Morality is premised in part on an ability to recognise the impact of our actions. And where transgressors are more distanced from their victims – in large cities, for example, where anonymity is more likely – we have laws to reinforce the link between action and consequence and so steer us towards moral behaviour.
In the context of the climate crisis, the problem is that those disproportionately responsible for the destruction of life on our planet seem blind to the impact on their victims, yet those who should be creating the laws to reinforce that link are incapable of recognising a world beyond the next election cycle. Morality, like our political leadership, falls short of addressing the issue, and so we live in a world of continued high emissions and overconsumption.
And the consequence is devastating. For many of us in the developed world (by which I mean those of us in positions of unprecedented privilege largely as a result of generations of exploitation of the planet and those on it), the only restriction to our high-polluting lifestyles is our wallets: if I can afford to fly to London for a weekend, or take my overpowered SUV on the school run, why shouldn’t I? If I can afford to keep my oil boiler firing 24/7 to heat my five-bedroom home, or snap up a Black Friday deal flown in from China, what’s stopping me? And so, for want of appropriate laws that price carbon fairly, the planet continues to subsidise those decisions. Which means, of course, that those in predominantly poorer nations pick up the tab, in floods and droughts, fires and famines, in poverty and pollution, in social and political upheaval and mass migration.
Given the ‘code red‘ scale of the problem, we need governments and businesses to step up and drive lifestyle changes in whatever way they can. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can wash our hands of individual responsibility. Nor, as those consequences of climate breakdown grow ever more prominent and closer to home, can we claim ignorance of the impact of our choices.
The advice for us all from the world’s experts is to implement ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society’ not to ‘carry on as usual until you’re nudged onto the right path by a reluctant and cumbersome government riddled with conflicted interests and corporate lobbying’. After all, it’s a climate ‘emergency’. The clue is in the name.
Of course, it’s not everyone has the strength to refuse to participate in a system that allows no alternative. But the fact is that the world’s wealthy – which includes more of us than we might realise – do have choices. In so many spheres of life, there are sustainable alternatives. Yes, they might be more expensive, at least at first – like switching to truly green power, or swapping the SUV for a smaller electric car. And in some cases they might be less convenient, like taking the train on holiday rather than flying. But that doesn’t excuse those of us who can afford the right choice from making it.
There is a finite carbon budget remaining before the world dangerously overheats, and it’s a budget that belongs to everyone on this planet. In fact, taking historical emissions into account, a greater part of it arguably belongs to the developing world who need it just to achieve something close to the standard of living we’re so fortunate to enjoy. So if I choose to emit more than my fair share, I leave less for everyone else. With a finite budget, I force others to compensate. In choosing the high-emission option when there’s a viable and sustainable alternative within reach of my wallet, I’m prioritising my own – often superfluous – lifestyle over those who have no choice, who rely on their paltry share of the carbon budget to simply survive.
Boris Johnson calls it ‘hairshirtery’, as though considering the impact of my actions on others is unnecessarily austere and self-sacrificial. I call it a conscience. And until someone is bold enough to introduce laws to guide us in the right direction, we need to listen to it more than ever.