Book Review – The Ethics Of Climate Change

the-ethics-of-climate-change‘No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible’
Voltaire (1694-1778)

We often have trouble accepting hard truths. While most of us agree that global temperatures have increased at a very rapid rate in the last century or so, many of us don’t like to admit we’ve caused it. However, the debate about the existence of human-induced climate change is finally at an end.

Around half a billion of us wake up in warm houses over a lifetime of winters. We have toast and coffee and hot showers every morning. Suitably fortified, we drive to work and get on with our lives and may go to a fine beach every now and then for a well-deserved weekend break. We have good intentions and lead reasonable lives. But the energy that supports our activities comes mostly from the burning of fossil fuels and so too with our parents and grandparents.

All this, in conjunction with much else, results in the thickening of a band of greenhouse gases, which heats things up, slowly raising sea levels, and fifty years down the line, after the toast and the coffee, a coastal village in China is inundated. Drinking water is contaminated, crops fail, and people starve to death. People who might have had tolerable lives have awful lives. Whose fault is it?

No one intended it. No single hot shower or cup of coffee was significant enough to cause direct harm. No single life on its own did any harm, yet who is responsible?

It is here, at these very questions of justice associated with climate change that we find James Garvey’s slim, thought-provoking text that navigates the murky waters of climate change from a morally philosophical stance.

Titled the Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World, Garvey’s short book stands as an introductory text, designed to tackle a highly relevant, yet dauntingly complex and serious question. In his timely book on the ethics of climate change, Garvey, Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, seeks to provide answers to those questions of climate change through the lens of moral philosophy.

Calmly and carefully, with well-marshalled facts and sound arguments, Garvey demonstrates the injudicious ways the nations and citizens of the industrialized world are behaving. He argues that scientific evidence, although crucial, cannot single-handedly generate action and that individual and governmental responses to the problem are primarily a function of values.

The use of imperative scientific fact, coupled with competing understandings of moral value and different conceptions and levels of moral responsibility makes Garvey’s book an engaging and provocative read. The book’s core message- that governmental action to transform human use of the atmosphere is morally imperative – is both well-argued and compelling. The author’s accessible and well-structured style makes The Ethics of Climate Change a compelling and delicious read for anyone interested in the urgent moral questions raised by our contemporary climate crisis.

In the first chapter, Garvey begins with the relevant science underpinning his message and analysis and addresses the settled scientific opinion on the climate of our warming world. Designed in a way that is both comprehensible and compelling, Garvey’s account of the science behind our changing climate is written in the first chapter with several concerns. His aim, with the support of objective findings from credible sources, is to convince the undecided or uninformed that climate change is not a distant prospect but is already at work.

He also aims to dispel the idea that there is a serious scientific debate about the existence of anthropogenic climate change and attempts to consider some scientific predictions concerning the detrimental impact of climate change unearthed by respected organisational bodies. Citing comparable findings from authoritative organisational bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the American Meteorological Society, Garvey’s opening chapter paints a dramatic and catastrophic future ahead for mankind if our actions persist unchanged.

The moral argument begins in chapter 2. Temporarily leaving climate change behind, Garvey rather oddly takes the opportunity to review the dominant theories of morality and the nature of justifications for moral beliefs. Contemplating the major philosophical works of Emmanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, Garvey weighs up the justifications for moral beliefs through a Utilitarian and Kantian moral lens. He later addresses various ethics from an environmental stance, demonstrating the importance of value in our justification of ethics.

Garvey’s intended purpose for this chapter was to serve as a means to show that it is possible to justify moral claims as well proving why having morals and acting upon them is important. This is done effectively although the arguments can come across as unnecessary and sometimes condescending. The explanations of consistency, utilitarianism and Kantian conceptions of right and wrong are interesting and fairly pertinent, however, I felt Garvey would do better in a book of this length to assume the possibility to justify moral claims and proceed to the substantive questions. It is also evident that his discussion on environmental ethics is not formulated in a way that is particularly relevant to the main argument and probably should have either been left out or better linked to the issue in hand.

Garvey then turns his attention to the question of responsibility in chapter 3. Meaningful change, Garvey stresses, will require collective action on an unprecedented scale, which in turn will require the effective assignment and assumption of responsibility.

His use of examples and analogies help to frame the moral dilemmas Garvey is trying to convey and helps to emphasize the indefinite impact of individual decisions. As he claims on page 61, “It is almost as though I am jointly responsible, with a million other people, for a billion little actions, in a trillion little moments. Each act is nothing in itself, each person does no obvious wrong, but together the results are catastrophic.”

In this chapter he also articulates three moral principles aimed at guiding reflection on who should bear the burden of responsibility for taking action against climate change. The principles may be simply stated: historical responsibilities (the ‘You broke it, you bought it’ intuition), present capacities (if you have the resources to address the problem, you should do so) and sustainability (concerned with our responsibility not to damage or use up the resources needed for survival by future generations).

Later in chapter 5, Garvey adds a fourth principle – procedural fairness (decisions concerning policy should be made in a manner that is fair to all participants and should take relevant scientific information into account). These first three principles lead Garvey to conclude that it is the developed world – especially the USA – that needs to shoulder the burden of responsibility in dealing with climate change.

Because the countries of the developed world are responsible for the bulk of current and historic carbon dioxide emissions (although developing countries such as China and India are beginning to catch up), they need to do most to resolve the problem. Garvey also convincingly argues that because their cumulative emissions are many times greater than those of developing countries and because far more of their emissions are luxury emissions, the bulk of moral responsibility for harm caused rests with developed countries.

Equally convincing, Garvey argues that developed countries have the most responsibility to act now, not just because they have caused the majority of atmospheric problems, but also because they generally have greater financial and technological capacity and apparatus to do so. The principle on sustainability, on the other hand, applies to everyone, including developing countries, and raises the possibility that poor countries might have to engage in ‘belt-tightening’ too. Here Garvey falls back on his first two principles to insist that the principle of sustainability should not be used to prevent countries with starving populations from developing economically. He concludes by expressing the hope that ‘the developed world will see to it that the developing world will leapfrog the worst industrialization and join the rest of us living sustainable lives’ (Garvey, 2008: 87).

According to Garvey, producing carbon dioxide – that is to say, using more than our fair share of carbon sinks – is not simply wrong in the present. What we do now carries consequences into the future. Accordingly, he challenges us to consider that moral responsibility is not limited by any kind of proximity. We have as much a duty to reduce our carbon emissions for the sake of the starving child on the other side of the planet as we do the starving child a thousand years from now.

Having established the moral inadequacy of arguments for inaction, Garvey turns his sights in the subsequent chapter, to what changes are morally imperative and draws connections between moral implications of climate change and the scope for real-world governmental action.

Titled ‘Doing Something’, Garvey suggests, once again, his three criteria that any morally adequate proposal must take into account- historical responsibility, present capacities and sustainability – and rightly points to contraction and convergence, a framework that would aim for total global emissions to contract per capita emissions broadly converge, as a morally attractive emission reduction strategy. Although this chapter was on the whole among the book’s most effective and pragmatic, Garvey’s talk of sanctions, while well intentioned, comes across as punitive and counter-productive in light of geopolitical reality.

Having focused most of the book on the moral dimensions of climate change for governments, Garvey focuses his last chapter on the need for individual action. He points out that the majority of readers emit many more greenhouse gases than most other people on the planet and then refutes the ten common “excuses for inaction”. He does this effectively and pragmatically, however fails to suggest any specific lifestyle changes individuals can make that may be particularly effective. He raises some very valid points that do trigger the reader’s conscience, however, without offering alternative lifestyle options to the reader, such as what one eats, his aim in this chapter slightly falls dead on its feet. More importantly, he barely explores the extent to which individuals can influence governmental policy.

Having concentrated intently on the role of states, it is a curious and unfortunate omission. Garvey could have been much more explicit about just how important systematic solutions such as carbon prices are and could have highlighted the victories concerned with citizens who have already won. By not drawing those connections and by creating the illusion that government functions mostly in a vacuum, Garvey misses a big opportunity that could have had a far more profound impression on his readers.

Overall, I found Garvey’s book a pleasure to read. I thought he brought into light some serious issues concerning climate change from an ethical stance, which I feel is much needed if we are to tackle any of these issues. His employment of peer-reviewed scientific observations and well-reasoned arguments help to dispel any lingering doubts the reader may have summoned. With his use of carefully schooled facts and clearly marshalled arguments littered throughout the text, Garvey is able to convey some convincing points and lay out the ethical questions involved.

Garvey’s moral calculations can also be challenged in reference to his example of the starving child and the impairment of our moral duty with proximity. Garvey readily stresses throughout the text that our carbon emissions are what have caused hunger and injury. However Garvey seems to forget that famine, drought and disease have historically always been part of life for individuals and communities living at the edge of society. Such forms of poverty are not new, but they are ‘natural’. If, in a wealthy country, we were to stumble across some case of poverty, we would not say that the conditions people were living in were the result of climate change. We would not, as Garvey does, say that it was a consequence of our ‘moral failure’ to consider the connection between our CO₂ producing actions and their consequences. We would instead suggest it was a social problem, arising out of material inequality.

Garvey also has a tendency to oversimplify both the problems and solutions rooted in his message. He is absolutely right to question the morality of the current use of the planet’s carbon sinks but is wrong to pay so little attention to the risks of perfect equality of emissions as a better alternative. He only briefly engages in the Rawlsian view that an unequal distribution of resources is acceptable if and when it helps the worst-off, yet the complex interconnections between economies, carbon emissions and well-being are neither simply understood nor easily unravelled. In light of that complexity, the Rawlsian perspective should have been afforded more consideration.

The book is primarily rooted in philosophy and could not be expected to address detailed policy options. However, it could have and should have further pursued the idea that it is not enough just to reduce emissions – they must be reduced intelligently, equitably and efficiently, otherwise carbon reduction efforts risk harming many more people than they help, which would hardly be morally defensible.

Using the right language in the right arenas can prove vital to the impact that a book’s message can convey. In his book, Garvey employs a conversational-type approach, which is both accessible and absorbing and may help with the intended aim of the book and the audience to which it is aimed at, which he claims is ‘an intelligent normal person’. However, at times, Garvey can be condescending and patronising in his tone and frequently adopts almost baby-talk in his use of the words such as ‘stuff’ and ‘willy nilly’. There is also an over-extended pre-occupation with the use of the feminine personal pronoun so that the author can display his rights on credentials which can prove frustrating at times.

It is evident, then, that climate change is going to pose some very serious and unpleasant moral questions and it has been Garvey’s aim in his book Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World to address such questions and to arouse his readers into realising that climate change is happening now and how we respond to its changes should be ethically determined. Garvey has given himself a strenuous task of incorporating questions of ethics into climate change values and I feel such arguments made could have been extended. Despite Garvey claiming the book stands as an introductory text, I felt such multifaceted issues raised in the book should have been more meticulous. I feel Garvey’s style of writing and tone, despite being condescending at times, has been one of his strengths which he should, in my view, have taken full advantage of. His style is extremely comprehendible, whilst interspersed with powerful imagery and easy-to-relate-to anecdotes that make it a pleasure to read despite the fact that it tackles a complex subject with many interpretations, contestations and theoretical underpinnings. I feel Garvey could have successfully extended the book and delved further into some of his arguments, yet still maintained the interest and awareness of the reader, whilst simultaneously fabricating a more thorough and balanced array of arguments and even solutions.

All in all though, I feel Garvey has partially achieved the aim he embarked on with this given text. He has generated an awareness of the power of individual activity and has raised some thought-provoking points that one can question. As he points out on page 147, “the point is not to push a conclusion on you but to point you towards some conclusions about your own life which you might work out for yourself”. After all, it is the little effects that are the only effects we’ll ever have. He has also succeeded in bringing attention to the fact that our actions and the choices our generations make in the next few years will ripple out into the future and affect people, ecosystems and earth systems both spatially and temporally, in ways we are still uncertain of. The atmosphere may be characterized as our most critical common natural heritage. It is free for all to use and our lives depend on it. However, as Garvey has emphasized, we all have a moral duty to take responsibility for our actions – actions that have an overwhelmingly penetrative effect on other living creatures and it is up to our choices, as individuals, which will pave the way towards momentous changes.

We are the enemy, just as we have only ourselves as allies.

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This is a book about choices, responsibility, and where the moral weight falls on our warming world. Articulate, provocative and stimulating, this timely book will make a significant contribution to one of the most important debates of our time. The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World (Think Now)

About the Author Victoria Moore

Victoria Moore holds a first class honours in Geography and an M.Sc. in Environmental Governance from Manchester University. She has worked as a geography tutor and recently returned from a six month journey through Asia. Victoria is passionate about the environmental movement and aspires to have a positive impact on the planet through her work and play!

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