In discussions about climate change and climate justice, there has been quite some debate about individual duties – should we try to change our lifestyle to reduce emissions, or should we try to influence political processes that bring about institutional change? It always seemed to me that the correct answer is: do both, or whatever you are able to do. Given how drastic the consequences of climate change are likely to be, and given how climate-unfriendly our Western lifestyle typically is, this seemed the right answer. Wouter Peeters has made this case in previous posts, so there is no need to repeat the arguments here. But I’ll add a third point: in our attempts to do good, we also have a duty to be as well-informed as possible.
One of the consequences that I drew was to become vegetarian and also to reduce my dairy consumption, trying to switch to organic products wherever I could. Together with many others, I thought that factory farming had a huge environmental impact, and that the first best thing would be for everyone to become vegan, and the second best to try, at least, to reduce meat and dairy consumption as far as possible. But it turns out that things are far more complex. A glimpse of the complexities can be had from this book review that I discovered on the Guardian webpage yesterday.*
George Monbiot comments on a book by Simon Fairlie that reports how wrong some calculations of the climate-friendliness had gone. For example, the plausibility of the claim that 10,000 liters of water go into every kilogram of beef depends considerably on the assumptions you make in your calculations and on the relevant comparisons. If cows are fed on grass, and pigs on waste – i.e. stuff that humans could not digest anyway – the impact of farming is quite different from the impact it has when they are fed grains that could also be used for human food.
It is worth noting that Monbiot does not mention the other big ethical question around veganism: whether it is legitimate to kill animals at all, and/or whether it is legitimate to treat them in the ways industrial farming treats them. There seems to be an irony here: treating animals in ways that are better for them (e.g. let them roam and eat grass) also seems to be the more climate-friendly option. I don’t know whether such a happy coincidence always holds, though. In this case, our moral intuitions about treating animals well seem also to lead us to climate-friendly solutions. But moral intuitions can be very deceptive, especially when complex technological questions are involved. Take, for example, the climate impact of brewing coffee in different ways. This article provides some background on how difficult it actually is to compare different types of coffee preparation if you do a full life cycle analysis.**
So there is probably a third duty for individuals with regard to climate justice, in addition to lifestyle and political duties: try to keep yourself informed. Try to be as scientifically-minded as you can while doing so. Watch out who pays for studies. Be ready to update your beliefs if new evidence appears.
It might be objected that especially with regard to climate change, there are competing sets of data and competing interpretations of the evidence, so that lay people have no chance to evaluate them. This is a serious worry. But it is a problem that is not unique to moral questions with regard to climate change. We have to process vast amounts of (sometimes conflicting) information in other areas of our life as well, for example when it comes to job decisions or to financial planning. We use various strategies for addressing them, for example consulting different sources of information, or listening to experts whom we have good reasons to trust.
My argument also raises all too familiar worries about the morality of climate change, especially about demandingness. But thanks to the internet, the obstacles to meeting this duty are far lower than they were in the pre-internet era. And fortunately, we can also rely on some division of labour. But it does remain a challenge that in addition to trying to change our lives, and influencing the political framework of our societies, we also need to be careful to do so in the wisest possible way – and this means taking all the reliable evidence into account.
* The article actually seems to be quite old. I have no idea why The Guardian posted it again yesterday.
**Thanks to my husband for drawing my attention to it.