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Environmental morality in the present

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

By James Garvey

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.

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