Morality as a Question of Survival – Bernward Gesang’s climate ethics
Climate change raises a number of questions that are commonly referred to as “moral” or “ethical”. Most often discussed are questions of justice: Is it just that the biggest polluters (the industrialized countries) are likely to be harmed least and perhaps even ostensibly profit from climatic changes, while those regions of the world that have hardly or not at all contributed to the overall volume of greenhouse gas emissions will be hit hardest by the negative consequences of global warming? Is it just that future generations will have to pay for what previous generations have done? Is it just when polluter states refuse to enter into international agreements, as did for example the United States and Australia with respect to the Kyoto Convention? Does not rather a series of obligations follow from the unequal distribution of causes and consequences, such as the obligation to reduce CO2 emissions and accept climate protection treaties and to support massively the victims of climate change? And conversely, is it just to demand of developing countries that they slow down their catch-up economic modernization in order to protect the climate? Don’t these countries have the right to this development?
What about individual responsibility? Does climate change obligate each individual to examine his conduct and, where appropriate, to alter it so as to make it climate compatible? Or does this responsibility obtain only for collective subjects such as corporations, states and groups of states? How far does this responsibility go? Does it extend only to living generations or also to future ones? Only to human beings or also to animals and plants and even nature as a whole? Put more simply, may we still fly to holiday spots in an airplane and drive to work in a car? May we continue to do as we have been doing when we know (or at least could know) that this contributes to climate change and endangers many people’s long-term survival – not to mention the extinction of animal species?
Critique of (climate) justice
In his book Bernward Gesang seeks an answer to these and similar questions. Above all, he wants to help gain philosophical recognition for climate ethics as a “branch of applied ethics”, a recognition it has so far lacked in the German-speaking world. He also wants of course to do something more: to liberate the discourse of climate ethics from the embrace of the theory of justice and to set it on a utilitarian basis. Behind this lies a genuine philosophical intention: to demonstrate the power of the utilitarian approach in a concrete application, to help a philosophical position that has so far been rather marginal in Germany to find greater acceptance.
Justice, on Gesang’s argument, is important, but not an end in itself. Justice is made for man, not man for justice, and so it has only instrumental value. If justice is striven after for its own sake, then it fails to increase human “happiness” and becomes a fetish. In climate policy, principles of justice, particularly principles of distributive justice, play a great role and the achievement of “climate justice” is looked upon as the universally accepted goal. Overlooked here, according to Gesang, are the limits of arguments based on the theory of justice: justice can help “to make solutions enforceable”, but it is not itself the solution, and it is therefore unsuitable as the guiding value of climate policy.
Gesang proposes a “utilitarian consideration of the climate problem”. Instead of speaking of rights, he argues, it makes more sense to focus on cost-benefit analysis. The future, for example, has no rights, or at least no “absolute” rights, the consideration of which could impose obligations on the present. The future does, however, possess a benefit potential, which should be tapped and contrasted with the costs of an ambitious program of climate protection. If, for example, climate change were to fall short of the currently predicted dimensions, or if in future we were to succeed in filtering CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it safely, then CO2 saving would be superfluous. What matters for utilitarians such as Gesang is the maximizing of “expected utility” (the product of payouts and probability of occurrence).
According to Gesang, climate change policy measures usually have an extremely low expected utility; the bulk of the money spent is thus wasted. Nevertheless, Gesang’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that an “energetic climate policy” is urgently needed. Its goal should be to prevent the passing of so-called “tipping points” and the triggering of the irreversible domino effect described by theories of climate change.
Reasonable climate policy measures that are oriented towards expected utility (such as weighted micro-certificate trading, the restriction of population growth and the promotion of renewable energies) always have a double effect: they reduce the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and contribute to combating global problems (for instance, poverty). Since both the present and the future benefit equally from such measures, their justification is independent of (uncertain) climate forecasts. Gesang is confident that these measures are in the best interests of the polluter states, and that finally only this self-interest can motivate the required willingness to address the climate crisis.
Dr. phil., teaches political theory and the history of ideas at the University for Political Science in Munich.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Any questions about this article? Please write to us!