Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beyond personal inconvenience: climate as a moral issue

"Much of what passes for even the most progressive discussion of climate change these days is devoted to persuading us that dealing with the problem will not be costly in terms of our current lifestyles, and so is compatible with ways of living that many take to be in their best interests. This is comforting talk, and I am hopeful that it may turn out to be substantially true. Still, it seems to me that this is the wrong discussion to be having. Our reasons for acting on climate change are not (or at least not primarily) that doing so will be good (or at least not bad) for us; they are deeper and more morally serious than that. In my view, seeing this should make it easier for us to act. To dither when one might prevent moderate harm to oneself by taking modest precautionary action is folly to be sure, but its moral import is limited. By contrast, to engage in willful self-deception and moral corruption when the lives of future generations, the world's poor, and even the basic fabric of life on the planet is at stake is a much more serious business. We should wake up to that fact, and demand more of our institutions, our leaders, and ourselves."

- Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 10-11.

Much of the public discussion of climate policy (and most notably that surrounding the Australian government's proposal to put a very modest price on carbon) has focused upon the costs and benefits of action from the perspective of the commentator and those like him or her. Australia shouldn't hold back our coal-fired extractive economy (so the argument goes) when doing so will have virtually no appreciable difference in the global scheme of things, given the scale of Australia's contribution to the problem. Quite apart from the fallacies involved in thinking that Australian contributions are irrelevant (a post for another day), such thinking only considers the implications for us in Australia, during this generation, and for human society. Since the burden and threat of a more chaotic climate falls disproportionately on the poor, the young and unborn, and other species - three groups with the least political voice and almost zero responsibility for causing the issue in the first place - then our actions which contribute to that ought to be evaluated in a moral context, not merely an economic calculation of personal (or even national) costs and benefits. Doing so requires a degree of moral imagination, of seeing how our habitual actions are affecting those beyond the boundaries of our everyday vision, whose distance from us is measured in space, time or DNA.

Once such a vision has been engaged, then we immediately confronted with a question we cannot avoid. Are we really okay with asking those without a voice or responsibility to face the greatest dangers for the sake of our illusory dream of endless economic growth? Until we recognise climate change as a deeply moral issue that raises confronting questions about our identity and common humanity (and even of our membership with the broader community of life on earth), then we are merely playing a game. The game may have stakes conceived in either political or economic terms, but it is a game that comes at huge cost to others.


byron smith said...

TEAR: Australia's Moral Climate.

byron smith said...

CP: Why climate change, our biggest moral issue, doesn't act like one. Discussion of a new research paper. There is also a summary by one of the authors here.

Abstract: "Converging evidence from the behavioural and brain sciences suggests that the human moral judgement system is not well equipped to identify climate change — a complex, large-scale and unintentionally caused phenomenon — as an important moral imperative. As climate change fails to generate strong moral intuitions, it does not motivate an urgent need for action in the way that other moral imperatives do. We review six reasons why climate change poses significant challenges to our moral judgement system and describe six strategies that communicators might use to confront these challenges. Enhancing moral intuitions about climate change may motivate greater support for ameliorative actions and policies."

byron smith said...

From the blog summary, here are the six reasons we find it hard to think of CC in moral terms:

1) First, for most people, climate change is a complex, distant (for now) and abstract phenomenon; as a result, it tends to produce fairly limited emotional reactions in people, starving the moral judgment system of the emotional input that it relies on.

2) Second, the moral judgment system is finely tuned to recognize specific types of moral transgressions, such as intentionally performed actions that cause harm to identifiable victims; yet as the philosopher Dale Jamieson and others have argued, climate change lacks many of these features: its victims are by-and-large strangers or not yet alive and it is a side-effect of modern life, not something anyone is intentionally trying to cause (there is no single moustache-twirling villain we can blame).

3) Third, Americans (in particular) are exposed to a lot of messages blaming them for causing climate change, many of which seem designed specifically to make people feel guilty; yet we are highly motivated to view ourselves as good, moral people. To maintain such positive self-assessments, people engage in a host of motivated moral reasoning techniques, many of which operate outside of conscious awareness. The net result is that instead of changing either their views of themselves as good or their harmful behaviors, people tend to reject those messages of blame and the issue behind them.

4) Fourth, uncertainty regarding the timing, severity, and location of future climate change impacts provides room for overly optimistic beliefs about the issue, allowing individuals to avoid feeling obligated to do something about the problem until the uncertainties are resolved (which of course is unlikely to occur any time soon).

5) Fifth, because the victims of climate change live faraway in both space (from Americans) and time, they are likely to be perceived as out-group members and thus as less deserving of moral standing. Such perceptions further weaken moral resolve.

6) Sixth, much of the existing framing of climate change as a moral issue targets only a subset of people’s moral values, particularly those that are important to political liberals. As a result, potentially powerful triggers of moral intuition about climate change have largely been ignored by advocates and communicators, likely contributing to political polarization on the issue.

byron smith said...

Dave Roberts: Why climate change doesn't spark moral outrage and how it could.