Philosophers on Climate Change


Dale Jamieson is a well-known American philosopher who writes extensively about ethics.  In this video, he explains philosophy as a process  of reasoning through decisions.

The implication is that everyday life presents us with a set of problems that are amenable to what Jamieson calls “rational engagement”.  But Jamieson admits that certain complex problems in sustainability pose special challenges to normal philosophical reasoning.

According to Jamieson, climate change is a problem that does not resemble the standard situations that spring to mind when we think of typical moral problems – i.e., problems that revolve around fairly simple scenarios that feature readily identifiable culprits who directly wrong others, often on purpose.  In “The Moral and Political Challenges of Climate Change,” he puts the point this way:

A paradigm moral problem is one in which an individual acting intentionally harms another individual; both the individuals and the harm are identifiable; and the individuals and the harm are closely related in time and space.

This last point about proximity is the result of our moral history, the fact that our values evolved from a “low population density and low technology societies, with seemingly unlimited access to land and other resources.” In some cases, we’ve figured out to adjust for the times. In today’s high-tech world, when people are victimized from afar—say, hurt by remotely detonated bomb or virus-infected e-mails—moral judgment follows the causal breadcrumbs.  The responsible parties are pegged as malicious or thoughtless people who designed and triggered the bombs and viruses.

In other cases, however, we haven’t been able to adjust.  Our mental models lag behind the times; our outdated thinking clouds our vision and we fail to perceive the moral dimensions of dilemmas staring us in the face.  In short, 21st century problems get exacerbated by antiquated sensibilities.  Jamieson argues climate change is a glaring case — an instance where we don’t conceptualize the issue as a moral problem “because it is not accompanied by the characteristics of a paradigm moral problem.” Lacking moral clarity, the “language of science, economics, and technological development” dominate the issue.

To crystallize why, Jamieson proposes a powerful analogy. He compares climate change theft.  Like all analogies, this one is imperfect (a point surely not lost on Jamieson himself).  It is hard, though, not to be sympathetic to his reasons for proposing it.  If issues related to complexity are preventing us from seeing what we need to do to be responsible citizens, a simplified image might be just what the metaphorical doctor ordered.  An analogy is not an argument, but it can be a valuable tool to help us see where conventional wisdom falls short.

Jamieson presents six different examples (paraphrased below), each with the same outcome.  But the different mechanisms by which that outcome is achieved results in different views about moral culpability.

  1. Jack steals Jill’s bicycle.
  2. Jack is one of an unacquainted group of strangers who each, acting independently, take one part of Jill’s bicycle, resulting in a complete theft of the bicycle.
  3. Jack takes one different part from a large number of different bicycles, including one from Jill’s.
  4. Jack and Jill live on different continents.  Jack purchases a used bicycle in his home country without knowledge that the bicycle was stolen from Jill in her country.
  5. Jack lives many centuries before Jill, and consumes materials that are essential to bicycle manufacturing.  As a result, it will not be possible for Jill to have a bicycle.
  6. Acting independently, Jack and a large number of unacquainted people set in motion a chain of events that causes a large number of future people who will live in another part of the world, from ever having bicycles.

The problem exemplified by the first example is obvious. Jack is 100% the bad guy. He broke the law by committing theft. There’s no confusion as to who was harmed (Jill), who did the harming (Jack), and how the harming resulted from the intentional behavior (stealing) of a bad apple.  Bad action, easy moral assessment.

The second example makes responsibility more diffuse, but not more complicated to judge.  Jack still deserves blame.  After all, if he didn’t intentionally take part in the group theft, innocent bystander Jill would have been better off. Only some of her property would be missing.  Ultimately, Jack is now partially accountable for the theft.  If, say, eight strangers pilfered equally from Jill, Jack is 1/8 responsible.  Diffusion, here, doesn’t throw off our moral sensibilities.

In the third example, Jack intentionally harms lots of people, but each one potentially only a little.  We can still easily identify the victims, and the damage done depends upon whether an essential or insignificant bicycle part was hijacked.  Let’s say Jack stole one essential part from 100 different bicycles. Perhaps he’s now left a hundred people stranded, without transportation after a long day’s work.  A little maliciousness would go a long way, but we’d still be morally equipped to assess the situation.

In the fourth and fifth examples, Jack does harm Jill, but, unlike in the theft instances, without bad intentions.  Given the gaps in space and time, we can imagine that far from being a desired result, Jill losing out on having a bicycle is an unintended consequence.  If so, is Jack really responsible?

The answer depends on several things.  For example, how much should a reasonable person in Jack’s shoes be expected to know about the broader consequences of ordering used bicycles or consuming essential biking materials?  What other options did Jack have at his disposal to meet his own needs?  Would pursing any of those options really have helped Jill if others continued to order used bicycles or consume the scarce resource?  And, why should Jack complicate his life—indeed make sacrifices—just to help an anonymous stranger who lives far away?   Whatever answers we come up with, thinking about these questions certainly strains our moral imagination.

In the sixth example, the worst consequence arises, one that makes Jill’s individual pain pale in comparison: lots and lots people never get to have bicycles.  Moreover, the moral waters, already murky in the fourth and fifth examples, become even more clouded as the diffusion of responsibility seems to put our moral sensibilities to the test.  The adverse outcome doesn’t arise from collusion.  People have not formed mobs, tribes, or communities organized around the collective desire to deprive others of bicycles.  No “us vs. them” mentality has set in.  Rather, unintended consequences scaled-up, probably to a degree of magnitude that falls way outside the scope of what individuals like Jack are thinking about when they go about doing typical actions.

Jamieson contends climate change is structurally similar to this last scenario. Therein, he argues, lies the tragedy: “we tend not to conceptualize this as a moral problem because it is not accompanied by the characteristics of a paradigm moral problem. Climate change is not a matter of a clearly identifiable individual acting intentionally so as to inflict an identifiable harm on another identifiable individual, closely related in time and space. Because we tend not to see climate change as a moral problem, it does not motivate us to act with the urgency characteristic of our responses to moral challenges.”

What should we make of this analogy?  Renowned ethicist Stephen Gardiner finds it overly simplistic and expresses his dissatisfaction in “Is No One Responsible for Global Environmental Tragedy? Climate Change as a Challenge to Our Ethical Concepts.” Here’s the gist of his retort.

  • Bicycle theft is a fairly trivial issue compared to climate change.  Emphasis should have been given to an example where a more substantive harm results from loss of resources for “relatively trivial” reasons.  (It isn’t as if Jamieson filled in information that led us to believe Jill’s life was endangered because of Jack’s actions!)
  • Because climate change involves some scientific uncertainty, “it seems better to say that our actions impose a serious risk of significant negative and perhaps catastrophic impacts, rather than simply that they cause them.”  Emphasis should have been given to an example featuring risk assessment and existential calamity.
  • While climate change will affect vulnerable people in far away countries, it will also harm vulnerable people close to home, especially poorer people. Emphasis should have been given to a more immediate and relatable example.
  • Jamieson’s reliance on two conditions of separation—“unacquainted” and “acting independently”—is too far out-of-sync with our lived social and political reality.  The choices we make are constrained by what other do and have done previously.  Emphasis should have been given to an example featuring the actions of citizens who are “tied together in deep and important ways by structural facts about their economies and lifestyles.”
  • Generic, under-described people like Jack haven’t fueled the problem of climate change. Rather, there are clearly identifiable agents who have “emitted far more” CO2 emissions than “others over time” and significantly benefited, financially and developmentally, from doing so. Emphasis should have been given to people who “appropriate more than their fair share of a global public good.”

With these concerns in mind, Gardiner proposes the following scenario as a replacement analogy:

George and his buddies like to have big firework displays over the river.  These shoot burning debris into the air, predominantly over the poorer neighborhoods on the other side.  This has already imposed, and continues increasingly to impose, a serious risk on many people in the area (and especially future generations) that their houses will catch on fire.  George and his buddies are aware of this risk, keep saying that they will cut back, buy safer fireworks, contribute funds to the fire department in the poorer neighborhoods, and so on.  But they don’t.  Instead, they keep making the displays bigger.  They like fireworks.  (They could like other things too.  But they are used to fireworks.)

Gardiner is aware that the George and company example could be seen as misaligned with problem of climate change because the adverse consequences it details occur in the present and thus don’t delay the worst harms to future generations.  But if it helps firm up the analogy, he simply asks us to imagine “the risks are predominantly imposed on future people.”

What, then, are the stakes of accepting Gardiner’s replacement?  He claims if we do, Jamieson’s concern about the inability of our standard ethical concepts to “grasp” the moral problem of climate change disappears.  In fact, Gardiner insists, if we use the new scenario as our guiding problem, we end up with a conceptual issue that is “not very difficult”: the longstanding political problem of determining how to align individual and collective responsibilities.

In the face of such a problem, the first step towards finding a solution is to embrace “delegated political responsibility,” which, in this case, means trying to “discharge the relevant responsibilities” to the relevant leaders and institutions. Should it turn out that the leaders and institutions are ill-equipped to deal with “large global and intergenerational problems”, then “the responsibility falls back on the citizens again, either to solve the problems themselves, or else, if this is not possible, to create new institutions to do the job.”  In other words, when leaders and institutions fail, citizens are responsible for creating the mechanisms needed through “civil disobedience, revolution and the like.”  We’ve done so in the past with problems like “the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the emancipation of women.”

Put in such abstract terms, Gardiner’s proposal seems compelling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully solve the complexity issue that, in part, motivates Jamieson’s bicycle disappearance analogy.  Even if there are well-established traditions of “civil disobedience, revolution and the like,” these are hardly programmatic endeavors with clear guidelines for how to proceed and allocate responsibilities, like leadership roles.  Instead, they are daunting collective action problems, all the more so when placed on a global stage in a context where, as Gardiner notes, the nation-state might be an antiquated unit of moral consideration.

What both of these analogies––Jamieson’s bicycles and Gardiner’s fireworks––help us see is that two prominent ethicists who think a lot about climate change still have problems getting to the heart of the matter.  Gardiner is right, in part, that the bicycle analogy simplifies away some of the key aspects of climate change.  But, Jamieson does help us see why sustainability problems can entail complexity that challenges our moral imaginations.

People don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Boy, it’s another beautiful day. I guess it’s time to go out there and contribute to the degradation of interconnected ecological and social systems that will harm people for generations to come!”  Except for the rare citizen, activist, and scholar who spend a fair amount of time thinking about climate change, people tend to see their decisions about how much CO2 to consume as a matter of personal choice, not global accountability.

The paradigmatic view of moral responsibilities we inherited from the philosophers of the Industrial Revolution enjoins the citizen or the professional from using the misdeeds of others to justify their own.  Our Mother’s classic rhetorical question: “If Johnny jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff, too?” exemplifies this train of thought.  We’re expected to behave according to a consistent moral code, regardless of the actions or interactions we have with others.

But we already know that group dynamics are extraordinarily powerful influences on individual behavior.  Humans seem to be biologically programmed to be especially sensitive to the expectations or behaviors of the other people with whom they identify as belonging to a group.  Just as our own behavior is influenced by those around us, then we must know that our behavior influences others.

The difficulty of the individualistic admonitions of our parents and our teachers is that it absolves us from considering how are own actions might change the way that others around us behave.  That is, if one of us does jump off a cliff, it turns out that others are likely to jump, too.  We see an example of this in the phenomenon of copycat crimes and contagious suicide.

The realization that our behavior is part of a complex web of interactions between the individual and the group raises a new moral question that Jamieson’s examples fail to reveal:  To what extent are we responsible for the behavior of the others around us?


4 thoughts on “Philosophers on Climate Change

  1. You are right about game theory but only if humans are always rational. Humans make major decisions based on emotions too, probably more often than then we think. Cheating is contagious for rational reasons, but doing good and being good can be contagious too for emotional reasons. Many major social reform movements started successfully that way in the past.

    For an example, when I throw an empty soda can in the garbage and then see my kid getting up, picking up the can, walking few steps to put it in the recycle bin, it shames me to get up and recycle it next time. In the game theory context it is not a rational behavior, but we do it. (though I would argue that it could be a very rational behavior for those who could see a bigger picture).

    If your argument about others consuming more resources as a result of my consuming less is true, and if I extend that a bit, then it would make sense that as long as I recycle, I should consume more so that people who don’t recycle would have less resources to consume. Does that sound right ?

    • THAT is exactly the question.

      For example, if the US had unilaterally abandoned nuclear missle technology, would the USSR have signed the SALT treaties? I don’t think so. In the case of disarmament, only the credible threat of mutual destruction would motivate a pact. Therefore, building MORE missiles is the only way to get to FEWER missiles.

      Either your son picking up your soda can shames you into recycling, or it enables you to throw your trash around wherever you please. It depends on how strongly you identify with your son.

  2. “The Moral and Political Challenges of Climate Change” link mentioned above explains well the point I was trying to make in the class about developing a self discipline to consume less and not enforcing it on others for the cause of sustainability:

    “This should give us heart. We must begin from where we are – changing ourselves, changing our leaders, and changing our institutions – but from here we can change the world. Biking instead of driving or choosing the veggie burger rather than the hamburger may seem like small choices, and it may seem that such small choices by such little people barely matter. But ironically, they may be the only thing that matters. For large changes are caused and constituted by small choices.[9] And in the end, however things turn out, it is how we live that gives meaning and significance to our lives.[10]”

    • I’m skeptical about this. Remember that OUR actions impact others. So the question is whether choosing to consume less will cause others to consume less, or will it simply make it easier for others to consume more?

      In a game theoretic problem, sometimes doing the “right” thing simply incentivizes others to do the “wrong” thing.

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