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  1. THE MORAL PROBLEM OF CLIMATE CHANGE: REASONS FOR ACTION(a Presentation at Cerritos College by Ted Stolze on Earth Day 2008)

  2. WORKING ASSUMPTIONS Today I will be making the following assumptions about climate change: • Climate change is human-caused and is the result of excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere. • Continuing “business as usual” would threaten the survival of humanity and other species. • What is required, then, is urgent individual and collective action. As a result, my focus today will be on the exercise of “practical wisdom” involved in identifying and assessing reasons that can be given to act or not to act in response to the moral problem of climate change.


  4. THE MORAL PROBLEM 1. One should urgently act to stop any grave threat that poses serious harm to others. 2. Climate change is a grave threat that poses serious harm to human beings and to other species. 3. Therefore, one should urgently act to stop climate change. 4. But climate change is caused by the release of excessive greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere. 5. Therefore, one should urgently act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.

  5. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE? “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.” (Dr. James Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should HumanityAim?” [March 2008], available at )

  6. TWO LEVELS OF ACTION • Individual • Collective

  7. INDIVIDUAL ACTIONS • Educate yourself and others • Create music and art to raise awareness • Practice mindful, frugal, and sustainable consumption • Calculate and try to reduce (or offset) your carbon footprint ( • Reuse and recycle products • Buy local and organic • Reduce meat intake in diet • Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take mass transit • Conserve, use alternative energy sources, and insulate your home

  8. TWO FORMS OF COLLECTIVE ACTION • From above: states and global treaties • From below: social movements pressuring states

  9. STATE ACTIONS • End the occupation of Iraq • Immediately halt the construction of all new coal-fired power plants and begin to phase out the use of coal as an energy source, except when the CO2 is captured and stored • Stop deforestation • Create incentives for businesses and households to replace unsustainable technologies and to adopt sustainable technologies • Ratify and move beyond the 1997 Kyoto Protocol • Establish a World Environment Organization

  10. SOCIAL MOVEMENT ACTIONS • Write letters, make phone calls, or send email to representatives • Vote for environmentally accountable candidates • Join existing or start new organizations and parties • Demand sustainable workplaces • Engage in direct action (e.g., marches, sit-downs, and strikes) • Transform the socio-economic system from one based on limitless growth to one based on sustainable development (green capitalism vs. ecological socialism)

  11. REASONS FOR DOING NOTHING (1) • Ignorance of the problem • Skepticism about who caused the problem or how serious it is • Willful ignorance or stupidity (“I’m happy not to know more.”) • Cynicism (“I know very well, but whatever.”) • Apathy (“I don’t care.”) • Nihilism (“Nothing matters, anyway.”)

  12. REASONS FOR DOING NOTHING (2) • Denial (“I know enough that I don’t want to know more--it’s too painful”) • Despair (“It’s too late, there’s nothing that can be done.”) • Greed (“I can still make money off this.”) • Someone else will do it for me (“Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie…) • God wants humans to dominate nature • God will take care of everything

  13. REASONS FOR DOING NOTHING (3) • Search for a quick technological fix • Theoretical or practical ineptitude (“It’s too complex; we can’t pull this off.”) • Reject the possibility of a collective solution (“I’ll just fend for myself.”)

  14. REASONS FOR DOING SOMETHING • Rational self-interest • Solidarity with all of humanity, especially the “Wretched of the Earth” • Concern for future generations • Reverence for life • God wants humans to be good stewards of nature • Unsustainable maxims cannot be universalized

  15. UNSUSTAINABLE MAXIMS “Pick an unsustainable maxim: ‘consume as much as you can’, or ‘don’t conserve finite resources’, or ‘use a disproportionate share of a finite good’. It doesn’t take much to see that these maxims cannot be universalized. If everyone consumed as much as they could, there would be nothing much left to consume. Consumption on a certain scale undermines consumption itself. If resources weren’t conserved, there’d be no resources to use. Finally, not everyone can use a disproportionate share of a finite good--only proportionate uses are possible for everyone. The very fact that the maxims are themselves part of an unsustainable order means that they could never be universal laws, never part of a consistent world, never in keeping with the moral law.” (James Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World [NY: Continuum, 2008], p. 149) NOTE: Sustainability = “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (from the 1987 Brundtland Report to the United Nations)

  16. Four Possible Futures • Abrupt climate change will overwhelm humanity. • The transnational ruling class will come to its senses and do what needs to be done. • A huge mass movement will force the rulers to act, and the rulers will make a compromise. • There will be a global social revolution. (From Jonathan Neale, Stop Global Warming – Change the World [London: Bookmarks Publications, 2008].)

  17. GEORGE MONBIOT ON ACTION “[The internet] . . . is marvelously useful, allows us to exchange information, find the facts we need, alert each other to the coming dangers and all the rest of it. But it also creates a false impression of action. It allows us to believe that we can change the world without leaving our chairs. We are being heard! Our voices resonate around the world, provoking commentary and debate, inspiring some, enraging others. Something is happening! A movement is building! But by itself, as I know to my cost, writing, reading, debate and dissent change nothing. They are of value only if they inspire action. Action means moving your legs.” (George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning [Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007], p. 214)