Global climate change confronts us not only with well-known pragmatic challenges, but also with less commonly acknowledged moral challenges.
The topic of climate change is timely and important, but it’s also one that's difficult to talk about. We’re making such a mess of this planet—chopping down forests and burning carbon-based fossil fuels, polluting our air, soil, and water, causing polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise. We’re already beginning to see the devastating effects of climate change around the globe, and it’s only going to get worse—especially if we pass the 2 degrees celsius tipping point, which seems inevitable at this point. And despite the fact we've known what the consequences of our actions are for some time now, instead of slowing down, we’ve actually increased the rate at which we burn fossil fuels!
What’s worse, the global community can’t seem to agree on a binding timeline to curb carbon emissions. Just look at what happened at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. It seems like we humans are hell-bent on making this planet uninhabitable for future generations. The entire picture just fills me with dread.
And yet I think most reasonable people would agree we have a duty to our kids, and to our kids’ kids, to pass on a planet where human life—nay, human flourishing—is still possible. But there’s serious inertia in the system, at both the political and the personal level, which makes the change we need seem almost impossible. There’s obviously some kind of disconnect happening here. We recognize our moral responsibilities on some theoretical level, but when it comes to making actual changes—actually living differently—few are willing to pay the price and make the necessary sacrifices.
Given the direness of the situation and our apparent inertia in the face of impending crisis, is there still hope that we can turn things around at this point? There are major costs associated with changing our way of life and adapting to the new global climate, which raises some critical moral questions: who ought to pay those costs, and how do we distribute the economic burdens in a fair and equitable way?
Somebody has to pay for the shift from a fossil fuel-based economy to something more sustainable, for re-designing infrastructures that make us less vulnerable to severe weather, and for responding to the growing number of climate catastrophes around the world. Historically speaking, it's industrialized nations who've benefited most. So it seems like we're the ones who ought to pay. But so far that hasn’t happened.
The industrialized nations most responsible for climate change are also least affected by it. We in the first world have greater wealth, which allows us to adapt more easily to increasingly severe conditions. Developing nations, who never got to reap the benefits of industrialization, are not only the most vulnerable to climate change but also the least able to pay the costs of adapting.
Which raises a moral dilemma. On the one hand, the first world has caused all this damage and reaped all the benefits, so it would be unfair for us to now demand that the developing world not do what we've already done. If they can’t develop their economies as we have, then how are they supposed to be able to adapt to the changing climate? On the other hand, the planet simply can’t afford for the developing world to burn fossil fuels in the way we have. Morally speaking, it’s just a mess.
Ultimately, I think, we need to rethink our idea of development and flourishing. And not just in the third world—first world countries also have to seriously rethink their economic models that are based on the idea of constant growth, which basically means constant consumption. We’re seeing that that’s simply not a sustainable model. But it’s not clear what can replace it.
So, there’s a lot to talk about in this week’s show. Can we realistically entertain hope for the future in the face of global climate change? What kind of radical transformation is required for the survival of future generations? And what kind of responsibilities do individuals have for ensuring justice for all?