SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
DALE JAMIESON: First of all, thank you for this generous introduction, and I want to thank everyone who made this visit to Cornell possible. For me, it's a real pleasure to come back to Cornell, where I was a visiting professor more years ago then I hate to recall-- than I like to recall. But I have to say, it's quite shocking to be here in February and think, this is Ithica? This is not the Ithica that I remember.
So let me begin by saying that-- so I was asked to speak on climate ethics at this seminar. You have an extremely prestigious group of scientists, both from Cornell and elsewhere, who will address specific aspects of the climate change problem, so I'm not going to try to do that.
So there's going to be no science in this talk. There's not even any numbers in this talk. I don't think there's anything in this talk that looks like a data slide, OK? And in fact, I'm not even going to talk about all the issues that are relevant to the ethics of climate change. Instead, I'm going to carve off a relatively narrow part of that domain.
So let me begin with some preliminary distinctions. So there is a kind of distinction. A lot of people talk about climate ethics. A lot of people talk about climate justice. There is a kind of distinction here that I'm going to observe. And again, it's a rough and ready distinction. Don't put too much weight on it, but it'll do for a nice afternoon in February in Ithaca, OK?
So ethical questions, as they're traditionally constructed, are questions about, how should we live? Now, when it comes to questions about how should I live as an individual agent, issues about harming other people, harming animals, all of that is relevant, and we will talk about harm. But so are other questions. Questions about how should I live are not essentially relational questions. They can simply be about my ideals regarding myself and my own aspirations.
Questions about justice, on the other hand, necessarily involve a relation to another entity. Questions of justice are what one agent owes another agent. Now, the way that this plays in at least the philosophical debate and political theory debate about climate change is that when we talk about questions of climate ethics, we're typically talking about questions about what individuals ought to do, what they might be doing that's wrong, questions like that.
When we talk about climate justice, typically we're talking about relations between states. So for example, the fact that the developed countries of the world have loaded the atmosphere with so much CO2 that there's very little headroom for the less developed countries to emit carbon-- that's the kind of question that usually falls in the domain of climate justice rather than climate ethics.
So I'm here to talk to you today primarily about climate ethics. If you want to raise questions about climate justice, I'm more than happy to give you my take on those kinds of questions as well as what I thought about the Super Bowl yesterday or almost anything else that you would like to ask. You missed your line.
SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE]
DALE JAMIESON: OK. The queue-- you missed the queue. Anyway, the other distinction that's going to be important for present purposes is the distinction really between what we might think of as the climate ethics or climate justice theory and climate ethics or climate justice movement. There are social movements out there at this point that self-identify as a climate justice movement, OK?
And that's all important and well and good, and there's relationships between these social movements in the body of theory that has developed in climate ethics and climate justice. But the climate ethics talk that I'm giving you today is not about a social movement. It's really about the theory of climate ethics, although it's related to that.
OK, so this is the slightly immodest, maybe doubly immodest part of the talk. So the kind of academic discussion of climate ethics and climate justice I think really can be dated from 1992, and I wrote a paper that was published that year. I actually looked younger than that in-- I couldn't find a picture of myself from 1992, but really, I didn't have gray hair then.
But I published a paper in 1992 called "Ethics, Public Policy, and Global Warming." I was building off some sort of non-theoretical, non-philosophical literature that had been published at that time, and it's certainly informed by the work and activism of various people. But I think that was really the first contribution to climate ethics that appeared in the literature.
At the same time, Henry Shue, who was a philosopher at Cornell and political theorist at Cornell, who was the first professor of ethics in public life here, also published a paper-- and this is what Henry looked like in 1992, so this is a real picture from that time-- published a paper called "The Unavoidability of Justice." And he was essentially arguing that when it came to questions about climate change, you could not get away from questions of justice. They were there in an irreducible way from the very beginning.
Now, these thoughts that climate change involved ethical questions and questions of justice were heterodox thoughts at that time because before then, what interest there was in climate change and on the social human side of climate change was mostly focused on climate change as a kind of technical issue, as a matter of getting the science right, maybe some new generation of energy innovation, something like that.
But these are fundamentally technical questions that smart people working in their laboratories can work out solutions to. Or else on the political side, it was thought, well, maybe we do need some changes of policy. Maybe that's so, sort in the way that we do technology policy or something. But climate change does not fundamentally pose questions of justice.
So these ideas that there was something kind of irresolvably, irreducibly of normative interests that related to ethics and justice was, in 1992, fairly unusual thoughts. But as I've indicated, this idea that climate change is a moral issue has become increasingly prominent, certainly sense [INAUDIBLE], the papal encyclical of Pope Francis. The framing of climate change as a question of justice between states and individuals and about how we choose to live our lives in this new century has become quite undeniable.
Now, there are a range of ethical questions that climate change raises. Some are questions about what I call abatement. In the standard climate change literature, what I call abatement is usually called mitigation. I have a theory about why scientists started calling emissions reduction mitigation when in the legal literature this was always called abatement for all kinds of pollutants for decades before, but that's another story.
But the abatement side is about who should reduce what emissions. Is it permissible to emit-- under what conditions? How much? Questions like that-- land use changes, which of course very dramatically affect the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are on the abatements side.
And also, issues about carbon dioxide removal-- could we remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere? And if so, how would those benefits and burdens be distributed? Those are all questions on the abatement side.
There's also important ethical questions about adaptation. How do we distribute the costs for adapting to climate change? Do the polluters pay, or do the polluted pay in order to figure out how to live in this new world?
And there's also questions about priority-setting. For example, if you take sea level rise, we're not going to be able to maintain our coastal activities-- just thinking about North America-- everywhere in North America. What do we give up? What do we save? Do we let Wall Street go under? Well, who knows? But there are questions about priority-setting, and these are going to be ethical questions.
Now increasingly, as we go into the future, geoengineering is going to be on the table. And the kind of geoengineering I have in mind here is essentially solar radiation management, different policies for affecting the amount of solar radiation that strikes the planet. The silliest version of this is the proposal many years ago by Edward Teller that we launch space mirrors into space that would reflect solar radiation back to the sun, or what Edward Teller really wanted to do was, if he was in a bad mood, reflect solar radiation onto the Soviet Union.
But there are other kinds of technologies that have been discussed to essentially provide the equivalent of a kind of umbrella over the planet. Most recently, people talk about sulfate injections in the stratosphere.
There's going to be questions about compensation, particularly the small island states. Some of them are already going underwater. People are having to evacuate, try to figure how to transplant their cultures to other places. Are they going to be compensated? If so, who owes them compensation?
There's questions about how climate change affects non-human nature. It's going to drive many species to extinction, right? Is that an ethical question? Yes, it is. Is it wrong for us to do this? Well, people have different views.
And through all of this, they're going to run questions of participatory justice. Who gets to make the decisions? So take geoengineering, for example. If we don't manage to hold down the global mean surface temperature to two degrees centigrade, as essentially has been promised in every international document since Copenhagen, it starts going above that, and we start thinking about geoengineering to bring the temperature down.
Who's going to make that decision? Is it going to be the same people who brought you the warming is now going to save the world from the warming? Or are the disenfranchised people of the world who've done little to contribute to the warming going to have some role in whether we're going to geoengineer or not? These questions remain to be seen.
Now again, I'm going to just carve out a small part of these ethical questions. I'm going to talk about abatement, and in particular, I'm going to talk about emissions. I'm not going to address these other questions unless they're brought up in discussion.
So my focus is on moral responsibility for abatement. And just to give you a sense of the lay of the land, some philosophers and theorists claim that actually emitting carbon into the atmosphere raises questions about the evaluation of our actions such that these actions can be construed-- considered to be morally wrong just by the prevailing standards of our own moral theories, right?
So essentially, what people who have this line want to argue is that given what we believe about ethics as people, what we're doing is wrong, and we should acknowledge that and see that. Other theorists claim that we need radically new principles and values for regulating and governing the anthropocene, the kind of new world in which we live, in which the human impact on nature is so great.
Now, my claim is going to be that common sense morality does not hold us morally responsible for most of our behavior that contributes to climate change. So the first lot is wrong. I want to say that common sense morality just doesn't extend to these climate change and behavior. But yet, I think it's possible to bring these acts under prescriptions of common sense morality that would hold them to be wrong. So it is possible to extend some common sense moral principles in ways that would lead to a revaluation of these actions.
But in contributing to climate change, we are not doing wrong by our own lights, in our own terms, at this point in time. So there's work to be done in extending moral frameworks in a way that will moralize these actions.
Now, the philosopher John Nolt at the University of Tennessee is one of the thinkers who holds that what we are doing in emitting carbon is wrong relative to the moral principles that most of us accept here and now. And Nolt has done a calculation. He's taken the expected climate change damages that will happen over the next few decades as a consequence of our emissions, and he computes that the average American is responsible, through his or her greenhouse gas emissions, for the suffering and/or deaths of one or two future people.
This is serious business. Think about-- we're average Americans. No, wait. This is Cornell. We're above-average Americans. Maybe that means we're responsible for more deaths. I don't know. But presumably, we're average Americans, at least when it comes to emissions, right?
What Nolt is saying is that we're responsible for killing or causing the suffering of at least one person, maybe two. And we don't even have the excuse of the Sopranos, right? It isn't just business. It's just completely gratuitous.
How does this happen? It happens from flying around in airplanes, happens from driving around in cars. It happens from heating and cooling our houses. It happens from eating meat. In other words, it happens from living the American lifestyle, which is, of course, also the professional class Chinese lifestyle, the lifestyle of the post-industrial world, right? That's what it is that is producing these emissions, that are producing these consequences.
Now, this is a question you should only ask yourself ideally in the dark and the privacy of your own house and not in public, where you're worried about how bad other people may think you are. But what I want to ask is for you to look within and decide whether you feel like a ruthless killer, worse than the Sopranos, when you drive, fly, heat or cool your house, eat high in the food chain, or generally live an indulgent, modern lifestyle.
I don't. I can do the math. I can do the calculations. I can feel guilty. I can feel shameful. I can feel like I'd be a better person not to do these things. But I don't feel like a ruthless killer. It doesn't activate the ruthless killer neurons in me.
In fact, I'm such a bad person that when I got a phone call from the University of Western Australia in Perth, sitting in my office in New York, they asked me if I would fly literally to the other side of the world and give a lecture on climate ethics. Without missing a beat, I said, "Business class?"
The problem, I think, is not just me or even some of you who recognize these same responses, or lack of them, in yourselves. The problem is that the prevailing structure of common sense morality does not hold us responsible for most of our behavior that contributes to climate change.
First of all, according to common sense morality, most of what people do is not morally suspect. So essentially, the structure of common sense morality says that most of what people do is innocent, right? It's only particular acts that come in for moral evaluation, and then those acts might be praiseworthy. Oh, she spent Thanksgiving at a homeless shelter feeding hungry people. That's really good, right? Oh, she spent Thanksgiving gratuitously running over guinea pigs in her Land Rover. That's bad.
Oh, she spent Thanksgiving watching television and eating popcorn. No moral evaluation at all. Completely morally neutral, right? The structure of common sense morality basically is not just not guilty-- innocent unless not guilty-- but not even evaluable unless the act falls into a particular category.
The paradigm of an act that is morally suspect-- I'd say it's the only act that is-- but the paradigm is an individual acting intentionally harms another individual. Both the individuals and the harm are identifiable. The individuals and the harm are closely related in time and space. That's where common sense morality really gets a grip.
So consider example one. Jack intentionally steals Jill's bicycle. Bad Jack, right? Jill, the victim-- this act is wrong. But let's start complicating it a little. Suppose that Jack is part of an unacquainted group of strangers, each of which, acting independently, takes one part of Jill's bicycle, resulting in the bike's disappearance. Well, yeah, what Jack did was wrong, but it's a little more complicated than [INAUDIBLE]. Three-- Jack takes one part from each of a large number of bicycles, one of which belongs to Jill. So Jack's benefiting, putting a bike together, but the victims are not suffering full-on in the way they did in example one.
Well, suppose now let's separate them in space. Jack and Jill live on different continents, and the loss of Jill's bicycle is the consequence of a causal chain that begins with Jack ordering a used bicycle in a shop. Innocent behaviors separated by space-- suppose now-- separate them in time. Jack lives many centuries before Jill and consumes materials that are essential to bicycle manufacturing. As a result, it will not be possible for Jill to have a bicycle, right?
This initial intuition of the wrongness of Jack's act is fading, even though Jill is made just as badly off in this example as in the first. But then, put all of these together, and suppose that acting independently, Jack and a large number of unacquainted people set in motion a chain of events that results in a large number of future people who will live in another part of the world from ever having bicycles.
Now, people will react differently to this example. But to me, this just starts to sound like normal life, right? This is just what life is about, right? It doesn't have any particular moral valence, or if it does, it's now pretty minimal.
And of course, what I want to say is that the emitting carbon case is more like example 6 than it is like example 1. So it's not surprising that the moral psychology that we have around example 6 is the moral psychology that we have around everyday behavior that emits carbon.
Now, the deeper explanation of this is practical reason, moral judgments are tuned to practical decision-making. We have a moral psychology that tracks real decisions that we have to make in everyday life and not fanciful ones or new ones that have just come down the pipe. Essentially, evolution has built us to respond primarily to accessible, rapid movements of middle-sized objects in our visual fields. We're really good at that, right? There's a knife coming out, OK?
Evolution did not build us to respond to emissions of invisible, odorless, tasteless gases that concentrate in the atmosphere and probably cause harms. Now imagine if carbon were this disgusting green color and smelled to high heaven, all right? We would have a different set of attitudes towards carbon emissions than the ones that we do.
Now some of the theorists who think that our everyday moral concepts do latch on to these kinds of cases have said at this juncture that, well, we do have this idea of collective responsibility, right? And you do think that people acting as part of collectives can be responsible for things. And there's two usual models that people have put forward, and I think that neither of these models is really adequate to thinking about the emissions side of contributing to climate change.
So one model is a kind of cumulative model, right? So what's wrong about acting with other people in producing our harms is because the emissions or the actions all stack up, and then together, the harm is produced. So on this model, every relevant input essentially produces a relevant output, though the inputs and outputs may be imperceptible.
So in the philosophical literature, there's a famous discussion of this by Derek Parfit. He uses an example of so-called harmless torturers. And the idea is that the reason we don't think that these kinds of emissions actually are wrong is because of the imperceptibility of the effects. But once we understand that the emissions are cumulative and together produce the harm, then we can see that even though the emissions are imperceptible, they're still wrong by the lights of common sense morality.
Now, the problem is the atmosphere doesn't work this way. It isn't that each increment of carbon dioxide is added to every other increment, and then something bad happens, right? Now, there's a lot about the way that we talk about climate change and try to explain it that creates that image.
One example is just the so-called bathtub analogy that we often use, right? We say to people, think of-- this is when we're trying to show people that reducing emissions is not enough for reducing concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. And we'll explain, well, emitting carbon is like having a faucet that's running water into a bathtub, and even if you reduce the flow, if the drain is stopped or it's not running out quickly enough, the carbon will still-- the bathtub water will still increase, and the carbon will increase in the atmosphere. It's like that.
Well, yes, but that's not the way climate change damages work. Essentially, what happens-- you emit a little carbon into the atmosphere. What does this do? Well, who knows? It's enormously complicated. Some carbon is actually usually radiated back towards Earth in response to carbon emissions going up into the atmosphere.
What happens to those particular molecules? Who knows? But it becomes part of a highly, highly complex system that may have some non-linear relationship to particular meteorological events, maybe. Those meteorological events that may, in some small way, be causally and distantly associated with my initial carbon emissions may have something to do with some extreme meteorological event.
But even whether some extreme meteorological event actually produces damages depends on all kinds of social facts. A hail storm is just a hail storm. A hail storm in Denver, Colorado, on a street parked with Mercedes and BMWs is a major economic loss.
A second model is the threshold model, and on the threshold model, no effect occurs unless a specific level of collective contribution is achieved. So the example here is a car is stuck in the mud. Three people pushing won't get it out, but four people will.
So the idea is that if you're emitting carbon, you may be the threshold emitter, and that's what makes the act wrong. But you wouldn't be the threshold had everyone else not emitted as well, so everyone's act in this case is wrong.
Now, there are different ways of assessing the causal contributions of individuals in such cases, but what matters for our purposes-- OK, so I've just said this. Now-- no, that's interesting. I seem to-- oh, yes, OK. Now, the threshold model is better than the cumulative model because there are actually thresholds in the climate system as opposed to it just being some cumulative thing.
But what the analogy doesn't capture is really what I've just said, which is the dynamic nature of the climate system, the fact that there are vast numbers of differently structured processes that occur simultaneously, that there are differences in scale in moving from emissions to damages, and that at each level, the system is open to a vast number of influences, many of which are not causally active at other scales. So the payoff is that the relation between my emissions and climate-related harms is not at all like the relation between my pushing and the car getting out of the ditch in the threshold case.
So the problem with common sense notions of individual responsibility is that the impact on the climate of the emissions of an individual person, even a high emitter, may be inconsequential or negligible. And in any case, it's unknown, and this isn't a problem of imperceptible contributions or thresholds. It's more like smidgens in a blender. That's an analogy that I've worked out in other places. Always happy to talk about smidgens in a blender, if you want to know about that.
OK now, so this has all been by way of showing that we can't really connect conceptually in a way that encompasses our notions of wrongdoing, emissions that we make of carbon and harms that are produced. Now, it's also true, though, that our moral concepts and what we moralize go beyond harm-causing. Sometimes we think things are wrong even if they don't cause harm.
So sometimes particular acts are moralized just because of what they are. Flag burning, for example-- we don't care whether it causes harm. It's burning the flag. That's wrong, right? And sometimes status is moralized. We don't care whether being homosexual or communist causes harm. It's just wrong to be homosexual or communist.
Well, this doesn't really apply to the climate change case either. This is from an old piece of Dan Gilbert, who's a psychologist at Harvard. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it such as whacking each other over their head or even voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.
Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we're outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad-- so we're back to me and my flight to Perth. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn't make us feel nauseated, or angry, or disgraced, or like a Soprano.
And thus, we don't feel compelled to rail against it as we do against every other momentous threat to our species such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex or the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.
OK. So in summary then, common sense morality doesn't hold us individually responsible for most of our behavior that contributes to climate change because it doesn't cause climate change harms and it doesn't violate other moral norms-- inculcated moral norms of fairness and reciprocity, in-group loyalty, authority and respect, purity and sanctity.
So the story is that really, the heart of common sense morality, the core principles by which most of us live, essentially descend from those that regulated the behavior of small groups of familiar people living in low technology, low population density societies. When Moses promulgated the Ten Commandments, there were 50 million people in the world, and essentially, iron smelting was the Silicon Valley of its day. And the Ten Commandments is still a pretty good summary of the kind of inculcated, standard, common sense morality that is pretty dominant in industrial societies.
And again, you can go on with this story, but we now live in a world of more than 7 billion people in which money, resources, and power can span the globe with the click of a mouse. And when I adjust the thermostat in my house or turn the ignition in my car, I produce a ripple effect through global systems that would have been unimaginable even to my grandfather.
So the bottom line is for people who are concerned about climate ethics, the task is not to say, but what you're doing is wrong. Even by your own lights, you have these principles that show they're wrong. But it's rather to construct and diffuse a notion of responsibility that supports these attributions that what we're doing is wrong when we fly to Perth to give a single climate ethics lecture, and that this attribution of wrongness will engage and motivate us.
So now we should ask the question, what is the point of these attributions of moral responsibility? And they're multiple and various. Sometimes we want to know who should be sanctioned. Sometimes we want to know how he got to where we are. Sometimes we want to know what sustains the present condition.
But the one I think we should be focusing on in the climate change case is what I call intervention responsibility. We want to know how to change the present condition. We want, in other words, to encourage people to take responsibility and sometimes do that by holding people responsible.
But it's not a question of reading off some history and some moral theory and saying who is responsible and thus violating certain prevailing moral norms, OK? So it's the affirmative question that we face of how to get people to take responsibility.
That's the challenge that we face, which is a fundamentally revisionary challenge rather than just the challenge of-- you are behaving wrongly by your own lights and in your own terms, and so why don't you change your behavior when I point this out to you?
So just a hint of how this can happen we can get, I think, from the movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, because one of the problems we have with climate change is the problem I was talking about. It has to do with the distance, in every sense of distance-- geographical, temporal, conceptual-- between the acts of emission and the flooding in Bangladesh that will displace millions of people.
Now, the abolitionists had the same problem. You had slave labor going on in the Caribbean, and you had people at home who were enjoying the fruits of that. They were having sugar in their tea, right? They were wearing clothes that were made of cotton.
And so William Fox wrote what at the time was an anonymous pamphlet, and this was typical of a kind of boycott movement that was going on. This was one of the founding documents of this. And Fox wrote, "So necessarily connected our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, the produce of slaves imported from Africa, we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh."
And this led to what was known as the blood sugar boycott, where essentially, often led by women in this case, would actually see blood in the sugar and would denounce people who would use sugar as essentially putting blood in their tea.
Now essentially, what this strategy is is a strategy of making the distal proximate, right? You take this harm which is far off in space, time, and concept, and you bring it back. You make it proximate. You make it something you can see. So in seeing the sugar, you are seeing the evils and suffering of slavery, right?
Now, that, I think, is a good hint for how a perfectly good principle about not causing harm can be applied in the climate change case. What has to happen is the distal has to be made proximate for those agents who can intervene to change things.
Now, which are those agents who can intervene? I'm going to wrap up very quickly. Well, individuals, which we've already talked about, individual jurisdictions such as nation-states, non-governmental organizations, the international community, and particularly firms-- we have not, for the most part, held firms responsible, but again, historically, 63% of historical emissions of carbon and methane are attributable to just 90 entities headquartered in 43 countries. A lot of them are the major industrial carbon producers. And of course, this is the core of the divestment campaign, is the recognition of this fact. And 12 and 1/2 percent of all carbon has been produced by just five companies.
And so the kind of climate equivalent of the blood sugar movement is the stigmatization of coal in particular-- eventually all fossil fuels and hydrocarbons, but particularly with coal. And when you see this kind of imagery and this kind of activism, this is the contemporary equivalent of the women in Manchester in the blood sugar movement to boycott sugar.
It's an attempt to basically say that when you use coal, and eventually, when you emit carbon, it's a way of creating a context in which that moral psychology of repugnance, of shame, of it would be wrong to do this, will be engaged and created in agents. And of course, the anti-coal movement, the attempt to stigmatize coal because coal is such a wonderful target because it goes all the way from mountaintop removal to the deaths that coal causes as a result of air pollution.
So if you want to know more about any of this stuff, I have an excellent book I can recommend to you called Reason in a Dark Time. I'm sorry I went on so long. Thank you for the technological failures on my part, and thank you for your attention.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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Climate change encompasses a range of ethical issues, but why does it not immediately invoke harsher moral objections from humans? Dale Jamieson provides insight into how human thinking and way of life prevents us from having an extremely adverse reaction to essentially being responsible for the lives and livelihoods of future generations, and how we might circumvent this thinking to overcome the ethical boundary that is climate change.