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Do I make a difference? (3): Unilateral duties to reduce greenhouse gases or promotional duties?

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.


Avoidable emissions

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.

I am a Lecturer in Global Ethics at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics (University of Birmingham). My current research mainly focuses on the ethics of climate change and the perspective of duty-bearers on issues of global justice. Broadly speaking, my research interests include global justice, human rights, environmental sustainability, cosmopolitanism and recognition theory.
For more info, please visit https://www.wouterpeeters.info


Valuing Aims vs. Valuing Implementation, on wedding day organisation and assessing ‘impact’


Do I make a difference? (4): The agency of individuals and households


  1. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Wouter, thanks for your post, the basic line of which I find very convincing. It seems that a lot hinges on the distinction between avoidable and unavoidable emissions, so I look forward to your next post on that. But I have a different (though related) question: do you think that there is any principle of fair distribution among those who have a CO2-intense lifestyle, to fairly distribute the burden of reducing CO2-consumption? I’m thinking along the lines of Murphy’s argument about the fight against global poverty, where he says (simplifying a bit) that we should do as much as we would have to do if everyone did their fair share. What’s nice about this principle is that it explains some of our intuitions about limitations of burdens (which might be pure rationalizations, though), what’s not so nice is that there might still be a gap between what happens and what needs to be done, because some people are not doing their fair share. Do you think that some kind of fairness consideration also applies to the duty to reduce individual CO2-emissions? Or is this not relevant because we are all so very far from the point that could be justified in that way? Or does the badness of the harms of climate change outweigh all these considerations?

    • Wouter Peeters

      Thanks for your comment, Lisa. First, you are right to say that a lot hinges on the distinction between avoidable and unavoidable emissions. I know that this distinction is contested and admit that there is a substantial grey area, but I do not believe that we have to wait for more clarity or further discussion to defend the duty to reduce emissions that are obviously avoidable on the individual level.

      This would also be my answer to your main question: although the badness of climate change does not outweigh considerations of fairness in the distribution of the burdens, I am convinced that we do not have to wait for a completely settled, by everyone agreed upon, 100% fair distribution of burdens before starting with what – under each distribution scenario – should be done anyway.

      However, distribution of the burdens in political philosophy about climate change, this remains an interesting and issue. The discussion about Murphy’s account (which is dismissed by Elizabeth Cripps for the problem of noncompliance that you mention as well) is interesting, and I hope to be able to investigate it more in the near future. In the climate case, I think Simon Caney has construed a comprehensive account: in ‘Climate change and the duties of the advantaged’ (Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13 (2010)) he defends the Polluter Pays Principle to distribute the burdens involved in tackling climate change. He is aware of the limitations of this principle: it cannot account for subsistence (unavoidable) emissions, non-anthropogenic climate change, and climate change caused by greenhouse gases emitted before there was general awareness of climate change. I would here add the harms inflicted by those who do not comply with their duties. For this ‘Remainder’, he proposes to complement the Polluter Pays Principle with the Ability to Pay Principle.

      In the more recent ‘Two kinds of climate justice: Avoiding harm and sharing burdens’ (Journal of Political Philosophy 22 (2014)), Caney introduces a distinction between first-order responsibilities (to mitigate, to enable adaptation and to compensate people for harm) and second-order responsibilities (ensuring that agents comply with their first-order responsibilities, for example through enforcement, incentivization, enablement, etc.). Caney convincingly defends a Power/Responsibility Principle for these responsibilities, attributing them to people according their ability to make a difference. I would suggest that these second-order responsibilities are an extension of Cripps’s category of promotional duties, and I am currently working on a framework to integrate these duties.

      In this context, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions mainly serves to reduce your (first-order) responsibility: the lower your emissions are, the fewer burdens the Polluter Pays Principle will allocate to you.

  2. Jesper L Pedersen

    Hi Wouter, thanks for a really interesting series of posts. I really look forward to next week’s post on what we are required to do, and to be honest I suspect that my questions may well be answered in it. But still, here goes:

    (1) Is it possible to decide what is “avoidable” without reference both to what an individual values in her life, and the societal context she lives in? So with regards to the first one, I might believe that living in the country is particularly valuable to me, and rearing livestock and horses gives me a particular sense of purpose in life that’s integral to who I am as an individual. But by living in the city I would be able to reduce my ecological footprint probably by half (if not more) compared with my current lifestyle. And of course, many people are perfectly happy to live in the city. Are my emissions avoidable in this case? With regards to the second, a car might strictly be unnecessary in my life, but because I live in a place where everyone has a car, my ability to have a fulfilling social life depends on having one too, even if I don’t need it to go to work. In another context, say a poorer country where only the richest can afford cars, my social life doesn’t suffer from not having one as my friends don’t either, and social life is built around a largely car-free reality. By saying my car’s emissions ARE avoidable, are we ignoring the social context, and by saying they AREN’T, are we arbitrarily assigning the privileged a greater share of emissions simply because they’re privileged?

    (2) I read somewhere that we’d need three earths’ worth of resources to support our current consumption and emission. (That’s purely from memory, by the way. The numbers may be way off.) If that’s correct, there is a real chance that our efforts, even if we all did what could reasonably be demanded, would still not be enough. Is that a problem for your argument?

    • Wouter Peeters

      Dear Jesper, thanks for raising these interesting issues. Regarding (1), I would refer to Shue’s distinction between subsistence emission and luxury emissions. The category of subsistence emissions covers all emissions necessary to fulfill your basic needs or basic rights. In my view, basic needs or rights are universal, but it depends of course on the context in which you live whether or not (and how much) emissions you need to fulfill them. The emissions you eventually need are unavoidable because not emitting them would require one to forego one’s basic rights. Nonetheless, the activities you are referring to all probably fall within the grey area between subsistence and luxury or between unavoidable and avoidable emissions, a category that Shue calls “reasonable ordinary consumption”. This grey area is substantial and depends on which individual goals and lifestyles society would allow. How this kind of emissions should be tackled is up for further debate. However, in most instances, I believe the burden of proof for “unavoidability” falls to the individual.

      Two remarks to clarify: if your example is related to the instrumental value of having a car (getting your from place to place to have a fulfilling social life), then I would suggest that it is first the responsibility of society to guarantee adequate public transportation. The absence of it would indeed allow you to drive a car, because “having a fulfilling social life” can be considered a worthwhile goal, and if there is no adequate public transportation, your consumption and emissions can be considered “reasonable” and “ordinary”. However, this clearly does not give you a free pass to buy a gas-guzzling SUV or drive in your car to the bakery down the street to get some bread. Rather, I believe we could expect you at least to be frugal on car drives, or to buy a fuel-efficient car, or consider renting/sharing a car for the drives necessary to have a fulfilling social life.

      Second, if your example relates to the intrinsic value, or symbolic meaning of having a car, I would argue that people who take their environmental impact serious quickly come to see the futility of attaching symbolic meaning to material goods and would rather pursue status in a way that is compatible with their environmental concerns (e.g. through buying a Tesla, investing in art, or inviting their friends for a vegetarian dinner with only the best ingredients).

      In these posts, my account is only partial: I only hold that individuals have the strict and pressing duty to reduce their obviously avoidable (luxury) emissions. Further discussion and debate on how to tackle emissions from reasonable ordinary consumption is interesting and necessary, but it would be morally wrong to let this ambiguity keep us from reducing emissions that are clearly avoidable.

      (2) According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity currently uses 1.5 Planets, and under a moderate business-as-usual-scenario, this will increase to 3 in 2050 (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/ar/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/). This clearly indicates that our individual actions to reduce emissions will not suffice. It increases the urgency and unavoidability of the discussion about reasonable ordinary consumption mentioned above and clearly shows that actions on the collective level are necessary and urgent as well. However, in my view, this data also shows that the problem is too large to tolerate inaction or non-cooperation of any one actor or level of agency. It shows that every single one of us (individuals, households, corporations, governments, supranational institutions) ought to undertake serious efforts to avoid exacerbating (and eventually reducing) the problem.

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