by Toby Tremlett
“Why should I act against climate change [recycle, go vegetarian], when so many others don’t bother?”
“Why should my country act against climate change [carbon tax, green new deal, stopping harmful projects], when China pollutes more?”
These two quotes reflect a common excuse that is used against making climate action. It hinges on the concept that the positive change that the individual could make is small compared to the damage caused by the collective or other individuals. This format of excuse is worryingly used politically as well, Americans often use the China-specific quote, whereas in the UK, conservatives take the same excuse from another angle, excusing themselves from taking more radical action by proclaiming that the UK is a leader on climate change. Although this rhetoric is popular, there are some contradictory threads in the argument that need to be unwoven.
The first is the self-interested logic of the free-rider problem. If we assume total individual self-interest, then it is often rational not to act on climate change. The chances are that, especially in rich countries, the loss to you of acting to mitigate climate impact will be larger than the gain that you will make. Even if you personally are in a position which makes large amounts of positive impact far easier than it is for most people (being the head of a company or a government), it would still be likely that your short term interest to raise profits would benefit you more than the long term imperative to avoid climate change.
However, there are two problems with this outlook. The first is that it doesn’t quite explain the state of events, in which people often use the titular argument as an excuse. Although you might not find it economic to act on climate change yourself, it is illogical not to want others to act on it, as collective action will have far more impact on your life. This means that using the excuse would work against your interests; if you were exclusively self-interested you would be better off promoting collective action while sacrificing nothing personally. Therefore the need to make this excuse betrays a lack of totally self-interested mindset.
The second problem is that even the most self-interested people have things outside themselves that they care about, families, political projects, scientific discoveries. When all these things will be impeded by climate change if you do not act, it is not in your long-term interest to keep ignoring your impact. So although for the totally self-interested money accumulating person, acting on climate change will cause individual loss, I think that this creature is mythical and that those who make this argument cannot relate to it. We care about things outside of ourselves, and because we have power over them, it is our responsibility to act.
Once self-interest is no longer assumed, we come to another problem. Why do people even make this excuse if not out of self-interest? Perhaps the answer lies in the assumption of self interest and individuality. We hear all the time that our society and our philosophies put too much impact on the individual. Our ethics focus on individual actors, either by prescribing them rules or virtues, or giving them metrics to make their own decisions. This assumes a sort of self-interested morality, where the community is something that the individual interacts with, but is not part of. This worldview means that we also put a huge onus on our specific actions. When we think about personally polluting less, rather than doing this out of respect for a worldwide community, we look to see our personal good deed as standing out as ours. But in a problem as large as the climate, many acts you take seem instantly swamped by the negative acts of others, devaluing your own efforts. But this is the wrong way to see this issue.
If you want to reduce suffering, then you are obliged to help mitigate climate harm. We know that climate change is causing suffering, and will cause much, much more. We are at a point in history when unnecessary damage has already been caused, but the IPCC tells us that there is still time to avoid the worst outcomes. This is why it is obvious that projects such as Heathrow airport’s third runway are morally wrong. By building this runway, Heathrow is producing emissions which would otherwise not have existed (in this case roughly equaling the annual emissions of Cyprus every year). These extra emissions are bad in that they move the world closer to perhaps irrevocably worse climate damage. The fact that they unnecessarily move us closer to this level of greenhouse gas is not changed if 50 other runways are built in the same year in different countries. That would make the overall outcome yet worse, but it couldn’t justify the damage done by Heathrow.
It is easy to titrate this same principle down to cover individual actions. When an action is both unnecessary and polluting (such as the majority of flights, or eating high emissions food like beef), you can reduce future suffering by avoiding it. Even though your individual pleasure may be higher than the suffering that you directly cause, alternative routes are available where similar pleasure can be gained for less suffering. It should be clear now that when we are numerically reducing our chances of climate change being irrevocably worsened, it is nonsensical for your neighbors damaging action to be motivation for you not to avoid causing suffering.
It is important to also note that collective action is more effective in climate harm mitigation and adaptation. Part of your action should be taken with this in mind, whether that means political activism or changes within the company you work for. With such big potential impacts out there, it can sometimes seem nonsensical to spend time on your recycling. This is one of the big motivators behind making the titular excuse. It helps sometimes to consider the alternatives of an action rather than the smallness of the action itself. In the recycling example, the alternative is spending slightly less time on sorting your rubbish, and feeling quite guilty. The time spent is pretty good payment for the guilt. The same with a vegetarian diet, the alternative is to be arguably a little unhealthier eating meat, and to know that you are causing damage to future generations via environmental damage, as well as the animal that you are eating. Ultimately, even on a personal level these decisions are easy to make.
When it comes down to more difficult decisions, whether to risk being arrested as a political activist, or whether to base your career around your moral goals, the alternative will often be easier. But if you want to reduce suffering in the world, these are sometimes the decisions that you have to make. In the face of the large and unwelcome obligation which comes with being born into a time in which culture must change drastically, often in ways that feel unfair, it makes sense that we would try and excuse ourselves from action. But we must be aware that as unpalatable as it may be, we are responsible for our own emissions and political actions, and if we really want to reduce suffering in the world, we are obligated to improve.