Plan of action.

My introduction for the paper is pasted in below. I’ve just titled it “Climate change ethics –
Individual acts and global disasters: what you should do and why, even if nobody else does.”


You might expect climate change ethics to be simple. Science tells us that greenhouse gas emissions cause the world to warm up, and warming will cause great harm for people through floods, droughts and heat waves. Since our actions currently depend on greenhouse gas emissions and we can change this, ethics surely says that we should prevent these harms. Furthermore, economics tells us how this can be done politically. Externality theory suggests that taxing or marketising carbon would reduce emissions. Meanwhile, if we all become vegetarians and fly less, or if we offset our emissions, then this would also help.

Despite this, philosophers disagree deeply about what we should do.

Stephen Gardiner believes that the unequal distribution of burdens and benefits that climate change involves means that it is a question of justice. He claims that the United States especially should change its behaviour.

John Broome also believes that climate change raises questions of justice, but instead because your carbon emissions cause harm for individuals. He claims you have a duty to offset your emissions, even though he accepts you could do more good in other ways.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Joakim Sandberg deny that individuals have duties to reduce or offset their emissions, because they deny that an individual’s emissions make a difference. Whether I become green or not, global warming will happen. They believe that global warming is a political issue.

Dale Jamieson and Stephen Gardiner worry that our ordinary moral concepts, such as responsibility, fail to account for the severity of the moral crisis global warming presents.

These philosophers raise distinct issues, and I want to respond to several of them. This paper will proceed as follows.

First, I outline Broome’s argument that we have a duty of justice to offset our emissions, which takes priority over doing good. I object to this by showing it has implausible implications. I suggest Broome’s mistake was to separate duties of justice from duties of goodness. Considerations of justice should be understood as a limited component of goodness, which can be overridden. Offsetting emissions is good, but it is better to just emit less and donate the money to effective charities.

Second, I consider Sinnott-Armstrong’s and Sandberg’s claim that individual emissions do no harm. I agree that on one plausible interpretation, this is true. However, Sinnott-Armstrong and Sandberg misjudge the implications of this. It is still the case that we should reduce, or at least offset, our emissions. This is because our emissions probably cause harm, and because reducing or offsetting emissions is a morally important civic expression. I also claim their rigid distinction between duties of the state and duties of individuals has implausible implications, which I outline.

Third, I consider Jamieson’s and Gardiner’s claim that our ordinary moral concepts need reforming. I try to clarify what this claim could mean before rejecting it. It is true that people are worryingly indifferent to climate change, but this is a defect in us, not our moral concepts. The problem is analogous to inaction on global poverty. I suggest ways that our wills could be strengthened so that we do what we believe we should do.

Finally, I pick up on Broome’s claim that we should reduce our emissions when it is ‘at little cost to [ourselves]’. I raise a problem about vagueness here. I suggest that we need to analyse the concept of an ‘unreasonable burden’.


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