On individual and collective climate action

You keep citing that study. I do not think it means what you think it means

At The Conversation, Morten Byskov has a piece arguing that individuals are asked to bear too much responsibility for climate change. In fact, he argues, individuals are practically blameless. Governments and corporations are responsible, and they’re the ones who should act. Appeals to individual virtue just let them off the hook.

I’m unconvinced. For one, Byskov’s claim that individuals are not culpable for climate change relies on a widely publicized study by CDP that ostensibly shows 100 companies are responsible for the vast majority of emissions. Note, however, that this study attributes all fossil fuel emissions to the original producers of those fuels, not to their end users. Given this stipulation, the study tells us something interesting about concentration of ownership and control in the energy industry, but it doesn’t tell us anything about who is responsible for emissions in any meaningful sense. Clearly it would be absurd to attribute sole moral or causal responsibility for a truck that is rolling coal to the operator of the refinery where the contents of the truck’s fuel tank originated, so it is unlikely that the organization behind the study intended readers to interpret or extend their findings this way.

Of course, the author’s observation that each individual makes only a very small impact on overall emissions can stand on its own. But it would follow that individual impacts are unworthy of moral criticism only if impact is all that matters from a moral point of view. And this claim would be rejected by most schools of moral philosophy.

On this blog, for example, I often write from a contractualist perspective. Contractualists identify moral requirements with principles that all would agree to or none could reject for the general regulation of behaviour. A general permission to emit as large a quantity of GHGs as one likes would result in catastrophic climate change. People who face severe burdens resulting from climate change thus have good reason to reject such a general permission. By comparison, it seems that no one has a sufficient reason to reject an alternative principle that would require everyone to make at least modest reductions, where feasible, in activities that involve or result in GHG emissions. If moral requirements are the principles that no one can reasonably reject, and the latter principle cannot reasonably be rejected, then the latter principle is a moral requirement. And the rationale behind it does not depend on any individual having any appreciable impact on the climate. Showing that no individual has any appreciable impact on the climate, then, does not let individuals off the hook for their emissions.

Everyone agrees that government action is important too. But any government action on climate change will inevitably affect individuals. This is true of both regulatory and market-based approaches (carbon taxes or cap and trade). It’s why the public has tended to resist even token measures to rein in our GHG emissions. The choices available to people in a highly GHG-intensive society are appealing, or at least comfortingly familiar. Naturally people have more difficulty picturing what the available choices in an environmentally harmonious society would be like, and tend to fill in the blanks with the worst case scenarios they can imagine (e.g. imagining drastic reduction in the use of personal automobiles entailing the return of the horse and buggy, or the end of the fossil fuel extraction entailing long-term or permanent unemployment for countless workers). It should be no surprise, then, that people are resistant to meaningful climate policy despite increasing awareness of climate change.

An environmentally harmonious society would, I believe, actually provide individuals with a tremendous range of different but no less appealing (and, eventually, comfortingly familiar!) choices. We might fly less, but have better vacation options closer to home. We might drive less, but have far better public transport and cycling infrastructure and less urban sprawl. We might eat less meat, but get a whole lot better at vegetarian cooking. And so forth.

In light of these considerations, it is plausible that individual action has an important role to play in supporting government action. Individuals who make a reasonable effort to reduce their emissions in a variety of ways without compromising their health and happiness are pathfinders of a sort; their example may help take away some of the mystery (and the accompanying fear) from the public’s thinking about what an environmentally harmonious society would look like. And when individuals take small actions to reduce their emissions, it encourages others to do the same. It stands to reason that people who voluntarily start to make the kinds of adjustments that the requisite government action would make necessary will be more supportive of government action. In addition, it seems likely that there will be many more who do not have the strength of will to make voluntary adjustments in the absence of an incentive such as a higher carbon tax, but nevertheless see from the example of people living less GHG-intensive lifestyles that these ways of living are not to be feared, and so will tend to be more supportive of government action as well.

So individual action does matter, even if each individual’s GHG emissions are negligible. It matters morally, because no one can reasonably reject a general requirement for people to reduce their emissions. And it matters pragmatically, because individual action makes it more likely that governments will take action.