Survey Says: Save the Child! An Ethical Case For Climate Action

by Auden Schendler

Imagine that you are outside a house entirely engulfed in flames. Inside, you have been told, there are several children. But fire is pouring out of the windows and doors, and you can’t even approach the building due to the heat. This is a sad but unambiguous situation. The children will die, and you can’t do anything about it.

But let’s consider another scenario. As you look at the building, you notice that there’s one window that isn’t yet engulfed. In addition, because of a creek that runs beside the house, there’s a route to the window that would enable you to get to it without burning. And last, hanging out of that window is a young child who will die if you don’t grab her. In short, you have a reasonably good shot at saving the child. This situation is arguably as unambiguous as the first scenario. You have to save her.

This is the situation Mark Reynolds of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby found himself in when he visited Washington D.C. with organization founder Marshall Saunders. At the time, Saunders was trying to recruit Reynolds to help run the organization. But Saunders felt the project was impossible, a complex morass of a problem, and he had enough of those in his life. The two met with Senators and Congresspeople about the need for climate legislation, telling them that their position was wrong. They utterly failed. But when they retooled their pitch, and started talking to elected officials about what might be a mutually agreeable strategy based on shared values — a revenue neutral carbon fee dividended back to taxpayers — combined with elimination of subsidies across the board for both fossil and renewable energies — it became clear that even Grover Norquist tax-pledge tea partiers could support it.

And Mark, who didn’t really want to get involved in this work, had a sinking feeling: Because there was a clear path to victory on the most pressing issue of our time, he had an obligation to act. And so he took the helm of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby Their vision: a structured effort to push elected officials to act, combined with a bill nobody could oppose, offers a clear path to climate legislation in the U.S., the first step necessary in solving the problem globally.

This moral case for action (if it’s possible to save a life, you have to) is similar to a story about Steve Jobs. As Walter Isaacson describes it in the April issue of Harvard Business Review, Jobs was urging engineer Larry Kenyon to reduce the boot-up time of a Mac. Kenyon said it couldn’t be done. Jobs asked if it could be done if it would save a person’s life. Kenyon said that perhaps it could in that situation. So Jobs demonstrated that an extra ten seconds spread out over all the Mac users in the world was 100 lifetimes a year. A few weeks later the Macs were booting up 28 seconds faster. Kenyon didn’t have to act until the moral case was obvious. Once it was, he had no choice but to try. Not to succeed, but to try.

Might a similar case exist for the average American with regard to climate change? In 2011, John Nolt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville published a paper in the Journal Ethics, Policy and Environment arguing that “the average American is responsible, through his or her greenhouse gas emissions, for the suffering and or deaths of one or two future people.” What he’s talking about is best illustrated by the International Energy Agency, which announced recently that 2011 set a new global record for CO2 emissions, more or less closing the door on our ability to keep the planet under 2 degrees C of warming. According to IEA Chief Economist Faith Birol:

“When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius [11°F], which would have devastating consequences for the planet.”

Living our lives in a business-as-usual way means that we are killing people. At the same time, we have a reasonably clear path to preventing those deaths by kick-starting comprehensive climate legislation in the next session of Congress, using the Citizen’s Climate Lobby’s formula.

Professor Nolt pointed out to me that this is a rare time in human history where we both understand the cause, consequences and moral nature of the very long term catastrophic harm we are creating, and also understand how to prevent some of that harm.

On one hand this situation is unique in our experience, and yet it is also a problem humans have been preparing themselves to deal with through millennia of religious, ethical and philosophical thought. Every moral framework we have tells us the answer is unambiguous: you have to try to fix climate change.

Put more simply, survey says: Save the child!Auden Schendler is Vice President of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. He is the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.