By Melissa Hatch
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory that says we can judge the rightness or wrongness of our actions based on the results they produce. According to utilitarianism, the morally right action is the action that maximizes total aggregate happiness. Climate change does not maximize total aggregate happiness. So, individuals ought to act in ways that mitigate climate change.
In order to determine which actions maximize total aggregate happiness, an acting individual must add up the happiness for all the people that would be affected by a given action. The action is evaluated in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain it brings to the world. An action is determined to be moral or immoral based on its effect on the world; it is evaluated based on its consequences. Specifically, the right action maximizes the good, and pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Utilitarianism seeks to maximize the net balance of pleasure and pain: total pleasure minus total pain.
Climate change does not maximize total aggregate happiness because of climate change’s three main effects: (1) rising temperatures, (2) extreme weather events, and (3) an increase in disease incidence.1 Rising temperatures cause the melting of ice caps and rising of sea levels. Rising sea levels erase small island developing countries off the map, and destroy the homes of people that live there (as is presently happening in Tuvalu — a tiny island country in the Pacific Ocean). Rising temperatures also cause droughts and heat waves — killing off crops that people rely on for food — and killing people (particularly vulnerable elderly) when temperatures rise too high.
Too much CO2 in the atmosphere induces extreme weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, high rainfalls, and floods. Such events kill people, destroy homes and ruin crops. Changes in rainfall and increases in temperature alter ecosystems, and in effect, increase major disease incidence such as malaria, which kills over a half million people every year.2
These three main effects are caused by an increase in human-induced CO2 in the atmosphere. When individuals drive their cars, heat and cool their homes, use electricity, fly in airplanes, and eat food from distant places, they increase their carbon footprint. An individual’s lifetime emissions, if born in a rich country, will wipe out more than six months of healthy human life.3 Every year, your annual emissions destroy a few days of healthy life in total.4
Destruction of healthy human life increases total aggregate pain. The loss of healthy human life pains not only the person whose life could have continued without the effects of climate change, but also the lives of those who loved that person or whose lives were improved by that person’s existence. The Environmental Protection Agency values a human life at $7.4 million.5 Six months of healthy life lost is roughly estimated at $47,314.50.6
On the other hand, the actions that create your emissions (flying, driving, heating your home, etc.) increase your pleasure and the pleasure of others. Driving from place to place gives you convenience and the ability to see people, contribute to the economy, and get food, among many other pleasure-producing results. Flying allows you to get to places faster and whether you fly for work or fun, flying contributes to your happiness, and likely the happiness of others. Heating and cooling your home keeps you comfortable, and in extreme cases, it keeps you alive. These actions you take that produce emissions that harm people and increase pain, also increase your pleasure.
However, the total aggregate pain from your emissions exceeds the total aggregate pleasure from your emissions. So, one ought to reduce their emissions to zero in order to mitigate climate change. All the happiness that I and others may get from my driving my car, flying in airplanes, using electricity, and heating and cooling my home does not exceed the pain that occurs for all the people that would be affected from six months, possibly more, of healthy human life lost.
A net carbon footprint of zero ensures that an individual does not contribute to climate change, and in effect maximizes total aggregate happiness. If an individual produces carbon, he or she should offset his or her carbon through carbon offsetting programs.7 Offsetting programs allow you to spend a small amount of money to help finance projects that diminish emissions somewhere in the world. For instance, a project could build a wind farm somewhere instead of a coal plant, and reduce overall emissions; subtracting from the emissions you produce from daily living.8
A carbon footprint of zero is moral because it maximizes the net balance of pleasure and pain: total pleasure minus pain. Those that object to this position might do so on the following grounds. We cannot accurately measure happiness (net balance of pleasure and pain) in the entire world from single individual acts that produce carbon into the atmosphere. If we attempted to calculate this, we would likely never be able to account for all instances of pleasure and pain. A lot of uncertainty is involved in the calculation of potential pleasure and pain from our acts.
However, we do know with almost full certainty that our emissions cause (1) rising temperatures, (2) extreme weather events, and (3) an increase in disease incidence — in effect, destroying healthy human life. Just because we might not ever be able to accurately measure all the pleasure and pain in the world that is caused by our single acts that contribute to climate change, there is something intuitive about the wrongness of our emissions destroying healthy human life. The wrongness of our emissions destroying healthy human life is true, even without an accurate measurement of pleasure and pain.
Those that object might also do so on the grounds that a moral responsibility of zero emissions is too stringent; that it is too much to ask from individual actors. My response to this is: yes, it is a lot to ask. But, what good has ever come from not asking for the challenging changes to take place? At one point in history, we realized it was immoral to continue enslaving black individuals. But, all along, in the course of all enslaving — slavery was always wrong. Destructing human life has always been wrong. We are just now realizing that we are destructing through our emissions. So, we shouldn’t continue doing so. Additionally, while it is a lot to ask, it is not over demanding. Individuals can reduce their emissions in many creative and easy ways, such as: drive a hybrid, bike when you can, buy local food, put solar panels on your roof, fly less, and offset what you can’t do without. In sum, individuals ought to reduce their emissions and offset what they do emit.
1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 AR4, Working Group II: ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.’ Available at http://www.ipcc.ch
2. World Health Organization (WHO), ‘10 Facts on Malaria’ (April 2012). Available at: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/malaria/en/index.html
3. WHO, Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to Selected Major Risks, 2009. The calculations are adopted from David J. Frames forthcoming text, “Personal and intergenerational carbon footprints.” Retrieved at: “Climate Matters. Ethics in a Warming World,” by John Broome. (2012) pg. 74
5. Mortality Risk Valuation. U.S. EPA 2006. Available online at: http://yosemite.epa.gov/ee/epa/eed.nsf/webpages/mortalityriskvaluation.html#whatisvsl
6. Average American life expectancy is 78.2 years. World Bank, 2010. $7.4 million/78.2 years = $94,629 per year = $47,314.50 per six months.
7. This idea is from John Broome’s chapter on Private Morality in “Climate Matters. Ethics in a Warming World.” W.W. Norton & Company. (2012) pg. 87
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