The Perfect Moral Storm: Philosophers Respond to the Impending Anthropogenic Apocalypse

by Ava Kofman (Vice, May 31, 2015)

For at least the next 200 years, weather forecasts predict shitstorms, with global temperatures now set to remain elevated for hundreds of years to come. The latest
IPCC report explains that our emissions are nearing the point of no return. Even if industrialized nations switched to solar power overnight, it is now too late to fully reverse the planet’s course.

Geologists have officially termed this new epoch, where the human species has irreparably shaped earth’s geological history, the
Anthropocene. Policymakers no longer have the luxury to decide how we might “stop” global warming. Instead, we have to figure out how we’ll manage amidst climate instability.

With a dark future ahead comes a new set of existential questions. What do present generations owe those in the future? Should we value only what affects us as humans? Is there value to nature, or a culture, in its own right? Since Western economies were responsible for the rise in temperature to date, should they bear more of the burden for stopping it in the future?

Underlying the technical answers of scientists, economists, and politicians are some of the deepest moral dilemmas—problems that philosophers have been grappling with for centuries. “These issues of justice are brought into bold relief by climate change, but they are still traditional ethical questions,” Lawerence Torcello, a philosopher who researches the moral implications of climate denial at the Rochester Institute of Technology, explained in an interview with VICE. “How should we live? That’s as pressing now as ever. How are we going to live in the Anthropocene?”

Unlike other paradigmatic moral problems, there is no single individual intentionally harming another in the case of climate change. As the philosopher
Dale Jamieson and others have written, our moral judgments are more likely to fail in precisely these situations: where the connections between our bad behavior and the harm it causes are indirectly linked. In the case of invisibly emitting greenhouse gas, there is no single moment of pulling a trigger, nor is there a single smoking gun. The problem’s global scale, complicated causality over space and time, and long-term effects is what the philosopher Stephen Gardiner has in mind when he refers to climate change as “a perfect moral storm.”

What is it going to mean to love a place when it is no longer there?

Such a storm has led philosophers to call for new ethical framework around the issue—one that will ideally have political influence. “We need to start thinking in terms that we’re just not used to thinking of as a human species,” Torcello said. “We need to start thinking that things like driving cars and turning up our thermostats are harming people that haven’t even been born yet.”

Dale Jamieson, a founding expert in the field of climate ethics and a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at NYU, was one of the first people to argue that to live well in the Anthropocene requires the adoption of new values, or what he calls ”
green virtues.” He sees temperance—which he defines as living moderately with relatively low consumption—as key. Another necessary virtue, Jamieson says, is mindfulness, which is the understanding that “when you bring something into your life, you see yourself as taking cradle-to-grave responsibility for its whole lifecycle.” As in, every product you purchase will eventually have to go somewhere, if you discard it. And then, of course, there’s the desperate need for more cooperation. Jamieson recommends that cooperative political measures be taken quickly to eliminate coal and put a price on carbon.

Photo via NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
Photo via NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Photo via NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Virtually all philosophers agree that developed countries should take the lead role in bearing these costs, while less developed countries should be allowed to increase or maintain emissions for the future. Yet, as Jamieson and others well know, no international mitigation and abatement efforts have been taking place on a large enough scale to freeze emissions. The source that provided the most new energy to the world economy in 2013 was, perversely, coal. Our increasing understanding of the damage caused by fossil fuels runs parallel to an increase in carbon emissions worldwide.

Economist turned Oxford philosopher John Broome sees this failure of intense geopolitical cooperation as a classic “tragedy of the commons”: Each country will act within its own interest, which is always to emit. Broome explained to VICE that George Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol expressed “the bald truth”: Countries are not going to do anything on behalf of others that requires them to sacrifice their own interests.

One the largest questions about climate change concerns our responsibilities to future generations. Some economists have argued that future generations will be better off, and therefore better equipped to pay environmental costs themselves, while others, most notably
Nordhaus, have argued that waiting costs not only the present generation, but also the future. Broome has worked to demonstrate that in asking humans to weigh what they value the most, these economic arguments are, at heart, ethical decisions.

“It’s the nature of climate change to inflict damages on a large part of our society and on humans who don’t exist yet.” —Dale Jamieson

This need to account for an unknown future population is part of what makes climate change difficult to square with traditional understandings of individual morality and global justice. One
study shows that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that climate change will harm future generations, but only 38 percent believe it will harm them personally “a moderate amount.” Jamieson explains that democracy, as it now stands, is not adequately equipped to represent the interests of future generations. “Everyone likes to talk about the future but there’s a present generation narcissism that always goes on,” he added, noting that conversations around intergenerational justice point to how “badly equipped the present system is to protect interests that go beyond an electoral cycle. A well-functioning democracy ideally represents everyone who shows up. But it’s the nature of climate change to inflict damages on a large part of our society and on humans who don’t exist yet.”

Jamieson, who started working on environmental ethics in the early 1990s, notes that as climate change transitioned from a theoretical problem to be avoided to a full-blown disaster, the questions posed by philosophers began to change. “Once that happened, you found yourself in a world where you needed to think about the fact that different places in the world have different levels of emissions. How do we adapt? Who pays for this adaptation? What does it mean to live a human life? What about animals? What about endangered species?”

Broome says the recognition of the inevitability of crisis has led philosophers to take a more “pessimistic turn.” The titles of their books have likewise registered the dark mood, like Tim Mulgan’s
Radical Hope and Ethics for A Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe and Jamison’s Reason in a Dark Time.

Broome noted that his own approach to publicly discussing climate change has evolved. He’s realized that any statements he makes about “how we should live as individuals,” ended up distracting people from their governments using powers to prevent people from emitting. “I used to say you should have a zero carbon footprint that you can achieve by offsetting,” he said, “but that’s not how you’re going to solve climate change if the government doesn’t make judgments on that behavior.” The aim is not to discount what he calls private morality––refusing to fly on planes, for instance, could show the government that people care—but to ensure that public morality is mandated. But he notes that even government coercion can fail.

So if all else fails, it’s possible that we’ll be turning to philosophy for one of its oldest promises: to teach us how to die. “We’re facing the most difficult problem that humanity has ever faced, and we’re in this post-Enlightenment period where we’ve never been less confident of our ability to make decisions for the better.” This crisis of meaning tends to get neglected: “What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a world where you and your kind have eliminated all wildness and forms of life from the planet?” Jamieson asked. “It’s a philosophy for trying to keep the world from going to hell.”

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