I’ve been thinking a lot about justice the past few days.
Climate change is among the biggest injustices our world currently faces. At COP22 I attended panel after panel filled with speakers marginalized by climate change. They included people from small island nations that will be underwater as sea levels continue to rise, indigenous women worried about the survival of their culture in the face of climate change, and activists concerned about how to hold countries accountable to their NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) that each country has committed to through the Paris Agreement. These people share common fears and hope for the future.
COP22 was filled with optimism. But at the same time, I fear there will not be justice.
A woman from the Maldives, a small island nation, said quite convincingly, “We cannot have climate justice without ensuring the lives of all people on the planet.” It is no secret that those whose lives will be most affected by climate change are not those who are contributing the most to it. If you’re not convinced, check out the CAIT Climate Equity Explorer, a nifty interface that lets you compare up to 12 different nations on various factors such as current emissions, vulnerability, and development indicators.
The inequalities of climate change are well studied and well known. In other words, they are facts. Unfortunately, in the world of climate change denial the boundary between facts and opinions is getting harder to see. In a press conference at COP22, the head US Negotiator and the State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change, Dr. Jonathan Pershing, quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan in reference to climate change deniers: “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Climate change deniers treat their opinions that climate change is not real or is not a problem as facts. This is a very common exercise of free speech, but one that should be analyzed carefully. We all know that it is unacceptable to falsely yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater because an ensuing panic could hurt others.
Why do we not treat climate change denial in the same way?
On his website, Ethics and Climate, Don Brown has written on why climate change denial is neither “responsible scientific skepticism” nor a reasonable exercise of free speech. His blog is intriguing, and if you have some free time I highly recommend it.
At the very least, climate change is ethically unacceptable. At the worst, climate change denial is a crime against humanity. In his Nov. 16th speech to the COP, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that falling short in meeting the challenge of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C would be “the single greatest instance in modern history of a generation in a time of crisis abdicating responsibility for the future. And it won’t just be a policy failure; because of the nature of this challenge, it will be a moral failure, a betrayal of devastating consequence.”
I am currently taking a Social and Political Philosophy class, and we’ve spent the semester discussing what justice looks like and how a just society would operate. I’ve learned how to reason through a philosophy argument, and how to spot fallacies in the arguments of others. We’ve debated the merits and potential problems of different political philosophies. That’s the thing with philosophy: you have to be able to back up your argument.
There is no reasonable, fact-based way to back up the climate change denial argument. Climate change denial is immoral. Denial justifies inaction. Inaction leads to very real consequences that cost people their lives. In John Kerry’s words, “No one has a right to make decisions that affect billions of people based on solely ideology or without proper input.”
There is no “international climate change court.” We cannot place a country on trial for failing to act on climate change. However, it was recently ruled that a lawsuit filed by 21 youth plaintiffs against the US government and fossil fuel companies could proceed on the basis that failing to act on climate change violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. In 2015, a landmark decision in the Netherlands is forcing the Dutch government to cut emissions by 25% within five years. The decision marked the first time that human rights and tort law were invoked in a lawsuit involving climate liability.
We will have to wait and see if courts are even capable of providing the justice the future of the planet is depending on. If not, we will have to rely on our own moral compasses to convince our leaders to act. Near the end of his speech, Kerry said “We have to continue to hold each other accountable for the choices that our nations make.”
An individual person’s moral convictions are a powerful thing. I am writing this blogpost out of a deep-rooted unwavering conviction that failing to act on climate change is profoundly selfish, ignorant, wrong, and unjust.
Someday there will be a US Presidential election where climate justice isn’t a partisan issue. It is up to us to make it as soon as possible. Until then, we must hold each other accountable for the moral failures of our society with our hearts and our heads, and hope that justice won’t be served too late.