Our argument in this section proceeds as follows. We will first discuss features of climate change that could be supposed to render contemporary harms New and categorically distinct from past harms, and introduce analogical thinking. We will then discuss some analogies. Slavery (“Climate Change and Slavery” section) is chosen because it figures rather prominently in the literature. In the “Climate Change, the Eighteenth-Century Pollution of London and the Depletion of the Ozone Layer” section, we will discuss the eighteenth-century pollution of London because Jamieson (1992, 149–150) explicitly contrasts climate change to it, and the depletion of the ozone layer (which would also qualify as a New Harm) because it illuminates a particularly salient issue in this comparison. Due to space constraints, we cannot discuss every aspect of these analogies.Footnote 6 Rather, we will indicate how they show that the Premise that New Harms have certain features that render them new is inaccurate.
Features of New Harms and Analogical Thinking
According to Lichtenberg (2010, 561, emphasis in original), in New Harms ‘no individual’s action is the cause of harm; an individual agent makes at most a causal contribution to an overall effect that may be large and significant.’ Referring to the seminal analysis of Scheffler (1995), she also argues that individuals may not be aware of the contribution their act makes and it is difficult to get information about this (Lichtenberg 2010, 561, 2014, 77). Hence, ‘since with the New Harms an individual’s actions do not produce palpable, immediate, visible effects, one is likely to feel no regret, no guilt, no shame, and no drive to act differently’ (Lichtenberg 2010, 561–562).
Similarly, Jamieson (2010, 436–437) contends that climate change tends not to be conceptualised as an urgent moral problem
‘because it is not accompanied by the characteristics of a paradigm moral problem. Climate change is not a matter of a clearly identifiable individual acting intentionally so as to inflict an identifiable harm on another identifiable individual, closely related in time and space.’
On another occasion, he suggests that global environmental problems, such as climate change, vary from the paradigm, because ‘apparently innocent acts can have devastating consequences, causes and harms may be diffuse, and causes and harms may be remote in space and time’ (Jamieson 1992, 149).
The main characteristics that, according to the New Harms Discourse, render New Harms unprecedented thus include that they are the result of large scale (global) processes; they are unintended side-effects of everyday activities; their effects are temporally and spatially remote from their causes; individuals only make an infinitesimal contribution to a large aggregate harm; individuals are now aware of the contribution their activities make to the problem; and tackling New Harms will require collective action.
We have conducted critical and systematic discussions of these issues in relation to climate change elsewhere (Peeters et al. 2015) and will not repeat this analysis here. Moreover, we do not deny that complex, systemic harms, such as climate change, present very difficult moral and political challenges. Our main argument is rather that the critical study of history reveals that the important problems which face society today are not as new as we might assume (Plumb 1969, 17; Tosh 2015, 23). We will engage in analogical thinking, which sets up comparison between present conditions and an episode or set of circumstances in the past and analyses similarities and differences between these cases (Tosh 2008, 62, 76–77, 2015, 27–28). In this way, and alongside sequential thinking, analogical thinking can be an aid to critical reflection about our current predicament.
It may be objected that analogical thinking does not challenge the Premise that New Harms have certain features that render them new because their unprecedented nature lies in the combination of features that they present. Jamieson (2011, 49–50) suggests that ‘climate change is an unprecedented problem that exhibits some dimensions of familiar problems, but in novel combination, and some new features as well.’ On this basis, however, all complex harms are unprecedented, because they are all idiosyncratic combinations of various features, and they are all dissimilar to one another in some respects, while exhibiting similarities in other respects.Footnote 7
We believe that this supports rather than undermines our argument that the Premise that New Harms have certain features that render them new as it is understood in the New Harms Discourse should be rejected. If each complex harm presents an idiosyncratic combination of features, it would seem to be an over-simplification to use a dichotomous distinction between two categories of harm, especially one that divides harms along temporal lines. There are similarities as well as dissimilarities between all complex harms, irrespective of their relative location in time. Therefore, there will obviously be limits to what we can learn about how to address one complex harm from the study of how humanity has tackled any other complex harm. However, we can acknowledge the limits of analogical thinking without concluding that contemporary harms, such as climate change, present unprecedentedly difficult challenges that require radically new thinking. Humanity has been able to tackle some complex harms: for example, as we will argue below, slavery and ozone depletion have to some extent been addressed. Hence, the burden of proof lies with those who want to claim that the specific combination of features in a particular complex harm, such as climate change, make it an unprecedentedly difficult challenge that requires radically new thinking and renders the study of other cases with some of the same features irrelevant.
Climate Change and Slavery
First, we will compare climate change and slavery. As a preliminary point, it can be noted that there are some important dissimilarities between both cases. For example, Gosseries (2004) argues that in standard cases of historical injustice involving multiple generations (such as slavery), the current victim-generation (descendants of enslaved people requesting reparations for the historic injustice of slavery) is typically suffering harm indirectly as a result of the harms suffered by its ancestors. In climate change, in contrast, the harms suffered by present victims are a direct effect of the greenhouse gas emissions of past generations of emitters (Gosseries 2004, 37–38).Footnote 8 Although we acknowledge such dissimilarities, we will focus on some significant similarities between slavery and climate change—especially regarding the complicity of end-consumers—to support our argument that climate change is not entirely unprecedented.
In the context of his discussion of the resource curse (another contemporary harm that fits the description of a New Harm), Wenar (2016) argues that we are not the first to be connected to suffering and injustice via global markets and global processes over which we do not appear to have any control. To illustrate this, Wenar refers to eighteenth-century anti-slavery protests. Although the slave trade was clearly a large-scale, complex issue, in a 1792 pamphlet the campaigner William Fox nonetheless wrote that:
The wealth derived from the horrid traffic, has created an influence that secures its continuance, unless the people at large shall refuse to receive the produce of robbery and murder. … For let us not think, that the crime rests alone with those who conduct the traffic, or the Legislature by which it is protected. If we purchase the commodity, we participate in the crime. The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver, are virtually the agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity (Fox 1792, 3–4).
It is striking how well this account fits the conceptualisation of a purportedly New Harm as proposed by the New Harms Discourse: the suffering of enslaved people was the unintended side-effect of everyday activities (the consumption of sugar) by people (English consumers) who were remote from the harmful effects (slave labour on plantations in the West Indies) to which their actions contributed in an infinitesimal way. At least in these respects, the way in which English sugar consumers contributed to the suffering of enslaved people is similar to how today’s consumers of fossil-fuels contribute to the resource curse (Wenar 2016) as well as the harmful effects of climate change.
Davidson (2008, 68–71) suggests some additional analogies between mid-nineteenth-century slavery and climate change, including the ubiquitous dependence on slave labour and fossil fuels respectively, the transfer of costs by the electorate on to people that are not part of the electorate (slaves and current as well as future vulnerable people, respectively) and widespread resistance to social change in both cases. Along the same lines, Mouhot (2011, 339–340) argues that fossil-fuel powered machines play economic and social roles that are similar to those played by enslaved people, because both externalise(d) labour, freeing their owners from daily chores, and providing them with the leisure to read, write, and participate in politics.Footnote 9 Hence, in both slavery and climate change, those benefitting from the system clearly have vested interests in its continuation.
Mouhot (2011, 341–342) sees an important distinction between the direct suffering slavery caused to its victims and the indirect suffering caused by climate change, but he notes that consumers of slave-produced goods benefited from slavery without maintaining a direct connection to it. We believe that both cases are similar in that end-consumers only contribute indirectly to the harms, and that there is only a dissimilarity pertaining to how responsibility is mediated: whereas the responsibility of British consumers for the suffering of enslaved people was mediated by the system of slave trade and slave ownership, the responsibility of fossil-fuel consumers for the harmful effects of climate change is mediated by the intricacies of the global climate system.Footnote 10
Moreover, Davidson (2008, 71–80) finds some striking parallels between the self-serving rationalisations and reactionary rhetoric used by US Congressmen and others to defend slavery, and the ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases, respectively. For example, slavery was seen as improving the position of slaves, and global warming is sometimes seen as beneficial to the environment and the economy. In both cases, it has also been argued that while trying to benefit one vulnerable group, social change might harm other vulnerable groups. Furthermore, arguments against social change in both cases have included the uncertainty of potential beneficial consequences of such change, the purported devastating ramifications for the economy, as well as the ineffectiveness and unfairness of unilateral action.
Another issue that merits discussion is awareness of the consequences of one’s acts. The New Harms Discourse claims that New Harms can be distinguished from other harms because in the past we were not aware of how our everyday activities harmed others. Lichtenberg (2010, 558, emphasis added) for example states that ‘our humdrum activities may harm people in myriad ways we have never thought about before’ and that ‘we have learned how our ordinary habits and conduct contribute to harming other people near and far, now and in the future.’ However, referring to the more than 300,000 English consumers participating in a sugar boycott in the 1790s in an effort to abolish slave trade, Lichtenberg (2010, 563–564) herself acknowledges that ‘neither the New Harms nor awareness of them are entirely new.’ Our argument indeed is that there has been awareness about the (remote) consequences of one’s actions for much longer than the New Harms Discourse seems to assume.
In sum, even though there might be dissimilarities between slavery and climate change, analysing the analogy shows that there are considerable similarities between the two cases. These similarities, we submit, are far more significant than the New Harms Discourse purports.
Climate Change, the Eighteenth-Century Pollution of London and the Depletion of the Ozone Layer
As a second illustration, we would like to compare climate change and the eighteenth-century pollution of London. Arguably, there are a lot of similarities and dissimilarities between these cases. For example, a parallel can easily be drawn between eighteenth-century Londoners’ passionate attachment to the blazing hearth as a symbol of hospitality and a sign of affluence (Brimblecombe 2011, 92), and today’s conspicuous consumption which imbues material goods with symbolic value that goes far beyond their material functionality. On the other hand, we do not deny that there are important dissimilarities between the eighteenth-century pollution of London and climate change, such as the intergenerational dimension of climate change.
However, space constraints do not allow us to discuss these various issues in detail. Instead, we will focus our discussion only on what Jamieson identifies as the most important dimension on which these cases seem to differ, namely the extent of their spatial reach. Jamieson (1992, 149–150) observes that ‘London could be polluted by its inhabitants in the eighteenth century, but its reach was limited. Today no part of the planet is safe.’ Prima facie, this seems like it might be an important difference. However, we do not believe that it is a morally salient difference, for the following reasons.
Consider first the spatial reach of the harmful impacts in the two cases. At first glance, the eighteenth-century pollution of London only affected London’s inhabitants who could escape the pollution, whereas climate change’s effects encompass the entire globe, and no one can escape them. However, the issue is more complex, since a distinction can be made between poor and rich people. In both the eighteenth-century pollution of London and climate change, the poor are the main victims of the harms involved; the alleged dissimilarity is that the poor could have left London, while they cannot escape the impacts of climate change. However, in reality, the poor were unable to leave London because they did not have the means, liberty or opportunity to do so (Brimblecombe 2011, 90). Hence, to all intents and purposes, the air pollution affected their entire world. On the other hand, rich inhabitants of eighteenth-century London were indeed able to escape the effects of the air pollution because they lived in less-affected areas and spent weekends and holidays outside London (Brimblecombe 2011, 90), whereas they at first glance appear unable to escape the global impacts of climate change. However, while this is undoubtedly true in the long run, the rich escape at least the initial effects of climate change because they tend to live in regions that are less affected and have more means at their disposal to protect themselves against the effects of climate change. Hence, once we distinguish between the harmful impacts on poor and rich people, the reach of the impacts in the two cases may be more similar than Jamieson supposes.
A second potential dissimilarity resides in the relative spatial distance between the polluters and the victims of the pollution. In the case of the eighteenth-century pollution of London, polluters and victims were often the same people, or at least walked the same streets, while the causes and effects of climate change have often been perceived as remote in space and time (Jamieson 2010, 436–438, 2014, 168–169; Markowitz and Shariff 2012, 244). However, on closer examination, this apparent dissimilarity may not withstand scrutiny either, because we argue that the morally salient issue in climate change is a stratified distance between the main polluters and the most-affected victims, rather than a spatial distance. On the one hand, climate change is caused by the emissions of the global consumption elites, wherever they live, but they can protect themselves against at least the initial effects of climate change. On the other hand, poor and marginalised people everywhere will suffer disproportionately because they tend to be more vulnerable to climate-related harms, and have less adaptive capacity (IPCC 2014, 54, 94, 2018, 54–55; Gardiner 2011b, 45–46; Jamieson 2010, 439). It can be argued that poor people in poor countries suffer first and most of climate change’s detrimental impacts, because they are even more vulnerable. While there is some truth to this claim, it should be acknowledged that plenty of poor people in rich(er) countries share similar vulnerabilities (Gardiner 2011b, 45–46; Peeters et al. 2015, 63). For example, according to Jamieson (2010, 439), the societal factors that made Hurricane Katrina so devastating in New Orleans in 2005 include high levels of inequality, many people living in poverty, and poor public services. He also suggests that poor people in the United States may well suffer more from climate change than poor people in Cuba, which has less inequality and a more effective public sector in responding to disasters. Hence, the eighteenth-century pollution of London and climate change turn out to be similar in that the morally salient feature is the stratified, rather than spatial, distance between polluters and victims.
Third, we are not convinced that climate change abatement is impeded first and foremost due to its global reach. Consider the depletion of the ozone layer: although it also has a global reach, the international community has been much more effective in addressing it. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and its subsequent Amendments and Adjustments have been universally ratified, and have been effective in limiting the abundance of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) in the atmosphere (even despite recent enforcement issues), resulting in a beginning recovery of stratospheric ozone (WMO 2018). Plausible reasons why international negotiations succeeded in limiting the production and consumption of ODSs, while they have hitherto been inadequate to effectively address climate change, may include the relative straightforwardness of the causal relations in the case of ozone depletion (at least in comparison with climate change), the availability of alternatives to the most harmful ODSs in industrial processes (in contrast, in many applications, alternatives for fossil fuels are still unavailable or expensive), the specificity of the focus (ODSs were used in a limited number of applications, whereas the greenhouse gases are by-products of virtually any human activity), and the geopolitical relations (whereas the USA was the world’s dominant superpower in the 1980s, now geopolitical power is much more dispersed) (Hope 2014).
In sum, analogical thinking suggests that the differences between ozone depletion and climate change are politically highly significant despite the fact that they both have global reach. In contrast, the differences in spatial reach between air pollution in eighteenth century London and climate change may not be morally salient in the way that Jamieson suggests. In the next section, we will illustrate some valuable lessons for social change that can be drawn from the study of history.