I just finished teaching a new, final year undergraduate course on ‘Global Justice and Climate Change’. This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to design and teach a course based on my own area of research and in many ways it seems to have been a success. I’ve struggled a bit throughout, though, with figuring out how to think about what I’m doing and what I should perhaps be trying to achieve.
‘Climate ethics’ is a bit of a misleading way to describe the course, really (but made for a snappier blog title). We looked at climate change from the perspective of political philosophy, covering duties to future generations; human rights; collective responsibility; the emissions budget; burden sharing; historical responsibility; indigenous rights; territorial rights and displacement; and geoengineering (syllabus here if you’re interested). The topics worked well together, the students were great and most of them seemed to find the course engaging and interesting.
My worries are similar to ones that I have about my research: how much theorising is appropriate in the face of an urgent and unfolding problem like climate change – and to what end? Sure, some thinking about the normative dimensions of this problem is necessary to understand why there needs to be a global response and roughly what that response should look like. But similar to how climate science has long since reached the point at which we know broadly what needs to be done (largely, reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and fast); philosophical thinking about the ethical dimensions of climate change has long since counselled what it would take to do this fairly. Namely, the wealthy, industrialised states need to step up and bear most of the costs (Shue argued back in 1999 that a number of principles of equity converged on this result and as far as I can tell, the majority of philosophers working on this question have always been in agreement).
How much more fine-tuning of our climate models or normative theories is really necessary when we’re struggling to get action on even the basics? When a problem is this pressing, finessing the philosophical arguments begins to feel self-indulgent (perhaps these current reflections are simply taking the self-indulgence to a new level). Theory and action are not mutually exclusive, of course, but I’m not sure that my research has really helped me to figure out what I should be doing about climate change. And in a sense, the one does encroach on the other because my job as an academic is very privileged but also very demanding, leaving me less time and energy for volunteering or activism than I used to have. So perhaps worse than self-indulgence; I’m building my career on the problem of climate change whilst contributing very little to addressing it.
In the teaching case, related but also some new issues seem to come up. What is the right way to teach the philosophy of ethical problems that involve us all and require immediate action? I’ve had students struggle with environmental ethics classes before because they’ve found it hard to be confronted with the problems of human impacts on the environment (and each other) every week. I’ve been trying to think to think of ways to teach this material so that it feels more empowering, but struggling to come up with ideas that feel sincere. And actually with this new course, the students didn’t seem to have that difficulty so now I’m instead worried that I didn’t succeed in conveying how serious a problem climate change is – or could it be that studying it in this way just leaves you desensitized? Perhaps I have the framing wrong. In general, I think there are good pedagogical reasons to try to leave students in the dark concerning where I stand on the philosophical questions that we examine, to encourage them to make up their own minds. But is that appropriate when we’re discussing a problem where people are already dying and something urgently needs to be done?
On the last day of seminars, the weather in Bristol was quite dramatic. Sunny with intermittent hailstorms. I don’t know how out of character that really is for late April in Bristol and I know that it’s a mistake to confuse the climate for the weather. But it did make me think about how, if I teach this course year-on-year, the climate data is going to get ever more scary, disasters more frequent, and the death toll from climate change will continue to rise. I wonder how this literature will be looked back on if the scientific and ethical warnings continue to be unheeded by those with the power to do something about climate change.