The widespread tendency to discuss climate change as if it were, at root, a matter of costs and benefits that can be worked out in purely economic terms is dragging us into a realm of overt moral depravity perhaps unrivalled since educated, intelligent men coolly discussed the economic costs and benefits of buying and selling black people for profit. This is not an original observation Ė in the journal Climatic Change, as Mark Lynas pointed out recently, one Dr Marc Davidson of the University of Amsterdam has noted some of the stark parallels between the arguments advanced by contemporary slave-owners and those of todayís vested interests and their lackeys. But it surely says rather a lot about our prevailing political culture that the primary reaction of many commentators to a process that threatens to kill and severely harm hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, to destroy nations and to create war, famine and refugee crises on an almost unimaginable scale (those who believe I exaggerate should have a close look at Lynasís Six Degrees Ė recently the winner of a prize from the Royal Society for popular science authorship Ė and compare its predictions with the already rapidly-accumulating evidence of a climate more sensitive and under ever-greater anthropogenic pressure than we had supposed) is to ask how much money itís going to cost. This is a point that has been well made recently by George Monbiot, in response to Nicholas Sternís artful re-valuation of human life in dollars and cents, but it has also been made in the consistently excellent work of Paul Baer (much of which is available here).
Thankfully, a number of writers from the field of ethics are now wresting this subject back to its rightful domain, as chiefly a matter that concerns questions of right and wrong. One work I would very highly recommend for both lay readers and those more deeply involved in the issue is The Ethics of Climate Change, by Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy James Garvey. (A short interview with Garvey on the same subject from the rather good series of podcasts Ethics Bites is also available here.) This is a really excellent book which, as well as exploring how we can best apply fundamental ethical ideas and principles to this problem, cuts through the notion that we can talk about the costs of climate change in purely economic terms, with questions of human life and human suffering merely an afterthought.
Below you can watch another excellent exposition from the always sharp and scrupulously rational Australian philosopher Peter Singer Ė justly one of the most distinguished writers in the field of ethics. If youíve got the time, this lecture is well worth listening to. Perhaps most compellingly, Singer concludes his talk by offering rather a different view of climate change from the one we are most accustomed to consider. As he suggests:
ďAs well as all of these principles of justice that Iíve been talking about Ė which seem to me to point unequivocally to the need for drastic reductions and to the need for US leadership, or US and European leadership in this issue Ė there is also this perspective from Africa, from the President of Uganda, Museveni, suggesting actually that what we are doing is not just injustice in dividing up a common resource, but is actually aggression Ė is actually a form of aggression that we are waging on other nations, that we are harming them, and particularly that Africa is going to be harmed Ė that whereas it may benefit some nations, it may benefit Alaska or Siberia, then Africa is going to be the one that is most harmed by it. And I guess the model of aggression is simply that, well, we are doing something, we are emitting something which does not stay within our borders Ė so itís almost as if we attack this nation by letís say destroying the dams that hold the water that it needs to irrigate Ė because climate change will be worse for these nations, will make rainfall unpredictable, will make areas currently suitable for agriculture unsuitable. So Iím just throwing this out there, Iím not actually saying that itís right, but I also donít think that itís stupid or completely absurd to say that we might look back on this as a form of aggression that we have committed against other nations, and are still continuing to commit.Ē
Given that the UN Environment Programme and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon have pointed to climate change-driven water shortages as a prime cause of the conflict in Darfur, for instance, it is already possible to identify some truly horrendous atrocities in which this form of international aggression Ė as it is quite plausible we should consider climate change Ė makes us complicit. What we choose to do about this is fundamentally a moral question Ė one that all of us are going to have to face up to, and soon.