A philosophical take on climate change

People march at a climate change protest, proclaiming: no nature, no future. Lecturer Dale Jamieson visited UConn to talk about the philosophy behind climate change and whether or not “you” are responsible. Photo by Markus Spiske.

Soft chatter was heard from a lecture room in Storrs Hall, as an array of students, faculty and climate change aficionados moseyed in for the annual Parcells lecture after braving pouring rain.  

The yearly lecture is made possible through the generous gift of Ruth Parcells, who was a student at the University of Connecticut back when the university still required all women to take courses in home economics. Despite the academic stringency, Parcells had a passion for the study of philosophy, thus her endowment.  

Interestingly enough, Parcells had a connection to today’s philosophical topic. She was married into the Foote family, whose long-standing importance in Connecticut history is indubious. It was a Foote descendant who first demonstrated carbon dioxide’s potential as a global warming agent.  

While nearly everyone is somewhat familiar with the engineering, scientific and political facets of climate change, today’s lecturer brought Friday’s listeners into a new realm: climate change philosophy — a relatively new field considering the lifespan of the climate change issue. Its foundation is often credited to Dale Jamieson, who marked its beginning with the release of a seminal paper in the mid 1990s. Until then, no one had thought to seriously consider environmental change from a philosophical perspective. Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of publications are written at the intersection of these two fields each year, according to Jamieson.  

As a distinguished faculty member at New York University, Jamieson currently serves as a professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy. With dozens of published articles and book contributions, as well as associations with Kings College and NYU Law — he is nothing short of an expert on the topic.  

Out of a plethora of philosophical subfields, Jamieson chose to focus on the moral responsibility behind climate change, provocatively entitling his lecture “Am I responsible for Climate Change?” In my experience, this is the very question that seems to vex amateur and experienced environmentalists the most, and Jamieson attempted to academically confront it head on.  

It didn’t take long for Jamieson to abruptly give us his answer: a resounding “YES.” As Americans, we are the first population that should be implicated in this kind of issue, as we’re high emitters of greenhouse gasses. Everything from our heating and cooling to our transportation and food preparation outputs unimaginable volumes of greenhouse gasses, even for tasks that seem menial.  

The reasoning behind Jamieson’s answer was admittedly a little more complicated, though. He shared a quote from John Nolt, an ecophilosopher who had also written about the topic and produced the same answer using a more mathematical methodology: “the average American causes through his/her greenhouse gas emissions the serious suffering and/or deaths of two future people.” 

However, Jamieson’s answer stemmed from logical deductions. He went on to explain that there were three types of responsibility: legal, causal and moral. Legal responsibility is simple: no one is “illegally” causing climate change, but it is possible to break the legal boundaries imposed to prevent global warming. Causal responsibility, when it comes to this issue, is a little more anomalous. While one person’s emissions are insignificant in the grand scheme of global warming, in aggregate, we have induced climate change so significant that entire biomes are being modified. How can this be? Who’s responsible for causing climate change? Jamieson implies that the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts, when it comes to causal responsibility.  

While the first two types of responsibility are cut and dry, the last is somewhat confusing and ambiguous. It’s in the cloudy haze of “moral responsibility” that our answer lies, claimed Jamieson. On one hand, climate change is a problem caused by a diverse, broad and pluralistic society. It clearly can’t be attributed to one group, much less one or two people. Characteristically, the effects of global warming will largely wreak more havoc on future generations rather than our own. Taken together, these facts mean that climate change isn’t tugging at the moral compass of the average individual because, to most people, it’s not urgent.  

Dale argues, rather, that the issue of morality has to do largely with that of punishment – and not necessarily that which is inflicted on a person. The product of harm is what renders an act “immoral,” and in this fashion, because climate change will harm future generations by robbing them of a safe and inhabitable world, it is immoral.   

In any case, Jamieson concludes that the biggest conflict at play is the contradiction between the fact that climate change is “immoral,” yet largely ignored because its effects are not yet apparent. He explained that if we change our thinking, adapting it to assume that climate change is immoral in the current moment, over time, our actions can fit our thinking. While it is by no means a conclusive solution, Jamieson’s proposal is a philosophical solution with a pragmatic promise.  

Leave a Reply