IT IS TIME to sum up. I have tried to establish two central propositions. The first, found in chapter 6, is that it is in our self-interest to pursue aggressive emissions reductions, starting now or in the immediate future. The remaining capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 and other greenhouse gases is sufficiently small that even if we start now and move rapidly, we will have a hard time keeping temperature increases to reasonable levels. The harms, while long-term, also threaten us in the not too distant future.
One of the intuitions that climate change is an ethical problem is that it involves harms to others. When you pollute by, say, driving, taking a hot shower, or heating and cooling your home, you harm others. Our duty not to harm others can be framed as an ethical issue.
But properly understood, climate change involves the overuse of a common resource, the atmosphere. From a purely individual perspective, there is an incentive to overuse the resource, to pollute. The harms mostly fall on people who live in far-off countries or the future. The costs of not polluting fall on you. But it is in our collective self-interest to manage the resource wisely. In the end, everyone suffers if everyone is free to dump their waste into the atmosphere. We are better off if we agree to stop.
While we are better off if we agree to stop polluting, coming to an agreement to do so is devilishly difficult. Each nation has an incentive to free-ride, to let the others bear most of the burden. We are better off if we all agree not to pollute, but each nation is even more better off if everyone else stops polluting but it gets to continue. But if everyone follows this strategy, we have no agreement and we all suffer. The solution has to solve the problem of free-riding. To say that it is in our self-interest to dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases does not mean that it is easy to achieve.
The second proposition, discussed in chapter 7, is that the ethical arguments that have been made about climate change add little or nothing. They suffer from basic logical problems and propose solutions that are infeasible. The core logical flaw is what I have called “climate change blinders.” The arguments about how various theories of justice apply to climate change view climate change as the domain to be considered rather than as just one policy among many. For example, we face a climate change problem and a problem of vast income and wealth inequalities. Arguments about climate change view climate change policies as having to address income or wealth inequality rather than thinking of them both as problems that may be connected but may have distinct solutions. If the solutions to one of these problems are not connected to the solutions to the other, unthinkingly treating the two problems as one is a mistake.
The core ethical arguments also suggest solutions to climate change that are infeasible. They require high-emitting nations to enter into treaties that make them worse off. Agreeing to a workable treaty will be difficult even if it makes everyone better off. If an agreement will make high-emitting nations worse off, it will be impossible. And these infeasible treaties are not even necessary because they are supported only by flawed logic.
Climate change is caused by the use of fossil fuels. Stopping climate change is difficult because fossil fuels are the basis of modern society. Virtually everything we do relies on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are so pervasive that we don’t see them, except perhaps when we fill up the tank at the gas station. Take an inventory as you go about your day. The building you live in, or go to school or work in, was constructed using fossil fuels. It is heated and cooled using fossil fuels. You likely got there using fossil fuels. Your shower and meals required fossil fuels. The paper or computer screen you are reading this on requires fossil fuels. Just about everything we do relies to a great extent on energy, and the primary source of energy is fossil fuels; they are so pervasive and so reliable that they are invisible.
Conservation can buy time, but at the end of the day, the only way to solve the problem of climate change is to replace the existing fossil fuel energy system with a system that uses clean energy. We also have to provide cheap and reliable power to those who lack it, but without locking in new emissions that will push us beyond tolerable temperature increases. This is a massive task requiring engineering and science. And it needs to be done on a global basis. Finding a feasible treaty—one that sufficiently reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, that nations will agree to and comply with—is hard because of the incentive to free- ride. We need the disciplines of political science, economics, and law to help craft a workable treaty.
Ethics and philosophy more generally can bring important insights to the problem, but it does not strike me that the solutions to climate change are centrally about ethics. The solutions involve more efficient solar and wind power, better transmissions grids, batteries that hold more energy, new designs for vehicles, treaty design and enforcement mechanisms, and so forth.
Does this view take the force out of social movements to protect the planet? Will people really want to march on Washington to clamor for efficiency improvements in the electricity grid, better batteries, or more engineers? There are special interest groups who benefit from the status quo and who are able to spend vast sums to block action. Only a motivated population will be able to overcome them. Don’t we stand a better chance of doing so if we frame the issue as moral, as the next great civil rights challenge? Does reducing the problem to a technocratic one doom the possibility of a solution?
Perhaps. Perhaps some philosophical arguments can be instrumental even if they are not good philosophy. I leave that to the leaders of social movements. To politicians. Regardless of how our leaders motivate us, we need to drastically cut, and eventually stop, emissions to protect ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. Let us hope we make the right choices.