Climate Change and Philosophy
Climate change is an interdisciplinary issue and its causes, consequences and solutions form a web that consists of many different perspectives from the natural to social sciences, humanities, ethics, technology and arts. Therefore, climate change is a horn of plenty for philosophical reflection. Natural scientists have known about climate change for over 100 years already, but a philosophical approach to climate change emerged as late as during the 1990’s.
This chapter is structured slightly different to the other texts. It introduces seven flash-like views on climate change and related topics. Read the text about ethics for further ideas for philosophy class.
Climate scientists around the world know about the mechanisms that cause climate change and they agree that it is an indisputable reality. Regardless, there is a great deal of climate change scepticism, partly produced to suit political interests. The climate sceptics deny human-caused climate change. In science, climate scepticism is rare, and most actively publishing climate scientists hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action. Out of 11,944 scientific articles on climate change published between the years 1991–2011, only 78 denied the role of human impact.
Because climate change is a complex phenomenon, predicting its future is difficult, as it tends to be in all sciences covering large-scale phenomena. Data on climate change is above all about establishing average rates of changes in the climate system. Climate data reveals the probability of hurricanes increasing in certain areas at a certain rate, but it does not explain why they appear at any given moment.
The chief results of climate science may be summed up as follows: the climate is getting warmer and the warming is mainly human-caused. The consequences are not fully known, but it is possible to estimate a specific likelihood for different scenarios. For decades, it has been estimated that the consequences will be long-term, more or less notable, likely unwanted and possibly disastrous.
Also, social scientists can be climate change experts. Human-caused climate change is, after all, about the relationships among individuals within society, and that is of particular interest in the social sciences. Social science may, for instance, take a look at the preconditions for climate change adaptation in different countries or impacts of political decisions on greenhouse gas emissions and people’s lives. Before making climate-related decisions, politicians should rely on scientific data about the potential societal consequences. To produce this data we need social scientists.
Estimating the desirability of the consequences is not a scientific and objective fact, but rather about values, ethics and practices. However, it can be argued rationally and logically. As ethics experts, philosophers can help us to identify values and ideas about our visions of an ideal world.
Epistemological views can be helpful when discussing climate change and philosophy: What is knowledge? What is scientific knowledge? What is philosophical knowledge? How does knowledge differ from belief, wish or wisdom?
The causes of climate change are embedded in the structures of our society, and the changing climate has massive social impacts. Therefore, social philosophers should examine it although it is a wide topic and doesn’t fit easily into the existing socio-philosophical systems.
Climate change is a major socio-philosophical issue since we humans have not been able to solve the problem we have created. We are so dependent on fossil fuels that decreasing their use does not seem very possible. However, this dependency is not a necessity but a social phenomenon. The modern infrastructure is built on fossil fuels. Oil and coal production and related markets are closely linked to class and power domination. Fossil fuels are one foundation for these power relations and the precondition of their renewal.
Thus climate change is linked to the most fundamental socio-philosophical questions: What makes a good and just society? What makes sensible and justified social relations? How should societal decision-making be dealt with? How can we change society?
The following concepts can be useful starting points when discussing the topic: the problem of collective action, game theory (prisoner’s dilemma), and dilemmas of responsibility, forcing and control.
The tragedy of the commons is a widely researched topic, particularly in the field of political philosophy. It is a theory of a situation within a shared resource system where individual users, for instance, cattle owners, are allowed to craze their cows on common land i.e. “the commons”. When an individual owner buys a new cow, it benefits him, however the expenses (grass, soil erosion etc.) are split between all the owners, i.e. exploiters. In this situation, it is financially worthwhile for the individual cattle owners to increase crazing even when it is against the common good. When all the cattle owners aim to multiply their profit and increase the number of their cattle, the commons becomes crowded, depleted and spoiled.
The theoretical definition could be stated as follows: common use of any shared (and unregulated) resource leads to over-exploitation. By consuming common resources, a consumer benefits but negative costs of exploiting the resource (“the commons”) are borne by all those to whom it is available. The result is an economic imbalance for all. The tragedy of the commons can also be considered in relation to the atmosphere, oceans and fish stocks.
In principle, the tragedy of the commons can appeal in a reverse way. If we assume that climate mitigation would be recouped thousands of times over in the future, an individual’s 1,000 euro investment would turn into one million euros. However, the problem is that even if John would invest 1,000 Euros, he would not gain the one million Euro profit for himself, rather it would be divided evenly among the world population of over 7 billion. In this scenario, John’s share would only be 0,0014 cents. That being so, many people think that there is no use in doing anything but becoming a free rider and hope everyone else takes care of the problem.
Thus climate change is a good example of the problem caused by using the atmosphere as the global commons. This raises questions such as: What does the responsibility of the individual mean in the context of the global commons? What is responsibility and who are expected to act responsibly? What is the relation between freedom and responsibility? What kind of practical proposals for solving climate change are there in the context of the global commons?
Democracy has historically been a successful method to deal with difficult challenges, but climate change differs from these earlier challenges in many ways. Negotiating binding and ambitious limits on global greenhouse gas emissions at international climate conferences is extremely challenging, and often effective climate change mitigation at the national level conflicts with decision-makers’ interests.
Regardless, collective and democratic decision-making about climate change can make sense. When we are not sure what really matters in the end and disagree sensibly, the best way to make decisions is a process that takes into account all the sensible views expressed and guarantees that they all are fairly evaluated according to the rationale they provide.
Justification of democracy does not only depend on the outcome. Rightly constituted, democracy can and will make prudent and sustainable decisions. It is also crucial that all the parties are committed to decisions made together. Democracy entails constitutionalism and fundamental rights, which aim to guarantee protection for future generations against the severe climate change threat.
Can democracy help to mitigate climate change disasters or would enlightened despotism be preferable? Why do citizens participate in decisions about climate change if they are too ignorant and too prone to cognitive biases and errors? Shouldn’t these decisions be left to the experts?
Democratic decision-making guarantees rights for citizens today, but is there any guarantee that future citizens’ rights will be respected?
What type of citizen participation is there? What are the key approaches to successful democratic decision-making? What are the ideal roles of experts and citizens in decision-making?
Current climate change is mainly human-caused and the impact of a single individual is minuscule. Therefore, some say it is misleading to shift the responsibility onto individuals. The reasons for this way of thinking are based in traditional ideas of moral responsibility, which emphasise the role of a responsible agent: if a person’s deeds have no direct impact on the end result, she or he is not responsible. Another problematic issue related to climate change is deliberation. People themselves have not deliberately chosen to change the climate. On the contrary: climate change developed as an unintended side effect of industrialisation and modern lifestyles.
In climate debate, collective responsibility should be taken into account just as much as personal responsibility. “Responsible agent” and “the ground of responsibility” are analytically separate concepts, and examining them can shed light on the responsibility debate over climate change. The ground of responsibility can be individual at the same time that the responsible agent is collective. When we talk about responsibility, it is not only about agents but also about victims and witnesses. Only when responsibility-related practices are being examined through complex human networks can we have a realistic idea of the degree and limitations of our responsibilities.
Individual responsibility doesn’t eliminate collective responsibility of agents such as nation states. However, as long as collectively sanctioned institutions fail to address the relevant responsibilities, such as international laws to mitigate climate change, then responsibility returns to the individual once again. The ground of responsibility is always at the individual level and it can only be delegated to collective agents. In the case of climate change, the delegation of responsibility has failed so far.
Moral responsibilities linked to climate change can be examined, for instance, through the following questions: Who is responsible for climate change? If the responsibility is common, are some agents more guilty than others? Who is responsible for solving climate change? Are some agents more responsible than others; for example, the international community, nation states, politicians, businesses, active citizens, individuals, the Western world, the Chinese?
Climate change raises many questions that have moral and ethical dimensions. Moral questions can be divided into two branches: justice and value. Global justice and distribution of responsibilities have been hot topics lately in the climate debate. However, climate change mitigation is fundamentally motivated by our approach towards wellbeing and preservation of human lives.
Are living human beings more valuable than the unborn? Is it wrong if people decide not to have children in order not to increase a burden on the planet and accelerate climate change? Is death always a bad thing? What is the value of saving lives? What are the sacrifices we need to make to guarantee a good life for future generations?
The world population can be divided into three more or less same-sized groups: globally well off, struggling but surviving, poor and vulnerable. The globally well off cause most of the greenhouse gas emissions as a side effect of their lifestyles. However, the poor suffer from climate change most. In other words, climate change increases the global inequality even further. This division does not respect geographical boundaries or a global North–South divide. Advantages and disadvantages of climate change are divided unequally, although to a certain extent, we all cause greenhouse gas emissions and suffer from climate change. Can it be said in the context of climate change that some are hurting others?
Justice can be examined through its relation to its opposite, an injustice. If an individual or institution commits tortious acts, according to moral reasoning, this is wrong and should be stopped immediately. However, climate change has many such features that seem to water down traditional ideas of moral responsibility and liability.
For instance, our usual idea about moral responsibility and duty to compensate is based on a scenario when someone intentionally causes damage to another. For instance, if John steals Jane’s bicycle and breaks it, it is clear that John is responsible for damage and should pay for it. Because he took Jane’s bike on purpose, what he did was wrong and illegal, so he deserves moral disapproval and a legal punishment.
However, in the case of climate change, the situation is not that simple. Its complex web of causal connections could rather look like this: John’s flight to a holiday destination combined with the behaviour patterns of many other people around the world creates a group of cause-and-effect relations. They increase the risk that Jane and many others, including future generations, on the other side of the world will suffer from rice losses during harvesting. What are John’s responsibilities to Jane and the others? Did he hurt Jane? Is John responsible for compensating Jane’s harvest loss? Is it right to disapprove him? Should John feel guilty?
In addition, there is a pervasive, widespread idea that overcoming poverty is possible only by producing more greenhouse gas emissions. If that holds true, are the developing countries free and eligible to rise from poverty despite increasing emissions? If not, why, and how can you morally justify it?
Today, world primary energy consumption breaks down like this: oil 31,4%, coal 29,0% and natural gas 21,3%, meaning that the fossil fuel contribution is 81,7%. Fossil fuels have made our modern lifestyle possible, but they are also the most significant contributors to climate change.
Although cheap fossil fuels have enabled the process of modernization within societies and related phenomena, such as scientific-technological development and capitalism, they have become a topic of philosophy only recently. However, in today’s world, a philosophical approach to fossil fuels – oil in particular – is important since oil is an example of a common natural resource harnessed to drive private profits while depleting and spoiling other common natural resources.
In philosophy, oil can be looked at through a relatively new concept, naftology. The philosophy of oil examines the impacts that excessive use of fossil fuels – oil in particular – have on life. A closely related concept to naftology is naftism, defined as “any idea that sees something as universal and solid, when the idea is only possible due to excessive use of fossil fuels”. Modern thinking is naftist, because it typically fails to acknowledge the role of fossil fuels in the development of modern society. Naftology’s aim is the opposite: to acknowledge their importance.
The relation of oil and philosophy raises many questions, such as: What kind of things has oil enabled in modern life? What would not be possible without oil? What kind of impacts has oil on relations between nations and individuals?