Are the environmentally conscious wasting their time?

My reading on climate change ethics is coming to an end, at least for the purposes of the essay I’ll have to write next week. There’s no way, however, that I’ll be forgetting everything I’ve learnt in a hurry. My Twitter feed has a healthy handful of accounts throwing green news in my direction on a daily basis now, and what I’ve read has affected me too strongly for it to conceivably be shelved. But just in case, one of the reasons for declaring my vegetarianism so loudly and publicly was to help ensure through a sense of shame that with time I don’t suffer a relapse.

There is one issue, however, that’s worth dwelling upon before this blog loses its recent monolithic focus. I began this phase of my studies by reading John Broome’s book on climate ethics, and his claims about the harm that each one of us causes were delivered so bluntly that I saw little reason to question them:

The private morality of climate change starts by recognizing that your own individual emissions of greenhouse gas do serious harm. You might at first think your own emissions have a negligible effect because they are so minute in comparison to emissions around the world. You would be wrong. If you live a normal life in a rich country, you cause many tonnes of carbon dioxide to be emitted each year. If you fly from New York to London and back, that single trip will emit more than a tonne. An average person from a rich country born in 1950 will emit around 800 tonnes in a lifetime. You can see the harmfulness of these amounts in various ways. The World Health Organization publishes estimates of the number of deaths and the amount of disease that will be caused by global warming. On the basis of the WHO’s figures, it can be estimated very roughly that your lifetime emissions will wipe out more than six months of healthy human life. Each year, your annual emissions destroy a few days of healthy life in total. These are serious harms.

And a recent Jim Nolt paper argued in a similar way:

We estimated above that the average American is responsible for about one two billionth of current and near-term emissions.Yet even if emissions are reduced to low levels fairly quickly—that is,even under the most optimistic of scenarios—billions of people may ultimately be harmed by them. If over the next millennium as few as four billion people (about 4%) are harmed (that is, suffer and/or die) as a result of current and near-term global emissions, then the average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.

It was on the basis of reasoning like this that I was operating when I concluded that I have a duty to lower my emissions. They cause harm, albeit via a convoluted process, and since I can prevent such harms without unreasonable sacrifices to myself, I should stop eating meat and so on. And this held true regardless of whether climate change in general continued because nobody else bothers to join me.

But a surprising amount of literature that I’ve read since then has been set on proving the opposite kind of conclusion. Namely, I have no obligation as an individual to stop driving a gas-guzzler for fun because my individual emissions make no difference. For instance, here’s Sinnott-Armstrong:

My act of driving does not even make climate change worse. Climate change would be just as bad if I did not drive. The reason is that climate change becomes worse only if more people (and animals) are hurt or if they are hurt worse. There is nothing bad about global warming or climate change in itself if no people (or animals) are harmed. But there is no individual person or animal who will be worse off if I drive than if I do not drive my gas-guzzler just for fun. Global warming and climate change occur on such a massive scale that my individual driving makes no difference to the welfare of anyone.

Now, this is an empirical claim, so it is not the type of fact a philosopher can establish. But what we can note is that Armstrong’s claims are consistent with Broome’s and Nolt’s, as things stand. Broome and Nolt calculate the ‘harm’ each individual ’causes’ by taking collective emissions data and splitting it up, ascribing to you an average personal part. And Armstrong’s point is that this is a fallacy. Just because I participate in a share of the emissions which in their totality cause harm doesn’t mean that my individual emissions cause harm, in the sense that whether or not I emit will determine neither the occurrence of a flood nor the intensity of a drought. Broome acknowledges this, but he doesn’t think it matters much:

Your emission increases the likelihood of a flood, but it might not actually cause any particular flood. So it is true that your particular emissions may do no harm in a single event. But during the centuries they are in the air they will have the chance of causing harm on innumerable occasions. It is extraordinarily unlikely that they will do no harm at all. There is no real uncertainty there.

This is an important point. I wanted to defend my green credentials on the grounds that the consequences of my emitting carbon are bad. At minimum, we must now say only that there is a high risk that their consequences are bad. But I think I can live with this. We should, after all, act on the basis of probabilities even if they fall short of certainties.

But it’s worth making some further final disconnected points here, which I think suffice to explain why we all as individuals certainly should go green, even if the thrust of Armstrong’s concerns about effectiveness are warranted. Sandberg notes that Otsuka suggests the following:

[T]he argument from inconsequentialism is paradoxical roughly in the same manner as the ancient Sorites paradox. If everyone who contributed to the threat of climate change were only emitting greenhouse gases in insignificant amounts, it would seem that no one is responsible for causing this threat on this view—since insignificant contributions are neglected.

Right, and this has been bugging me. The sceptics about the existence of individual duties here often seem to simultaneously claim that it is the case that we have a collective duty to reduce emissions, and that governments should make us do so. But I don’t see how it can be said that we should follow a government’s demands that we act greener if we have no individual duty to act greener, and our individual action of going greener has no substantive effect. The solution is surely to say that our individual acts do have substantive effects, just at the margin, and each adds up to constitute the looming catastrophe. Or maybe if I knew more about vagueness and the philosophy of language, I’d see why things get so messy here?

Johnson claims that:

One has an obligation in an impending [tragedy of the commons], and it is to “do the right thing” without waiting for others. “The right thing” is not, however, a fruitless, unilateral reduction in one’s use of the commons, but an attempt to promote an effective collective agreement that will coordinate reductions in commons use and therefore avert the aggregate harm.

Armstrong flirts with a similar view, and demonstrates the paradox I just discussed, when he writes:

We should not think that we can do enough simply by buying fuel-efficient cars, insulating our houses, and setting up a windmill to make our own electricity. That is all wonderful, but it neither does little or nothing to stop global warming, nor does this focus fulfill our real moral obligations, which are to get governments to do their job to prevent the disaster of excessive global warming. It is better to enjoy your Sunday driving while working to change the law so as to make it illegal for you to enjoy your Sunday driving.

Both of these quotes convey the thought that if we care about climate change, our acts should take on a civic component, and being socially and politically active in this way is important because it may actually be effective, unlike behaving greenly yourself.

I think this hits on a truth, but only part of one. I think it’s true that we should consider civic duties and acts here, but I believe that is best understood as being a crucial part of becoming greener. If Johnson and Armstrong are correct, we can effectively campaign for our governments to do things to tackle climate change whilst continuing to gut the earth’s resources and blindly pollute at the same time. Whilst this may be a philosophically coherent position to take given their arguments – because the point is that it’s only worth stopping if everybody agrees to – it’s hard to imagine any but the most hyperrational of minds being able to swallow the apparent hypocrisy and be persuaded by it. If we are concerned with de facto efficacy, is there any serious doubt that we can only hope to convince our fellow citizens and leaders of how seriously we take climate change if we ourselves demonstrate that we are doing something about it?

In that respect, becoming green is crucial to civic action. It does not exhaust the list of things one should do. I think, for instance, that talking about it with friends and family is also important, and I do believe I should badger people and become obnoxiously moralistic about it. And by blogging about it, I fulfil my civic duty insofar as hundreds of you have read these posts, and hopefully you are more conscious of the issues as a result. But actually becoming green as individuals remains essential to this process.

It’s worth noting that this hints at a reason why I may have been wrong to condemn Broome’s argument for carbon offsetting, though only because of reasons I failed to foresee. I argued that, yes, we should reduce our emissions, but paying to neutralise them is a bad idea because that money could be spent far more effectively elsewhere. But maybe the fact that ensuring one’s carbon footprint is neutral is a major sign of your commitment to the green cause gives one reason to do it even ahead of deworming school children – it has value because of what it expresses, and it increases the chances that something serious will be done about the moral issue of our time.

Three final points.

First, how awesome is this for a restaurant idea: I want to see a place open that slaps a carbon tax on every dish, especially those that are meat-based. So the cost of the externalities becomes incorporated into the price of your plate, and the restaurant then channels that extra money into carbon offsetting, ensuring its footprint is effectively zero. Again, the value of such expressions could be truly significant as part of a long-term cultural shift.

Second, some people have asked me to consider whether I’m being too dogmatic in assuming that meat markets are sufficiently sensitive to respond to the elimination of my demand. That is, if they are inelastic, is it not the case that the same amount of meat will be produced and the same emissions created whether I buy meat or not? The answer to that seems to be – yes, in the short term, no doubt nothing will change. But it stands to reason that if the chicken and bacon and steak I was eating on a weekly basis is no longer being called for in the supermarket, over time the effect will trickle through and be reflected in lowered production. Otherwise, we’d have to say that all that meat is just being binned, or someone else is increasing their demand simply in order to stupidly replace mine. There’s no reason I know of to think supply will not reflect demand over time.

Third, note how my argument for vegetarianism has been based solely on the likely harm my individual consumption will do, and now on the civic, expressive component that the commitment carries. I have not even touched upon the arguments from animal rights and the intense suffering inflicted by current production practices. These are also serious concerns, and I’m quite sure that if I gave them more due thought, my vegetarianism would end up being doubly justified and overdetermined.

And then we could further add in the vast health benefits of sacking off saturated fat in red meat. I will not be losing much sleep worrying that the decision I’ve made is the wrong one.


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