Our thesis is that there is no moral requirement to refrain from emitting reasonable amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) solely in order to enjoy oneself. Joyriding in a gas guzzler (joyguzzling) provides our paradigm example. We first distinguish this claim that there is no moral requirement to refrain from joyguzzling from other more radical claims. We then review several different proposed objections to our view. These include: the claim that joyguzzling exemplifies a vice, causes or contributes to harm, has negative expected value, exceeds our fair share of global emissions, and undermines political duties. We show why none of these objections succeeds and conclude that no good reason has yet been proposed that shows why joyguzzling violates a moral requirement.
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This example is often used in the literature by both proponents and opponents of the view we defend. See (Baatz 2014; Hiller 2011; Jamieson 2014). The example may become less apt as alternatives— in this case, high-powered electric vehicles running on purely renewable electricity—become more widely available.
Individual “green” actions or lifestyles may also be aesthetically better than non-green alternatives. See Kingston (in preparation).
Climate change used to be called global warming, and it might more accurately be called climate degradation, as Jamieson has suggested to one of us in conversation. The name does not matter to our argument.
Requirements include perfect but not imperfect obligations and duties, because only perfect obligations and duties can be violated by individual acts. This terminology is appropriate here, because our issue is about individual acts of joyguzzling. Notice also that this distinction between requirements and other reasons can be recognized by consequentialists (Sinnott-Armstrong 2005b), so this terminology does not beg any question against consequentialism.
Hursthouse adds various qualifications in notes and in future publications, but those qualifications do not affect our point here.
Nor does Sinnott-Armstrong commit any of Derek Parfit’s “mistakes of moral mathematics”, since Sinnott-Armstrong explicitly discusses the relevant mistake (Sinnott-Armstrong 2005a, note 23) and shows how Parfit’s crucial example of Harmless Torturers differs from the case of joyguzzling. Parfit himself registers doubts about his original analysis of the “mistake” in the unpublished draft “What we together do”. See also Sandberg (2011).
Others present separate critiques of the simple division approach: Sandler (2011) stresses the difference between average and marginal effects, while Lauren Hartzell-Nichols (2012) notes the problems with counting climate harms that impact future people.
Humanity raises the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by around 3 ppm annually. Grant, for the sake of argument that a joyguzzle raises the concentration in proportion to its contribution to humanity’s emissions. Since a 14 kg joyguzzle represents around a third of one trillionth (0.35 × 10−12) of humanity’s annual emissions, a single joyguzzle would increase the concentration by around one part per quintillion (1018). This calculation is rough of course, but the precise figure does not affect our argument.
100 ppm is equivalent to 1/104 of the total particles and we saw one part per quintillion is 1/1018 of the total particles. So the relative proportion of S for a single joyguzzle is 1/1018 ÷1/104 = 1/1014
See Jamieson (2014) ch. 6.
In addition to the two objections in the text, it is perhaps worth noting that the argument from partial causation depends on the idea of causing part of an effect. That notion might make sense in the case of causing part of (say) a storm, since that might refer to causing a few minutes of the storm or a small increment in the wind-speed or amount of wind or rain. Still, it is not clear why such additional minutes, wind, or rain would count as a harm. It also might make sense to refer to part of a harm such as pain, since that might refer to a few seconds of pain or a small increment in the intensity of the pain. However, one of the central harms at stake in climate change is death, and it is hard to make sense of the notion of part of a death. If a defender of the argument from partial causation replies that a joyguzzle could cause part of the total number of deaths by causing one death, then we would be back to the question of whether a single joyguzzle causes the whole death instead of just part. These issues are more challenging than many assume, but we will not emphasize them here, because our other two objections in the text should be enough.
Figure extrapolated from data at www.trillionthtonne.org
This argument does not apply to any effects supposedly caused by the precise level and timing at which CO2 levels eventually peak. However, (a) CO2 levels may not peak in the foreseeable future, (b) bad events caused by the precise level and timing of the CO2 peak, if it occurs, are likely to be a very small subset of the total bad effects of global warming.
We think this is a lot to grant - the assumption seems to be that if a joyguzzle does not occur, but another driver emits the same amount of greenhouse gas only a few seconds later, then the overall level of greenhouse gases will reach a threshold a few seconds later and cause some particular harm to occur a few seconds later. We note that this link is implausible, partly because the molecules of greenhouse gas emitted by the other driver are dispersed quickly and widely, perhaps even worldwide. As a result, the fact that they were emitted seconds later does not mean that these molecules will have the same effects seconds later. The process is much too widespread, complex, and chaotic to support that claim. In general, there is no reason to assume that the timing of an emission by seconds affects the timing of the harm much later, as the argument from partial causation would need to assume. This objection applies even if the timing of the harm by seconds were somehow morally relevant.
Nolt’s figure of an average American causing the suffering and death of two others via her emissions relies on the guess that climate change will cause 4 billion people to “suffer and/or die” over the next thousand years (Nolt 2011, 9).
If one is a determinist at heart, then some extreme weather events will certainly happen with climate change that would not have happened otherwise, but this is also to say that their probability has been raised from 0 to 1.
For the calculations, see notes 8 and 9 above.
Another problem with appeals to chaos might seem to be that increases in CO2 concentration might prevent some harm, due to butterfly effects, which should count against the expected disvalue. Morgan-Knapp and Goodman admit that on their view a tiny particular marginal rise in CO2 concentrations might prevent a harmful extreme weather event. Still, since there are positive relationships between CO2 concentrations and temperature and also between temperature and large scale weather events, they assume a marginal rise in CO2 concentrations is more likely to trigger a chaotic weather event than to prevent it (Morgan-Knapp and Goodman 2015).
See also Lawford-Smith (2016) for a similar argument.
Assessing the “lifetime” of a joyguzzle’s emissions is complicated. While there is significant scientific work on the “residence time” of anthropogenic additions to atmospheric CO2, this focuses on “pulses” of CO2 on the planetary scale of one to five trillion tonnes, which is at the level of humanity’s total perturbation to the system over decades (Archer et al. 2009). When we are talking about particular molecules, the residence time is much less clear. As climate scientists David Archer and Victor Brovkin put it, “the CO2 in the atmosphere [over long periods of time] will not consist of the exact same CO2 molecules emitted from fossil fuel combustion, because of the copious exchange of carbon with the ocean and the land surface” (Archer and Brovkin 2008 [italics mine], 284). Thus the idea that some molecules with my name on them, as it were, remain in the atmosphere potentially causing extreme weather events is a gross oversimplification. It might be that the particular molecules of a single joyguzzle have a counterfactual effect of preventing some other CO2 molecules from being removed from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. But the complexity of even this one natural cycle among the many involved in climate change is one more reason why we should think of climate change harms as emergent
In unpublished work, Christian Baatz and Lieske Voget-Kleschin hold that duties to keep to one’s fair share are “prior” to any political duties to promote just institutions for dealing with climate change, and thus have moral force on us even in the absence of political institutions regarding climate change. This is because, they hold, (i) we must have a sense of what fair shares are to determine a just institution would be, and (ii) if everyone else were complying with their fair share duty without any political institutions, one would still have a duty to stick to one’s fair share. Both claims are controversial. Regarding (i), for a way of managing emissions without determining individual fair shares see Caney (2012). Regarding (ii), if our argument above succeeds, if everyone else was refraining from emitting, the duty to stick to one’s fair share could be cast as the duty to do what society expects one to do, not to adhere to any “pre-political duty” at all. More importantly, showing that we need a hypothetical notion of one’s fair share would show nothing about whether that duty applies in the case of widespread non-compliance.
Some (Hiller 2011; Jamieson 2014) point to the apparent paradox in our claim that political action might be required but refraining from joyguzzling is not, even though political action arguably has the same emergent-property structure that climate change does. However, Elizabeth Cripps (2013) points out that individual political actions can have a snowball effect, and single actions have even a potential world-changing effect that refraining from joyguzzling does not have. This changes the expected value judgements considerably.
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We wish to thank Douglas Maclean, John Broome, Christian Baatz, Avram Hiller, Mark Budolfson, Sara Bernstein, Shelly Kagan, Dale Jamieson, and two anonymous reviewers.
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Kingston, E., Sinnott-Armstrong, W. What’s Wrong with Joyguzzling?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 169–186 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-017-9859-1
- Climate change
- Individual responsibility
- Moral requirements
- Climate ethics
- Greenhouse gases
- Fair shares