There is broad agreement that everybody, from big corporations to individuals, has a responsibility to contribute to the prevention of dangerous climate change. I subscribe to this view, too. But what does this mean from the perspective of an ethicist? Let me begin by emphasising that considering an issue from an ethical perspective does not mean pronouncing moral judgements, much less moral prejudices. Ethical thinking is not moralising. The point is rather to analyse moral judgments and arguments and examine their plausibility.
My thoughts are premised on the goals set by the Paris Climate Convention, which were reaffirmed at the recent conference in Glasgow. The central targets are net zero emissions by 2050 and a limitation of the global carbon budget so that global average temperatures will not rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius or can be expected with a high degree of certainty to remain far below 2 degrees, so that catastrophic climate change may yet be averted.
Dividing up the global carbon budget – either by uniform per-capita distribution or by contraction and convergence – yields carbon budgets of varying sizes which countries or regions must manage to get by on as of 2050. What is even more important than choosing between the two distribution methods is how the results are interpreted, as recent interdisciplinary studies of the University of Graz and IIASA has shown. The most important point here is whether past emissions since 1990 are taken into account. The size of a national carbon budget determines which options the country in question will have for the transformation to net zero emissions by 2050 and how high the costs of this transformation will be.
Drastic reduction of global emissions is needed
But it remains uncertain whether the Paris targets will be reached in Europe and globally. There are many who believe that the chances are slim. For one thing, sum total of the national commitments that have been made is not enough. And apart from there being little reason to believe that nations will amend their commitments sufficiently, promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are the very thing they have often failed to act on in the past.
Small amounts of emissions do not necessarily make only a small impact.
This is the specific context in which all of us, individuals and business enterprises, are taking their climate-relevant decisions. Only drastic reduction and global limitation of emissions can reduce the risk of catastrophic climate damage with a high degree of certainty. Individual players, who cause only a small fraction of global emissions, cannot know what difference they will actually make in achieving the Paris targets and averting dangerous climate change if they reduce, possibly even to net zero, the emissions they cause in the production of goods, in transport, in the provision of services or in their leisure time. But they can make a difference.
Small contributions make a difference, too
There is a great deal of uncertainty over the extent of effects caused by isolated or minor amounts of emissions. But this does not change the fact that everybody contributes to rising temperatures and can therefore be presumed to contribute to climate-related damage as well. Moreover, small amounts of emissions do not necessarily make only a small impact. Firstly, we must take into account that climate change and climate-related damage caused by emissions affect a very large number of people. The expected harmful effects have to be added up – so even small emission amounts may make a big difference. Even more important is the fact that small emission amounts may have a very big effect because of the tipping points of the global climate system, although the probability of this may be very low.
Some believe that foregoing an action that causes emissions now will not make a difference because emissions are constantly generated by so many parties, so that the same concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere will be reached only a very short moment later. But because of the instability of the earth’s atmosphere, it is wrong to assume that a given amount of greenhouse gases will always have the same foreseeable harmful effects, regardless of the point in time at which they are emitted. Thus we cannot know with certainty which harmful effects will be caused by very small amounts of emissions, and such effects may be very strong.
Individual and political responsibility are interconnected
From an ethical perspective, one reason why all of us, both individuals and institutions, should reduce our emissions to net zero is that we will thus reduce the risk of harming the earth’s climate and causing potentially very severe climate-related damage that may affect many people. By reducing the emissions caused by us we may also act as role models, further enhancing the effect of our actions. Provided such actions are properly communicated and understood by political decision-makers, emission reductions by individual parties may also help to bring down the political cost of decisions in favour of government emissions reduction policies and their implementation.
By reducing the emissions caused by us we may also act as role models.
Individual emission reduction as a way of assuming individual responsibility for climate change may thus also be a contribution to meeting one’s political responsibility. However, there are many ways to take on one’s political responsibility to contribute to an equitable transformation to climate neutrality, not all of them based on emission reduction. Individual parties’ options for action may compete with each other, confronting us with difficult questions to consider. Moreover, we must not forget that the transformation we need may place very heavy burdens on certain individuals or groups – for example, depriving them of their livelihood. Political responsibility relates to the equitable distribution of all burdens arising from the costs of emission reductions, adjustment to changing living conditions and losses that are not avoided or are virtually impossible to avoid.
Lukas Meyer, a philosopher from the University of Graz, is one of the first authors from his field who has contributed to an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment report. The main focus of his work is social justice as it relates to climate change.
Lukas Meyer is co-spokesman of the “Climate Change Graz” research focus and head of the doctoral programme on “Climate Change – Uncertainties, Threshold Levels and Strategies”, in which excellent young researchers from all over the world engage in interdisciplinary collaboration with the support of FWF funding.