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IS ETHICS THE RIGHT TOOL?

Suppose, notwithstanding the logical flaws in the ethical arguments made so far and notwithstanding the power of self-interest, that understanding the problem of climate change requires us to invoke justice or ethics. Perhaps we need ethics to ensure that we properly value those who are not at the bargaining table, such as the distant future or nonhuman animals. Even so, climate change is not primarily an ethical problem.

Solving the problem of climate change is about wisely managing the use of a limited and vital resource. The problem is difficult because we use the resource whenever we use fossil fuels, and fossil fuel energy is the basis of modern life. Fossil fuels are used to heat and light our homes, provide transportation, and produce goods. Your morning shower and cup of coffee cause climate change. Solving the problem of climate change is most centrally a problem of finding a way to produce energy that does not result in emissions of carbon dioxide. It will require new infrastructure, technology, and engineering.

Beyond engineering, solving the problem of climate change requires coordinating hundreds of nations and thousands, millions, or possibly billions, of actors each with their own self-interest and their own ethical views. It involves understanding how to reduce or eliminate deforestation in regions of the world that are poor and poorly governed. It requires designing tools for monitoring and enforcing agreements.

Philosophy lacks the tools for analyzing these sorts of problems, such as the engineering, the science, the required incentives, the trade effects, and the wide variety of other effects of climate change policy which all occur in a complex global economic and political equilibrium. Because it is ill equipped for the task, trying use philosophy to design climate change policy will, except by sheer happenstance, lead to bad policies. Ethics can help understand our values and help clarify our thinking, but it is not the right tool for the design of policies, particularly policies as complex and important as climate change policies.

 
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