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What should any one of us be expected to do to avert climate catastrophe?

Unthinkable: Plus four other questions philosophers are asking as we face a global emergency

The Cop26 climate conference may be reaching its climax this weekend but there will be no conclusion to the debate. Questions will linger long after the delegates depart Glasgow as to whether the pledges are enough to avert climate catastrophe, and whether the commitments can be believed.

Underlying these considerations is a sense that human thought – whatever is going on in our brains – has yet to properly adjust to the challenge. We are working with political institutions and moral concepts that might have served our civilisation well to this point but are no longer fit for purpose.

Philosophers have been grappling with this problem for decades through environmental ethics and related disciplines, and this week they were in evidence again on the fringes of Cop26, exploring themes which formed no part of official discussions.

Now, you might think philosophy is just more “blah, blah, blah” – to borrow Greta Thunberg’s phrase – but ethicists would argue that effective climate action starts with asking the right questions.


Like what exactly? Here are five key questions that philosophers would have us consider:

1. Does nature have rights?

One of the earliest and most famous thought experiments in environmental ethics is Richard Routley’s “last man argument” put forward in 1973. He imagined a situation where just one human survived a major environmental event. Would that “last man” be entitled to go around destroying every other life form on the basis that homo sapiens were going extinct?

Routley (who later changed his surname to Sylvan) said most people would intuitively say that it’s wrong to include the natural world in some kind of death pact, and that even if human beings were to disappear other life should be allowed to remain.

The argument underpins the claim that nature has moral standing. But how strong can this standing be expressed?

New Zealand grabbed headlines in 2012 when it recognised the Whanganui River as a legal entity, and similar claims have followed. Philosophers of “deep ecology” are now trying to figure out how to convincingly balance the rights of nature against human rights.

2. What moral standing have future generations?

Dominant theories of justice in western society depend on a social contract. Citizens theoretically sign up to a legal framework that is fair to everyone. But what about citizens who have yet to be born? Do they have a say in what is considered fair?

Giving moral weight to non-existent beings requires some imagination, as American philosopher Stephen Gardiner acknowledges in his influential book A Perfect Moral Storm. We typically resolve disagreements by waiting for the victims to speak out and to apply pressure for change. This assumption acts as a kind of “moral corruption”, he argues, as the main victims of climate catastrophe are generations of people who cannot be heard today.

There is a whole plethora of side debates on this topic. One issue raised by the late Derek Parfit is whether you can have duties to people who have no actual identity. Another issue is whether you need to consider prospective people who will not be born exactly because of climate action, given any change in policy will generate different future humans.

Such relatively abstruse inquiries, however, don’t detract from the overriding question: Are we entitled to act as though those present only matter?

3. What should any one individual be expected to do?

The scale of the climate crisis can be overwhelming and it creates new ethical dilemmas for individuals. Is it morally wrong to own a petrol car? Should you never again go on a foreign holiday? Is it okay to have children?

There is no consensus on any of these issues – and many would argue against putting an onus on individuals, given the relatively small impact on global emissions any one person can have. Ultimately, however, there is a middle course between cynicism and despair, and one of those mapping it out is Dale Jamieson who urges us to cultivate "green virtues".

So much about climate change is uncertain. We don’t know exactly how much time we have to act. We don’t know exactly what the fairest means of adjustment is. But Jamieson argues that virtues such as humility, co-operation and temperance are good in their own right, and if we can develop good habits we’re more likely to act in a correct fashion in future.

4. Is ‘male thinking’ part of the problem?

There are many hypotheses as to why climate action has been sluggish. One theory is that western philosophy is to blame. Robin Attfield, the author of several books on environmental ethics, notes that Aristotle "depicted nature as permanent and fundamentally unchanging", and this misapprehension has been slow to shake off.

Judeo-Christian religion, with its focus on "saving mankind", has also been put in the dock, albeit Pope Francis has recently improved its green credentials.

Growth-oriented capitalism is elsewhere identified as the real problem. The Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns advocates limitarianism, which states that it is morally impermissible to be excessively rich. Her arguments have implications not just for climate justice but economic equality.

But there is another suspect that is convincingly linked to our current predicament: the patriarchy. Gender imbalance was on show at the Cop26 leaders’ meeting last week, and it is estimated that just 12 per cent of heads of national environment ministries and agencies are women.

Pioneering ecofeminist Karen Warren highlighted parallels between the exploitation of women and of the environment. Mary Midgley exposed the weakness of moral philosophies based on instrumental thinking, or valuing everything as a means to an end – a bedrock of male-dominated institutions. And today a suspicion lingers that one of the main reasons we are so slow to act is because we think some kind of handyman will eventually show up with the right set of tools to repair the planet.

Yes, it’s a stereotype but there is a certain kind of bloke who believes every problem has a technological fix.

5. Is democracy an impediment?

"Even if everyone trusted science completely, climate action would still be hard," Philip Kitcher told an online event part organised by University College Dublin last week. The British-American philosopher noted that we have to decide what to do "under radical uncertainty" and with no clear goal, given we may already have left it too late to avoid an extinction event.

How do you unite people in action in those circumstances? Like many political scientists, Kitcher argues that traditional democratic structures are defective. A citizens’ assembly could help but, he points out, some participants will feel like they’re being asked to barter away their own livelihoods.

It’s one thing to be a young person who hasn’t yet “committed themselves to a definite place in society”. It’s another if you’re “just hanging on to your job” and the reforms being sought would “blight the future of those you care most about”.

Meaningful dialogue will require “a new kind of citizenship”, says Kitcher, and that’s before you create potential seats around the table for representatives of future citizens and Earth itself.

Such a forum would be messy, with no guarantee of success, but who said tackling climate change was ever going to be easy?

Ask a sage
Is the situation hopeless?
Rachel Carson replies: "Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."