Do we have a moral obligation protect the climate?

On 6 December, Prof. Dr. Bernward Gesang, Chair of Philosophy and Ethics of Economy at the University of Mannheim, presented an interesting talk on “Do individuals have duties to protect the climate?” exploring if individuals have moral obligation to change their behaviours to mitigate climate change from an Act Utilitarian perspective, i.e. the view that an act is permissible if and only if no other acts bring higher overall utility.

Gesang noted that whether we have moral obligation to protect the climate by changing our behaviour depends importantly on the nature of climate change, particularly on human activities’ contribution to climate change. He depicted four scenarios, (i) there is a critical threshold in climate change, crossing which shall result in catastrophic consequences (e.g. human extinction), (ii) there is no critical threshold in climate change, and human activities only contribute to a linear and gradual change in climate, (iii) human activities contribute to a linear and gradual change in climate, but there are various critical threshold of adverse consequences, (iv) human activities have no contribution to climate change, and argued that we only have responsibility if it turns out that we are in scenario (i) or scenario (iii). He argued that in scenario (i) and scenario (iii), because of the chance that an individual might trigger a catastrophic or severely negative event(s), the individual ought to change her behaviours so as to avoid generating enormous amount of negative utility. For scenario (ii), he noted that there is no perceptible harm that warrant a moral obligation to change behaviour, or if the linear and gradual change in climate does indeed lead to some perceptible harms, it should instead be viewed as an instance of scenario (iii). Finally, scenario (iv) is relatively simply, since human activities do not contribute to climate change, individuals obviously do not have the moral obligation to change their behaviours.

Of course, Gesang pointed out that we can only know the answer of ‘do individuals have moral obligation to protect climate?’ if we know which scenario we are in. However, even if we do not have the moral obligation to change our behaviour, there might be other reasons for us to do so. Before ending the talk, he suggested that we might have a political obligation to change our behaviour.

By Pak-Hang Wong

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One Response to Do we have a moral obligation protect the climate?

  • Dave Frame says:

    Interesting post… we’re not in (iv), and the odds of being in (i) would seem to be very low, too. I’m sure there are lots of thresholds at regional scales; but for a threshold to apply at the global scale it would have to be upstream in the climate change problem – either a threshold in the global carbon cycle or some sort of threshold in the global climate mean climate response (so everyone feels it). The scientific literature seems a bit more chilled out about those possibilities than it did maybe half a dozen years ago – certainly those sorts of possibilities weren’t prominent in IPCC AR5. That’s (my reading of) the global picture, but regionally, damages are probably quite likely to encounter thresholds. I’d have thought it’s probably unlikely that these bottom-up damages sum to a really significant global threshold in damages, but I don’t see why there shouldn’t be lots of thresholds for various regions.

    So one issue that immediately strikes me is, if Prof Gesang is right about the categories, agents may be in (ii) globally, but some may be in (iii) locally. The extent of their obligations to protect the climate would then depend how they weight the interests of the world as a whole vs various parts of it. If you’re a cosmopolitan who gives highest weight to the global poor, and the global poor do face thresholds in climate damages, then I expect you’d assign yourself to reading (iii). More interestingly, what if the threshold effects are in the global North, not the global South? Depending on just how you weight the global poor vs the climate-affected you might choose to put this in (iii) because of the threshold, or (ii) because this regional effect seems like small beer in your weighted function (just how big does the threshold have to be? How many people are affected? Who? etc). It sounds like an interesting classification, but I think it raises lots of questions* – did he go into these things in the talk?

    *Most of them probably aren’t very profound or difficult, but they are there.

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