What Should I Do About Climate Change?

27 August 2019  |  BY Elizabeth Cripps, University of Edinburgh  |  Climate Justice Beyond the State
bicycle crossing the road

We need climate action now. The IPCC is unequivocal, and citizens are listening even if their governments aren’t. Extinction Rebellion has stopped traffic; Australian schoolchildren have cut school to demand change; Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg just used a UN COP 24 plenary to berate negotiators for failing her generation.

This focus on kick-starting collective progress fits what a number of philosophers (including me) think individuals should be doing. Given this global-level challenge, it’s not enough to focus on ‘greening’ one’s own lifestyle. It wouldn’t be enough even if most of us who care about climate justice were minimising our individual footprints, which we aren’t. Rather, the primary individual duty is to promote fair, efficient, effective progress on mitigation and adaptation.

But such a vaguely defined duty only takes the individual so far. ‘Promoting’ collective progress could mean anything from marching for climate justice to civil disobedience, from voting or campaigning for ‘green’ candidates to standing for election oneself, from being a proselytising vegan to fundraising for renewables.

Perhaps that’s just the way it is: we’ve reached the limits of what moral philosophy can tell us, and now it’s down to individual ‘judgement’. Or perhaps, instead, philosophy could provide a framework to guide that judgement. After all, individuals in this situation are – or should be – motivated by actual consequences, and it’s not as though there’s any shortage of philosophical thought about that. So let’s try borrowing from that rich literature.

[Clarity note for philosophy types: I’m not advocating consequentialism ‘all the way down’. I’m assuming an individual moral duty to pursue a particular consequence – climate justice – on the basis of a shared duty which can be defended on collective harm or beneficence grounds. But there are both demandingness limits and deontological constraints: the cost to the individual must be reasonable, and whatever these promotional duties turn out to be, they could still be trumped by the individual no-harm principle.]


So how should the individual decide what do to? She might work out how it would be best for everyone to act and do her ‘share’ of that. [The rule consequentialist case for individual emissions cuts.] But lots of others won’t follow this ideal rule. She knows that. So if she’s ultimately motivated by actual consequences, she has to consider other options, including ways to change those others’ behaviour.

Nor should she think only about individual ‘difference-making’ [as conventional act-consequentialism would have her do]. The point isn’t that her actions will definitely make no difference to the overall problem of climate change, although it might seem that way. There’s a small chance of making a big difference, either by triggering political or societal change or by not triggering perceptible worsening of climate change. Rather – and this is the key point – in assessing available consequences she must also consider the difference-making capacity of strongly collective or coordinated actions of which she could be a part. [I’m borrowing, in other words, from cooperative consequentialism.]

So should she simply work out what everyone motivated by climate justice should do (including what they should do to motivate others) and what she could most efficiently do as part of that, then do it? Not so fast. Because even motivated others won’t necessarily act in the optimal way (even if they all agreed on exactly what it was, which they won’t). The individual – being, again, driven by what can actually be brought about – has to adjust for that too. Think of all the challenges around communication, coordination, and individual bias towards certain projects.


If our climate-conscious individual could figure all this out and act accordingly, she’d fulfil what I call her ‘cooperative promotional duty’. But, of course, she’s more likely to put her head in her hands and scream at the prospect of acquiring all the necessary information, never mind acting on it. I began by looking to this branch of moral philosophy to guide individuals in promoting collective climate action. If following that guidance requires so much time, effort, and money that no-one could do it whilst retaining any life of her own, it doesn’t look as helpful as I’d hoped.

Still, I think it’s worth persevering. Yes, there are feasibility and reasonable cost constraints. But it is possible that, within them, individuals could approximate the cooperative promotional process just described. One suggestion is this: there are numerous existing groups, from local to global, already working to promote climate action. Suppose we assume it’s up to them to work out how they can best coordinate their efforts. (For example, by aiming for complementary actions, rather than, as too often happens, descending to mutually undermining conflict over details.)

Then the individual just has to estimate where she’d be most useful, starting with her own skillset and individual costs but also making approximate adjustments if some aspects of the climate justice movement appear over- or under-subscribed. If she knows others are biased towards more local roles, or saving ‘cute’ animals, she might better commit to something more global or less photogenic, even if it’s slightly less well matched to her skills or costlier for her. Then she acts as part of the relevant subgroup in doing what it most effectively can,  and is flexible about shifting focus if the broader picture changes.

‘Green’ lifestyle choices, almost certainly necessary, are best considered in this cooperative context rather than in terms of some illusory potential to isolate oneself from the problem. Emissions cuts, especially those of a large group, might just keep the straw from the camel’s back and prevent still worse climate change. But they could also promote institutional or social change, as with the recent shift towards veganism. Finally, even if jetting around the world promoting climate action doesn’t make you a hypocrite – and even if it works for Al Gore or Leonardo di Caprio – the likelihood of being written off as one should probably deter most of us from talking the talk on low-carbon societies without also being seen to change our own lives.