On Philosophy, Politics and Climate Change
Updated: May 31, 2020
What to do about climate change is not simply a question for activists, scientists, politicians and economists—it’s a question for philosophers as well. If we believe with 97% of scientists that the climate has been gradually warming since the industrial revolution as a result of human material consumption, and the use of fossil fuels, do we have an ethical obligation to make sacrifices now, change our lifestyle, persuade others to do so and put ourselves in front of the machinery of oil and gas extraction and infrastructure projects? Do we have an individual or collective moral obligation to sacrifice our present material well-being in order to leave a better world for our children and grandchildren? What do we owe to future generations when those generations don’t yet exist?
A worldwide wave of school climate strikes will take place from September 20-27—inspired by the remarkable 16-year-old Greta Thunberg. Some critics are arguing that the activist students she is inspiring are simply being truants. Is this the case? Do adults have the right to object to their children taking radical climate action? Should our schools or school boards have the right to punish students who walk out of class to join in a climate change strike?
Some philosophers have argued that we do not so much have an individual moral obligation to reduce our carbon emissions simply because the scale of climate change is so great that any individual contribution—whether driving an E-vehicle, becoming a vegan or installing a few solar panels—will not make much of a difference. They argue instead that it is the job of governments rather than individual citizens to mitigate climate change. Canadians will be asked to elect a government this coming October. Polls show that Canadians accept that climate change is real and threatening, appear to be genuinely worried and believe that if we don’t take drastic action right now the world may not last much longer than another couple of generations. We seem to implicitly recognize our moral responsibilities on paper, but when it comes to making actual sacrifices—living very differently, few of us are willing to do what it takes. Why is that? Does it have something to do with the way we calculate risk and rewards? How do we motivate others to change their lifestyles or buying habits when they do not think they have any such moral obligation?
If we take climate warming seriously it may mean that we have to rethink our entire economic system, and along with it ask ourselves what we really need in order to live a good life. It may call for a radically different system of taxation, regulation and public investment. Is it possible to imagine a world without capitalism?
Finally, if we are persuaded that climate warming is a reality do we have an obligation to vote for the party that has the most aggressive and progressive program to advance climate policy? Or, should we take a more tactical approach and vote for the candidate that is somewhat less progressive on climate change, but is more likely to win the riding against a candidate who denies climate change or has a poor record of advancing climate change policies?