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Peter Singer on the COP21 Agreement and the Ethics of Climate Change

How can we motivate individual and global climate change action? An eminent philosopher and ethicist weighs in.

Image by Mal Vickers via Flickr

Peter Singer is arguably one of the world’s best-known modern philosophers. Singer has been based out of Princeton University since 1999 and has a host of awards and honors to his name. He’s perhaps best known for his seminal 1975 tome Animal Liberation, which all but coined that term (he’d used it earlier in 1973) and helped to launch the movement around it. Arguing that there was no real value or significance in the distinction between species and rejecting the need for reciprocal social contracts for ethics to exist, he asserted that we ought to do the greatest good for the most living beings in the world by instituting animal rights (via non-violent activism), combating factory farming, and pursuing vegetarianism. But Singer’s interests and philosophical works go far beyond these best-of conceptual touchstones.

A classical utilitarian, Singer concerns himself with sorting out hierarchies of need and interest to allocate resources, attention, and effectively provide the greatest good to the most beings. His interests have drawn him into debates on everything from population control to the right to death and every other hot-button political issue of every era since he became a public intellectual. Recently he’s become an outspoken commentator on effective altruism and corporate ethics.

Singer’s general preoccupation with determining the best and most rational courses for human behavior towards the wider world dovetail nicely with (and have led him to previously address) issues related to climate change. In the wake of the COP21 summit and its landmark deal, which set hard goals and firm norms for emissions reduction in the coming years (but left the details of how to get there up to national and local actors), GOOD reached out to Singer to get his read on the agreement and the ethics of environmentalism.

What do you make of the COP21 agreement?

It’s certainly a more promising outlook than it was after the Copenhagen meetings six years ago, when it seemed like it was impossible to reach any sort of agreement. We have all of the nations saying that they are in agreement that it’s important to keep climate change global warming form exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. They’ve even mentioned this 1.5-degree level as an ideal. They’re all acknowledging that that means that they have to take certain steps.

What is not so positive is that the pledges made so far are not even sufficient to stay within the 2 degree barrier, let alone the 1.5 one. So there’s a lot of hard work to be done, and they’re going to meet again in five years and see where they’re going and hopefully ramp up the reduction of greenhouse gases, because I’m sure that will be necessary. But I think we now have a framework that is grounds for hope that we’ll avoid the worst of the possible catastrophes.

Much of the fulfillment of this agreement is going to depend on nations coming up with their own programs to meet their pledges. They’re going to have to make hard decisions about resource allocations—and about whether they should stick to their pledges or try to weasel out or sidestep. How do we convince them of the ethics of adherence?

You’re right that we are relying on countries to more or less voluntarily make these cuts because [the agreement is not legally binding]. I say more or less because they have made public pledges and if they don’t keep their public pledges there will be a certain amount of public shame.

If it turns out the public shaming is not effective, then we’re going to have to… see whether there’s something else we can do. But we hope that public shaming will be effective.

But some nations may feel that they’re big enough or the present is so important that it overrides the public shame of shirking pledges. For those nations, what moral argument is there for continued pledge adherence?

[An] encouraging thing in climate action over the last year has been the agreement of the United States and China to take this problem seriously. I would see those as the major two states that are too big to be pushed around.

There are other significant contributors to climate change that might feel like that. It’s good that Russia seems to be on board because, of all of the major nations, [Russia] has the least to lose, given that climate change will presumably increase the extent to which you can grow crops across parts of Siberia, for example. States that [don’t care] could cause a problem, but so far they’re not. My guess is that if there were some state that would really just thumb its nose at the others, if you had China and the United States and the European Union all making cuts, they would think about taking sanctions against [that lagging state].

You seem optimistic—and you’re not alone. Do you think we’re seeing an ethical shift in the way people view environmental issues as part of a shared, interconnected future?

Since the Bush regime… the shift in [U.S.] policy has been dramatic. Even at Copenhagen, Obama had not really gotten involved in the issue. The Chinese have also taken a more constructive role. Maybe they’ve become more convinced of the science. It’s less controversial in most countries. So yeah, I think there has been improved cooperation in most countries.

Optimism puts it a bit strong. Let’s say hopefulness that we may have turned a corner and are on the right path.

Let’s say we fail to contain climate change to below a 2-degree rise (a target some people already feel is too conservative to prevent disastrous effects) and there is a climate catastrophe. What should people and nations do in that situation?

Well, what can they do? One possibility that’s been discussed is to engage in some form of geo-engineering to artificially cool the planet. Nobody has talked about what kind of international law foundation there would be for doing that. But [in that case] we would get more rapid discussion of geo-engineering and at least research into it to see what would work.

In that kind of disaster situation you might get an every-nation-for-itself thing…It’s a horrible situation you’re asking me to imagine. It’s hard to know what would happen.

While nations can enact macro changes, we as individuals have some responsibility for changing our own behaviors, too. But from a micro view it can be harder to tell what it is necessary. How can people think about this to best balance their resources?

I do think there needs to be government programs to make it easier for people to live with a reduced or zero-carbon footprint. So the first thing people should do is be politically active citizens. Contact their political representatives and say they want to see action to fulfill these [COP21] pledges. We need to have a clear political constituency for government action.

But beyond that, we can all do our part for reducing our carbon footprint—driving less and using public transport or a bicycle or walking more, reducing meat consumption (particularly the ruminants), looking for the most fuel-efficient vehicles, and trying to reduce flying to the necessary. We ought to be encouraging other people to take [similar steps]. We ought to be using solar hot water and solar photovoltaic cells if we have homes that are suitable for doing that.

Let’s say I’m a hypothetical individual who’s totally self-interested, though. I don’t intend to reproduce, so I’m not thinking about anyone I care about living in a future I affect. I’m most focused on maximizing my lived experience and have trouble valuing the effect of my actions on an abstract, nebulous future. How do I get roped in, not just via government actions and laws, to joining the rest of humankind in becoming environmentally conscious?

We can put a price on your selfish desires to keep using fossil fuels or eat meat or whatever you’re doing that is not contributing. And at some price no doubt you will change your behavior.

But outside of government action it gets difficult. We’re back to trying to shame people into living a more ethical lifestyle. At individual levels that’s going to be actually more difficult. People tend to live with like-minded people. They’re going to be protected against [opposing views].

When people have self-interests generating either their view of the facts or their willingness to change their lifestyle, that’s pretty difficult for philosophical argument to change. Yes, around the edges you can make a difference with some people. But I’m not going to claim that sound philosophical arguments are going to get to everybody, irrespective of their levels of education.

Let’s talk about how changing consensus on climate change dovetails with some of your other interests—family planning, factory farming, etc.—and how we engage with them.

As far as the suffering of animals on factory farms, I think there’s a great deal of harmony between the environmental concerns and animal welfare concerns. If we can reduce the number of animals on factory farms with more and more people reducing the amount of meat that they eat then we’ll have a major effect [on both carbon footprints and animal suffering].

I think the environmental movement is recognizing the role of diet and meat in this issue. That’s something that’s been ignored for some time. There was a documentary called Cowspiracy… I thought that amusingly showed some of the major environmental groups trying to run away from this issue. More recently, they’re more open to talk about those issues, even if in gentle ways.

[The population issue] has gone somewhat quiet after the various global meetings that were held in the ‘90s. It became politically incorrect to start talking about how we needed to reduce growth in some countries. The only thing you could talk about was increasing the reproductive choice of women. I guess the hope was that [would] be enough to slow population growth to sustainable levels. In some countries, that’s not going to be enough. So we are going to have to focus some attention again on [these issues], because unless we have some miraculous discovery of clean energy, we’re just going to undo the gains we’ve made by reducing per capita emissions.

We seem to always think that we’ll find a way to stretch our resources—or to avoid talking about the alternative. Do you think the COP21 deal brings us closer to a point where we can overcome our hesitation and recommence constructive talks on resource limitations?

I hope so. I see some small signs of that happening.

I wouldn’t say I see the kind of large-scale, vigorous debate that would be good to have, and was had in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of it did go a bit wrong. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had much of this in the past 20 years or so... The concerns were with coercive measures being used to slow population growth. But there was cultural sensitivity to these issues in some nations as well—the influence of some major religions [for instance]. We’re just going to have to confront that and hope that the majority of adherents to some of these religions are not going to [listen] to their religious leaders if they tell them that they should not use contraception.

Coercive force is always a spoiler. No person or nation wants to give up sovereignty or be subject to punishment for failing a pledge. But that means to get deals like COP21 we have to just put our faith in human actors to do what’s right… How can we have that faith?

Well, maybe there are things less than strong coercive measures that can have an effect. We can start by providing contraception to every woman who wants it.

But that’s not going to solve the whole problem. I think we have to try nudges rather than strong coercion.

So basically we facilitate as much ethical environmental behavior as people are predisposed to express, and then we try to slowly incentivize more as necessary?

Yes, I think that puts it well.

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