Previous posts in this series:
(1) The exceedingly small but fully real effects of my greenhouse gases
(2) A threshold phenomenon?
In the previous posts in this series, I have argued that individual greenhouse gas emissions have an exceedingly small but fully real effect: they are sufficient to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms and necessarily do so. What follows from this, normatively speaking? In this post, I will argue that it provides a strong reason for a unilateral individual duty to reduce one’s greenhouse gas emissions.
To be more precise about the responsibility and the duties of individuals, I will first differentiate between emissions that are avoidable on the individual level, and those that are not. Subsequently, I will defend the claim that individuals have a duty to reduce their avoidable emissions in order not to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms. Moreover, I will refute the assertion that unilateral actions to reduce emissions are ineffective, while promotional actions supposedly are effective.
First, let me say that there are many greenhouse gas emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level. Many of our actions are determined by infrastructure, political and social institutions. Collective decisions in the past and present (for example, fossil fuel subsidies, lack of adequate investment in public transportation and renewable energy, creating inverse incentive structures, lack of regulation, etcetera) have rendered individuals substantially dependent on the emission of greenhouse gases to enjoy a decent life. These issues indeed present a collective action problem: they can only be dealt with on a collective level, and individuals therefore have a duty to promote adequate institutions or improve existing ones.
No individual can be held immediately responsible for the effects of their emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level. (1) However, a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions are perfectly avoidable. (2) We all know the classic examples of replacing light bulbs and taking showers instead of baths, but I will give some additional and more substantive examples in the following post. My main point here is that individuals remain directly responsible for the effects of their reasonably avoidable emissions. In order not to increase the risk that vulnerable people suffer from climate change harms, we therefore have an individual duty to reduce these emissions.
Individual responsibility for increasing the risk of serious harms
Elizabeth Cripps dismisses the idea that individuals have a duty to reduce their emissions in order not to increase the risk of climate change harms, because it would be an impossibly demanding principle, which forbade all exposure of others to any risk: ‘if I can never take even a one in a billion chance of causing someone else’s death, I can hardly do anything at all.’ (3) One would never be able to drive one’s car, since this increases the risk of harming or killing someone else. I do not believe, however, that this undermines my argument.
First, let us look at risk for a moment. Claire Finkelstein does a much better job than I would ever be able to in showing that exposure to risk entails a reduction of an agent’s wellbeing, regardless of whether the risk materialises in actual harm or not. (4) Exposure to risk of harm is itself a harm, and therefore I believe that even infinitesimal instances of it should be taken seriously. This is especially the case in climate change because the risk of suffering from harm fall disproportionately on those who already lack fundamental human rights – the current and future global poor – while the benefits of greenhouse gas emissions fall almost entirely to consumption elites, who are much less vulnerable to climate change’s impacts. (5)
Second, I am addressing avoidable emissions. If increasing the risk of harm is perfectly avoidable, why would it be absurd or too demanding to conclude that this should be the way to go? Since risk of harm is itself a serious harm, the ‘default’ position, our primary duty, should be to avoid increasing others’ exposure to it. This indeed means that people should refrain from driving a car or emitting greenhouse gases if they can reasonably avoid it. Admittedly, this is a demanding principle; yet, it only seems too demanding because we have grown accustomed to, and take for granted, a wide range of freedoms while turning a blind eye to negative effects on other people.
Promotional duties and throw-away acts
Some commentators have argued that climate change is a collective action problem and the most effective way to deal with collective action problems is through social and political institutions. According to this reasoning, the primary individual duties are duties to promote just and adequate institutions or improve existing ones – the so-called promotional duties.
As long as we are talking about emissions that are avoidable on the individual level, however, I believe their argument is biased: it hinges on the presumptions that (a) individual emission reductions are ineffective while (b) promotional actions supposedly are effective. Consider, for example, Cripp’s argument that, in contrast to unilateral actions, promotional actions are not ‘throw-away acts’: ‘even if they don’t succeed straight off, they can still contribute to a stockpile of impetus for collective change. … They can be added to, complemented, and improved, both by the individual and by others.’ (6)
I believe assumption (a) is false: if individual greenhouse gas emissions have a fully real, albeit exceedingly small, effect, then reducing these emissions has an equally small but real effect in reducing the risk of climate change harms others would otherwise be exposed to.
Assumption (b) should not be taken for granted either. It is not obvious that promotional actions are all that effective in contributing to collective change: in voting, protesting or making campaign contributions, it is hard to feel that one’s individual act has much efficacy. (7) Moreover, promotional actions are only a first step in a long process advancing collective action, which only in the end might result in effective measures to combat climate change. To be clear, I do believe that promotional actions performed by individuals make a difference. My point is merely that if Cripps insists that unilateral actions are ineffective in combatting climate change, then the same argument should lead her to conclude that promotional actions are not effective either.
An additional reason why her argument seems biased is that Cripps assumes that promotional actions can ‘contribute to a stockpile of impetus for collective change,’ while ignoring the indirect effects individual emission reductions can have. Indeed, such unilateral actions can create the support for and enhance the prospects of comprehensive policy measures, they can have a significant positive impact on other people’s behaviour through setting an example, and they contest social norms (regarding, for example, materialistic lifestyles and consumption).
Thus, I do not see a reason to narrow our focus with respect to individual action to promotional duties, but rather argue that both promotional and unilateral actions are necessary to combat climate change.
Unilateral emission reductions and promotional duties
I agree that individuals have duties to promote just and adequate institutions to undertake collective action, especially to reduce the emissions that are unavoidable on the individual level, and to facilitate or regulate individual emissions reductions.
However, such promotional duties cannot substitute the individual duty to reduce one’s avoidable emissions: in order not to increase the risk that others (poor and vulnerable people) suffer from climate change harms, individual emitters have a unilateral duty to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that they can reasonably avoid. The final post in this series will try to set out some guidelines for individual emitters.
Go to the following post in this series:
(4) The agency of individuals and households
(1) Henry Shue, ‘Human Rights, Climate Change, and the Trillionth Ton’, in G. Denis (ed.), The Ethics of Global Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 292-314, at 309; and Steve Vanderheiden, Atmospheric Justice: A Political Theory of Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 72.
(2) The distinction between emissions that are avoidable and those that are unavoidable is based on Henry Shue’s distinction between subsistence and luxury emissions. See Henry Shue, ‘Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions’, Law and Policy 15 (1993), pp. 39-59, at 55. This terminology and the distinction is contested. See for example Stephen Gardiner, ‘Ethics and Global Climate Change’, Ethics 114 (2004), pp. 555-600, at pp. 585-6. Nonetheless, I agree with Shue that to ignore such distinctions altogether is to discard one of the most fundamental distinctions in ethics, namely the distinction between needs and wants. Moreover, even though differentiating between different sources of greenhouse gas emissions remains an important line-drawing problem, ‘both extremes of this spectrum are abundantly clear’ (Henry Shue, ‘Climate Hope: Implementing the Exit Strategy, Chicago Journal of International Law 13 (2013), pp. 381-402, at p. 392, footnote 32.
(3) Elizabeth Cripps, Climate change and the Moral Agent. Individual Duties in an Interdependent World (Oxford: University Press, 2013), p. 122 (emphasis in original).
(4) Claire Finkelstein, ‘Is risk a harm?’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 151 (2003), pp. 963-1001.
(5) Simon Caney, ‘Climate Change and the Future: Discounting for Time, Wealth, and Risk’, Journal of Social Philosophy 40 (2009), pp. 163-86, at pp. 179-80.
(6) Cripps, Climate change and the Moral Agent, p. 148.
(7) Dale Jamieson, Reason in a dark time. Why the struggle against climate change failed – and what it means for our future (Oxford: University Press, 2014), p. 181.