Climate change and individual ethics


in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, The environment

During today’s earlier discussion of climate change and partisan politics, a distinction was eventually drawn between the key principles that underlie intergenerational justice, the ways in which those principles manifest themselves in individual morality, and the question of how to bring our politics more in line with what those principles demand.

The final question is the topic of the previous discussion, but it seems worth having another about the broad question of what the moral consequences of climate change are for human behaviour. Naturally, this has come up before with reference to specific behaviours (especially voluntary travel). It has also come up in broader discussions, such as on the relative importance of abstaining from emissions, compared with resisting societal structures that perpetuate climate change.

This discussion is meant to be broader than those: what are the moral consequences of climate change, when it comes to individuals?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I would argue that the principal individual duty related to climate change is contributing to the emergence of a carbon neutral global society.

At this point in time, actions that influence the political system seem to have the most promise. That said, there is also value in learning lower-carbon ways of doing things, in changing social expectations, and in other individual pursuits.

Milan June 15, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I wonder:

Could we dream up a set of rules – akin to the Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam – that would provide rough guidance for how individuals should behave, when it comes to climate change?

R.K. June 15, 2010 at 4:57 pm

That seems very doubtful.

The real purpose of things like the Ten Commandments is fostering group cohesion, not achieving some external goal. People identify one another as members of a particular group because they follow certain rules, and the rules are often structured so that following them explicitly creates group solidarity.

For individuals, there are probably many, many ways to behave ethically in relation to climate change. That makes it hard to know whether any particular person is doing ‘enough’ or whether one action or another is really the best use of time or energy.

. June 15, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Oil spill: Here’s what you can do to help
By Maggie Koerth-Baker on Action

These are the facts. And there’s basically two ways of looking at them. One perspective assumes that U.S. oil consumption will only increase, that we must have this resource. Thus, we must have offshore wells. And lots of them.

The other perspective: It’s time to actually get serious about reducing our oil demand. With a 9% reduction in national daily gasoline consumption, we could eliminate our need for offshore oil. At 22.4 miles per gallon, that’s just 4.2 fewer miles of driving, per person, per day.

Jonathan June 16, 2010 at 9:26 am

I wouldn’t suggest creating a Ten Commandments or Five Pillars (at least, not using such terms or descriptions). Employing religious imagery (even if metaphorically accurate) won’t help attract skeptics.

Milan June 16, 2010 at 10:18 am

The point isn’t to come up with a quasi-theological list, but rather a basic set of actions that would constitute an adequate personal response to climate change, from the average citizen.

It could include things like investing in things that lower your energy consumption (not just increase your efficiency, due to rebound effects) as well as some level of political engagement.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think the problem here is that there is little consensus on what constitutes effective political engagement. The mobilization around the G20 summit is trying to be an inclusive, cross-issue network towards a “just” society. It has by appearances the same general thrust of inclusiveness that made the Paris Commune possible (still, I think, one of the few examples of a revolution that did not go totalitarian). Then again, protesting is easily dismissed by the liberal media as “militant”, mostly due to past success of agent provocateurs.

Milan June 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm

The protests that happen around G8 / G20 / WTO protests are so expected now as to be utterly routine. They are just part of the landscape, and no more worthy of attention than the fake lake that is being built in Toronto.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Only unexpected protests are of interest? You need to make an argument for that, you can’t just assert it.

How would you conceive of successful social movements forming? How about broad alliances that bring together genuinely massive numbers of people in solidarity with each others causes, and yet with a relatively coherent set of demands?

Have you read anything about the People’s Summit?

If you’re serious about saving the species, you’ve got to be part of a movement trying to re-shape the economy so that little externalities, like the survival of the species for example, are taken into account.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 4:27 pm

How much do you know about past social movements that did accomplish change, whether enduringly or temporarily? How do you expect to understand the contemporary situation without an analysis of the successes and failures in the French Revolutions, the Paris Commune, the 1917 revolution, the Civil Rights reforms, etc…? Do you honestly think that the current confrontation of interests between the masses and the (structure of the) elites is any less intense than it was in any of those conflicts?

I sometimes get the sense that you once studied the creation of some arctic pollution prevention acts and based your entire theory of climate change activism on an instance where opposition to reform from the capitalist structure was extremely weak. If climate change mitigation posed a similarly weak threat to short term business interests, Kyoto would have been a success, and we would be well on the way to carbon neutrality.

Do you actually still believe that climate denial is just mis-informed influential people who happen to like spreading conspiracy theories? Or have you recognized with the rest of us that its people fulfilling a role in an economic system which privileges short term profit above all, and if you aren’t willing to risk the species at the expense of a raise or promotion, someone else will.

You might not care at all about Canadian complicity in war crimes. Fine. You might not care about the crimes against aboriginals, or about the gutting of the welfare state. You might not care that financial crises didn’t occur before the financialization of the economy (which is strange, considering your vicious opposition to mutual funds). But if you care about climate change, at some point you’ll have to admit that you can’t do without the systems analysis, critique of the structure of society/the economy/democracy (you can call it a critique of shareholder capitalism if you prefer to keep the debate within the Economist’s terms) that will associate you with people who do care about those things.

In essence, you’re a fool to ignore these allies, and to dismiss their continued efforts and hard work as “boring”. Who said saving the world was going to be “good music” anyway?

. June 16, 2010 at 5:28 pm

The U.S. Civil Rights Movement as an Insurgency

Most Americans fail to appreciate that the Civil Rights movement was about the overthrow of an entrenched political order in each of the Southern states, that the segregationists who controlled this order did not hesitate to employ violence (law enforcement, paramilitary, mob) to preserve it, and that for nearly a century the federal government tacitly or overtly supported the segregationist state governments. That the Civil Rights movement employed nonviolent tactics should fool us no more than it did the segregationists, who correctly saw themselves as being at war. Significant change was never going to occur within the political system: it had to be forced. The aim of the segregationists was to keep the federal government on the sidelines. The aim of the Civil Rights movement was to “capture” the federal government — to get it to apply its weight against the Southern states. As to why it matters: a major reason we were slow to grasp the emergence and extent of the insurgency in Iraq is that it didn’t — and doesn’t — look like a classic insurgency. In fact, the official Department of Defense definition of insurgency still reflects a Vietnam era understanding of the term. Looking at the Civil Rights movement as an insurgency is useful because it assists in thinking more comprehensively about the phenomenon of insurgency and assists in a more complete — and therefore more useful — definition of the term.

Milan June 16, 2010 at 5:30 pm

The Civil Rights Movement has come up here before.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Now I do remember this analysis coming up before. So, what are some of the similarities and differences between the way the interests line up with climate mitigation, as opposed to the civil rights struggle?

Should we line up with the provinces against Ottawa? Some provinces are taking a more progressive line on climate change – do those politiciens really reflect a different outlook on the needed systemic reforms than those in Ottawa? I doubt it – but if so, we should encourage first ministers to threaten tax strikes if climate mitigation is not immediately phased int.

Should we organize locally for local change (like in the individual Southern States), i.e. vilify local climate criminals and organize to shut them down? This might help forge a more radically climate-conscious politics (and, correspondingly, anti-climate change reaction) in the provinces.

Should we promote, radicalize the conflict between the business interests and the interests of the species? I.e. begin large scale organized non violent resistance against the tar sands?

One thing we can definitely take from this insurrectionist analysis of civil rights struggles is that there is nothing non-violent about non-violent protest – it is still (if it is effective) an act of war. And it’s the good one – the one we should engage in against the enemies of the species. “Insurrectionist anarchists” like the FFFC do nothing but permit harsher crackdowns on nonviolent protest that does stand a chance of standing up to power with values and truth. It’s not by accident that there is so much speculation that the RBC bombing was committed by radicals on the right – the action much more clearly promotes their goals than the self-described goals in video which allegedly claims responsibility.

One thing we can expect is harsher and harsher oppression of non-violent protests the more effective they become. This would suggest that the unprecedented security budget for the G20 summit indicates strength and meaningful power behind the G20 resistance – not boring predictability.

Milan June 16, 2010 at 6:18 pm

One thing we can expect is harsher and harsher oppression of non-violent protests the more effective they become. This would suggest that the unprecedented security budget for the G20 summit indicates strength and meaningful power behind the G20 resistance – not boring predictability.

I think it is more a reflection of profiteering by the security people, many of them private firms. There will always be companies that emerge to make money off of paranoia.

That and a cover-your-ass security mentality within government. If you don’t pay for every possible precaution, you are on the line if something goes wrong. The incentive then is to pay for every sort of security, no matter how wasteful.

Tristan June 16, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Does that explain the exponential growth in G20 security budgets over the last 3 meetings? Why is profiteering three times more effective this time than last? There must be a reason why governments are becoming more and more worried about covering themselves – especially when public opposition to such overspending is not insignificant.

. July 25, 2013 at 7:03 pm

TERRY: And how did you come to know that?

TIM: I think the reality of the climate crisis—and all the other crises facing us as humanity today—justify the strongest possible tactics in response. Demand the strongest possible tactics. And I think that requires nonviolent resistance.

TERRY: Is violence ever justified?

TIM: Well, it’s justified. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense. I mean, if you’re talking moral justification, yeah—to prevent the collapse of our civilization, and the deaths and suffering of billions of people, it’s morally justified. But violence is the game that the United States government is the best in the world at. That’s their territory.

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