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Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns

By Charles Foster

An unprecedented editorial has just appeared in many health journals across the world. It relates to climate change.

The authors say that they are ‘united in recognising that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.’

Climate change, they agree, is the major threat to public health. Here is an excerpt: there will be nothing surprising here:

‘The risks to health of increases above 1.5°C are now well established. Indeed, no temperature rise is “safe.” In the past 20 years, heat related mortality among people aged over 65 has increased by more than 50%.Hi gher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality. Harms disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.’

Much discourse in moral philosophy – including that on this blog – is concerned with fine ethical tuning: with subtle distinctions; with the tweaking of footnotes. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a luxury we can’t afford. Should we be arguing about the techniques for counting angels on pinheads when we can actually count the number of children dying as a result of climate disruption? Should we be disputing about the morality behind a proposed violin concerto while Rome is aflame?

This isn’t a call for the abandonment of the whole philosophical project. Clear, nuanced thinking is needed more than ever. But don’t we need to acknowledge more explicitly that the wolf is through the door, and temper the conversation accordingly?


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