Climate Change

Written by: Aanya Banthia, Jahnavi Singhal, Sonakshi Jain, Soumya Bharadwaj, Ishanvi Goel, Tanvi Singh

Climate change has become one of the most existential questions of our times. It is an interdisciplinary issue, with science, technology, economics and geopolitics, all marshalled to investigate causes, list consequences and find solutions. In this article, we avoid these familiar approaches and investigate the issue from a philosophical lens - observing the shifts in how humans have related to nature, examining crucial questions of distributive justice, and reflecting on whether we owe any obligation to future generations.

Much before the Great Acceleration of the 1950s, Descartes, a seventeenth-century philosopher, propounded that nature is a set of objects made available to human beings. Living things are nothing more than inert matter; only human beings have a soul distinct from the body, making it the only respectable species. The rest of nature is part of the world of objects at humanity’s disposal. Such a utilitarian approach, where humans could treat nature as nothing more than a means to its greedy ends, led to the ruthless exploitation of nature in all its forms with disastrous consequences for all forms of life.

The emergence of ecological sciences, which lay emphasis on the concept of the ecosystem, changed humans’ relationship with nature. Ecosystem refers to the complex interaction of living species among themselves and their physical environment. In this context, humans relate to nature as being an element of it, not its master, moving closer to biospheric egalitarianism. While the scientific approach has been criticised by many philosophers for not being able to sufficiently dislodge anthropocentrism, others contend that the belief in human life having a special place and value in the existence of the planet is useful because it confers us with responsibilities and leads to productive scientific, technological, and social actions.

Contemporary climate discussions tend to focus on questions of climate action, burden sharing and intergenerational responsibility. These are not simply questions of public policy and clean technology; at the core, they are questions of philosophy, and how we solve them will be determined by our sense of justice and duty. Consider how not all human populations and countries are equal in the face of climate change. The rich are driving climate change through their high-carbon lifestyles. The world's wealthiest 10% were responsible for around half of the global emissions in 2015, according to a 2020 report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The top 1% were responsible for 15% of emissions, nearly twice as much as the world's poorest 50%, who were responsible for just 7% but will feel the brunt of climate impacts despite bearing the least responsibility for causing them. Environmental justice must redress the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens to economically disadvantaged groups. But ambitious targets do not make space for the bottom 50% to grow their emissions so that they achieve reasonable standards of living. How far are we willing to compromise with justice for urgent necessity?

On a global scale, rich countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, account for just 12 per cent of the global population today but are responsible for 50 per cent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years. Over that time, Earth has heated up by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, leading to heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires, disproportionately impacting the small island developing states and other third-world countries. Should the burden of mitigation and funding adaptation be borne in proportion to how much a country has emitted? Or should countries be made to pay to the extent that they have benefited from the activities that involve the emission of greenhouse gases? Or should burdens be distributed according to countries’ ability to pay, regardless of their contribution to pollution, since time is running out? These are some of the most contentious questions that nation-states grapple with at climate summits. All of them are questions about what is the fairest thing to do and require countries to forge a consensus about distributive justice.

Lastly, our scope of responsibilities should include future generations as well, without being concerned about reciprocity. Why do we owe moral obligations to future people? Because our actions or the lack thereof with regard to the environment have intergenerational dimensions; they create costs for future generations. If we do not course correct, succeeding generations inherit a resource-depleted, disaster-prone world. The duty to bequeath a thriving planet should push us to make tough choices, because as Barack Obama said, “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”

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