Monday, 5 January 2009

The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey (Continuum)

Reposted from:


Moral reflection is, at the very least, about taking ownership of our moral beliefs, he tells us, and this is a matter of being able to give reasons for them, which requires consistency among them.

Garvey deepens this argument by appeal to distributive justice. Our planet has a finite capacity to absorb greenhouse gases without serious danger to humanity. We should think of this capacity as a shared resource. Industrialised western countries have clearly used far more of it than has the rest of the world, and have perhaps already used more than their fair share. So justice requires us to minimise our continuing use of this resource while allowing less developed countries to use much more of what remains. Our unprecedented standard of living in the west results from the use of this resource by our forebears, moreover, and that very same use will change the climate significantly over the next hundred or so years, the most devastating effects being on the less developed countries. Justice requires that we help those countries minimise these effects.

Governments have known about climate change since at least 1990. This is one of the conclusions Garvey draws from his careful explanations of the history of climate science and international negotiations about it. Immense damage has been done to the future climate since then which could have been avoided. This is where Garvey’s argument for immediate action gets going. If that fact about the last eighteen years sounds outrageous, then how are we to avoid repeating it? If you are outraged by government inaction on climate change, then shouldn’t you feel the same about individual inaction? Just how much action have you taken? Perhaps you didn’t know about climate change before, but you do now.

There is a beautiful simplicity to the way Garvey takes this argument from state to individual and back again. Getting better light bulbs and a more efficient boiler are worth doing, but have little impact on overall future climate change and do nothing to ameliorate the effects of current climate change. Serious individual action is therefore political action: it seems morally incumbent on us, he concludes, to pressure our governments into addressing these issues properly.

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