Issues in Philosophy Climate Change and Individual Responsibility

Climate Change and Individual Responsibility

by Corey Katz

Few dispute that scientists have physically measured an average increase in global average surface temperature of “0.85°C…between 1880 and 2012”. The best hypothesis to explain this observed “global warming” is an enhanced greenhouse effect caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) over this time. There is less consensus on precisely what effect current and future warming will have on environmental systems, but many think this “climate change” will be bad. Rising sea levels and a loss of coasts or even whole small island states, stronger and more frequent storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves, decreased crop yields and changed disease patterns threaten individuals’ most basic interests in life, health and subsistence (Caney, 2009, 2010). Moreover, these risks are caused by human activity as opposed to simply being natural.

The increasing risks which climate change poses to human well-being and to the natural world are scary. Moreover, they are clearly a moral problem of some kind. This is because the causes of climate change are human activity and the effects are serious risks and harms. So we might understand climate change as a case where some are causing serious harms to others and they morally shouldn’t be. But this “some” who have caused climate change is a huge aggregate that reaches across generations, classes, borders and stages of development and this has implications for how we understand moral duties in regard to climate change. One part of the huge aggregate does seem to be doing something morally wrong: those who are engaging in activities which release GHGs in order to meet clear luxury interests.

This aggregate includes a large proportion of the citizenry of developed, industrialized countries. This aggregate includes me and quite possibly you. I take vacations and go out for dinners despite my grad student budget. I like to drive out to the country and go for hikes and see the autumn leaves. But in doing so I emit GHGs which contribute to climate change which creates serious risks to the most basic interests of others. Engaging in these luxury activities may be a bigger moral problem than that pointed out by Peter Singer and Peter Unger. Not only am I not contributing my luxury income to charity which would save the lives of the global poor, but I am doing something even morally worse: I am, to modify the title of Unger’s famous book, “Living High and Risking Killing.”

This perspective on individual responsibility for climate change is expressed in the opening of Fritzie von Jessen’s book I Killed a Penguin: An Ecological Memoir (2009). Von Jessen recounts reading about the loss of penguins in Antarctica as a result of global warming and reflects back on her contribution to climate change over her life:

I put the paper aside. Through its infinite repercussions, like ripples on a pond, each choice and each action in the course of my life has forever imprinted the fate of the world. My carbon footprint was probably larger than the tracks of the legendary Bigfoot as I trampled through the days. That very day I had driven my car the few blocks to the local supermarket to buy a cellophane-wrapped steak nesting on a Styrofoam tray. Returning home with my purchase in a plastic bag, I poured lighter fluid on the charcoal grill in preparation for cooking—just ordinary actions in the course of an average day; but each of these deeds added carbon dioxide and other gases to the air—the sources of rising temperatures. Did I just kill a penguin?

Von Jessen bought a steak, I drove an hour out of the city to go for a hike, and maybe you picked up your kids today from soccer practice. These activities are part of everyday life in a fossil fuel society where most live far above basic needs. But is von Jessen right? Is each of us, as an individual, killing a penguin or, say, a future Bangladeshi who dies in a massive climate-change-intensified flood?

The situation in which citizens of fossil fuel societies find ourselves calls for serious philosophical reflection. As an individual member of such a society, what is my moral responsibility when I engage in activities which, when combined with many others doing so, cause serious risks of harm? What is interesting is that philosophers have understood moral responsibility in a way that suggests that neither von Jessen, nor me, nor you are wrongfully harming others by engaging in these activities.

For my action to count as wrongfully harming you, my action must be causally responsible for the harm to you, and, in so harming you, I must be violating a moral principle. If a tornado picks me up, and slams me into you breaking your ribs, I am in a sense causally responsible for the harm to you but probably not morally responsible since it was an accident and I had no control. In the case of individual emissions, however, it is not even clear I am causally responsible for harms to another at all. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has famously made this argument.

A major way to think about causal responsibility when we are discussing moral responsibility is counterfactually. A’s actions are causally responsible for harm to B if A’s actions are both necessary and sufficient for the harm to B. Let’s say that we want to argue that A’s emissions are causally responsible for the fact that B was seriously injured in a climate-change-intensified flood thirty-five years from now. To do so we would have to be able to say two things. First, that if A had not emitted the flood would not occur. But we cannot say this since global warming is caused by a massive aggregate of individuals emitting and A’s not emitting does not prevent this. Second, we would have to be able to say that if only A had emitted the flood would occur. But again, we cannot say this because only A emitting would (very likely) never be sufficient to raise the global average temperature enough to cause climate change or a particular intensified flood.

In reply to this second point, Avram Hiller has argued that it fails to take account of the way the world actually is. Atmospheric concentrations of GHGs are already far above a sustainable level and so all further emissions cause harm. While an individual’s emissions are an infinitesimal part of massive aggregate emissions, they are still sufficient to cause an infinitesimal increase in global average temperature and so an infinitesimal amount of harm.

The difficulty is that even if there is a way to make sense of what Derek Parfit calls the “moral mathematics” of this situation such that an individual’s emissions are causally responsible for some specific harms to another, establishing causal responsibility is not sufficient for assigning moral responsibility.

Another way to put this is that it is hard to find a moral principle which picking up your kids from soccer practice violates. The infinitesimal contribution to harm via the action is not intentional. Nor are the risks of harm caused large enough to say your driving is reckless or negligent of the risks to others. Moreover, the action is an intuitively moral practice of everyday life in a society organized around fossil fuels. Of course, we should not simply accept that such intuitively moral practices really are moral. At one time it was intuitively moral to own slaves. Even so, when engaging in everyday practices mean that each person contributes only an infinitesimal amount to a problem that causes harm, it is hard to say that a particular individual does something morally wrong to those harmed. The established view of individual moral responsibility therefore struggles to say that I am wrongfully harming another by going for an enjoyable drive out to the country. Von Jessen did not kill a penguin by buying a steak.

Even so, many readers might be thinking that something has gone terribly wrong here! If no individual is morally responsible for cutting her emissions, we might further assume that no one has any sort of moral duty in regards to climate change. Each us can think “It’s not my fault” and blithely continue with business as usual.

While there are different ways forward from here, my view is that the problem of individual responsibility for climate change shows us that an individual luxury emitter’s primary moral duty in regard to climate change is a social-political one. That is, each individual’s primary moral duty is to work actively to get governments to pass new laws which restructure fossil fuel societies and to work to educate others to accept these new laws by creating social and political change. Individual luxury emitters have this duty in part because by contributing an infinitesimal amount to the aggregate each individual bears some moral responsibility for the resulting risks and harms. But mainly it is because such individuals live in societies that are structured according to norms which deeply incentivize continuing GHG emissions as usual. Ensuring that the aggregate of luxury emitters cuts our emissions so that we cause less risk of harm will take large and difficult changes. The main individual duty is an imperfect duty to promote these changes. Cutting individual emissions will certainly be a part of creating social change or showing your support for laws which reduce emissions. All I am saying is that you shouldn’t feel guilty for driving to the Sierra Club meetings.

Corey Katz works in social and political philosophy, ethics and environmental issues. He is the Post-Doctoral Fellow of the Ethics of Sustainable Development in the Center for Ethics and Human Values at the Ohio State University.


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  1. Thanks for your post Corey! In his concluding summary of chapter 5, “Private Morality,” from Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, John Broome writes: “Each of us has a clear duty to emit no greenhouse gas. Emitting greenhouse gas does serious harm to others for our own benefit, and that is morally impermissible. It is an injustice. The duty to emit no greenhouse gas is stringent, but even so it can be satisfied easily and effectively by offsetting. Offsetting is not morally dubious, as some environmental organizations suggest it is. Reducing our emissions to zero, whether by offsetting or in other ways, will not go far toward solving the problem of climate change. We should do it on grounds of justice, not because it is a good way to improve the world. To improve the world, we shall have to adopt political means. We shall have to work through our governments, because only governments can take action on the large scale that is required.”

    Broome seems to agree that, “an individual luxury emitter’s primary moral duty in regard to climate change is a social-political one.” But Broome’s position also seems to affords us the resources for finding a moral principle, which the (non-carbon-offset) picking up of your kids from soccer practice violates: e.g., it’s wrong to impose the costs of one’s GHG-emitting activities on others.

    The the imposition of the infinitesimal cost of my single act of picking up my kids from soccer practice plausibly isn’t intentional.
    But according to Broome’s estimate, the average affluent person can expect his or her individual GHG-emissions over the course of his or her lifetime to wipe out 6 months of healthy human life. This is a very significant cost to impose on others. Against this background, and informed as we (now) are, our failure to offset these emissions is intentional, and it seems to me to be wrong.

    Broome addresses some objections to offsetting (e.g. that the altruist can do better things with her money, that cheap offsets exploit global inequality, and that offsetting delays progress on climate change), and I find his responses satisfying. But I’d by interested to hear what you think about its ethical import.

    I suppose someone might think we can be morally obliged to offset our GHG-emissions only if offsets can be devised, which do not merely offset the approximately equivalent amount of GHG’s for which I’m responsible for emitting, but reliably offset those very bits of GHGs I personally emitted (or demanded that others emit). That seems an implausibly stringent constraint, but I expect it could be rendered less implausible by appeal to some (clever) analogies I haven’t considered.

  2. Nice post, Cory.

    You say: “…each individual’s primary moral duty is to work actively to get governments to pass new laws which restructure fossil fuel societies and to work to educate others to accept these new laws by creating social and political change. Individual luxury emitters have this duty in part because by contributing an infinitesimal amount to the aggregate each individual bears some moral responsibility for the resulting risks and harms. But mainly it is because such individuals live in societies that are structured according to norms which deeply incentivize continuing GHG emissions as usual… All I am saying is that you shouldn’t feel guilty for driving to the Sierra Club meetings.”

    When should I feel guilty about contributing? Also, if I willingly choose to drive rather than, say, carpool why shouldn’t I feel guilty? The behavior perpetuates the norm and doesn’t actively model the behavior I claim I want to see my government enforce.

    For me, I can’t make sense of having some moral responsibility (MR). Many folks appeal to MR coming in degrees but it would seem to make more sense to be clear on what we are responsible for rather than spread the MR around millions of people. So, maybe we can say that I am morally responsible for being careless with regards to my emissions if I choose to drive instead of carpool or walk, if I know that emissions contribute to a demising environment and I have alternatives to get to the meeting that have less negative affects on the environment. Once we couch the responsibility in clear fashion it seems we can help to curb some of the concerns I have about what it means to spread MR for X over a mass number of citizens.

    Lastly, this seems to burden victims in an odd way.

    I am reminded of the “Jim and the Indians” case by Bernard Williams (awful name for the example but bear with me). I’ll save the details as this comment is getting quite long, but it seems a bit much to derive moral duties for folks who have not done anything wrong from the behavior of unethical folks, wouldn’t you say?

    Let’s say I have never driven a car and others have driven millions of miles over their lifetime. Just because the ethically ‘bad’ folks have put us in this bad situation I must now bear the costs of not only my children not having a planet to live on but now I must spend my time, at least some of it, advocating for change on top of the direct cost to me and my children’s health and well-being? Even though the problem is the result of the morally bad actors and not by folks like me who NEVER emit fossil fuels (hypothetical case, of course!). Or, think of a worse case if that doesn’t move you. If we have a rape problem in our culture, would it follow that we all (even victims of rape themselves?!) should bear the costs that accompany sacrificing our time to advocating for safer streets? I get the duty is imperfect but it still seems that we are burdening some of the victims of the CLEARLY wreckless among us by requiring of them, morally speaking, to make up for the harms they incurred. The rape case is a severe one but I use it to get the point across a bit more clearly.

    But, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic here? Quite possible. Anyway, thanks for the post. Good stuff.


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