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.