Humans emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases are accumulating and causing climate change. Climate change currently kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and devastates the lives of hundreds of millions more.
This death and destruction is due, largely, to extreme weather events including droughts, heat waves, fires, floods, and storms. Although no one of these events can be attributed conclusively to climate change, they are exactly the types of events predicted by climate scientists for over 20 years now.
Greenhouse gases are emitted from a variety of sources, primarily from the burning of oil, gas, and coal, and from land use changes due to agriculture and the destruction of forests. Effectively, our entire civilization is built around these fuels and activities. As a result, dramatically reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases requires a difficult, massive, collective effort. This includes redesigning and retrofitting our urban centres, redesigning and rebuilding our transportation systems, and relocalizing and rebuilding our food production systems.
However, particularly in high income, high greenhouse gas emitting industrialized countries, individuals control significant quantities of emissions. In British Columbia individuals exert significant control over about 1/3 of the province’s emissions. This includes emissions from space heating and cooling, water heating, appliances, lighting, and cars and trucks.
Dr. Brown, an ethics professor at Penn State University, argues that if climate change and its predicted harms are plausible, and if the victims and potential victims of climate change have not consented to suffer these harms, then society has a moral duty to act to prevent climate change.
I add the claim that if the above conditions are met then individuals have a moral duty to reduce their emissions as well. I suggest that this moral duty applies:
if an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions from an action are large compared to:
- annual emissions largely under the individual’s control;
- individual emissions among affected populations;
a fair per capita individual emissions target consistent with avoiding dangerous human caused greenhouse gas emissions; in other words, a target based on sustainable greenhouse gas emission levels; AND
- if the action causing the emissions is voluntary and unnecessary.
There may be several such actions. However, because of its impacts, I focus on flying by jet on vacation. The facts clearly reveal that such flying is an immoral act. It is completely under individual control. The per-passenger emissions are immense compared to those of large, affected populations, for example those in Africa and Pakistan. Per passenger emissions are immense, also, compared to per capita sustainable greenhouse gas emission targets. And, clearly, neither those suffering today nor future generations, who are likely to suffer much more, have consented to or encouraged this suffering.
Flying for a vacation is particularly egregious, a reprehensible self-indulgence by the well off at the expense of the impoverished and future generations; and those who fly on vacation contribute directly to the death and destruction of other people. In other words, if you fly by jet you kill.
Killing is one thing, perhaps sometimes justifiable, sometimes unavoidable. But killing is not justifiable if done casually.
Jet flying for an unnecessary indulgence, for one’s own pleasure, for a vacation, showing complete disregard for the people whose lives are ended or devastated as a result, is tantamount to murder.
Murder is a harsh word. But harsh words are apt; climate change kills in a very harsh manner, and presages a very harsh future for billions of people.
Cliff Stainsby is a retired researcher from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union. He has been an environmental activist for over 30 years. Cliff worked for the SocietyPromoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) for eight years in the 1970s and1980s; for six of those years he was the Executive Director. He also served a term as President of SPEC. After SPEC, Cliff moved to Solidarity Coalition, and worked in the union movement for over 20 years. His work focuses on environment and economics and on bringing environmental groups and unions together to work on issues.