Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change: Take Two

In my last post, I used the example of one particularly widespread argument against the Kyoto Protocols as an example of the sort of inappropriate moral relativism which is often used in politics. I made the case that you cannot ethically use the argument that “if they don’t do x, we shouldn’t do x” on this—or any other—issue. And yet, in the comments, one poster completely ignored my argument and rehashed the very position I had been criticizing.

According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years will be produced in exempt countries like China. As long as China is exempt from Kyoto (or the like), what evidence shows that the rest of us – even in unanimous die-hard commitment- can put a dent in the climate change problem?

Not to put to fine a point on it, this is simply a morally bankrupt argument. Would we argue that because our efforts will not make a dent in the level of global infidelity in society, we should not bother being faithful to our spouses? Others will continue to steal whether or not I do—so why shouldn’t I get mine? My lack of participation hasn’t made any splash in the drunk driving rate, so why shouldn’t I go ahead and get liquored up behind the wheel?

We should expect ourselves to do the moral, the just thing, regardless of what others do, regardless of whether we think it will make a difference. We are called to fight the good fight because it is right.

And will it make a difference? Maybe not. But maybe—just maybe—when the most wealthy and economic power is willing to repent for its monumental contribution to the problem in question (carbon emissions and global climate change) by committing to and achieving massive change, that leadership may inspire other nations to follow our example. I am an idealist, and I do believe in miracles. I could be naive. But I can absolutely guarantee that no dent will be made if nobody is willing to make the committment.

This commentor brings up another issue of morality important to address in all realms of politics and social action.

We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not feel morally obligated to support international treaties that would slow wage growth, widen the rich-poor gap by eliminating the middle class, or raise taxes. Government action is will coerced. Coerced morality is not morality at all.

People of the libertarian persuasion often bring up the immorality of government coercion in rejecting government action on a given topic. Because government’s authority ultimately comes from the point of a gun, any claims to morality are merely pretense. The only real morality is individual in action.

I agree that freedom is a crucial concern, as I noted in my post “Social Justice III: The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice”. However, this claim does not trump all other concerns. No libertarian I know of would claim that murder should be legal. I’ve heard of none who would claim that freedom of speech permits people to use that speech to deliberately put others in harms way (the classic “yelling fire in a crowded theater” scenario). No libertarian politician has suggested theft should be decriminalized. No, even libertarians recognize what John Stewart Mill referred to as the harm principle.

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (On Liberty)

Government has the authority, granted it by the consent of the people, to restrict the freedom of the people when the exercise of that freedom would result in harm to others. Say what you want about the government’s monopoly on violence; given the widely recognized harm principle, it is fundamentally immoral for the government not to use its power to prevent direct harm to others in the name of freedom.

There is a great deal of evidence that the byproducts of our consumption (the production of the goods we use, the powering and use of those goods, the disposal of those goods, the energy to transport those goods or ourselves, et al) is causing great harm to others. This happens on a local scale (along the Wasatch Front, there are a number of days each winter and summer when we are advised not to breath the air). And I believe that there is pretty comprehensive evidence that this is also happening on a global scale.

As I said in my original post, there are other arguments which can be made the Kyoto Protocols. You may believe that human activity does not impact climate, that our consumption activities cause no direct harm in that regard. If the volume of scientific data and opinion which has come forth in the past couple decades hasn’t convinced you, I’m certainly not about to try here. You may believe that there are other methods are more likely to effect positive change than international agreements or federal legislation. I may disagree with those arguments, but they are morally legitimate positions. The “they’re not, so I won’t” and government coercion arguments are not. When people use those arguments, they undercut any sort of rational discourse and any moral authority they might have.

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8 Responses to “Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change: Take Two”

  1. Frank Staheli Says:

    Excellent and thoughtful post. I disagree with the fundamental premise (that man is causing significant global warming, ergo we must support Kyoto), but I completely agree with two of your statements:

    (1) Just because China isn’t doing it is no excuse for us not to do it. We have to have better logic than that.

    (2) “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.

    In my estimation, there is far too little evidence that man is causing harm to others by his contribution to global warming. Therefore, to go against man’s will would be an “unrightfully” exercised purpose for power.

  2. Bradley Ross Says:

    I concur with Frank, both as to the quality of the post and the flaw in its premise.

    Taking it as a given that the climate is warming, we must show that (1) we can do something to reverse the trend, (2) that the actions required to reverse the trend wouldn’t cause dire consequences for billions of people, and (3) that a warming climate would cause net harm to mankind and our ecosystem.

    Bjorn Lomborg has been villainized for arguing against large scale action on global climate change, though his argument seems fundamentally sound: we can save a lot more lives and do a lot more good by focusing on other priorities first, such as AIDS and hunger.

    Our moral accounting must also figure the opportunity costs of pursuing an agenda to reduce global warming.

    For the record, I think that reducing our local air pollution is a valuable and important goal.

  3. D. Sirmize Says:

    “Would we argue that because our efforts will not make a dent in the level of global infidelity in society, we should not bother being faithful to our spouses?”

    You’re stretching for these comparisons, Derek. 1) You can’t quantify the influence a faithful couple will have on others, 2) being faithful to my spouse is something I have specifically, personally, and willfully covenanted to do when I was married, 3) being faithful to my wife will not ruin me economically, and 4) I’m not forced to do it.

    I’m not going to bother rebutting the rest of your comparisons.

    We’re not talking about an emissions regulation here and there. We’re talking Kyoto-level change, which would deal a potentially fatal blow the American middle-class in the ways I mentioned in my comments on your prior post.

    I’m all about being a good steward of our environment. I believe that is a moral obligation. I recycle, drive a high mpg car, and am active in wildlife and wetland conservation. And because I’m not on the global warming- sorry, climate change bandwagon, I’m an immoral enviro-hater. The problem is not the “climate change deniers.” The problem is that themodern envioronmental movement sees it’s proposed solutions as exclusively infallible, and refuse to consider anything short of Kyoto-like regulation.

    I believe free market approaches like those proposed by John McCain (a liberal RINO, of whom I am not a supporter) deserve consideration. There’s nothing- and I mean nothing- a government can do that the private sector can’t do better. The success of today’s “Green” movement can arguably be attributed the the free market.

    I’m not advocating a “they’re not, so I won’t” position. My point was that they’re not, and they won’t, so we shouldn’t act solely based on the delusion that action on our part will inspire action on theirs.

    I’m sorry, but if you think our example will somehow influence China for the better, I’ve got some beachfront property in Parowan I’d like to sell you.

    We should study (in an open-minded, truly non-partisan way) the potential impact of various courses of action, and create a way to employ the best methods with as little government involvement as possible. Kyoto is certainly not the answer.

  4. Cstanford Says:

    It kills me that people continue to stake the whole matter on whether or not CO2 emissions are causing the climate change that we’re observing.

    Ah well, at least all you poor souls along the Wasatch Front – or those in LA – can console yourselves as you choke that, well, at least this isn’t really changing the climate. And after all, the harm caused to all of us by such filthy air can’t really be traced to any individual, so why should *I* be forced to cramp *my* lifestyle because of it? I see Frank’s argument as leading to that attitude as a general rule.

    I also love how quickly people reach for the “this will kill the middle class” argument. I’m already paying over $3 per gallon for fuel, I don’t think asking car manufacturers and other large powers to do things more intelligently, sustainably – yes, even morally, needs to be an assault on those of us who serve those powers and drive at their pleasure – unless they insist on retaining their profits at all costs.

  5. D. Sirmize Says:

    Again, we’re not merely talking about asking car manufacturers to do things more intelligently (though I love that you call it “asking”). We’re talking Kyoto. I can elaborate on each point and requirement of that treaty and the costs they would incur if you’d like. It’s far more than an environmental regulation here and there, or “asking” that large powers do things a little more eco-friendly.

    I’m not sure what you’re arguing with the point about CO2 causing/not causing climate change. I’m not sure I mentioned it or refuted it here. The bigger question is can we stop climate change, can we reverse it, and if so, how sure are we that what the environmental movement is proposing will do the job? One of my beefs with the environmental movement is the overkill focus on global warming and almost zero focus on bad air in metro areas.

  6. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Thank-you for your comments, Frank. As you agreed with my primary contentions, I’ll take it as a compliment. I disagree with your opinion regarding the body of evidence on humanity’s impact on the climate, but unlike the arguments against which I wrote, I can at least respect that as a rational argument, one I’m sure I’ll address in the future.

    Bradley, I believe there may be something to the general thought of Dr. Lomborg. Given that most conservative advocates don’t have much interest in aggressively grappling with global poverty, I’m not very convinced when they use those thoughts to dissuade concerted action on global warming. I also believe that it isn’t an either-or proposition. In fact, as I believe that the very economic system which contributed to human influenced climate change has also been an obstacle in reducing poverty, I suggest that changing our economic policies to combat global climate change will innately help combat poverty.

    Yes, D. Sirmize, some of the comparisons are not perfect fits individually. But collectively, they show the flaw in a the arguments you were indeed making.

    I’ll address your contention (and that of several others who’ve commented on these two posts) that concerted environmental action on the scale or scope of Kyoto will somehow “kill the middle class” or otherwise have disastrous economic consequences in another post at another time. For now, suffice it to say that I think it would be rather conceited and narrow-minded of us to presume that our present market model of corporate capitalism and commercialism–hardly the only market model–is the one which best serves the environment, or the only one which could adequately provide for the material needs of our society. I think that a dramatic shift in our energy industry and our technology efficiency could open up all sorts of opportunities for entrepreneurship.

    Yes, to attribute the success of the green movement primarily to the market is indeed very arguable, as I’ve mentioned here, as is the dogma among the cult of the market that private enterprise is always more efficient, more effective, more noble, and more virtuous than governmental action.

    You mock the idea that we are “asking” producers (power plants, auto makers) to reduce emissions. Fair point. I would suggest it is just as fair a point to note that since these producers are damaging public property (the atmosphere, the air that we need to breath for our survival, ofttimes the water we rely on), it is certainly well within our rights as the public, through our agent, the government, to demand that they stop damaging our precious resources.

    I hardly think that there is “zero focus on bad air in metro areas.” But if we assume you are right (on a national level, at least; there are a number of local organizations advocating changes to help local air quality, and I’ve made several posts on the topic in the past), I would suggest that many focus on the global issue because the actions which would reduce human influence on global climate change will also reduce local air pollution issues. What makes you think that the solutions to local air pollution (which isn’t restricted to metro areas) will be any different than those for global climate change?

  7. alliegator Says:

    Global warming or not, we have asthma, allergies, and water and soil contamination that should be a very real concern that we are doing something about. (And if we happen to help reverse global warming in the process, all the naysayers can have a pleasant surprise.)

  8. Cstanford Says:

    D. Sirmize, I share your beef, which was kind of my point. Derek’s comment covered everything else I might type here.

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