Difference-Making and Individuals' Climate-Related Obligations

In Clare Hayward & Dominic Roser (eds.), Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World. pp. 64-82 (2016)
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Climate change appears to be a classic aggregation problem, in which billions of individuals perform actions none of which seem to be morally wrong taken in isolation, and yet which combine to drive the global concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) ever higher toward environmental (and humanitarian) catastrophe. When an individual can choose between actions that will emit differing amounts of GHGs―such as to choose a vegan rather than carnivorous meal, to ride a bike to work rather than drive a car, or to take a reusable bag to the supermarket rather than send another plastic bag to landfill―does she have any reason to choose the lower-emitting actions? In this chapter I'll reject the claim that individuals don't make a difference when it comes to climate change. I first discuss making a difference with every action, as a way of getting clearer about how individuals' actions impact causally on the harms resulting from climate change, making a distinction so far overlooked in the climate ethics discussion between 'macro' thresholds like ice-cap melt, and 'micro' thresholds like severe weather events. I set aside making a difference with every action as implausible, and then move on to discuss both low probability of major difference, and high probability of minor difference. I argue that both of these are plausible characterizations of individuals' causal contributions to climate change. I conclude by noting some policy implications of having (probabilistic) individual difference-making back in play.

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Holly Lawford-Smith
University of Melbourne


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