The last few weeks have felt like an avalanche of dire news about the climate. An United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report gave an estimate of around 12 years left to avert catastrophic climate change. The policies of the new president-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro will cause widespread devastation to the Amazon rainforest and wider environment in addition to violence in his own country. A report released last week found that the oceans have been warming more than what was previously thought, potentially limiting the amount of time the global community has to take action and the extremity of that action.

An anxiety that has existed since the late 20th-century and is already affecting the most vulnerable people globally seems to suddenly be coming into the foreground and accelerating. With a massive social change coming from climate change and a social transformation needed to avert it, a philosophical response and reorientation is needed, both for how people respond as nations and how people respond individually.

First, it is a global, communal problem that requires global, communal solutions, and therefore presents problems of self-interest versus communal interest.

Climate ethics is already a developing field of study. This subset of ethics deals with the moral consequences and problems of climate change. Stephen M. Gardiner and Lauren Hartzell-Nichols of the University of Washington note three major ethical dilemmas posed by climate change that climate ethics attempts to answer. First, it is a global, communal problem that requires global, communal solutions, and therefore presents problems of self-interest versus communal interest. It has intergenerational effects, as well as effects on animals, forcing us to question what moral worth to put on lives that do not exist yet and non-human lives.

They also write that these are challenging moral questions, because ideas like intergenerational ethics and the value of non-human lives are relatively new. Gardiner, Hartzell-Nichols and MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, as well as other scholars and activists, acknowledge the singular unfairness that climate change ethics revolves around. While the United States and China have produced the majority of gas emissions, the brunt of the effects will be felt in the developing world. This question of how to answer the crisis communally while creating a fair system is at the heart of the macro-ethical analysis of climate change.

Kant phrased the idea as what one would do if what they did would become a maxim that everyone else would follow. Individual action like recycling, walking instead of driving, and eating less meat can be understood in this lens.

Another aspect, though, to ethical issues around climate is how individuals feel their moral framework change in response to climate change. Broadly, I would argue the informal theory that these can be divided into two categories of responses that can be characterized as deontology and nihilism.

Deontology revolves around the idea that there are laws that people must follow, no matter what, to live a moral life. Kant phrased the idea as what one would do if what they did would become a maxim that everyone else would follow. Individual action like recycling, walking instead of driving, and eating less meat can be understood in this lens. This response functions on the idea that individually these actions might not amount to much in the global scheme but that ideally everyone would follow them. It becomes important to do one’s part because it is moral to do one’s part. These actions can be seen as a deontological response.  

Closely attached to these actions though is nihilism. To be clear, people should not stop doing what they can to limit their carbon footprint. But, in the face of reports that find that only 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the released greenhouse gases, in the face of governments in the United States and now Brazil turning away from environmental protection, it is not hard to appreciate that nihilism might be a logical response. Distrust in institutions like government to solve the problems as well as decaying faith in a future can contribute to a nihilistic and meaningless view of society. Any intrinsic meaning derived from actions and institutions can fall away in the face of an empty future.

Any intrinsic meaning derived from actions and institutions can fall away in the face of an empty future.

The Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer takes on this harsh worldview when writing about the morality of having children. He writes that the people “… most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived.” He continues to debate whether this makes it preferable that people stop having children. He writes: “and is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?” Singer does not conclude that humanity should cease to exist and instead argues that the continuation of human species is good in and of itself. However, the question he addresses in this illustrates what many people might feel about the future. This is a sense of nihilism at a future that might not come to exist or should not exist. How can one trust in continuing traditionally meaningful ways of living if the future for those ways is potentially empty?

This is where a re-centring of moral priorities, I would argue, needs to occur. With the knowledge that this generation has the potential to be the last generation on Earth, or, less dramatically, the last generation to live in this type of society for the foreseeable future, the moral focus needs to shift from ensuring a future for the nation or the state to creating fairness for the people living in it. Climate change is going to affect a stratified world to different degrees along an already established hierarchy. Climate ethics is already questioning what to do about this unfairness in the inequality between responsibility and effects. The response on an intra-societal or individual level though is quite clear.

A central part of the moral response needs to then be a centring of fairness. Liberal political philosopher John Rawls, in his book Justice as Fairness, put down two principals as the founding doctrines for a just society. The first guarantees personal liberties. The second argues that economic and social relationships should be configured in such a way that inequalities only exist to benefit the disadvantaged. Though Rawls and his ideas are criticized for not going far enough towards a just, equal society, this second principle that casts fairness as a way of reaching justice is important for responses to an unequal climate crisis.

The idea of fairness is what needs to be reckoned with at the macro-level as decisions are made about how to distribute the burden of addressing the issues of climate change. At the same time, at the individual scale social relationships and interactions need to be reconfigured so that fairness is a central, guiding principal. The world is unequal, and the effects of climate change will be felt unequally. As solutions the crisis are pursued, centring fairness in our social and economic relationships in this way is a necessary step to the justice we would need to face climate change. What is left to decide is how we enact that fairness.