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Moran, morality and climate change

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COMMENTS

12 July 2010 10:49

Fergus Green is co-author of a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Confronting the Crisis of International Climate Policy: Rethinking the Framework for Cutting Emissions.

We wrote our new Policy Brief in the hope of sparking a debate about the future direction of international climate policy and Australia's contribution to it. In that spirit, I welcome the contribution from Alan Moran of the Institute of Public Affairs, through his exchange with Sam Roggeveen, though I disagree with it on many grounds. I wish to focus here on the implicit moral logic underpinning Moran's argument.

Moran argues that '(t)he Australian economy has a trivial effect on global emissions', therefore we should do 'nothing' to respond to climate change (actually, he says we should wind back existing climate regulation) until there is a 'global consensus'.

Australia directly produces about 1.5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. This makes us about the world's 15th largest emitter. Granted, our emissions reductions alone will not be sufficient to mitigate climate change. But then again, nor will the reductions of any one country (the highest emitter, China, produces less than 25% of global emissions). At what point then, according to Moran's logic, do a country's emissions become non-trivial? What level of emissions is required before countries should take actions to reduce them?

We know that Moran thinks the threshold is higher than Australia's 1.5%, and there are five or so countries above us responsible for less than 2% each – presumably they are also insignificant in Moran's view. This leaves a maximum pool of about 10 countries that Moran must think make a statistically significant contribution to climate change. But if only 10 or so countries should do something, how will we ever get the 'global consensus' that Moran purports to want?

The apparent inconsistency in Moran's logic points to the practical necessity of many countries (certainly Australia) taking action if sufficient global mitigation is to occur.

Practicalities aside, implicit in Moran's approach is the notion that a country's emission of greenhouse gases imposes moral obligations (to take action) at some point, albeit not when the amount is 'trivial'. A more principled approach involves thinking about every ton of emissions as morally significant, wherever it is produced, since every ton contributes to a global problem that has (potentially profound) consequences for all humans and for non-human species. On this basis alone, Australia should reduce its emissions, whether or not other countries do so.

But the moral case for Australian action becomes even stronger when one considers other morally relevant factors, including our historical emissions, our high per capita emissions (we emit 1.5% of greenhouse gases but have only 0.3% of the world's population) and our relative material prosperity.

And I haven't been counting the emissions embodied in the fossil fuels we export. Australia is the world's largest coal exporter; counting the coal we export more than doubles our emissions footprint. Sure, our customers are implicated in our coal trade as much as we are, but to suggest in the face of these facts that Australia's emissions are 'trivial' and that we are diplomatically impotent to influence a global solution suggests a disturbing lack of awareness of our responsibility for the problem and our obligations to respond to it.

National responsibility for climate change mitigation is a complex moral issue and I accept that the extent of a country's moral obligation to reduce emissions is not amenable to precise and incontestable measurement. But that does not excuse disengagement from the relevant moral questions, only some of which I have touched on here.

Rather, the enormity of climate change demands that we grapple with its complexities with all our intellectual might. We should therefore expect more of our public intellectuals than the advocacy of 'do-nothing' responses that repudiate any moral responsibility for our harmful actions while shifting costs and blame onto other countries.

Photo by Flickr user yewenyi, used under a Creative Commons license.

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