The scientific evidence is clear: climate change is real, it is already happening, and the increase in worldwide temperatures is fuelled by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere whose emission is a side-effect of various human activities. This suggests that if you take seriously the threat of climate change to human and animal welfare, you should aim to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that you emit. In this way, you help contain the overall amount of emissions, thus keeping global warming in check.
Surprisingly, many philosophers disagree with this seemingly straightforward piece of practical advice. They argue that we should become politically more active and seek ways to pressure our governments into taking action. A focus on reducing individual emissions strikes them as no more than an unhelpful diversion. The basic point that these philosophers insist on is that climate change is a global problem that requires a collective solution; trying to tackle climate change through uncoordinated individual action is like trying to stop a war by deserting.
It is surely correct that we will not be able to keep the rise in global temperatures in check unless our governments take decisive and coordinated action. This makes it plausible to assume that our most important duties with respect to fighting climate change are political in nature. But even granting this, many of us still feel that merely taking political action might not be enough. Even if it is unlikely that we will achieve much by reducing our emissions in the absence of institutional solutions that incentivise others to do the same, many of us still feel uncomfortable about continuing to engage in high-emission activities now that we are aware of their connection to global warming. In this short post, I explain why this feeling of unease seems to me well-founded.
For one thing, it is easy to appear hypocritical if you are actively fighting for a political solution to a problem that you are at the same time overtly and seemingly shamelessly contributing towards. Of course, it is open to you to point out that individual sacrifices are futile in the absence of an institutional solution, and that you will happily abide by relevant rules and regulations once an institutional solution is in place. But by doing this, you might well be providing an argument that manages to convince others only at an intellectual level. Intuitively, most of us expect that those who fight for social change should display a willingness to lead by example. Once you have decided that you should become politically active in the fight against climate change, you thus have what we might call an integrity-based reason in favour of making an effort to reduce your carbon footprint.
But there is a further reason to reduce your carbon footprint that applies to you no matter how politically active you are in the fight against global warming. Note that whenever you engage in an activity that raises the expected amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you thereby raise the amount of climate-change related harms that you should reasonably expect will eventually occur. While it is impossible to know in which ways—if any—the emissions that you are responsible for are contributing to climate-change related harms, the scientific evidence leaves little room for doubt that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are an important driver of global warming, and that an increase in global temperatures is correlated with an increase in extreme weather events and natural disasters. These two scientifically established links suffice to make it the case that from your imperfectly informed point of view, it is rational for you to estimate that with each contribution to the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you increase the amount of climate-change related harms that will eventually occur.
Now for most of the emissions that we are responsible for as individuals, it is true that they raise the amount of expected harm only by a tiny bit. It follows that the expected harm that we cause by engaging in high-emission activities cannot by itself speak decisively against engaging in such activities. After all, many activities are associated with an increase in expected harms, and this does not suffice to render engaging in them morally objectionable. Consider the example of walking a dog, which might result in someone getting bitten. Or consider the example of driving a car, which—quite apart from its impact on the climate—raises the probability that there will be a traffic accident in your town. For many such risk-imposing activities, it seems that we may permissibly engage in them as long as engaging in them serves some valuable purpose, and as long as we engage in them in a conscientious manner. To take the example of driving a car, as long as you drive carefully and have a reason to travel from one place to another, driving seems to be a morally permissible activity.
When it comes to emitting greenhouse gases, the requirement to emit them only in a conscientious manner makes little sense. While you reduce the risk of a traffic accident if you drive carefully, it is impossible to reduce the risk of climate-change related harms by emitting greenhouse gases in a careful manner. By contrast, the requirement to engage in a risky activity only if doing so serves some valuable purpose has force also in the context of emitting greenhouse gases. More precisely, the requirement speaks against producing emissions that we could avoid at little or no cost to ourselves. On the face of it, this may sound like an unnecessary restriction on what we may permissibly do. After all, it seems plausible that whenever we choose to engage in an activity, we do so because we expect to benefit from it. But on reflection, I believe that we frequently engage in high-emission activities unthinkingly. That is, we could easily find a low- or at least lower-emission alternative that would leave us roughly equally well off. For example, many of us could avoid distant holiday destinations without being worse off for it; many of us could eat less meat or use their bicycles more frequently and be healthier and happier as a result, just as many of us could pay more attention to fuel efficiency when buying a new car without thereby sacrificing anything of appreciable significance. To the extent that we could reduce our emissions in this costless manner, I believe that we are morally required to do so. If we fail to reduce our emissions where we could costlessly do so, we risk harm to others for no good reason. This shows an insufficient concern for the welfare of others, and strikes me as disrespectful.
In sum, our most important individual responsibility in the fight against climate change may well be to lobby for political change. Even so, we should carefully consider also our individual choices to emit, and elect to reduce our emissions where we can easily do so. If we fail to reduce our emissions where we could easily do so, we unnecessarily put others at an increased risk of harm, thus showing an insufficient concern for their welfare.