The Moral Case for Climate Action9 September 2020 | BY Garrett Cullity, Australian National University | Climate Justice Beyond the State
Why should Australians take action on climate change? This is often thought of as an environmental question, a health question, or an economic question. But, more fundamentally, it is a moral question. The moral case for stronger Australian action on climate change comes from five different arguments, all pointing in the same direction. Here is a quick summary.
An Argument from Harm
The first argument concerns the harm that is now being done by global warming. The estimates we have for this from the World Health Organization and other epidemiologists give us excess mortality figures now running into hundreds of thousands of deaths annually, and figures for lost disability-adjusted life years in the millions. If that sounds tolerable – they’re global figures after all, and our emissions contribution is a small percentage of the global total – then we have to remember that these are annual figures, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that the greenhouse gases we have put into the atmosphere already will stay there, producing similar effects if we do nothing about it, for more than a millennium. So we therefore have to multiply those figures by a factor of 1,000 before calculating the 1.3% that is due to Australia’s share of global emissions (it’s more like 4%, if you include coal exports). If so, there’s already a significant amount of harm being produced by our current activities, and we should be doing what we can to reduce it.
An Argument from Risk
The second argument does not rely on any current contribution to harm: instead, it appeals to the risk of much more severe consequences in the future if we carry on the current path. An argument of this second kind applies to action under circumstances of uncertainty – uncertainty of the sort reflected in the IPCC’s modelling of different possible trajectories that might continue from here. In ordinary moral thought, failing to take precautions against inflicting serious harm under conditions of uncertainty is criticised as negligent or reckless – and this is independent of whether any harm actually results from it.
In ordinary moral thought, failing to take precautions against inflicting serious harm under conditions of uncertainty is criticised as negligent or reckless
An Argument from Burden-Sharing
Action to mitigate climate change is a global public good. Failing to contribute an equitable share of the burden of producing a public good is free-riding: it treats the other co-operators unfairly. This is wrong for the same kind of reason that tax evasion is wrong – the failure to contribute on the same terms as others is unfair, whether or not it harms anyone. When we apply this argument to global climate action, it invites the question what distribution of burdens is equitable, and here several different factors are important. These include the size of our contribution to causing the problem, the development benefits we have derived from past emissions, and our comparative capacity to take action. But all of these point towards assigning a higher per-capita share of the burden of global climate action to Australia than to countries that have emitted less, are less developed, and have less capacity to act.
These first three arguments mainly concern the relationship between Australians and non-Australians. The first two concern the harm or risk we are imposing on other global citizens. The third argument – concerning burden-sharing – relates to our unfair treatment of those who are doing more than we are to try to solve the problem.
So if you thought that Australian social and economic policy ought to be focused on the interests of Australians and ignore the impact of our actions on non-Australians, you could ignore those arguments. It’s hard to believe that that’s really morally OK. But anyway, even if you set the first three arguments aside, there are two others that solely concern impacts in Australia.
An Argument from National Protection
Global climate inaction will have impacts on future generations of Australians that are too large to be neutralised through adaptation measures, even in countries as relatively affluent as ours. If so, we have a duty to future Australians to join the global action required to protect their interests. Future generations will be entitled to ask what efforts we made to head off the problems they confront. This includes supporting and stimulating global efforts, and providing leadership.
An Argument from National Prudence.
Given the reality of climate change, there will eventually have to be economic disruption to deal with it. This gives us a choice. The disruption could be delayed until it is forced on future Australians, producing the need for massive and costly change later; or it can be introduced earlier, more incrementally, and in a way that is more easily absorbed. This can be described as an argument from national prudence or self-interest – but it is also an intergenerational moral argument. If we accept that we are now morally answerable to future Australians for the foreseeable impact on them of our current decisions, we should begin the process now.
Given the reality of climate change, there will eventually have to be economic disruption to deal with it. This gives us a choice. The disruption could be delayed until it is forced on future Australians, producing the need for massive and costly change later; or it can be introduced earlier, more incrementally, and in a way that is more easily absorbed.
How strong are these arguments? Sometimes, there are strong moral reasons to do things, but it’s so costly for you to do them that morality doesn’t require it of you, all things considered. Instead, we say it is heroic or saintly. But that doesn’t apply in this case, if (as Australian economists have been telling us for decades) there are significant potential advantages to Australia in moving to a low-emissions economy. This makes the moral arguments harder to answer.