Climate change is a moral crisis. But our political system don’t treat it that way

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Bangladeshi citizens living on the side of the road after the floods

Flood-affected residents took shelter by constructing temporary roadside huts. July 22, 2022 in Sylhet, Bangladesh. Credit – SM Shahidul Islam/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing—Getty Images

It seems the moral imperative for climate action just isn’t IT. In Europe, hope for the ambitious climate action we need faded this summer, with the G-7 reneging on earlier promises to stop funding fossil fuel projects and deciding in late June to maintain develop natural gas abroad, while the European Union adopted a proposal in early July that would categorize natural gas projects as sustainable investments. And while a surprise climate deal with Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va) has been a relief to many who appreciate the future of the planet, the twists and turns to resolve it, including the apparent failure of negotiations last week, showed that emissions cuts were far from the biggest concern for many of the politicians involved.

In Europe and the United States, politicians have made huge compromises on short-term interests – choosing, for example, energy security and inflation concerns over immediate emissions cuts – but they are likely to ripple through decades to come: more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere ultimately means more dire climate impacts on people around the world, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Yet we always put off the hardest necessary action, even though each delay makes what we and our descendants will have to endure worse.

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In the burgeoning field of climate ethics, there are several different explanations for what is happening. According to one view, part of the challenge is that climate change is just a moral issue that is difficult for people to understand. Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, gives the example of someone stealing a bicycle today – which most people would say is wrong – compared to a group of unknown people taking a set of actions that means, years later on the road, somewhere in the world other people don’t have a bike – a scenario that separates the perpetrators from the consequences in both time and in space. “Even though we may produce the exact same results – someone gets hurt and others benefit – it doesn’t have the logic that really speaks to our moral emotions,” he says. “Evolution didn’t build us to deal with these kinds of problems.”

Jamieson says that means trying to persuade people to take action on climate change based solely on right and wrong is simply not going to have much success. Instead, we’d better skip the outrage and focus on the practical side: how to craft rules and economic incentives that will lead to reduced emissions.

But not everyone agrees. Stephen Gardiner, professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Washington, argues that our moral intuitions can grasp the abstract and immense challenge of climate change very well. Instead of the bicycle example, he compares our continued burning of fossil fuels more to a group of friends shooting fireworks over a poor part of town, even though they know it might burn down the houses of the people there. For most of us, the moral dimensions are pretty clear here, as they are with the problem of wealthy nations emitting emissions into the atmosphere, which disproportionately affects people in poorer parts of the world. , such as Bangladesh, which is incredibly vulnerable to devastating floods.

The problem, he says, comes down to the fact that our institutions may not be able to properly address issues that affect people across the world and across multiple generations. It is also a moral problem. “There’s too much of a tendency to think that if the government hasn’t solved the problem, then it’s nobody’s problem,” he says. “While I think… we have a responsibility as citizens to come together and create better institutions.”


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