Climate change creates a convergence of moral, political and scientific problems. Recent news does not inspire hope. Last year was the hottest ever recorded. CO2 levels are at unprecedented levels. Polar ice is melting. And this week President Trump began rolling back climate change policies.
Meanwhile politicians question the validity of climate science. The president once called climate change a hoax. His proposed budget will defund scientific projects studying climate change. Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained that spending on climate science was a waste of money.
The president’s policies are focused on short-term economic gain. He wants to put coal miners back to work and stimulate fossil fuel economy. But climate experts want to keep fossil fuels in the ground, warning of the long-term harm of business as usual.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are conflicted. We enjoy an affluent lifestyle made possible by fossil fuels. We like short-term economic growth. We don’t worry too much about the distant future. And so it goes.
Short-term profit seeking, self-interested behavior and ignorance are deeply human problems. We are not good at planning ahead. We often lack foresight. And even when we clearly understand future consequences, we often fail to take action. We procrastinate. We are distracted by the needs of the present moment. We are practiced in the art of self-deception. And we are seduced by immediate gratification.
This explains why diets fail, why people don’t save for retirement, and why students cram for exams at the last minute. There is some wisdom in living for today—since tomorrow you may die. But if you don’t plan ahead, death may come sooner than you think.
Political games complicate things further. Environmental policy requires a commitment to a shared world of common facts. But in the fake news era, climate science is a political football. This week, for example, the Republican chairman of the House Science committee claimed that Science magazine was not an objective source of climate science.
Sound ecological policy also requires a global vision. Our consumption patterns impact people who live far away in space and in time. But foreigners and future generations don’t vote. Contemporary politics is about us, not them – about now, not then.
Shortsighted nationalism is on the rise around the globe. Instead of seeking sustainable global economics, we extract and pollute. In order to prevent future influxes of environmental refugees dislocated by the changing climate, we are building walls.
Two metaphors are often employed in environmental ethics. One pictures the planet as “spaceship earth.” On this planetary spaceship, we share the Earth together. On spaceship Earth we have an obligation to wisely steward the Earth’s eco-system, conserve her energy reserves, and keep this habitat livable for future generations. Since we have no other planet to ride on, we ought to cooperate in caring for her.
A different metaphor pictures individual nations as lifeboats foundering on a stormy sea. Each national lifeboat is seen as a self-contained unit with a limited carrying capacity. From this perspective, there is no concern for conserving common resources, since we are each struggling against one another.
In lifeboat nationalism, our obligation is to manage our own resources for our own benefit. We may have near-term concerns for the next generation of our own people. But we have no obligation to others who are distant in space or time. And we should not risk sinking our boat by inviting more people on board.
The lifeboat image is a bleak one. Despair breeds self-interested defensiveness. Without hope for a cooperative solution, we can only batten down the hatches and prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, this defensive hopelessness is contagious, as each lifeboat turns inward preparing for survival. And so cooperation becomes unlikely.
To solve this, we need to have hope that cooperative global solutions can work. Let’s resurrect the cosmopolitan vision of spaceship Earth. This is the only planet we have. Its supplies are limited. We are all in this together.
Let’s also support moral and scientific education. Ethicists remind us of our obligations to others suffering on distant shores and in future generations. And scientists teach us that in the long run nature is indifferent to our political squabbles.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala