Environmentalism’s fig leaf

by | May 29, 2008 | Articles, Culture Wars

Few arguments in favour of action to mitigate the effects of climate change begin without claiming that ‘the science is in’. James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change is no exception. There begins an account of the ‘science’ which forms the basis of an unassailable consensus that the world faces a terrifying future. The account is a breathless list of tragedies that await us: sea-level rises, species-extinctions, glacial retreat, resource wars, and climate refugees, all of which will be worse for the poor, and most of which have been caused by the industrialised world. We face ‘planetary upheaval, the deaths of countless living things, human suffering on an enormous scale and all sorts of other horrors’, Garvey tells us. Be very afraid.

This scientific account generates the imperatives that we, in this perilous world, are supposed to respond to – if we want to be ‘ethical’, that is. But, as Garvey goes on to point out, ‘scientific facts are a necessary part of reflection on climate change, but they are nothing near the whole of it’. The moral philosopher is on hand to help us navigate the awkward journey, beset by doom, catastrophe, and other unimaginable horrors, toward a future of mere survival.

With the science of the horror stories established and given credibility and authority by a host of international scientific organisations, Garvey asks us to consider ‘inequality’ in the world. Not, as we might expect, inequality as the unequal distribution of capital, but as the distribution of access to ‘carbon sinks’ – natural biological and geological processes, which remove carbon from the atmosphere, and maintain the ‘balance’ on which climatic security supposedly depends. According to Garvey, from our privileged, moneyed, positions, we in the industrialised world have been able to secure unfair access to these sinks, depriving the poorer inhabitants of the planet of their natural birthright. Worse still, we have overloaded the capacity of these sinks to absorb carbon for some time to come.

Producing carbon dioxide – that is to say, using more than our fair share of carbon sinks – is not simply a moral wrong in the present, according to Garvey. What we do now carries consequences into the future. Accordingly, he challenges us to consider that moral responsibility isn’t limited by any kind of proximity. We have as much a duty to reduce our carbon emissions for the sake of the starving child on the other side of the planet as we do the starving child a thousand years into the future.

But Garvey’s moral calculations are easily challenged. How might the same starving child, were he standing right in front of us, be helped by us reducing our CO2? To suggest that it would help would seem entirely uncaring, and not at all ‘ethical’. Garvey might answer that CO2 emissions are what have caused hunger and injury. But this would seem to forget that famine, drought, and disease have historically always been part of life for individuals and communities living at the edge of society. Such forms of poverty are not new, but they are ‘natural’. If we can’t say that reducing CO2 emissions would help this child, it is hard to see how Garvey’s argument against proximity can be sustained. If, in a wealthy country, we were to stumble across some case of poverty, we would not say that the conditions people were living in were the result of climate change. We would not, as Garvey does, say that it was a consequence of our ‘moral failure’ to consider the connection between our CO2-producing actions, and their consequences. We would instead suggest that it was a social problem, arising out of material inequality. So why aren’t the problems faced by Garvey’s victims, thousands of miles away, not also problems of material inequality? Why are our responsibilities to people thousands of miles away different to our responsibilities to people right in front of us?

This concern about equality in the world – as the distribution of carbon sinks – conveys a bizarre understanding of ‘equality’. Equality seems to be no longer understood as a matter of the relationships between humans through economics, politics, or through any social structures, but through geological and biological processes. The morality of actions in the unequal world are explained in ‘scientific’ rather than social terms; your desire, the big car, the combustion, the CO2, the greenhouse effect, the warming, the climate change, the drought, the poverty, the suffering. It’s as if material inequality were as inevitable as, say, rain or wind. Stranger still then, that it is supposedly the weather which we have altered, and that we seek to control, rather than the inequality. Garvey does not consider how different the outcome might be, were we to make an ethic out of, perhaps, solving inequality.

Garvey’s argument depends rather heavily on proximity – both geographical and in terms of time – in order to generate a sense of futility about any other approach to the plight of others that might involve us. The further away that victims of climate change exist, the more plausible is Garvey’s claim that we are unable to help them in any conventional way. On the one hand, Garvey wants them to be in front of us, so that we can witness their suffering as a direct consequence of our ‘unethical’ lifestyles. On the other, he wants them to be as far away as possible, so that we can’t actually help. All that we can offer is that we won’t make life any worse for them by emitting any more CO2, as though the only thing connecting people is the atmosphere.

In this way of looking at the world, every action becomes just a different degree of bad according to how much CO2 it produces. Our conception of ‘good’, is accordingly negatively defined as ‘not bad’, or disappears altogether. But in this world, no moral calculation could be achieved by an individual engaging his own moral sense. Instead he has to defer to carbon footprint calculators, science academies, and the environmental movement’s constant barrage of nauseating scientific and ‘ethical’ factoids. But how could the brutal logic of the carbon calculator weigh the value of acts of genuine human solidarity against the environmental impact they might cause? Must acts of solidarity be rationed according to the limits of what the ‘biosphere’ can absorb? What right do we have, under this system of ethics, to perform our own cost-benefit analysis? Would it be wrong to rush that injured child to hospital in a 4 by 4 car? Or must we take the bus? Should ambulances be run only from renewable forms of energy, and constructed only from ‘sustainable’ sources? Is a hospital still a good thing, if it fails to be carbon neutral? Since carbon is not, in fact, the root of all bad in the world, it is inevitable that ‘the ethics of climate change’ will clash with the business of doing good things in other ways – not good things as simply the avoidance or correction of bad things, but things which are positive.

Garvey’s portrayal of the remote, poverty-stricken victims makes use of the environmentalist’s maxim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. But the sense of responsibility that Garvey appears to wish us to understand is not responsibility in the sense of commitment, or duty, but culpability. We are asked to engage with Garvey’s view of the world as culprits. And as culprits, we are asked to stop what we are doing, and ‘give’ back to the poor what is theirs by some kind of right. In this relationship, the poor are like puppets that Garvey uses to act out a kind of morality play to elicit our sympathy – or guilt – for his cause. And just as Garvey needs distance, and poverty on this stage, he also needs victims to make his case. After all, where is this system of ethics, if there are no victims? He does not allow us to consider how we might begin to change things so that people are not poor – to make things better – but how we can avoid being responsible for making things worse.

But surely if the whole population of the world were wealthy, it would be easier to adapt to the problems caused by the climate change that Garvey says we face? With sufficient wealth, doesn’t the problem of sea-level rise becomes a matter of deciding where you’d like to move to, rather than being displaced as a poor person? Accordingly, problems of ethics, with sufficient resources, can just become matters of engineering. Just as Garvey’s argument depends on the proximity it claimed it didn’t, it also depends on the very poverty it claims to to wish to avert.

Garvey tells us, ‘the larger moral problems won’t really bite unless you know something about our prospects, the prospects for us as a species, in the face of climate change. Those predictions are not rosy’. But without the dark vision made plausible by science, Garvey would not be able to make a case for such crude moral calculations – goodies, baddies, tragedies, poverty, victims and culprits – all of which act to displace from the discussion, a political understanding of equality. So much of Garvey’s view of the world depends on the science providing the most hideous nightmare, from which there is no escape, that it’s hard not to wonder if, in spite of his claim that there is more to his argument, the science is the ‘whole of it’, and is little more than storytelling.

We’re never allowed to interrogate the claim that we will not be able to cope with the effects of climate change, nor explore the idea that it will not be as bad as many bogus statistics suggest it will be. All such challenges to the ethical system get deferred to science. Garvey flatly refuses to consider the possibility, and insults anyone who might dare to. As with any challenge to climate change alarmism, the answer is ‘but the science says…’ In this sense, science is environmentalism’s fig leaf. How ‘ethical’ is that?


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