on what an individual should do. So basically, a person can only be held responsible for that part that he can do to solve the problem of climate change. So, to come back to the initial question I asked in the introduction of this paper: Can a person be held morally responsible for climate change due to his consuming habits that involve the emission of greenhouse gases? There might be dispute among scientists on whether the emissions of greenhouse gases in total effects the global climate, no scientists would argue that the emissions of a single person can cause climate change. Neither can the acute stop of the emissions of a single person stop the climate changes. The fluctuations of the concentration of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to completely natural processes are considerably bigger than those of a single person. And as Stephan Gardiner explains in his article 'Ethics and global Climate Change' (2004), the greenhouse effect is completely natural and will perfectly take care of any natural greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In other words, if everyone else would stop emitting greenhouse gases, for instance due to new legislation with doesn't apply to me, the emissions of greenhouse gases would be completely harmless. Emitting greenhouse gases is thus not intrinsically bad. Moreover, if a single person cannot contribute to the solution of climate change by stopping consuming in such a way that he or she produces more greenhouse gases than is allowed for in a sustainable system, he or she cannot be held responsible for the changing climate. Again, this doesn't mean the person cannot be held responsible for the solution in general. For instance, in the case of Al Gore, because he is a well known and influential person, he can be held responsible for all the efforts he could make to use these influences to make companies or countries change their policy to a more environmental friendly policy and thus really making a difference. For the fact that his personal home uses a lot of electricity and thus produces a lot of greenhouse gases, he cannot be held responsible. Of course, we as normal citizens have nowhere near as much influence as Al Gore does, so our duties and thus responsibilities are quite different. The point is that the focus of people should not be on emitting as little of greenhouse gases as possible, but to make the world emit as little greenhouse gases as possible, because that's the real solution.
Two counterarguments immediately come to mind when posing this view. First of all it seems very hypocritical to preach on how everybody should consume less and produce in an environmentally way and at the same time not living that life yourself. Secondly, you might think that if everybody thinks like this, nothing will ever happen and climate change will keep happening.
To the first argument I would like to reply with a very inspiring and honest article of Claudia Deutsch, an American journalist working for the New York Times. She has a degree in psychology and written several articles on how people deal psychologically with climate change. In her article 'Is individual responsibility the wrong approach to climate change' (2009) she states: "this whole personal responsibility thing is letting us feel great about what we're doing right, and ignore what we're doing wrong. I'm a prime example - i think of myself as an environmentalist, I always have a cloth bag with me, I unplug appliances when I'm not using them, I'm scrupulous about turning off lights (and btw, my coop maintenance includes my utilities, so I'm not saving a penny with any of this), I wait until the garbage bag is full before I dispose of it, I never buy bottled water in the US. And I drive a Corolla, a truly fuel-efficient car. I choose not to address the issue of why in tarnation a Manhattanite needs a car in the first place. It's part of my lifestyle that I won't give up. Yet I feel virtuous - probably unjustifiably so." In other words hypocrisy is really just relative. Giving up part of your lifestyle until you no longer emit more than would be sustainable if everybody did it, is just a way to wash your own hands in innocence and see it no longer as your responsibility. If you truly feel you can contribute to the problem by individually reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, you should give up everything that causes greenhouse gas emissions. And more, you should spend your life trying to compensate for all the gases that are still emitted. Again, I don't see this as our duty and responsibility, because the act itself doesn't contribute to a real way to the solution.
The second argument, like the first, is completely based on a misconception on how to solve the problem. Again, the focus should be on what we can do to really solve the problem. In the same article of Claudia Deutsch as mentioned in the previous section, she also says this:"Think back to the environmental crises of the past. Pollution was spewing forth from cars, and smokestacks were emitting lung-clogging particulate and acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide. We didn't pretend that getting people to drive less or use less electricity - although we certainly thought those were good ideas - would solve the problem. The EPA passed what it called "technology forcing" regulation - and industry, it's back against the regulatory wall, came up with the catalytic converter and lead-free gasoline, with electrostatic precipators and baghouses, with SO2 scrubbers." In other words, the only way to really change the way people live is to endorse strong and environmentally sustainable regulations. Deutsch is hinting to the fact that you see time after time again in history, that creating enough public awareness is almost impossible, because it is not clear which concrete aspects in people's lives are caused by this environmental crisis and they are asked to give up very concrete things that give them pleasure. (Should I really stop driving my SUV, even though I will not see the consequences in the world?) Maybe part of the problem here, is that humanity in general is not able to pinpoint the exact consequences. As long as the big parties in the world (i.e. companies, government, large NGO's etc.) have no drive to endorse and enforce environmentally sustainable policies, the way people live will not change either. So conclusive, people should rather be focusing on how they can contribute to new environmental regulations, than on what is happening in their own house.
What I finally want to discuss is whether you should or should not live a environmental sustainable live yourself? As I argued earlier, the acts of reducing greenhouse gases in your own household or lifestyle are not your moral duties, just because it doesn't make you part of the problem anymore. It only makes you feel better in a very self-centered way, because you know it is not part of the solution.
But what if for instance, like with Al Gore, your own lifestyle raises questions of whether you are sincere about what you are saying? Is it not part of the solution to life a green life yourself, because it may enhance your moral duty to work on a constructive solution? I would say it is. You cannot be fully determined to solve the problem of climate change, without doing everything you can that is in your power. So I believe you should live a 'green' lifestyle, but not because the reduce of greenhouse gases per se. Just because it is a derivative of the duty to try to work on a constructive solution and in this way you can make a stronger case.
Conclusively I would say that the moral responsibilities of an individual can be said to be as much as the person can do to contribute to the solution of the problem. This is because the problem is effecting the entire globe and thus should we work all in order to solve it. In this light people are therefor not morally responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions of their own lifestyle. Firstly because it is not part of a real constructive solution. As seen many times before in the past, because both individual people as well as companies or governments are chasing many other goals than to create an environmentally sustainable world. Strong regulations should be enforced in order for the global emissions truly to change. Secondly, the feeling that you are not part of the problem anymore is not morally relevant. It makes you feel better about yourself, you can wash your hands in innocence, but again, because it not contributing or working against a solution, it is morally not relevant. The only moral duty you could have to live a 'green' life is a derivative from the duty to work on a constructive solution and you believe this lifestyle may benefit your work in this matter.
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