Almost all moral reasoning concerns ideas about how we treat one another (including other sentient beings). Hence, what is moral depends upon what other people do. Driving on the right side of a busy highway is moral (and driving on the left side immoral) in North America because that is what good people are socially expected to do for public safety. But driving on the left side is moral in the UK and Japan because that is the norm there. Whether it is moral to drive on the right or the left side of the road entirely depends upon what other people do. Similarly, whether it is moral to take something another person possesses depends upon whether that person obtained the possession morally or not. It depends upon that person’s actions and the effects upon other people. Even violence against another person can be moral depending upon the context. For example, forced imprisonment is a form of violence that is justified based on its effects on society. Even more extreme, it is moral to squeeze a tiny infant’s body so hard that her heart has difficulty beating, her skull deforms, and she cries from extreme physiological stress. This is a description of a routine natural childbirth which is painful for everyone involved and yet it is moral to cause such violence even though a C-section is an available alternative that would do less violence upon innocent babies.
Morality is a form of game theory in which the morality of any action depends upon the actions of other people. For example, suppose that I am the only person on earth who understands climate change and everyone else on earth is ignorant about the problem. Thus they will continue producing greenhouse gasses no matter how much greenhouse gasses I produce. Is it moral for me to continue to produce greenhouse gasses because my emissions have essentially zero effect on the planet by themselves? By comparison, it is clearly much more immoral for me to do nothing to spread information about climate change to others so that we might have a chance to collectively stop global warming. It would be better to produce massive carbon emissions flying across the globe every day to spread the information about global warming in that case because the only solution is to get billions of people involved in collective action to stop climate change. One jet-setter’s high carbon emissions would be negligible in comparison with the potential benefits of teaching the globe about climate change.
Unfortunately, this kind of ignorance problem is the main impediment to solving climate change today. Most people simply don’t care enough about climate change to make more than the tiniest sacrifices to solve the problem. They should care more and until we solve that problem, we won’t solve climate change.
Because most of the people on earth do not understand that we should invest more in averting global warming, climate change is mostly an information problem and individual sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions don’t matter except for how they affect other people’s behavior. Indeed, it is even possible for one’s personal sacrifices to make climate change worse if one’s self-righteousness about it makes other people feel inferior and causes them to reject the entire idea.
In a democracy, we need support for policies that can endure partisan changes in government because if an issue is only important for one side of the political spectrum, it can easily be overturned by the other side when elections shift power to the other side. Self-righteousness harms coalition building across partisan divides. The impulse to achieve personal moral purity on climate change by eliminating one’s personal carbon footprint also risks alienating the people who haven’t yet been convinced that we should do anything at all. Our most important job as environmentalists is to convince them.
It would be very different if we lived in a world where most people were making sacrifices for the climate. Then it would be moral for each individual to make personal sacrifices to reduce their own carbon footprint because that would help uphold the social norm. (Plus it would have a negligible direct effect too, but and even a negligible effect is still an effect.) What makes an action moral or immoral is the effect on other people and my personal carbon footprint, although it is larger than the global average, has a negligible direct effect on people compared to my political actions because I live in a society where most of my compatriots don’t care about making sacrifices to prevent global warming.
Unfortunately, the moral logic of global warming works against our evolved intuitions of self-righteousness. We tend to get a lot more satisfaction out of our personal actions than out of the moral sacrifices of others and this has led to the problem that many environmentalists spend a lot more money on minimizing their personal carbon footprint than on working for a collective reduction in carbon emissions. I know environmentalists who get tremendous satisfaction out of their personal achievements in approaching a zero-carbon footprint. But they shouldn’t get any satisfaction!
There are so many humans on the planet that if we all held hands in a line, we could circle the globe hundreds of times. Of course, we would also have to build millions of flotation devices to support humans across the oceans, but it is technically possible to do. Suppose someone has the goal of holding hands around the world and he decides to do his part to accomplish the goal by making a float and getting in the ocean with his arms raised up east to west with hands outstretched ready to hold hands with someone adjacent. Then he is stuck with an epiphany that gives him a sense of having accomplished something globally significant. His insight was that if every other person in the world would also make the same kind of effort that he did to reach out and hold hands, they could collectively hold hands and reach all the way around the globe hundreds of times. Then with great satisfaction having accomplished his part in the global effort, he proceeds to go about his everyday life having felt like he did his part to accomplish the collective goal.
The fight against climate change is like the goal to have all humans hold hand simultaneously around the world. Each individual’s footprint is insignificant by itself, and the main effect of individual actions is what effect we have on other people’s actions. There are some people who are responsible for millions of times more carbon emissions than the average human, but it isn’t due to their own personal consumption. It is due to their power over our collective actions. For example, our political leaders are responsible for policies that affect hundreds of millions of people’s carbon footprint and our fossil fuel lobbyists are responsible for manipulating said politicians as well as their direct influence on our public culture via their disinformation campaigns.
There is an asymmetry between the efforts of climate-change environmentalists versus big carbon. Environmentalists spend a lot of our moral resources to increase our personal moral purity and reduce our individual carbon footprint. On the other side of the political divide, big carbon doesn’t waste any resources on personal moral purity and so they can devote all their resources to influence the public spere to stop policies that would actually make a difference.
Big carbon loves the moral purity of a zero-carbon footprint. They wish environmentalists would entirely focus on our individual moral purity rather than on collective action to solve the problem. But don’t let them distract you into navel gazing about our own individual carbon footprints. That is just a distraction and one of big carbon’s strategies is to promote it. Even though big carbon doesn’t care what environmentalists do about their personal carbon footprints, they love to chastise environmentalists for hypocrisy when they have a positive carbon footprint and want our global carbon footprint to fall. This is a common critique of prominent environmentalists like Al Gore and even Greta Thunberg. Don’t let them distract you. Hypocrisy is often the first step towards morality and in this case, there really isn’t hypocrisy in both having a big carbon footprint AND wanting everyone to make more investment to reduce our collective footprint.
Greenhouse gasses have been produced for generations and even a high-emission person is unlikely to produce more than one-billionth of the total problem in the atmosphere. When an individual reduces his footprint and solves one-billionth of the problem, he should get only one-billionth of the satisfaction of achieving the goal. It is hard for ordinary people to sense just how trivially insignificant that it is. It is less than one strong stroke of an arm on a swim that circumnavigates the globe. People are hardwired to get enormous righteousness satisfaction out of our own personal actions relative to the actions of others, but our own carbon footprint really doesn’t matter. Getting satisfaction out of reducing one’s personal carbon footprint is just as logical as holding hands with one person and feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing one’s part to hold hands around the globe.
A collective goal cannot be accomplished without collective action. To have any chance of making real progress will require collective action that gets billions of people to change their actions for the common good. Nothing we do as individuals matters except insofar as it also influences others to join the cause.
Our own individual efforts to reduce personal carbon footprint are bad if:
- They divert our resources away from doing more important things that shift our culture. This is my primary objection to Bluffton University making big financial sacrifices to reduce our institution’s carbon footprint. We have a comparative advantage in education and our biggest moral failure is that we don’t do more to teach the facts about climate change.
- They create moral license which causes us (or others) to burn more carbon in other parts of our mental accounting.
- They create a tribalistic partisan dynamic in which people on the other side of the issue just reject the whole issue. This is particularly problematic in the USA.
Otherwise, everyone should reduce our own personal carbon footprint because if it doesn’t harm the culture than it may be slightly better than nothing.