Peter Singer has described James Garvey's new book, The Ethics of Climate Change, as 'a model of philosophical reasoning about one of the greatest challenges any generation has ever faced.' In this interview for Virtual Philosopher he outlines some of the key themes of the book.
Nigel: Why did you write this book? What is its main message?
James: I wrote the book to help people into thinking about the ethical dimension of reflection on climate change. There’s a great deal written concerning action on climate change, but often it’s from a scientific or economic or political point of view. All of that matters, but climate change presents us with a host of moral problems. Getting those in plain sight is part of the point of the book. What we do about our changing planet depends a lot on what we value, on what we think is morally right.
Nigel: What are the most serious likely effects of climate change in the next 50 years?
James: In addition to more extreme weather, the most serious effects probably have to do with food and water. In Africa, for example, 250 million people will have trouble finding enough water by 2020. As glaciers recede in the Himalayas, as many as a billion people in Asia will run short of water by 2050. Farming will suffer accordingly. There’s a lot of unpleasantness on the cards if we fail to act now.
Nigel: What do you think we should do about this? Where does the force of the moral claim come from?
James: The moral demand for action on climate change has three sources. If you think a little about the history of greenhouse gas emissions, you can come to the conclusion, pretty swiftly, that the industrialized world has done the most damage to the climate and therefore has the largest responsibility to take meaningful action on climate change. ‘Meaningful action’ means large reductions to emissions and stumping up something to help with adaptation all over the world.
If you think about present entitlements and capacities, you can arrive at the thought that the West currently uses more than its fair share of the carbon sinks of the world. Thoughts about corrective or compensatory justice issue in the conclusion that the West should take action on climate change, nudge the uses of resources nearer to equality. The West also is best-placed to make reductions – it has more room for reduction, more economic power, better technology, and on an on than the poorer countries on the planet.
If you think about the future, about sustainability, you can come around to the uncomfortable conclusion that everyone on the planet has a kind of obligation to leave a hospitable world in her wake. It’s uncomfortable, because it’s easy to bang on about the moral obligations of the rich, but reflection on sustainability seems to place demands on everyone, even those in developing countries whose lives are just getting tolerable.
ameNigel: You suggest that those who have caused the pollution should play a greater part in remedying it. Why is this?
James: There are many arguments worth considering, but my favourite is enshrined on the walls of antique shops: ' if you broke it, you bought it.' The thought can be tightened up a lot, but probably you already know exactly what I mean by it.
Nigel: At an individual rather than national level, can you really answer the challenge 'Well, whatever I do won't make any significant difference, so why should I sacrifice my pleasure now?'
James: That’s a tough question, and there’s no snappy answer. Consequentialist thinking is part of moral reflection, but not the whole of it. Sometimes we are moved by thinking not just about our effects, but about the consistency of our principles. Remonstration in moral matters sometimes just is the call for this kind of consistency. If I think that my situation demands treatment of such and such a kind, then I have to concede that others in that sort of situation should have just the same treatment.
Many people think, rightly, that the behaviour of the world’s biggest polluters is a kind of moral outrage. Consistency demands that the principles operative in those sorts of thoughts -- principles having to do with historical conceptions of justice, present entitlements and capacities, and sustainability – issue in the conclusion that individual lives of high-energy consumption are morally outrageous too.
If that’s too rich for you, then you might be drawn to the conclusion that the only way your little effects stand a chance of mattering is by adding them to the effects of others, hoping not just to change your own life, but your society. You might go in for a bit of collective action or group protest, maybe vote differently in future.
Nigel: Despite the bleak factual picture you paint in your first chapter, you end the book on an optimistic note. Isn't this inconsistent?
There is a lot of unnecessary suffering ahead if we fail to take action now. I’m not sure that governments and businesses will do what’s right, but I surprise myself sometimes with the thought that the rest of us will. According to a BBC World Service poll of 22,000 people in 21 countries, large majorities of people all over the world believe that human activity causes climate change and that strong action must be taken, sooner rather than later. Human beings eventually do the right thing, and that gives me a little hope. There’s nothing inconsistent in worrying about our future, all the while hoping that we do the right thing in the time we still have.
Nigel: Thank you very much.