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Climate Change is a Moral Crisis. But Our Political System Doesn’t Treat It That Way

4 minute read

It seems the moral imperative for climate action just isn’t computing. In Europe, hope for the ambitious climate action we need was whittled away this summer, with the G-7 reneging on its earlier promises to stop funding fossil fuel projects and deciding in late June to keep developing natural gas overseas, while the European Union passed a proposal in early July that would categorize natural gas projects as sustainable investments. And while a surprise climate deal with Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va) was a relief for many who value the future of the planet, the twists and turns of working it out, including last week’s apparent breakdown of negotiations, showed that emissions cuts were far from the highest concern for many of the politicians involved.

In Europe and the U.S., politicians made enormous compromises to short term interests—choosing energy security and inflation worries, for instance, over immediate emissions cuts—but they are likely to reverberate through the decades to come: more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere ultimately means more disastrous climate impacts on people around the world, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable nations. Yet we are still putting off the toughest necessary action, even though every delay worsens what we and our descendants will have to endure.

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In the burgeoning field of climate ethics, there’s a couple different explanations for what’s going on. In one view, part of the challenge is that climate change is just a difficult moral problem for people to wrap their minds around. Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, gives the example of someone stealing a bike today—which most people would say is wrong—versus one group of unacquainted people taking a set of actions that means, years down the road, somewhere in the world, other people don’t get to have bikes—a scenario that separates the perpetrators from the consequences in both time and space. “Even though we can produce exactly the same outcomes—somebody gets harmed, and other people benefit—it doesn’t have the logic that really speaks to our moral emotions,” he says. “Evolution didn’t build us to respond to those kinds of problems.”

Jamieson says that means trying to persuade people to act on climate change based purely on what’s right and wrong just isn’t going to get much traction. Instead, we’re better to dispense with the outrage and focus on the practical side: how to craft rules and economic incentives that will lead to lower emissions.

But not everyone agrees. Stephen Gardiner, a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Washington, says that our moral intuitions can grasp the abstract and immense challenge of climate change just fine. Instead of the bicycle example, he likens our continued burning of fossil fuels more to a group of friends shooting fireworks over a poor section of a city, even though they know it’ll risk setting fire to people’s houses there. For most of us, the moral dimensions are pretty clear here—as they are with the problem of rich nations shooting off emissions into the atmosphere, which disproportionately affect people in poorer parts of the world, like Bangladesh, which is incredibly vulnerable to devastating flooding.

The problem, he says, comes down to the fact that our institutions might not be capable of properly dealing with issues that affect people across the world and through multiple generations. That’s a moral problem too. “There’s too much of a tendency to think that if the government’s not solved it, then it’s nobody’s problem,” he says. “Whereas I think… we have a responsibility as citizens to get together and create better institutions.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com