The Climate of Moral Responsibility

February 11, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Imagine yourself as a murderer: as someone who, both unprovoked, and with foresight, has just brutally killed your neighbour. There ought to be little doubt as to what moral responsibility you bear for this crime. Anything short of turning yourself into the police, admitting guilt, and accepting a criminal punishment that corresponds to the severity of the harm you have caused, would be a moral injustice.

Now imagine that instead of you being the sole perpetrator of this crime, you have in fact planned it and enacted it, in equal measure, with the help of 99 of your friends. Would it suddenly be just not to turn yourself over to the police, to not admit guilt, and not accept appropriate punishment? Does this change in circumstance absolve you of responsibility for the death of your neighbour? Are you, along with your friends, each only 1 percent of a murderer, or are you all murderers in your own right?

The answer might seem fairly intuitive, but when it comes to climate change we are all too happy to accept just such an exoneration by mass complicity.

The logic runs that, since both the causes and effects of global warming are apropos global, then it would be unreasonable to expect countries with fairly minor carbon footprints to limit their emissions without an agreement from the world’s largest emitters that they in turn would do the same. If, for instance, a country were to be proactive, and decide to act alone with climate legislation, they would damage their domestic economy, they would harm their standard of living, and they would have very little impact upon the global effects of climate change. There are simply no prizes for leading the pack on climate action.

While it is conceivable that this logic would fail when considering the development of green technologies, or with efforts to minimise the impact of economic restructuring, it is certainly the case that once the barrier of science denial has been overcome, this understanding of moral responsibility completely infects the climate debate. Hence the near-universal jubilation that was felt after China and the United States, as the world’s two largest polluters, found common ground in the lead-up to last year’s G20 summit and agreed to a joint limitation of their future carbon emissions.

Still, even if we were to accept this line of reasoning as indisputable fact, it is however, a line of reasoning that entirely loses sight of why climate change matters to us.

This is not a matter of losing sight of the simple question of ‘why should we care about climate change?’ – The answer to this ought to be obvious – but rather it is a losing sight of the question, ‘why should we care more about climate change than we ought to care about a tsunami, an earthquake, or any other natural disaster, if for instance the harm caused by any such phenomenon is identical in intensity and scope to the harm caused by climate change?’

The answer lies in an understanding of the difference between positive and negative duties.

Imagine a meteorite hitting earth, flooding our skies with ash, damaging our environment, and killing just as much plant and animal life (including human) as will be achieved by our worst estimates of climate change. It might seem on face value that both events, being equally harmful, should exercise our moral concern in equal measure – reasonable however, they should not!

After the meteorite’s damage has become apparent, and considering we are lucky enough to have escaped the worst the suffering, it is right to assume that we have an obligation to help alleviate the misery of others through emergency relief and long-term rebuilding efforts. This is a principle of moral utility that essentially reads, ‘if you can help others at minimal cost to yourself, then you are morally obliged to do so’. This is the same principle that underscores all global charity efforts.

Yet combating the harm caused by climate change cannot be conceived as an act of charity. At least no more so than turning yourself into the police after murdering your neighbour can be conceived as an act charity. Rather, this type of obligation is correctly understood as a moral duty – a ‘positive’ moral duty.

The kind of behaviour that positive duties demand of us all are narrowly framed around providing positive assistance to others. Therefore, if we were able to do so, yet chose not to help others in the aftermath of the meteorite, we would be violating the positive duties that we have toward our fellow human beings.

Where this differs from climate change is that, rather than exercising our positive duties, the presence of harm caused by climate change represents a violation of our ‘negative’ moral duties. Negative duties are essentially a requirement that we avoid harming other human beings wherever possible. Unlike the metaphorical meteorite, over which we have no control, and therefore no control over the harm it causes, climate change is caused directly as a result of our behaviour.

It might be reasonable at this juncture to question whether this discussion might be largely dealing in semantics. After all, despite drawing moral distinctions between our meteorite and the climate change, the outcomes are unchanged. Whether the global catastrophe that we are imagining is the result of our behaviour, or the result of pure chance, the harm is no less real. The same number of people die either way, the same amount of suffering is caused, and the same quantity of structural damage is produced. What does moral responsibility matter if there are no practical implications?

The answer is motivation. The harm in question corresponds directly to need. That is the need for humanitarian aid operations, the need for rebuilding efforts, and the need for structural reform in order to protect against such harm reoccurring in the future. In this context, moral responsibility, and how it is understood, matters because it directly impacts our level of motivation when faced with such burdensome remedies.

To understand how moral motivation might differ between violations of our negative duties and violations of our positive duties, it is helpful to consider the well-worn analogy of Peter Singer’s Pond. Singer asks you to imagine that a young child is drowning in a shallow pond, and that you are the only person who is close enough to save her. You can either let her drown unaided, or wade into the water and rescue her, thereby destroying your $100 shoes in the process. Naturally the only moral option is to suffer the financial loss and save the child.

Singer uses this analogy to highlight how we ought to approach all acts of assistance. For considerably less than the cost of the $100 shoes, we can all save the lives of children by contributing financially to international aid efforts. The moral logic that makes us wade into the pond is the same moral logic that ought to make us support international charities.

Convincing? Yes. The trouble is, it does not work. The average person tends to be convinced by Singer’s argument (that we have a positive moral duty to assist others in need), yet they also tend to be unmotivated by their newly found conviction. Effectively we understanding our moral responsibility in relation to positive duties, we just don’t want to do anything about it – at least when the duties in question are beyond our immediate eye line.

So to further build on this moral thought experiment, now imagine that the same child is drowning in the same pond, but instead of it being an accident, it is because you have pushed her in, and are now forcing her head under the water. Rather than a violation of our positive duties to assist, this now represents a violation of our negative duties not to harm.

It should go without saying that the responsibility you have to stop killing this child is considerably greater than the responsibility you previously had to rescue her. Failing to assist someone is palpably different to murdering someone. Our motivation to avoid doing the latter ought to supersede any motivation, or lack thereof, that we might feel in regard to the former.

The relevant science behind human-induced climate change has been settled now for an uncomfortably long time. The heating effects that greenhouse gases have on our climate were first postulated over two centuries ago. And by the late 1950’s, carbon dioxide, as the primary greenhouse gas associated with human industrialisation, was being accurately correlated to increasing temperatures in our atmosphere. Since then, the scientific strength of the argument has become overwhelming. Every day we are introducing high levels of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere – carbon dioxide that will in turn precipitate dangerous levels of a global warming.

And for the most part, these dangerous levels of carbon dioxide have already been reached – the heating is now on its way. An ever-increasing amount of environmental degradation and natural disasters are already being attributed to human-induced climate change. And although some of these links are tenuous, as time goes on the causation between the heating of our atmosphere and global suffering, will likely become irrefutable. It seems we have all invested heavily in our own long term structural harm.

This being the case, the harm caused by climate change represents a massive violation of our negative duties. For decades now we have had no reasonable cause to doubt the science of climate change. The harm that has been caused by climate change, the scope of future harm that we should expect, and the measures that are needed by us in order to mitigate against such harm, have all been explained to us in painful detail. Human-induced climate change was both predicable, and also largely avoidable. So, returning to Peter Singer’s Pond, we are all guilty of both knowingly and deliberately drowning the child – though perhaps a mass drowning would be more accurate.

It therefore stands, that the harm caused by climate change ought to exercise our moral instincts differently to unrelated, or unforeseeable, natural disasters. That is, we are all morally obliged, regardless of cost, to respond to such harm with emergency aid, support to rebuild, structural reform assistance and, where applicable, compensation.

But this is a rather unwelcome realisation. It is only natural to not want to think of ourselves as moral monsters, just as it is only natural to not want to accept material responsibility for anything that is likely to require substantial sacrifices in our standards of living.

So we seek consolation wherever we can. We obfuscate wherever possible. And the solace we find is in the realisation that, despite being morally responsible for the harm caused by climate change, we have after all not acted alone. We are but a small part of a very large injustice. We meticulously count the carbon emissions that we alone have produced, and thereafter consider our moral responsibility to be diminished so that it neatly matches this percentage of the global problem.

And at first glance it might seem reasonable for a relatively small country that is responsible for a mere 1 percent of global emissions to be reticent about committing to burdensome reductions in their fossil fuel output and to costly international aid programs, if China and the United States, as responsible for a combined 40% of global emissions, are refusing to reciprocate.

However, with this being the case, climate change has essentially become a global standoff, whereby nations feel comfortable in refusing to undertake meaningful action to reduce carbon emissions, until all other nations embrace their own responsibility, and act first.

Worse still, if we return to our analogy whereby we murdered our neighbour with help of 99 of our friends, now not only are we saying that we don’t have a responsibility to turn ourselves into the police and accept society’s punishment, but we are actually not a murderer after all. Rather we are exactly 1 percent of a murderer. If the mandatory punishment for murder is 25 years in prison, then we deserve 3 months of that sentence, as 1 percent of the total punishment.

No reasonable society delineates moral responsibility in this manner. We all intuitively expect to be held entirely responsible for any crime that we knowingly committed, regardless of how many perpetrators knowingly committed it with us. Criminal responsibility simply does not diminish according to criminal companionship. We do not teach our children that if they are going to harm other people, then it is better that they do it in gang.

Yet, (and perhaps because we are all complicit in the crime) when it comes to climate change, we are all too happy to accept just such moral reasoning. We are all comfortable in trying to abrogate our responsibility for the harm we have caused, and are still causing, by virtue of the company we keep – we exonerate ourselves association.