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27 Environmental Ethics and Climate Change

Jonathan Spelman

Jonathan Spelman is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Northern University. You can learn more about Dr. Spelman and his work at http://jonathanspelman.com. This work released under a CC-BY license.

Introduction

I grew up out in the country, and sometimes my brother and I would spend the afternoon catching grasshoppers. It was a bit of a challenge, and it was fun. Once we’d catch one, we’d simply let it go. No one got hurt. When I was ten or so, my family moved to the suburbs, and my brother and I spent more time playing with the kids who lived nearby. One day, while walking down the sidewalk with the neighbor boy, we spotted a grasshopper just sitting on the sidewalk. The next thing I knew, the neighbor boy walked right up to it and … Crunch! … stepped on it.

I was appalled by what the neighbor boy had done, but had he done anything wrong? He certainly hadn’t done anything legally wrong, but maybe his crushing the grasshopper was morally wrong. And what about my brother and me? Although our catching grasshoppers wasn’t illegal, maybe it was immoral, nonetheless.

Going forward, I’m going to focus my attention on these moral questions. (Accordingly, when I ask whether an act is “wrong,” I am asking whether it is morally wrong.) Answering these questions requires us to do ethics. The central question of ethics (or moral philosophy) is something like: “How should we act?” Historically, ethicists have focused their attention on questions of interpersonal ethics, that is, questions about what we owe other people. But over the last century, ethicists have become increasingly convinced that figuring out how we should act also requires us to answer questions of environmental ethics, that is, questions about what we owe our environment. This includes people, but it also includes animals, plants, and ecosystems.

In this piece, I’ll introduce you to the field of environmental ethics. To begin, I argue that it was wrong for the neighbor boy to crush the grasshopper. In the process, I identify a moral principle that I then go on to apply to the most significant environmental problem of our time, the problem of climate change. After briefly sketching that problem, I’ll argue that in light of it, you and I are morally obligated to (i) reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, (ii) offset our remaining emissions, and (iii) advocate for climate-friendly policies and politicians. Why? Because failing to do these things is irresponsible.

Is it wrong to harm grasshoppers for no good reason?

Humans deserve moral consideration, which is to say that their interests deserve to be taken into account when we’re deciding what to do. This explains why we can’t crush humans. Playdough, however, doesn’t deserve moral consideration. This explains why we can crush it. But what about grasshoppers? Do they deserve moral consideration? Can we crush them?

You might think that humans are the only things that deserve moral consideration. This view is called anthropocentrism. If anthropocentrism is correct, then since grasshoppers aren’t human, they don’t deserve moral consideration, and therefore it is perfectly permissible to harm or even kill them for no good reason. While this view is coherent, it’s rather implausible. My neighbor’s dog isn’t human, but surely it would be wrong for me to kick it, and thereby harm it, for no good reason.

In response to this objection, you might admit that it would wrong for me to kick my neighbor’s dog for no good reason, not because my doing so involves harming a dog, but because my doing so harms someone’s property or harms something that someone cares about. On this view, it is perfectly permissible to harm grasshoppers provided that no one owns them or cares about them. Again, although this view is coherent, it’s still rather implausible. After all, it seems like it would be wrong for me to kick any dog for no good reason, even if that dog is unowned and unloved.

In response to this further objection, you might admit that it would be wrong for me to kick any dog for no good reason, even if it were unowned and unloved, not because it is wrong for me to harm dogs, but because it is wrong for me to do anything that makes me more likely to harm humans. But even if it’s true that my kicking dogs would make me more likely to harm humans, this seems like the wrong explanation for why it is wrong for me to kick dogs. It is wrong for me to kick dogs because of what it does to the dogs, not because of what it does to me.

In light of these arguments, we should reject anthropocentrism. We should admit that humans are not the only things that deserve moral consideration, that at least some nonhuman animals deserve moral consideration. But which ones? According to one relatively popular view, all sentient beings (i.e., beings that have subjective experiences or are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain) deserve moral consideration. This view is called sentientism. Whereas anthropocentrists cannot explain why it is wrong to harm dogs for no good reason, sentientists can.

Let’s say that we accept sentientism. Does that mean that it is wrong to harm grasshoppers for no good reason? Not necessarily. According to sentientists, grasshoppers deserve moral consideration only if they are sentient. But it’s not clear that grasshoppers are sentient. While it’s relatively clear that they are conscious (i.e., that they have subjective experiences), it’s less clear that they are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain. So, if what makes a being deserving of moral consideration is that it is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, it’s not clear that grasshoppers deserve moral consideration.

This might lead us to believe that we simply cannot know whether it is wrong to harm grasshoppers for no good reason. But I don’t think that’s correct. The reason for this is that some actions are wrong simply for being unnecessarily risky. Imagine that your friend works in demolition and her and her team have been tasked with demolishing an old warehouse. While you are visiting her over your lunch break, she asks you if you would like to use the wrecking ball to destroy it. You love destroying things, so you get behind the controls. Just as you’re about to strike the first blow, you see a dog run behind the warehouse. Although you think you saw it run away, you realize that it may have run into the building. Your lunch break is almost over, so you don’t have time to let her and her team search the warehouse for the dog. If you’re going to use the wrecking ball, it’s now or never.

In this case, is it permissible for you to destroy the old warehouse before your friend and her team search the warehouse for the dog? Of course not. Why not? Because doing so is unnecessarily risky; it is irresponsible. Even if you would enjoy using the wrecking ball, that fact doesn’t justify your performing an action that may kill a sentient being. We can say the same thing about the neighbor boy who crushed the grasshopper. Was it permissible for him to step on the grasshopper? No. Why not? Because it was unnecessarily risky; it was irresponsible. Even if he enjoys stepping on grasshoppers, that fact doesn’t justify his performing an action that may kill a sentient being.

In this section, I have argued that humans are not the only things that deserve moral consideration. Many nonhuman animals do as well. Some environmental ethicists have gone so far as to argue that plants and even ecosystems also deserve moral consideration. I have not discussed those arguments here simply because you do not need to accept them in order to accept the conclusions that I argue for in Section 4. (In fact, you may not even need to accept my argument for sentientism to do that.) What you do need you to accept, however, is that unnecessarily risky acts are wrong. We cannot endanger others for the sake of minor benefits.

The problem of climate change

Climate change refers to any change in the normal weather conditions of a particular region of Earth or Earth as a whole. Although climate change is not necessarily a problem, abrupt climate change is a problem since we cannot adapt to it quickly enough.

While abrupt climate change is definitely a problem, it is not necessarily a moral problem. Abrupt, anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change, however, is a moral problem. To see this, consider the difference between a scenario in which a forest fire burns your neighbor’s house down and a second scenario in which you burn your neighbor’s house down. In the first scenario, when the forest fire burns your neighbor’s house down, something bad has happened, but no one is morally responsible for that bad thing. No one has done anything morally wrong. In the second scenario, however, when you burn your neighbor’s house down, not only has something bad happened, but someone is morally responsible for that bad thing, namely, you. You have done something morally wrong.

Is there abrupt, anthropogenic climate change? Yes, there is. When humans take fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, and natural gas) out of the ground and burn them to heat their homes, power their cars, and charge their electronics, they must emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), most notably carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These GHG particles absorb and emit radiant energy, which causes global warming (i.e., an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature) and other climate changes (e.g., altered precipitation patterns that increase the number of extreme weather events). Although some people deny this, it is relatively uncontroversial.

What is controversial, however, is the question of what you and I are morally required to do in response to about abrupt, anthropogenic climate change (hereafter, simply climate change). Environmental ethicists generally agree that you and I are morally obligated to do something in response to climate change, but they disagree about what that is. In the following section, I’ll argue that you and I are morally obligated to do three things in response to climate change. First, we must reduce our GHG emissions. Second, we must offset our remaining GHG emissions (if we can afford to). And third, we must advocate for climate-friendly policies and politicians. Why? Because failing to do these things is irresponsible.

How should we respond to the problem of climate change?

Return to the scenario in which you burn your neighbor’s house down. In that scenario, you clearly harm to your neighbor. Even if you don’t physically harm her, you destroy her property. You force her to find a new place to live. Climate change has similar effects. Between increasing the severity of droughts and floods and by causing sea levels to rise, climate change is killing and will continue to kill humans and nonhuman animals. Others are being forced to abandon their homes and find new places to live. For many humans, this will be much more difficult than simply finding a new home to buy. It will require abandoning one’s homeland and moving somewhere completely foreign. For nonhuman animals, it will be even more difficult. Some species, like polar bears, for example, may find it impossible to adapt and will go extinct.

Now, when you burn down your neighbor’s house, you endanger your neighbor and force her to find a new place to live. This is clearly wrong. But when you contribute to climate change, do you endanger anyone? Do you force anyone to find a new place to live? It’s not clear that you do. Notice that the harms of climate change are cumulative harms. Your contribution to the problem is relatively insignificant. This leads some to argue that when you contribute to climate change, you do not do anything morally wrong.[1]

While it may be true that your contribution to climate change is relatively insignificant, it is worth noting that how much you contribute to climate change varies significantly depending on where and how you live. Those living in Australia, Canada, and the United States, for example, emit much more carbon dioxide per capita than those living in India, Indonesia, and Brazil. This, on its own, may be a reason to think that you are doing something morally wrong since you are contributing more than your fair share to climate change. Regardless, I want to argue that even if your contribution to the problem of climate change is relatively insignificant, it is still wrong.

To see this, let’s return to the hypothetical scenario we’ve been discussing, the scenario in which you burn your neighbor’s house down. This time, however, let’s assume that you don’t actually burn your neighbor’s house down. Instead, you create a trail of dry brush from a nearby forest to your neighbor’s house. This, on its own, doesn’t harm your neighbor in the least. It does, however, make it more likely that your neighbor’s house will burn down. This is especially bad if there are frequent forest fires. But even if there aren’t frequent forest fires, it’s still morally wrong for you to endanger your neighbor and her home for no good reason. It’s irresponsible.

When we contribute to climate change, we do something analogous. We don’t necessarily force anyone to find a new place to live, but we do increase the likelihood that people across the globe will have to find new places to live. This is morally wrong, especially when our reasons for contributing to climate change aren’t good ones. If, for example, you start your car engine before getting into your car so that it has time to warm up, you’re doing something morally wrong. Why? Because you’re increasing the likelihood that human and nonhuman animals across the globe will have to find new places to live, and you’re doing it for no good reason. Sure, it’s nice to warm up your car before getting into it, but that isn’t a sufficiently good reason to justify your endangering both human and nonhuman animals.

Some reasons, however, are sufficiently good to justify your endangering both human and nonhuman animals. When it is very cold outside, for example, it is morally permissible to heat your home so that your pipes don’t freeze. Or when your salary does not permit you to live close to your workplace, and you can’t carpool or use public transportation to get there, it is morally permissible for you to drive to work. It’s true that in driving you’ll emit some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s also true that this makes it slightly more likely that sentient beings will have to find new places to live, but you’re not acting irresponsibly. Similarly, when you light a candle in your home, it increases the likelihood that your neighbor’s house will burn down, but it doesn’t follow from this that it’s always wrong to light a candle in your home.

Is this the full story? Not quite, and here’s why. Imagine that you’ve got a sufficiently good reason to light a candle. You realize that this increases the likelihood not only that your house will burn down but also that your neighbor’s house will burn down. Now, imagine that there is some small thing you could do to reduce the likelihood of your neighbor’s house burning down. You could install a smoke alarm, for instance. It seems like you are morally obligated do this.

Note that you are not morally obligated to do this for your own sake. There is nothing necessarily wrong with burning yourself or destroying your house. I certainly don’t recommend doing either of those things, but they are not necessarily morally wrong. The reason, then, that you are morally obligated to install a smoke alarm is not to protect yourself but to protect your neighbor. If your candle were to start a fire, your smoke alarm would alert you to the danger, and you could call on the fire department to put out the fire before it destroys your neighbor’s house. Failing to install a smoke alarm would be irresponsible. This becomes increasingly true as the number of people living close to you increases. If you are surrounded by homes, or if you live in an apartment and are surrounded by neighboring families with children and pets, lighting a candle without having a smoke alarm is especially irresponsible.

When we contribute to climate change, we’re doing something analogous. We’re increasing the likelihood that humans and nonhuman animals will die or be forced to find new places to live. Fortunately, there’s something we can do to reduce the likelihood of this. We can offset our GHG emissions (hereafter, simply emissions). When we purchase carbon offsets, we fund projects that reduce emissions by funding the development of wind farms, enabling landfills to capture emissions, and/or preventing deforestation. When we offset enough of our emissions, we go carbon neutral, which is to say that our net emissions (i.e., our emissions minus our offsets) equals zero. By offsetting our emissions, we make it the case that no human or nonhuman animal is more likely to die or lose her home on our account. When we offset our emissions, we act responsibly. This is what morality requires.[2]

Finally, imagine that you’re living in an apartment and are surrounded by neighboring families. You light candles from time to time, but you have installed a smoke alarm and a sprinkler system. You do not significantly increase the likelihood that others will lose their homes. The same, however, cannot be said of your neighbors. They light candles all the time but don’t have smoke alarms or sprinkler systems. They are endangering all the people and nonhuman animals living in the apartment complex, but they don’t see the problem. You would move to a new apartment complex, but let’s assume that you’re stuck in this one. It seems to me that, in a case like this, a responsible person would not simply cross his fingers and hope for the best. He would try to convince his neighbors to stop lighting candles all the time. He would encourage the manager of the apartment complex to add smoke alarms and sprinkler systems to every unit. He would petition the local government to require these things in apartment buildings and vote for candidates who support these policies. He would advocate for change.

We are in an analogous position. Those around us are continually contributing to climate change, and in doing so, they are increasing the likelihood that human and nonhuman animals around the world will die or lose their homes. But they do not see the problem. They do not see that their actions are unnecessarily risky. We might like to move to a new planet, but we are stuck on this one. We have nowhere else to go. It seems to me that, in a case like this, a responsible person would not simply cross his or her fingers and hope for the best. She would try to convince others to reduce their emissions and to offset whatever emissions remained. She would encourage her local and national representatives to pass legislation that would reduce emissions, and she would vote for candidates who support these laws. She would advocate for change.

For Review and Discussion:

  1. Most people kill flies, spiders, and any other insects that they find in their homes when, in many cases, they could capture those insects and release them outside. Spelman argues that it is morally wrong to kill grasshoppers for no good reason, but what about a grasshopper (or a spider) that has found its way into your home? Do we have a sufficiently good reason to kill it? Or should we capture it and release it outside?
  2. Spelman contends that it is morally wrong to contribute to climate change unless one has a sufficiently good reason to do so. Identify at least three activities that contribute to climate change. When do we have sufficiently good reasons to perform those activities? When do we lack sufficiently good reasons to perform those activities?
  3. Spelman argues that individuals are morally obligated not only to reduce their GHG emissions and offset any remaining emissions, but also to advocate for climate-friendly policies and politicians. What sorts of activities would count as advocating for climate-friendly policies? Which of those activities are morally obligatory, and which ones are not?

Notes and Additional Readings


  1. See, e.g., Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “It's Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,” in Perspectives on Climate Change (Elsevier, 2005), pp. 221–253.
  2. To find out your annual carbon footprint, you can visit the Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator at http://www.footprintcalculator.org/. Then, you can offset your emissions at a verified carbon offset provider like Green Mountain Energy or TerraPass. My family offsets our carbon emissions at Green Mountain Energy’s website, which you can find here: https://www.greenmountainenergy.com/home-energy-solutions/carbon-offsets/.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Environmental Ethics and Climate Change by Jonathan Spelman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.