How should we think of the relationship between the climate harms that people will suffer in the future and our current emissions activity? Who does the harming, and what are the moral implications? One way to address these questions appeals to facts about the expected harm associated with one’s own individual energy-consuming activity, and argues that it is morally wrong not to offset one’s own personal carbon emissions. The first half of the article questions the strength of this argument. The second half then maintains that a different kind of argument for the same conclusion is stronger. This focuses on the harms that are attributable to carbon-emitters considered collectively.
What requirements does morality impose on us in relation to climate change? This question can be asked of individuals, of the entire global population, and of groups of various sizes in between. Given the case for accepting that we all collectively ought to be causing less climate-affecting pollution than we do, what follows from that about the moral status of the actions of members of the larger group? I examine two main ways in which moral requirements on group members can derive from requirements that apply to the larger group. But neither of them seems to apply to the case of climate-affecting pollution. This may be a case where we together act wrongly, although no-one’s contribution to our doing so is wrong.
Climate action of different sorts is possible for national governments, for individual persons, and for various other intermediate agents – collective agents operating at a subnational level, such as regional governments, cities, corporations, and non-government associations of various kinds. This essay examines the relationship between agency and responsibility at these three levels: national, intermediate, and individual. It begins with a simple three-way distinction. The principal climate duties of national governments are duties of difference-making: duties to perform actions that themselves will make a significant difference to the welfare of future people. The principal climate duties of individuals are duties of participation: duties to join in those larger-scale collective actions that can address the problems of climate change, in whole or part. The principal climate duties of intermediate agents are duties of influence: duties to perform those actions that, through incentive and example, can influence national agents to do what they should. The paper examines the adequacy of this distinction, and asks how duties of these three kinds interact – in particular, how the content of our individual duties of participation are shaped by the content of the duties that apply to higher-level collective agents, and by whether they are being discharged.
The relationship in which we stand, as consumers of energy, to the harms caused by climate change, is one of the issues considered in the final chapter of this book.
“Offsetting and Risk-Imposition”, co-authored with Christian Barry