Faculty Forum – Public Policy Posted on Thursday, March 08, 2018

Reframing Climate Change as a Moral Problem

Justin Garson

Justin Garson Associate Professor of Philosophy, Hunter College

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House Faculty Journal series on the New and Renewed Visions of Environmental Justice.


Climate justice refers to the whole constellation of philosophical and ethical issues surrounding climate change. It relates climate change to issues like intergenerational justice, social and global justice, and animal welfare, and it helps us think through the moral dimensions of specific strategies for fighting climate change (like solar radiation management or carbon taxes). Some are inclined to dismiss climate justice as a philosophical issue, in the bad sense of “philosophical,” where what’s “philosophical” refers to the realm of the merely academic, a realm divorced from the machinery of science or public policy. But that assumption would be a mistake, and perhaps a deadly one. Moral questions about fairness and justice have a way of scuttling otherwise good legislation. For example, the United States Congress, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, refused to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol (1997) on the grounds that it distributed mitigation burdens unfairly; President Donald Trump recently gestured in the exact same direction when he withdrew from the Paris Agreement. We ignore ethics at our own peril.

Questions about climate justice can be sorted into three main groups. Consider the following statement: “climate change is real, and it’s going to be devastating; so we should act.” Nobody can seriously dispute the argument’s premise, since it’s a matter of sound science. The same can’t be said about the conclusion, since each word in the short conclusion, we should act, demands to be interrogated in its own right. Each of the three words unlocks a vast realm of reflection and dialogue.

First, who is this “we” who ought to do something? Is this imperative pointed mainly toward nations? Or toward individuals? Does it mean that countries should be doing things like passing tougher emissions standards, or does it mean that individuals should be doing things like taking fewer road trips? And if it’s pointed at nations, which is the commonsense interpretation, does it point to all nations in the same way, to Canada and Somalia, for instance, equally? Or is it mainly directed toward wealthy nations? Does it say that everyone should act, but the wealthy nations, or those that contribute disproportionately to more emissions, should do more? And if that’s the right interpretation, does that imply that individuals are off the hook?

Second, supposing that this imperative points mainly toward the wealthy countries (the so-called Global North), what’s the moral basis for this should? Why should they do anything at all – or why should they do more than anyone else? The quick and dirty answer is the North has a special or disproportionate obligation to mitigate climate change since the North is the one that caused the problem through centuries of unfettered industrialization. This idea is sometimes called the “Polluter Pays” Principle; or, in the language any five-year-old can grasp, the “you broke it, you bought it” principle.

Yet, once one gets beyond sloganeering, it’s actually quite hard to make this line of logic work. First of all, most of the people who “broke” the climate, the people that kicked off the industrial revolution and the industrialists who created an oil-dependent infrastructure, are dead. Why should the living have a special obligation to pay for the sins of the dead? Second, for the vast majority of that time, the people that “broke” the climate had no idea what they were doing, and weren’t in any scientific position to know what they were doing. In legal contexts, ignorance tends to minimize blame. Third, there are many ways a person can become morally responsible for a situation, even if they didn’t cause it. If I’m an off-duty lifeguard and I see someone drowning, I’m morally obligated to save that person, even if I did nothing to cause the situation. So, while I agree that the North has a special obligation to mitigate climate change, the basic rationale needs to be worked out carefully if it’s going to persuade anyone who’s not already disposed to see things that way.

Third, what is the “it” that “we” are supposed to do? Different strategies for combatting climate change can differ in their moral valence. Again, the knee-jerk answer is that we should mitigate climate change by scaling back our consumption levels and transitioning to renewable energy sources. That sounds good – but why not, instead, continue our high-consumption lifestyles and put money toward adaptation strategies, like carbon-scrubbing devices (devices for removing CO2 from power plant exhaust) or solar radiation deflectors (devices for reflecting sunlight back into space before it reaches the earth? Most people I know cringe at the term “solar radiation management,” but they can’t quite say why, except that it’s somehow unnatural. But now we’re getting into deeper, and murkier, philosophical territory. What’s natural anyway, and why is the natural good? Even a carbon tax, which many people accept, has questionable moral implications; some think that carbon taxes inappropriately commodify the environment, and thereby perpetuate the attitudes and practices that cause environmental problems. Again, avoid philosophy at your own peril.

Fortunately, it doesn’t require an extensive background in philosophy to enter into these debates and introduce them into a college classroom, whether the topic is climate science, climate policy, or climate ethics. There are several introductory books and anthologies on the topic of climate justice and climate ethics. My personal favorite is Dominic Roser and Christian Seidel’s (2017) Climate Justice: An Introduction. The real virtue of the book is that it’s fairly up-to-date (as much as it can be in this rapidly changing landscape), it’s pitched at the introductory undergraduate audience, and the chapters are largely self-contained. So, for example, if one wanted to introduce moral questions about adaptation versus mitigation, one can assign a single chapter or two on that topic. If one wanted students to contemplate different interpretations of the Precautionary Principle, or the merits of the Polluter Pays Principle, one could do that, too. Perhaps the best news is that introducing climate justice into the college classroom isn’t so much a question of getting students to think about brand new ideas they’ve never pondered, but helping them think rigorously about ideas they’ve likely been batting around for a long time.


About the author:

Justin Garson is a philosopher of science. His main interest is thinking about how biology can help us make progress on traditional problems of human nature. He also writes on environmental philosophy and the history of science. His first book, The Biological Mind: A Philosophical Introduction (Routledge, 2015), explores points of intersection between biology and mind, such as altruism, evolutionary psychology, the nature-nurture dispute, explanation in neuroscience, and psychiatric classification. His second book, A Critical Overview of Biological Functions (Springer 2016) surveys the functions debate in philosophy. His most recent book, What Biological Functions are and Why They Matter, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. He recently co-edited The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity (Routledge, 2017). This volume brings together philosophers, scientists, and policy makers to reflect on what biodiversity is and why it matters. In 2015, he was a recipient of the Feliks Gross Award, CUNY’s highest award for junior faculty.