Preface: In this essay, I will be discussing certain environmental problems, primarily global warming and what it causes: climate change. I will be assuming this as a fact, and as such will not give equal consideration to climate change skepticism. If you’re a climate change skeptic, I implore you to still read the essay. If you still disagree or are interested in learning more, click here for a decent summation.
Within the last few decades, many people have come to think that problems are discounted in favor of economic and personal prosperity. This is notable with the issue of climate change, especially within the United States where they have the second highest carbon dioxide emissions. Recently, Paris hosted COP21, the most recent “climate talks,” where they discussed goals and steps to reduce CO2 emissions in order to combat climate change. While this deal was far from perfect, pulling out from the deal would allow carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to rise at a much faster rate, thus furthering climate change and the environmental disasters that come with it (hurricanes, droughts, high temperatures, etc.). Many are arguing against this proposed climate policy as they believe that policy tends to go against economic growth (there is a correlation between GDP growth and fossil fuel consumption/carbon emissions). I’m here to say that this position is the wrong way to look at it, and that we should take a more “careful” look if we are to understand why we should act against climate change, even if it goes against economic growth.
Aldo Leopold was a well-known environmentalist who was influential in the development of environmental ethics. This is most notable within his book, A Sand County Almanac, which detailed his nature writing and his ethical reasoning for conservation. In A Sand County Almanac, he goes over his idea of “land ethic,” which is:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
One standard interpretation of the “biotic community” is everything that is contained within the natural environment: this includes plants, animals, and humans. In this case, Leopold was suggesting that things are “right” when they benefit everyone while simultaneously keeping nature intact and stable (away from any disaster or damage), and “wrong” when they do the opposite. According to Leopold’s land ethic, then, we can assume that the right thing is to combat climate change in any form, whether it is through policy or cultural changes, and that the wrong thing to do is nothing .
It becomes apparent that, as we ignore climate change in favor of economic growth and prosperity, we are not being environmentally ethical and we ignore the dangers it brings: the increased air pollution that comes with increased fossil fuel usage; the warming climate which exacerbates weather disasters and phenomena; rising sea levels; and the impact that all of these will have on the world’s poor. This will inevitably decrease economic growth while increasing environmental disasters as a result of increased carbon dioxide emissions. In ignoring these factors, we are ignoring our obligation to the land we live on, which is to keep it healthy not only for its own well-being, but for the well-being of future generations. In essence, we don’t care enough to do anything about it because we care more about materialistic gain than the intactness of our environment.
With the effect this issue will have on the world, it bears the question: do we care enough to actually do anything meaningful about the problem? It seems that, with inadequate policy and the feelings surrounding the problem, we do not care much at all. Rather than basing policy decisions on economic growth, we should be focusing on how much we care about the problem. It may seem unorthodox, but using “care” as a judgment for certain decisions, both morally and politically, allows us to empathize with those who would face the brunt of certain negative events. In her article “Care as a Basis for Radical Political Judgments,” Joan Tronto defines care as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” In this statement, “we” includes not only the present generations, but those who have yet to come. We should take these people into account, but current climate policy (or lack thereof) dismisses the negative effects that climate change will have them. Keep in mind, “future generations” does not just include those within your own country, but also those around the world who have little power to act and change the world to continue living on. “We,” being the whole world, need to take care of one another because we all inhabit the same planet. If we care for one another, and care for the environment we live in, we can acknowledge Leopold’s land ethic as well as take care of our environment at large so everyone can live in harmony.
Alan Siebuhr is a current undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. When he’s not cramming for exams, he usually updates his social media with pictures of his cat. You can follow him on Twitter @amsiebuhr.