How to Solve the Moral Problem of Climate Change

by Michael Montess, September 2017.

Climate Change is an incredibly difficult problem that we are simply not doing enough to solve. The problem, however, has both a practical and a moral dimension. The present climate change narrative focuses on the practical dimension of the problem, but unless we consider the moral dimension, we will not be able to seriously commit to practical solutions. We desperately need to respond to climate change with efficient and cost-effective solutions, but we are not as committed to these solutions as we should be given the consequences of inaction. Climate change activist Al Gore recently released An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow-up to the groundbreaking climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In the film, Gore argues that there has not been enough progress on solving the problem of climate change because of a lack of popular, political and corporate will. This is precisely why we need to consider the moral problem of climate change, because engaging with the complicated moral dimension of the problem is how we will be able to really inspire serious action on the practical issues.

The moral problem of climate change is complicated for several different reasons. Philosopher Stephen Gardiner outlines some of these in his book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. First, it is a global problem; the responsibility for climate change and its negative effects are spread out across every country and every person on the planet Earth. Given the scope, it is not always clear who is responsible for acting on climate change. Even international institutions, like the United Nations, are not well-equipped to respond to the crisis effectively because they are unable to really enforce international pacts like the Paris Agreement.

Second, climate change is also an intergenerational problem. Not only does climate change affect every being living on the planet today, but it also affects every subsequent generation. We are only beginning to experience the negative effects of climate change today, but our actions will have devastating effects on future generations who can’t yet speak for themselves. The scope of the problem is immense because it extends so far across space and time. According to Gardiner, the convergence of these problems leads to a third problem: moral corruption. We are failing to do enough to stop climate change because we are giving in to moral corruption, which includes things like distraction, complacency, selective attention, delusion and hypocrisy. We are allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the global and intergenerational problems; we are allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the scope of climate change. By engaging with the moral dimension of climate change we are forced to ask, how can we possibly motivate ourselves to solve a problem of such magnitude?

The problems that affect [minorities] seem to affect many of us directly and this really helps motivate those of us who have these connections to take these social problems seriously. The climate movement, however, lacks a human face.

Solving the moral problem of climate change involves realizing that it is not just humans who are being affected by climate change. We usually engage with climate change on anthropocentric terms, that is with a bias towards humans, but it is non-human animals, plants and ecosystems who are actually the frontline causalities of climate change. Acknowledging this, however, only increases the incomprehensible scope of the problem because even more of the planet is in danger. So, instead of focusing on getting people to realize the additional problem of anthropocentrism in the climate change narrative, we can use anthropocentrism as a tool to get people to take climate change more seriously. Even if the powerful images of polar bears trapped on disappearing ice flows and melting polar ice caps are some of the most prominent symbols of the negative effects of climate change, many of us don’t really care about these non-human causalities because we lack the imagination to empathize with them. Therefore, we ought to begin by limiting the scope of the problem, so we can see the problem locally before we try to understand it more globally. Since many of us can relate to other humans, especially our friends and family, more closely than polar bears or polar ice caps, if we revise the climate change narrative in both activist and popular contexts to focus on the humans affected by climate change, then maybe we can better motivate ourselves to actually solve the problem.

Already, social movements like LGBTQ Pride, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have demonstrated what is possible in terms of motivation when humans are the focus of social problems. Although these movements have their own challenges, we can learn two important things from these movements that will help us solve the moral problem of climate change. First, these social movements are effective because they focus on moral issues that involve humans; these social movements have human faces. Many people know LGBTQ, black and indigenous people; they are family members, friends, colleagues or coworkers. The problems that affect these minorities, therefore, seem to affect many of us directly and this really helps motivate those of us who have these connections to take these social problems seriously. The climate movement, however, lacks a human face. Although there are countless humans already suffering and dying because of climate change, especially in countries particularly vulnerable to climate change like those in Africa, South East Asia and the South Pacific, the climate change narrative is not yet shining the spotlight on them. In fact, climate change will largely affect poor and marginalized communities more viciously than others, as the recent flooding in New Orleans and Houston is showing us. It seems like the closer to home the negative effects of climate change, the more seriously we take the problem. Therefore, we need to learn how to empathize with humans around the world, using new technologies like social media to enhance our interconnectedness, and we need to actively revise the climate change narrative in order to help us learn this quickly.

Second, these social movements all involve responses to their respective social problems that seem more manageable for both individuals and institutions. An effective way to solve the problems facing LGBTQ, black and indigenous people is through grassroots political movements that eventually lead to action by national and international political institutions. These complicated social problems ultimately require human rights legislation, criminal justice reform and other institutional actions to make a real difference in the lives of these minorities. However, direct individual actions are also important, especially for keeping people engaged in these social movements. Consistent personal engagement will help solve these social problems by preventing moral corruption on a larger scale. The responses to these social problems seem much less demanding than the responses to climate change because they do not often require expensive, inconvenient or time-consuming lifestyle changes. Instead, they often simply require us to treat each other with respect and support each other by attending marches and rallies, signing petitions and donating reasonable amounts of time and money to protect human rights. In short, these problems and their responses are on a human scale. We need to think about climate change on a human scale too. We need to similarly deploy both individual and institutional strategies in the fight against climate change. Individual strategies include conserving energy, taking public transit and voting for political parties that want to take serious and effective institutional action on climate change. These individual actions will hopefully scale up to institutional actions, like the reduction of green house gas emissions by large companies and governments. The aforementioned social movements demonstrate that individual action, in addition to institutional action, is crucial in order to make progress on any social, political or moral problem because engagement on a personal level is what ensures that we learn to empathize with others and motivate ourselves to find solutions to even the most complex problems.

If we can give climate change a human face and think about it on a human scale by revising the climate change narrative, then we can begin to solve the moral problem of climate change that results from its immense scope. It is overwhelming to think about everyone and everything that is in imminent danger because of climate change. Fear is not always the best motivator though. Instead of throwing our hands up and declaring that it is too late or too difficult to solve the problem, let us use our problematic human tendency for anthropocentrism to help us rethink the moral problem of climate change and ultimately act more responsibly on the practical issues by starting the process of cultivating a greater capacity for empathy. Eventually, we need to learn to extend this empathy to all living things, from bees to lichens to rainforests, because we are all in this fight together. Let us begin, however, by temporarily shifting the focus of the climate change narrative to humans in order to initiate more serious and immediate action on a problem that we can only solve if we care about each other and work together.


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