Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics

Yesterday LaGuardia College hosted Peter Singer who gave a short talk entitled ‘Climate Change and Ethics’. His basic argument was that by any reasonable standard of justice that one picks the U.S. comes out having a duty to lead the movement to reduce climate change. This is directly contrary to Bush’s stated reason for opting out of the Kyoto agreement (he said it wasn’t an ‘even-handed’ agreement because it exempted China and India…thereby implying that the treaty was unjust). He talked about three reasonable sounding principles of justice.

 1. You break it you buy it– Historically the U.S. has been the number one contributor to greenhouse gasses and so should have the most responsiblity for cleaning up the environment

2. Forget the past, divide it up evenly according to how much each industrialized nation pollutes– The U.S. puts out about six times as much greenhouse gasses (per capita) as any other industrialized nation and so again, we have the greatest responsibility to clean up the environment

3. Benefit the least advantaged– This is the Rawlsian conception of justice according to which an inequality is acceptable only if it is tot he advantage of the least advantaged member of (the global) society. This would (obviously) entail that the U.S. would have to make drastic cuts to the amount of greenhouse gasses that we contribute (per capita).

So no matter how you slice it it looks like the U.S. has a moral obligation to take the lead in reducing climate change, and yet we refuse to be a part of Kyoto because it is ‘unfair’!

He then suggested something very interesting, which was that we might establish a global market for greenhouse emissions. We would have to figure out exactly how much gas the environment could absorb withoout raise the global temperature some negligable amount (say 2 degree celsius) and then we allot each industrialized nation an amount that they are allowed. We could then allow for nations to sell their allotment if there were not using it. So say that it turned out that the envirnment could take 3 tons of gas emitted per person per year (the U.S. emmits something like 5.8 tons per person per year, while India emmits something like 1.1). India could, if they wanted, sell us a portin of their allotment so that we could, if we willing to pay and they were willing to sell, maintain the lifestyle that Bush claims is an American right. This strikes me as such a good idea that it will probably never be implemented.


5 thoughts on “Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics

  1. The problem with this entire argument is that it automatically assumes man is responsible for global warming through green house gases(carbon dioxide). Out of the total amount of the Earths atmosphere it estimated that .054 percent of it is made of carbon dioxide. of that .054 percent the percentage of it that is man made is in the single digits. It is known that when there are sun spots Earths tempature increases. just recently Earth has left what is known as the “little Ice Age” and during this time there were very little sun spots. if you want to find something that can change the weather I would suggest the sun would be a good place to start. the size alone of the sun makes man and his actions look like nothing when comparing the two. so before we go putting limitations on poor countries that are trying to develop or in the process of becoming industralized we should be certain that we are the ones responsible for global warming. Even the Ice records from Greenland and Antartica are in dispute since the records show that tempature was driving the change in carbon dioxide levels that go as far back in histiry that we have.

  2. Hi Dunn, thanks for the comment!!

    I don’t think that the argument depends on that assumption (though I tend to agree with the experts and think that it is man made (remember there are other greenhouse gases (methane for instance) that man contributes). What his argument does depend on is that the environment can only absorb a specific amount of these gases per year without making it worse. So maybe you are right that the sun is a major source of the climate change but that doesn’t change the fact that our activities can make things worse (or better).

  3. Here is a video you should watch (about global warming). Don’t automatically dismis it because its on a whacky ufo site(its the only place to find it now). It presents a much better summary of what i previously tried to state. this was presented by the BBC originaly. this also adresses the “Experts”. If you can find the time to watch it I can gurantee that you will be more likely to revaluate what you believe.

  4. Hi again Dunn,

    Thanks for the link…that video is no longer up there, but I know the BBC special that you are talking about. I don’t know how much faithI would put into it (see here, for instance for some reasons not to trust that documentary…)

    But at any rate, the issue isn’t whether or not climate change happens independantly of human activity, the issue is whether or not human activity can make it worse or better, and it seems to me that there is no credible evidence against this claim, and LOTS of credible evidence for it…

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