May 13, 2013, by Neil Sinclair

Harm and Climate Change, Part 1

The recent report about atmospheric C02 levels reaching the symbolic level of 400 parts per million calls attention to some of the issues dealt with in the Philosophy Department’s Environmental Ethics module.

Suppose you are engaged in an activity that causes significant harm to others. It forces them out of their homes, raises the cost of necessities, increases their risk of ill-health and deprives them of many of the opportunities for enjoyment that you possess. According to Mill’s harm principle, the state will be justified in preventing you acting in this way. But putting aside the issue of state action, we can surely agree that you ought to stop, right?

Perhaps. But many of us live lifestyles that, collectively, have these effects, and yet getting people to give up (or moderate) those lifestyles is proving stubbornly difficult. Our lifestyles collectively have these effects because they involve a level of resource use which propels global climate change. If our actions are any reflection of our moral beliefs, then it is not generally true that people believe we ought to curtail our current climate-changing lifestyles. Why the reluctance to embrace the logical conclusion?

One possible cause is the fact that in this case responsibility is diffuse. It is not any one individual’s greenhouse gas emissions that we can point to as the cause of a particular typhoon in the Pacific, say. Given this, it is easy for any individual to say: “My actions alone cannot possibly make a difference.” Yet we know that if several million people think this way, the chances of extreme weather events will rise.

Another factor is that the devastating impacts of climate change are often remote in space and time. Peter Singer has persuasively argued that the former cannot be morally (as opposed to psychologically) significant. The mere fact that the harm we do manifests on the other side of the world cannot lessen the reason we have to prevent it. The other factor – temporal remoteness – raises more interesting issues. Sometimes temporal distance brings uncertainty: the further we look into the future, the less reliable our predictions are. To the extent that we cannot be certain that our actions will cause harm, we have a lesser obligation to refrain from acting. In the case of climate change, there is a related issue. Although we can be fairly certain that there will be significant harmful impacts of climate change, it is much harder to identify exactly what those effects will be and who will be harmed. For example, we can fairly reliably predict a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events but it is much harder to predict who will lose their homes to the next typhoon.

Both of these factors put stress on the current shape of our moral thinking. That thinking is largely focused on the issue of individual responsibility. This is fine when the particular actions of an individual have predictable and identifiable effects: we can hold the individual responsible for the harm that can be linked to her action, and apply social and state pressures to encourage her to desist. But where neither the input (i.e. individual action) nor the output (i.e. harm caused) are readily identifiable, it can be difficult to know what to do, even though the harm is just as obvious. This problem led Dale Jamieson to suggest that the problem of climate change is not merely one of economics, but also one of moral philosophy. As he puts it: “Unless we develop new values and conceptions of responsibility, we will have enormous difficulty in motivating people in responding to this problem.”

The role of moral philosophy here is both theoretical and practical: theoretical insofar as it identifies one of the modes of thought that feeds the problem; practical insofar as it offers alternatives. Jamieson’s suggestion is to abandon the scheme that thinks in terms of individual responsibility for easily identifiable consequences and replace it with one that thinks in terms of the virtues of humility, courage, moderation, simplicity and conservatism.

As a suggested cure, it is perhaps easy to quibble with this. But if the diagnosis of the disease is accurate, some such paradigm shift in our conceptual scheme may be necessary before we finally face up to our collective responsibilities.


Peter Singer, 1972, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(3), pp.229-243

Dale Jamieson, 1992, “Ethics, Public Policy and Global Warming” in Science, Technology and Human Values 17(2), pp.139-153.

Image: Clarkcb@en.wikipedia



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Posted in Ethics