Two Problems of Climate Ethics: Can we Lose the Planet but Save Ourselves?

New publication by Alex Lee and myself in Ethics, Policy & Environment, titled above. Access the PDF online here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.06.28 AMHere’s the abstract for a preview:

Climate change presents unprecedented challenges for the ethical community and society at large. The harms of climate change—real and projected—are well documented (Pachauri et. al, 2015). Rising sea levels, increased drought, warming temperatures and other impacts of climate change will devastate vulnerable communities, the global economy, and the natural world unless difficult choices, behavioral changes, and major policy shifts are made. But the problem we must address is not just the amalgam of climate harms. Climate change also presents a multifaceted problem of moral wrongdoing consisting of the actions that caused or coalesced to cause climate change. The ‘problem’ of climate change is both an issue of harmful impacts and a question of wrongdoing. While certain deleterious effects of climate change are unavoidable, philosophy offers solutions to moral problems that are not contingent on successful mitigation or adaptation. In light of this distinction, Thom Brooks’ criticism that philosophers have ‘misunderstood’ the climate change problem as a problem that is solvable (Brooks, 2016) arises from a conflation of the two climate change problems and not from a shortcoming of philosophy in the climate conversation. Climate harms may not be easily addressed, but righting wrongs is a separate matter.

Let’s get it together humans

Wet and wild weather

Living in Boulder through this week’s historic flood was wild. And I mean that literally. Extreme weather is some of the only wilderness most urbanites are exposed to these days. There’s something exciting and adventure-inspiring about a good storm—the unknown, the uncontrollable. But only to a certain point—only within our comfort limit. Even outdoorsy folks generally don’t opt for true wilderness anymore—the occasional hunting, fishing, and multi-day backpacking trips spent surviving on sustenance food are soon followed by showers, couches, electricity, restaurants, beer, climate control, and all the other comforts of modern life we’ve come to take for granted.

But floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, tornados and the rest are quick to remind us of nature’s wild power. I’ve personally experienced Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike—and some indirect effects of Hurricane Katrina—in Houston, extended extreme drought in Austin, Hurricane Irene in New York, and now a 100-year flood in Boulder. For all our sentimentality about Mother Nature’s harmony and plenty, natural disasters tell another story—one of the Earth’s indifference to our troubles. It’s easy to romanticize wilderness—and for a lot of reasons we should—but we should also keep in mind the violence that comes the with it.

Despite some internal disagreement about the meaning and virtue of the idea of wilderness, it is usually a clarion call for environmentalists. But I think the wilderness—the same natural force that drove humans out of the state of nature—could play a slightly different role in the debate over climate change.

In the most general terms, climate change means increasingly extreme weather events. For the US and many other places, it will look like bursts of extreme precipitation followed by extended dry periods. In other words, the flood in Boulder fits the pattern. Of course, to what extent or degree this flood was caused by climate change exactly is tough to say, but it’s hard to reflect on an event like this past week and not implicate climate change in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, some calls for climate action could start to look something like “climate change must be stopped because it’s bringing the wilderness to our doors!” For rhetoric’s sake, it’s probably best not to confuse the term “wilderness” with more than one context or connotation. But it seems important to recognize that by intensifying such extreme weather through climate change, we’re literally bringing the power of the wild into our homes (mostly basements, in Boulder’s case). Supporting climate action because we believe the nonhuman world is inherently valuable is one thing (and apparently not very persuasive to many in politics), but property damage and loss of life from extreme weather might finally drive home the justification for national climate policy with anthropocentrics. A silver lining, at best, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Experiencing wilderness is enchanting, inspiring, and important for developing a sense of place and meaning in secular modernity. But let’s not necessarily invite the wild in for coffee. Radical, home-destroying, life-taking weather exists with or without anthropogenic climate change. It should be obvious that we should do whatever we can to stop exacerbating these natural disasters, even and especially if it means evolving beyond our unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyles. Maybe something about Boulder—alongside these 10 facts about climate change—will be mentioned in this week’s Climate Change Hearing before the US House of Representatives.