The Philosophy of Climate Change

Nathalie Martin – Period 7 In the last few decades, climate change has become an increasingly pressing issue. The earth’s temperature is rising, glaciers are melting, and weather is becoming more and more extreme. Droughts, floods, fires, and other such natural disasters are becoming eerily commonplace. These changes affect not only the natural environment, but people, too. When the environment suffers, we, too, suffer. So what would the philosophers say about this matter of climate change? Would John Stuart Mill, with his utilitarian views, call us to combat global warming? Would the ever-virtuous Aristotle respond with condemnation, or indifference? From both sides, surely we would get some different perspectives.

Although climate change was not an existing issue during or even around the lifetimes of Aristotle and Mill, certainly it would be a topic of debate for the two today. If asked about deforestation or greenhouse gases, puzzled looks would likely cross their faces. Words like “hydrofluorocarbon” and “permafrost” would probably raise questions. However, when informed about the problem, these two philosophers would definitely have some interesting, and perhaps opposing things to say, considering their different standpoints and ideologies. Aristotle is very much about using virtue as a means to live a “good” and “happy” life, while Mill is an advocate for utilitarianism. According to Aristotle, our function as humans is to live in accordance with reason and virtue. Virtue, to him, involves a habit of choosing between two extremes. Choosing the mean between those two extremes, or “hitting the target per” say, is the way in which one can live a life of virtue. In the case of climate change, these two “extremes” are simple; choosing to disregard climate change would be on one end of the spectrum, while everyone taking action and working to reverse it would be on the other. Meeting in the middle, between those two options, would be the most virtuous, for getting the global warming skeptics and combatants to come together to work against the issue would be most ideal.

Another Aristotelian stance that could be taken on the climate change issue can be drawn from Aristotle’s book on politics. In the first chapter of Book I, he writes that “every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good.” He goes on to say that humans “always act in order to obtain that which they think good,” a good life being one which involves happiness; a fulfilled function. But doesn’t burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide into the air make some people happy?  People love their cars and their “stuff.” Cars are a large cause for pollution, as are the factories that produce most all of our “stuff,” which is a contributor to climate change. This may be “good” in the sense that it makes people happy, but is it really good when it is harming something else? States, in the Aristotelian sense and in respect to climate change, are working towards a good that is not truly good at all. Humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels must be reversed until we permanently believe that using and abusing the earth is the way to achieve our purpose.

In the same chapter, Aristotle also highlights that true riches are all we need in life. True riches, he says, are material things that help us to fulfill our functions. Instead of living in excess, one should live only with what he or she needs. A virtuous life is a life lived by the basics; nothing more is necessary. If we continue to live in such excess, eventually, we will not even have access to the basics. We consume and consume and consume, continuing to use up the resources of the earth. If we continue to live this way, with this lifestyle of extreme consumption, then we can never be virtuous or happy. By the time we realize that we are over consuming and must downsize, it will be too late, and we will be left with near to nothing. As a result, true happiness could never be reached.

For Mill, on the other hand, utilitarianism is the name of the game. To him, the greatest good for the greatest number promotes the most happiness in a society. By his definition, happiness is pleasure in the absence of pain. So how can this principle be applied to climate change? Clearly, climate change does not make anyone happy, so how does it fit into Mill’s ideas? Well, unfortunately, a lot of people are already very unhappy and living in difficult situations because of global warming. Those who are most vulnerable and who live in poverty are greatly impacted by the numerous effects of our warming world. Floods and droughts have destroyed villages and livelihoods, leaving people without food, water, and shelter. Therefore, climate change is currently not promoting the Greatest Happiness Principle, but rather, it is diminishing it. Irresponsibility and inaction on the parts of the biggest and wealthiest economies of the world are acting as a detriment to societies which are already struggling.

Climate change clearly is not benefitting the majority of humankind. Billions of people on this planet live in poverty; some are impoverished because of climate change, and many will remain in poverty because of climate change. So what is the solution? What would benefit the “greatest number”? Reversing global warming would be the most ideal fix, but that cannot be done with the drop of a hat; it is not that simple. First, to fix the problem, we must slow it global warming down. If we work to reduce carbon emissions and stop ravaging the earth’s natural resources, then happiness would be easier to come by. The happier the planet, the happier its inhabitants would be. True, there would be no immediate changes in the effort to combat the rapidly transforming globe; pollution would not suddenly disappear and trees would not instantly shoot up. However, future generations would certainly be happier. Slowly but surely, Mil’s utility principle would be put back in to work. More people would be happy, and there would be a greater opportunity to find happiness.

The final verdict? Is climate change to be condemned or ignored to continue on? Aristotle says that climate change is not virtuous. Mill says that it is not in the interest of the greatest good. I do believe Aristotle and Mill would agree upon the fact that climate change is an issue that needs our attention. For decades now, the human race has been given chance after chance to change its ways and restore the planet to its healthy former self. Sadly, we have continued to choose the negative extreme; the end of the spectrum that has put us in danger time and time again. Now, things are starting to change, but not quickly enough. We are slowly moving towards the positive extreme in choosing to nurse our home planet back to health. In that sense, in Aristotle’s eyes, we are living in a more virtuous way, but in the past, we have most definitely not. As for Mill, his views would also suggest that we have not properly dealt with the situation at hand. We have created a society in which a large amount of good is reserved for only a small number; the lucky ones. We have allowed our resources to deplete to the point where some people have nothing. We have taken from the most vulnerable for our own benefit. Thus, to create a happier society as a whole, we must make climate change a non-issue, meaning that we must end it; make it fade into history. Clearly, it is not something that we can take lightly any longer, for the philosophy of climate change says that to be virtuous and to be happy, we must change our ways.





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