A friend writes:
I was wondering if you could talk me through the complete chain of ethical reasoning. I have seen a lot about how meat consumption is responsible for a large percentage of CO2 emissions. And so I guess if we have a responsibility to cut CO2 emissions we have a responsibility to cut meat consumption.
But what is the responsibility to cut CO2 emissions? Is it due to immediate harm caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere? (If so, forgive my ignorance, but what is the harm?) Or is it due to a responsibility to stop global warming, which will in turn cause harm to future generations through flooding, drought, and eventually cutting short the life span of the earth?
Also, surely the main problem is beef, so why not continue with white meat and fish?
Yep, it’s really this simple. As John Broome characteristically puts it in his book: “Emissions cause harm in two steps. First, emissions cause global warming. Second, global warming causes harm”. That’s all there is to it. This thesis doesn’t depend on any contentious claims which fetishise the atmosphere as intrinsically valuable as an end in itself. We only need to claim that insofar as the climate is a vehicle by which the well-being of future individuals is deeply determined, we have a responsibility to cut emissions. Remove the floods and droughts and thereby the suffering and deaths, and this wouldn’t be the moral crisis of our time that it so clearly is.
Now, some philosophers do doubt this. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, for instance, makes some metaphysical manoeuvres when reflecting upon causation and counterfactuals to help him conclude that no individual is responsible through her emissions for any harm in the world. In short, because the phenomenon will occur regardless of what we do, he thinks it’s futile to say we are ‘obliged’ to act differently in any meaningful, traditional sense. I plan to say something about this shortly – probably in my essay, which I will link to. But I have little doubt that Armstrong is deeply misguided. It is still the case that our actions as individuals cause harm at the margin, whatever other people do.
It’s true that beef is the main problem here, as I’ve previously noted. Even meat-eaters could do vast good in the world by only eliminating beef from their diet. But just because one thing is the main problem, that doesn’t mean other things aren’t also problems. And the impact of other livestock like chicken is still bad. So I don’t see how I can avoid concluding I need to cut it all.
I am less clear about fish, but once more, it’s certainly comparatively better. Perhaps someone reading can help me. Does anyone know the fact of the matter here? Does the fish industry in its entirety cause more carbon emissions than regular inevitable food-producing practices?