NASA states that even if we stopped producing all greenhouse gases today, we will still be affected by climate change for generations to come. They suggest a two-pronged approach to limiting the effects of climate change: Mitigation, meaning reducing climate change, which involves reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and Adaptation; adapting to life in a changing climate, which involves adjusting to actual or expected future climate (climate.nasa.gov).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made many assessments aiming to provide governments with 'the science, the impacts, and the economics of—and the options for mitigating and/or adapting to—climate change'. The global temperature graph on the NASA website shows that climate change has only worsened since the 1950s, and 'scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal'.
The sharp increase suggests that human activity has a large part to play in global climate change, so clearly it is useful to find an equitable basis for an international agreement. Attfield refers to the classical ethics of Plato and Kant, and how long-term side-effects of anything humans did could be disregarded. Now, with our new technology, we affect large swathes of the biosphere and damage the Earth for future generations. 'Preserving the conditions for the continuation of human life on our planet has become an ethical issue'.
First let's discuss a few ethical principles that go some way to encouraging an international agreement on climate change. Jamieson thinks that our existing values are insufficient to the task, as they evolved relatively recently, within 'low-population density and low-technology societies, with seemingly unlimited access to land and other resources'. These values encourage a responsibility which 'presupposes that harms and their causes are individual, that they can be readily identified, and that they are local in time and space'. As climate change fits none of these criteria, a new value system is needed. His answer is to develop 'twenty-first century virtues,' including 'humility, courage… moderation,' 'simplicity and conservatism'.
Henry Shues’ No Harm Principle is a little less radical (therefore more likely to be adopted by international governments) stating that the main moral problem is that climate change will subject future people to severe harm, so we must act in spite of economic and scientific uncertainty. The Precautionary Principle is gaining popularity in international law and policy, and it says: 'when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically'. Both of these principles are controversial, and are stated to be ' either obscure or else overly conservative when taken literally. However Gardiner thinks these principles are reasonable, as 'widespread endorsement of the view that stabilizing emissions would impose a cost of “only” 2 percent of world production, one might claim that we care little about the potential gains—at least relative to the possibly catastrophic costs'. So the cost of not doing anything would be a lot more than of doing it and it not working. But this raises two questions: firstly, which precautionary measures should be taken, and secondly: who should pay? This second question I shall discuss further.
Philosophical writers are virtually unanimous in that developed countries should take the lead. The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) says that the polluters themselves should take responsibility for climate change, pay for it, and take steps to mitigate it. Caney questions whether it is indeed the developed countries that should pay: individuals, corporations, states, the international community, or other entities may be required to pay. A report of the IPCC says 'individuals must change their energy-intensive lifestyles', but is it fair that they should pay for mitigation and adaptation if the country they live in supports that energy-intensive lifestyle? Or should we charge international regimes and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, for promoting economic growth and encouraging the use of fossil fuels?
Neumeyer advocates for 'historical accountability'. But as the policies that caused global climate change stem from previous generations, is it fair to make current people pay for the mistakes of their ancestors? The individualist position suggests that inhabitants of a country can bear responsibility for their ancestors because their quality of life benefited from those decisions. The beneficiary has a responsibility not to pursue that policy (mitigation) and/or to address its harmful effects (adaptation). Caney suggests this would change the principle completely from PPP to 'Beneficiary Pays Principle'.
The collectivist view is that if, for example, Britain as a collective caused pollution, Britain should pay. However Britain, as a collective, was ignorant of fossil fuel effects until the last 30-40 years. Peter Singer says ignorance is inapplicable for emissions before the 1990s, but Neumayer says the same for the mid-1980s. Which do we follow? The historical approach may also seem unfair to impoverished countries that emit greenhouse gases. We could supplement PPP with: the poor should not pay. However, as millions of high-polluting people live outside 'developed' countries, Paul G. Harris calls for a shift from international to global climate justice: 'People, rather than states alone, are agents of climate change and the bearers of related rights, responsibilities and obligations'.
Caney concludes that the PPP is incomplete, so he came up with a principle called 'The Hybrid Account', and the duties are:
- not to emit greenhouse gases above a set quota,
- if countries exceed/ed the quota (since 1990), they must compensate others (a revision of PPP),
- the most advantaged have a duty to reduce greenhouse gases (mitigation) in proportion to the harm resulting from previous generations, excusable ignorance, and polluters who won't pay, and address the ill affects resulting from these things (adaptation),
- Discourage polluters from not paying by constructing institutions that discourage future non-compliance.
While I agree with Caney's principles, they are still clearly incomplete. For example, Caney says 'persons have the human right not to suffer from the disadvantages of climate change', but what about non-human species, and the biosphere as a whole? An anthropocentric basis for climate change mitigation and adaptation may not go far enough to reduce our emissions because it aims to keep humanity living at current economic levels. All the PPP does is throw money at the issue, but our anthropocentric economic solutions are clearly not solving the problems: if human well-being is enough to treat the environment with respect, why are we in a worsening mess?
Robin Attfield argues for an international approach that calculates emissions quotas according to the country's population, called the Equal Per Capita Entitlement. There would be a heavy responsibility to reduce carbon emissions (mitigation) and to ensure human needs are still met (adaptation). One question is: who decides what 'human needs' are? Needs are shaped by cultural, communal and individual values. The fundamental principle behind Equal Per Capita Entitlement is that all people have an equal right to the absorptivity of the atmosphere, but how do we know for sure what the atmosphere's absorptive capacities are?
And surely we can respect the atmosphere in its own right? 'It is time to eschew human self-interest and recognise the inherent worth and surpassing values of Earth's miraculous ecosystems whose workings we do not understand. Anthropocentrism says we know how to control and manage them; ecocentrism says ''not yet, maybe never''. One of the reasons we may not have reached a satisfactory international agreement yet is that no one wants to admit the truth: we do not understand the Earth's ecosystems, and we don't know how to mitigate and adapt. 'Scientists aren’t any time soon going to give politicians some magic answer. Policy makers for a long, long time are going to have to deal with a situation where it’s not clear what the costs and benefits are, where lots of people disagree about them, and they can’t wait until everything is resolved'.
The risk is that climate change may be upon us before an agreement has been reached. Attfield suggests it's better to introduce a more limited system as it can be agreed quicker. He believes international agreement must be reached, as the precedent will be set for reaching agreement, and momentum is there for future agreements. However, there is a weakness in our democratic system: governments slant policy to please the next potential electorate, and do not look far enough into the future. When it comes to climate change this has been detrimental.
With Equal Per Capita Entitlement there is also the issue of equity between peoples. Countries and governments must act on behalf of the people, and some do not. It might encourage population increase or distorted consensuses, but this can be avoided if we backdate the population to the last consensus, and implement international monitoring for future ones. Another idea is that poor countries with a large population who are not using their quota may trade with affluent countries who wish to exceed their quota. However, I see too large a similarity with carbon trading, which clearly doesn't work. Carbon trading caps firms' emissions and those who want to emit more can trade with those who have surplus. So while there is a financial incentive to reduce emissions, it doesn't actually reduce overall carbon emissions.
Curry thinks the problem is: 'the public want to avert climate change... (and) go on holiday, drive to work... they hope for technical innovations or efficiency improvements... rather than contemplate radical changes in lifestyle'. Meyer suggests the 'Contraction and Convergence' method is the answer: allowable totals are annually contracted to prevent an increase in global temperatures (contraction) and the entitlements of humanity are gradually adjusted until parity is reached (convergence). Contraction and Convergence appears like it will achieve what the public want: it will mitigate climate change and allow current lifestyles to continue. It will allow a gradual decrease of fossil fuel emissions, and because there is time, an increase in renewable energies will allow the same quality of life. However, Curry believes it's too late: the battle against greenhouse gas is over, but most of us are too stubborn to admit it. Even with radical emissions cuts (for which there is little popular or political will), the time lag means that the Earth is still likely to warm up by 4 degrees.
Attfield believes that Contraction and Convergence is the best prospect for addressing global problems, allowing mitigation and adaptation, and can be used as a spring-board for other problems including poverty and under-development. While I agree that Contraction and Convergence is the most equitable basis for reaching an international agreement, it must be supplemented by a huge individual, local, regional and national effort for it to work. It just won't work on its own, I agree with Jamieson: what is needed is new values based on 'moderation,' 'simplicity and conservatism'. While we are too focused on the economics, politics, and science, we are wasting time.
Gustavo Esteva says: 'we must stop asking governments and international organisations for solutions they don't want to - and can't - implement. And we must stop pretending to be God, thinking we can 'fix' the planet'. Our only hope is to bypass the government and market, take control of our own lives by rejecting waste rather than recycling it, and by reclaiming mobility using bicycles and public transport rather than increasing 'green' cars. Strengthening sustainable local communities will mitigate effects of unavoidable climate change, and help us and other species to survive what cannot be stopped. Attfield agrees that great good could be achieved through communities and individual consumers, together with NGOs and governments adopting environmentally-friendly practices.
The problem with PPP and Contraction and Convergence is that they both assume that integrating environmental and economic goals are compatible with each other. When the two are in conflict, which comes first? We know that the economy damaged the environment, now we are seeing that environmental degradation damages the economy: it is a two-way interaction. 'Reversing the accelerated pace of production with its overconsumption of energies means moving back toward a local and non-specialized economy... When production and consumption both become localized, the temptation to speed up production, indefinitely and at any price, disappears'.
We need: less consumption, more conservation. We need less development and global trade, more self-reliance. Curry's solution is that we let go of this self-important delusion that without the 'stuff' of capitalist modernity life is not worth living. However, people's romantic vision of retreating into a cabin into the woods doesn't help us either, for the one thing we need the most is: community. It's the best chance we have to save who we are and what we have (Curry 2011). We can do this ourselves, within our communities, with or without involvement from international governments. And we can include our whole environment within the 'community', which is not a new concept: respect and care for all life is an important theme for many individuals and societies for millennia.
I do not think it is impossible for governments to come to an ecocentric agreement on climate change. There have been progressions in this area in several countries and institutions. The Earth Charter at the UN summit of Sustainable Development in 2002 is a visionary ecocentric document: ‘all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of worth to human beings'. Ecuador in 2008 signed a new constitution that enshrined the rights of nature, and constitutional reforms in Bolvia in 2010 include ‘Law of the Rights of Mother Earth’. These advancements can be held up as examples to all nations. So the idea is there, but the will to implement it, as far as I can see, is not.
Therefore I argue that while PPP and Contraction and Convergence are the most equitable basis for an international agreement on climate change mitigation and adaptation, this is only because they are the best we've got that fit into the current system of trying to continue on, business as usual, with our economy and lifestyle. What is actually needed is an overhaul of our values, promoting ecocentrism rather than anthropocentrism (PPP and Contraction and Convergence are unavoidably anthropocentric), and encouraging community and individual sustainable solutions. If Curry is correct that it's too late to battle climate change, our best option is to reduce the impact of it by halting the use of greenhouse gases in our own lives as much as possible (mitigation), and bringing our communities together to create local, sustainable ways of living together (adaptation). I just can't see international governments agreeing to anything that reaches this conclusion: PPP and Contraction and Convergence are the best we've got, and they do not go far enough, fast enough. So we must do it ourselves!