During the course of our extended discussion on the ethics of travel, given climate change, the idea came up that living in a high-carbon society has similar ethical characteristics to living under an unjust regime. For instance, an aggressive totalitarian state that attacks its neighbours. In both cases, people are born into the society without any say in its character. In both cases, people can become aware of the harm their society is causing to others. In both cases, individuals face the question of how to respond to the injustice.
Right now, our society is engaged in harming future generations for our own personal and economic self-interest. We are doing so by emitting greenhouse gases that profoundly threaten the quality of life of future generations. In a way, it is as though we are mining the health, welfare, and prosperity of those who will come after us, so that we can continue to live in the way to which people have become accustomed.
While living in such a society probably creates moral obligations to assist those who are being harmed, and who will be harmed in the future, it does seem like the primary moral impetus is that of resistance. Given that our society operates in a fundamentally unjust way, those of us who have come to understand this have an obligation to change the nature of that society. Obviously, there are a wide variety of possible approaches – everything from working to reduce your personal impact to working to reform government from within to armed insurrection. Similarly, there are a wide variety of personal costs that may be borne by those who choose to act. They might sacrifice more lucrative careers for ones which offer more scope for promoting societal change. They might give up luxuries that they and others once took for granted. They may bear even more acute costs, if they choose to resist in less socially acceptable ways. For instance, those who climb buildings to deploy banners – or who choose to protest peacefully in places where governments have forbidden it – could find themselves facing legal consequences.
Rather than seeing the problem of responding to climate change as an exercise in personal harm reduction, it may make more sense to think about it as an exercise in driving societal reform, through whatever means seem to be effective and ethically acceptable.
Is the above a sensible framework for thinking about climate change? Is it preferable to an ethic that calls upon us primarily to reduce our own emissions? In what ways are the ethical obligations that arise from a ‘resistance’ view different from those that arise from an ‘abstinence’ perspective?