Environmental morality in the present

The burden must fall upon those best able to prevent climate change

Look away from the history of greenhouse gas emissions and just think about the present state of play. However you cut the pie, present emissions are anything but equal. There are, of course, different ways of thinking about inequality and what to do about it. Some argue that fairness demands that a finite and precious resource be distributed equally, and in the case of climate change, you can have the planet’s carbon sinks in mind. We end up with the same conclusions now as we did when reflecting on the history of emissions in the last post. We end up with the view that the developed world has a responsibility to reduce its emissions, probably drastically and quickly, given the great differences in present emission rates.

The point can be strengthened by thinking not just about emissions entitlements, but also about the varying capacities of rich and poor nations. Not all emissions have the same moral standing. Some emissions have more or different value, even if the quantity of emissions is just the same. The emissions resulting from an African farmer’s efforts to feed his family are not on a par with the emissions resulting from an American dermatologist’s efforts to get to Vegas for the weekend. There is a difference between subsistence emissions and luxury emissions, even if pinning it down takes some doing. There is a sense then, that the West has more room for reduction, more luxury emissions. Suppose that 60% of the emissions of the US Virgin Islands are luxury emissions and all of Rwanda’s emissions are subsistence emissions. It’s clear, just given these facts about present emissions, who has room to reduce and who doesn’t. Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can keep their DVD players on stand by.

The developed world is also better placed to make reductions in other senses. Think just about the United States, the world’s only Superpower. It has the brains and the know how, the infrastructure, the money, the technology – the list could go on – to do something meaningful about climate change. The fact that it has done so little in this connection can jar a bit.

You would have some explaining to do if you walked past a drowning baby and did nothing to save it. You would have a lot more explaining to do if you were a fit lifeguard. The greater your ability to do what’s right, the greater the onus on you to do what’s right. It is a very short step from this thought to the conclusion that the developed world is making an enormous moral mistake when it comes to action on climate change.

James Garvey has a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is author of some books and articles, most recently, The Ethics of Climate Change (Continuum 2008)
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.