Politics Doesn’t Treat Climate Change as a Moral Issue

Itt seems the moral imperative for climate action just isn’t computing. Europe lost hope in this year’s ambitious climate action. The G-7 decided to abandon its pledges to end funding fossil fuel projects in June and instead decided to continue developing natural gas offshore. In contrast, the European Union adopted a proposal that would classify natural gas projects in Europe as sustainable investments in July. And while a surprise climate deal with Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va) was a relief for many who value the future of the planet, the twists and turns of working it out, including last week’s apparent breakdown of negotiations, showed that emissions cuts were far from the highest concern for many of the politicians involved.

In Europe and the U.S., politicians made enormous compromises to short term interests—choosing energy security and inflation worries, for instance, over immediate emissions cuts—but they are likely to reverberate through the decades to come: more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere ultimately means more disastrous climate impacts on people around the world, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable nations. We are not taking the necessary actions, which only makes it worse for our children and future generations.

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In the burgeoning field of climate ethics, there’s a couple different explanations for what’s going on. One view is that the problem of climate change can be seen as a moral dilemma for many people. Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, gives the example of someone stealing a bike today—which most people would say is wrong—versus one group of unacquainted people taking a set of actions that means, years down the road, somewhere in the world, other people don’t get to have bikes—a scenario that separates the perpetrators from the consequences in both time and space. “Even though we can produce exactly the same outcomes—somebody gets harmed, and other people benefit—it doesn’t have the logic that really speaks to our moral emotions,” he says. “Evolution didn’t build us to respond to those kinds of problems.”

Jamieson says that means trying to persuade people to act on climate change based purely on what’s right and wrong just isn’t going to get much traction. Instead, we’re better to dispense with the outrage and focus on the practical side: how to craft rules and economic incentives that will lead to lower emissions.

Not everyone is on the same page. Professor of philosophy and environment studies at Washington University, Stephen Gardiner says our moral intuitions are able to grasp the vast and abstract challenges of climate change. Instead of the bicycle example, he likens our continued burning of fossil fuels more to a group of friends shooting fireworks over a poor section of a city, even though they know it’ll risk setting fire to people’s houses there. For most of us, the moral dimensions are pretty clear here—as they are with the problem of rich nations shooting off emissions into the atmosphere, which disproportionately affect people in poorer parts of the world, like Bangladesh, which is incredibly vulnerable to devastating flooding.

He says the problem is that institutions may not be able to properly deal with problems that impact people all over the globe and across multiple generations. That’s a moral problem too. “There’s too much of a tendency to think that if the government’s not solved it, then it’s nobody’s problem,” he says. “Whereas I think… we have a responsibility as citizens to get together and create better institutions.”

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