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Who should tackle the climate crisis?

This article explores the relationship between the individual and the organisation or government developing climate action policy.
A head shot of Dr Bennet Francis from the University of Reading
© University of Reading

We interviewed Dr Bennet Francis from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Reading to find out whose responsibility it is to address the climate crisis.

Please tell us about your research and what drew you to this field?

My main research project seeks to explain in what way individuals bear responsibility for their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. I came to this project via an interest in a closely related topic, the problem of responsibility for structural injustice. Structural injustice is injustice which arises out of background conditions, rather than being caused by the actions of identifiable wrongdoers.
For example, some instances of racial inequality are structural. When particular communities are under-represented in certain professions, this is not always because of direct racial discrimination, but because these communities were already suffering from disadvantage, and this made it systematically harder for them to pass tests for entry.
Now, if I steal your bicycle – an ordinary injustice – I bear responsibility for this wrong, and as a result I ought to make up for what I’ve done, returning the bicycle and perhaps compensating you. Structural injustice is not like this: it’s not obvious who is responsible for making it better.
This is important for two reasons. On the one hand, we want to know who is responsible for structural injustice for practical reasons: we want to fix it. On the other hand, there is something puzzling about the very idea of injustice for which no one is responsible. Solving this puzzle will tell us something about our general principles.
So, I was drawn to this area of research both by the challenge of the theoretical puzzle, and by its potential to have practical implications for what each of us ought to do.
Why is the following question so complex: ‘Whose responsibility is it to tackle climate change’?
As the philosopher Dale Jamieson argues, climate change is in some ways more like a background condition, and less like an ordinary injustice like stealing a bicycle.
For one thing, when an individual contributes to climate change, they don’t have a specific victim, instead they make a tiny contribution to a global process that causes suffering to millions. Similarly, no particular harmful outcome of climate change, like when someone’s home is destroyed by flooding, has a specific perpetrator. Rather, it arises from the combined actions of millions. Third, the impacts of climate change occur far away from their causes. Fourth, the impacts are delayed in time.
The fact climate change often appears more like a background condition than an injustice makes it more difficult to determine who is responsible for tackling it.
What effect does this have on progress?
Complexity slows progress, for two main reasons.
One, it leads to buck-passing. In other words, it causes people to deny responsibility by pointing to others who – in their opinion – bear greater responsibility. Buck-passing occurs at every level, from individuals, to large organisations and corporations, to states.
Second, it leads to what the philosopher Stephen Gardiner calls moral corruption. Complexity is convenient for us, because by focusing on how difficult it is to work out who is responsible, we give ourselves an excuse for inaction. This is self-serving, because we believe it is easier to pass the consequences of inaction on to future generations than to bear the costs of action ourselves.
Please explain what you understand by the term ‘climate policy’.
‘Climate policy’ refers to measures taken by institutions such as local government, states and international bodies designed to combat the harmful effects of climate change.
Climate policy is often divided into two categories, mitigation and adaptation. ‘Mitigation’, means efforts to reduce the severity of climate change itself, by lowering net greenhouse gas emissions. This can be done both by limiting carbon sources, and by promoting carbon sinks – such a forests – which remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
‘Adaptation’ refers to policies intended to reduce the degree of harm caused by the effects of climate change. This would include infrastructure programmes like building flood defences, economic programmes allowing people to develop livelihoods in sectors resilient to climate change, and social programmes focused on the reduction of material disadvantage, as disadvantaged communities are especially vulnerable to risks of all kinds, climate change not least among them.
What’s the relationship between the individual and the organisation or government developing climate action policy?
From an ethical perspective, the relationship between the individual and the organisations of which she is a member is very important. Arguably, it is the most important consideration for determining what the individual ought to do to tackle climate change.
Group membership is an influence multiplier. Though your ability to affect global climate policy as an individual is very slight, your ability to influence organisations of which you are a member – schools, universities, companies – is much greater. The capacity of those organisations to have positive impact is also relatively much greater than yours. They have the power to influence other larger organisations, or groups of organisations, and so on up the chain, magnifying your influence.
The greater your ability to affect climate policy, the greater your responsibility to try. This means your responsibility to attempt to influence the organisations of which you are a member may be greater than your responsibility to try to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions on your own.

Take a moment to reflect on your circle of influence. Which groups, organisations and institutions do you belong to? How does Bennet’s perspective on ‘influence’ affect your sense of empowerment when it comes to fighting climate change?

© University of Reading
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