Unprecedented Moral Challenge

Fossil-fuel corporations, aided and abetted by political leaders and the major media, especially in the United States, have already put sufficient CO2 into the atmosphere and ocean to guarantee that coming generations will live on a much less pleasant planet. The crucial question now is whether the political world, with continued inaction, will inflict on coming generations a planet that is not merely unpleasant but hellish – a hellish world that, with still more inaction, will lead to the destruction of civilization. Or will the political world finally rally, acting fast and decisively enough to save a tolerable planet for our descendants? This is an unprecedented moral challenge.

Book cover of "Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis?"

This article is an excerpt from Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? published by Clarity Press in 2015.

The basic statement of the National Climate Ethics Campaign, which was started in 2011, says:

The U.S. has failed to take aggressive action on climate change in large part because the issue has been framed around economic self-interest: opponents of action claim that the costs to jobs and the economy are too high; proponents of action claim emission reductions will create jobs and be good for the economy. Missing from this debate is the deeply disturbing moral and ethical implications of climate change.

This challenge, as Bill McKibben has said in his Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” is “the greatest challenge humans have ever faced.” To have a chance of meeting this challenge, the human race will need to give primary attention to this task for at least the next three decades. During this period, the human race will need to operate out of a moral stance that, far from belittling the importance of this task, provides motivation to make whatever sacrifices and tough decisions will prove to be necessary. Decisions need to be made, in other words, on the basis of climate morality.

Climate Morality

An adequate treatment of the issues involved in climate morality would be long and complex, but some of the main issues can be mentioned.

A Global Ethic

Although it is sometimes claimed that there are no universal moral principles, this is an exaggeration of the truth about cultural relativism. Many commentators (including: Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr., Prospects for a Common Morality; Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2nd edition; Hans Küng, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics; and David Ray Griffin, “Ethics and the Fabric of the Universe.”) have pointed out that there is sufficient commonality in the various traditions to ground a global ethic.

Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, in a book entitled A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, has pointed out that all, or at least most, religious traditions affirm some version of what Christians have called the golden rule - at least in its negative formulation, sometimes called the “silver rule”: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

Even Michael Walzer, who had previously emphasized cultural relativism, has argued, in his book Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, that the various traditions provide “the makings of a thin and universalist morality.” Such a morality would be “a set of standards to which all societies can be held - negative injunctions, most likely, rules against murder, deceit, torture, oppression, and tyranny.” Within Western civilization, he added, “these standards will probably be expressed in the language of rights,” which “is not a bad way of talking about injuries and wrongs that no one should have to endure.”

Ten Climate Commandments

This is also not a bad way of talking about morality in relation to global warming. Phrased in terms of negative injunctions and couched in biblical language, we could state ten climate commandments thus:

  1. Thou shalt not ruin civilization’s climate.
  2. Thou shalt not impose hotter weather on people.
  3. Thou shalt not impose drought on people.
  4. Thou shalt not increase destructive storms.
  5. Thou shalt not deprive people of clean water.
  6. Thou shalt not deprive people of food.
  7. Thou shalt not ruin people’s seas.
  8. Thou shalt not flood people’s lands.
  9. Thou shalt not force people to migrate.
  10. Thou shalt not lie to justify any such acts.

The fossil-fuel corporations have violated all of these commandments. By failing to protect people from these violations, the US government, along with many other governments, is equally responsible for the violation of these commandments. By way of illustrating the minimal amount of protection that people should be able to expect from the present system of global governance, which is led by the United States (although officially by the United Nations), ethicist Henry Shue, in “Let Whatever is Smouldering Erupt?  Conditional Sovereignty, Reviewable Intervention and Rwanda 1994,” used the 1994 Rwanda massacre:

"Any system of global governance [said Shue] is ridiculous if it allows . . . people with machetes [to] move house to house, day by day, hacking unarmed civilians to death until half a million innocents have been murdered and twice that number of people have fled from their homes in panic."

This provides a good analogy for what is going on with climate change. Our system of national and global governance is ridiculous insofar as it allows people owning oil, coal, and natural gas companies to pollute our air and oceans day after day, year after year, decade after decade, getting filthy rich by violating all 10 climate commandments, thereby making the planet increasingly inhospitable. These moral reprobates – both the fossil-fuel corporations and the governments that give them a free hand, even providing them with subsidies and low taxes – have already forced millions of people from their habitats, with many tens of millions to follow. It is long past time for the climate commandments to be enforced.

Basic Human Rights

Although the language of “ten commandments” alludes to a particular tradition, Henry Shue, like Michael Walzer, refers to universal rights – rights that belong to humans qua humans. In referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, James Nickel wrote, in his book Making Sense of Human Rights: Philosophical Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that it referred to rights that are “universal, to be held by people simply as people.”

This idea, which goes back at least to the Stoic philosophers, was articulated in 1789 in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which spoke of rights that are “natural” and hence “imprescriptible.” The same basic idea was expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, which spoke of “unalienable rights.” This idea has, of course, had major effects. For example, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, in “Democracy and the French Revolution,” that the idea of “the essential rights of human beings, arising from their sheer humanity,” was a necessary condition for the 19th-century delegitimation and abolition of slavery in the West.

The idea of human rights is equally relevant to the delegitimation and abolition of energy systems based on fossil fuels, which will be necessary if human beings in coming decades and centuries are to enjoy their right to a comfortable climate, a flourishing ocean, and clean air and water.

Building on the idea of human rights, Henry Shue, in a book called Basic Rights, distinguished between basic and less basic rights. Some human rights are basic because the “enjoyment of them is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights.” One of those basic rights - which is stated at the outset of the Declaration of Independence - is the right to life. This right implies rights regarding everything necessary for life. Although the American government has recently given primary attention to violations of physical security, ethicist John Vincent, agreeing with and quoted by Shue, has written, “the right to life is as much about providing the wherewithal to sustain life as protecting it against violence.”

Shue pointed out, moreover, that John Stuart Mill even gave it priority, saying that security from violence is the “most indispensable of all necessaries, after physical nutriment.” This point was also made in the 1980 Presidential Commission on World Hunger, which said:

“Whether one speaks of human rights or basic human needs, the right to food is the most basic of all. Unless that right is first fulfilled, the protection of other human rights becomes a mockery.”

Food is, of course, not the only basic right implied by the right to life. The right to water to drink and to grow food is equally necessary for life, as is the right to non-toxic air and other necessities. To come to the main implication of the distinction:  Basic rights, by virtue of being basic, trump all nonbasic rights. Rights that are essential to life are people’s vital interests in the most literal sense of the term. The vital interests of people should always take precedence over the non-vital interests of others. Even if these non-vital interests be considered rights, they are not basic rights and hence can be trumped.

Some people hold that an interest in having an unlimited amount of money gives one a right to make it, along with a right to have all the luxury items one desires. But insofar as a right to such riches and luxuries exists – it is really a desire, not a right - it would be immoral to allow it to trump the vital necessities, and hence basic rights, of others. Shue noted that John Locke, whose writings inspired much in early American thought, “had taken for granted that the right to accumulate private property was limited by a universal right to subsistence.”

In light of these moral principles, the “right” of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the Koch brothers to accumulate more and more money would, in a moral system of national and global governance, be trumped by the basic rights of people around the world to have non-toxic air, non-polluted water to drink, adequate water for agriculture, thriving land and marine life, and a sea-level that will not force them to move.

 (This article is an excerpt from Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? published by Clarity Press in 2015.)


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