Ultimately, climate change problematizes the socio-cultural meaning and purpose of life as we know it.
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Climate puzzle: Science, ethics, and political action

Bridging moral and political gaps is crucial for addressing rising global emissions. Overcoming institutional failures requires socio-cultural shifts and empowered citizens.

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Despite decades of scientific consensus, media coverage, technological development, and international negotiation, global emission rates continue to rise. Climate policy failures over the decades suggest institutional failure on a grand scale. Insofar as government efforts have failed, perhaps it falls on citizens to demand systemic change. 

Unfortunately, public engagement on this issue remains weak. There is a critical disconnect between scientific knowledge, ethical reflection, and political agency. Motivating climate responsibility requires overcoming the “moral gap” between knowledge and reflection, on the one hand, and the “political gap” between reflection and agency, on the other.

The moral gap between knowledge and reflection

Assuming one has a conceptual grasp of the climate problem, the ethical implications of this issue are largely processed through the filter of moral identity—the network of normative beliefs, values, and behaviour structuring a comprehensive sense of self. Socialising influences across lines of nationality, religion, politics, class, race, gender, etc., inform moral identity as a way of being in the world.

Moral security, by contrast, refers to the confidence one has in this way of being. Perceptions of approval, fulfilling relationships, and confirmation of worldview assumptions validate moral identity, thus reinforcing security. Invalidating experiences weaken it.

Of course, people are resilient. Moral insecurities can stimulate meaningful growth if they compel one to reflect—to reevaluate problematic assumptions and other maladaptive norms. Yet, some moral insecurities cannot be processed. Problems exceeding our ability to respond do not motivate the kind of conscious reflection essential to reforming moral identity. Instead, they motivate unconscious coping strategies bent on protecting it. Anxieties signalling an identity crisis at this level prompt self-defence, not self-development.

Climate change presents an existential problem of this order. Beyond the details of personal experience, we are social and cultural beings profoundly influenced by the scientific, technological, and economic power defining the modern world. Insofar as we unconsciously identify with the system causing climate change, processing the implications of this problem is a dangerous, demoralising exercise.

Few people, for instance, want to think of themselves as “bad” people whose lives do more harm than good. Hence, once it sinks in that everyday life contributes to unspeakable harm, something must be done to secure one’s sense of being decent. 

Conceivably, those prepared to process their personal implication in the climate crisis might stick to their moral principles and redefine how they think and live. Such an honest response, however, encounters deeper barriers to reflection. The sweeping implications of climate change do not just threaten personal identity but the social and cultural foundations of moral identity shared with “everyone”.

Considering the social foundations of moral identity, ethical reflection must negotiate the fact that we rely on the institutions fueling climate change to secure material needs. Industrial economies require cheap energy because they’re structured to maximise production and consumption without limit. Even small recessions in growth wreak havoc. 

Furthermore, social institutions like capitalism are sustained by cultural institutions (and vice-versa). Although commodity consumption is an economic practice, consumerism is a cultural ideal fashioned by marketers to keep consumption up with productivity growth. Here, social ideals of “progress” and “development” find expression in lifestyle ideals of maximising comfort, convenience, power, and status measured in luxury goods visible to others.

Indeed, to confront industrial society honestly is to confront a cultural web of entrenched sensibilities and values. The emissions driving climate change are traceable to the Industrial Revolution. But the idea of human dominion over nature culminating in this revolution has ancient philosophical and religious roots in the forgotten past. Ultimately, climate change problematizes the socio-cultural meaning and purpose of life as we know it.

Ultimately, climate change problematizes the socio-cultural meaning and purpose of life as we know it.
Figure 1. Climate change consequences
Credit. Midjourney

Most citizens are indeed neither trained nor inclined to analyse this historical problem with academic nuance and rigour. However, this isn’t necessary. Most thought is unconscious. At some level, it might be enough to wonder if industrialised existence isn’t deteriorating nature’s capacity to sustain life, or suspect that the path from “primitive” existence to the industrial powerhouse “developing” the globe is self-defeating. Perhaps most unsettling, it may be enough to vaguely sense that the solidity of everyday life is an illusion that can be dispelled simply by looking at it.

In any case, to the extent that the implications of climate change threaten to unravel moral identity, existential anxieties can shut down ethical reflection to keep oneself intact. Coping strategies to manage moral insecurity include willful ignorance, cognitive dissonance, rationalisation, and distraction—all of which are anathema to responsibility. Yet, the more one reflects on the climate situation, the more likely they are to trigger anxieties bent on maintaining a moral gap between knowledge of the problem and what this knowledge implies about who we are and how we live. In the end, climate science leaves us unmoved.

The Political Gap Between Reflection and Agency

Those with the fortitude to work through the gap between knowledge and reflection still find themselves confronting another—the “political gap” between reflection and agency. It is one thing to reflect on the ethical implications of the climate problem disclosed by science, and it is another to take responsibility for it in practice. 

Agency is solution-driven. However, the deeper one reflects on the climate problem for what it is, the more difficult it becomes to envision viable solutions in the political arena. Likewise, the more one focuses on solutions deemed “practical” in a world where power and inertia decide, the more impractical it becomes to reflect on the systemic depths of the problem. Insofar as each stance is absurd from the perspective of the other, the temptation is strong to stand on one side of the political gap or the other. 

This gap has been documented in climate justice movements struggling to formulate actionable political agendas commensurate with their ethical ideals. It is also evident in strategies to motivate public engagement. These typically take the form of two irreconcilable narratives, depending on whether communicators frame the climate issue as a problem or focus on solutions. Problem narratives risk overwhelming political agency with anxious insecurity (prompting denial) by presenting a hopelessly unsolvable crisis. By contrast, the moral assurances offered by solution narratives risk underwhelming ethical reflection by sugarcoating the problem with palatable (but superficial) solutions. However, climate responsibility is impossible without a meaningful bridge mediating problem and solution, ethics and politics, reality and hope.

Conclusions

It follows from the research summarised above that socio-cultural shifts in moral identity are needed to meaningfully relate the scientific ‘is’, the ethical ‘ought,’ and the political ‘can’. Who we are as citizens of the industrialised world and how we envision the future moving forward cannot conflict with the deepest implication of climate change: that truly systemic shifts are needed in how we relate to nature and each other.

Fortunately, historic visions bridging the moral gap and climate movements bridging the political gap have some momentum. The socio-cultural project of dominating nature and people—openly celebrated for centuries—is on the defensive. Nevertheless, the institutional inertia driving climate change and denial remains formidable. Everything seems to depend on a scientifically informed and ethically concerned global citizenry politically empowered to take responsibility for the world we live in and the future we need.

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Journal reference

Christion, T. (2022). The Motivation Problem: Jamieson, Gardiner, and the Institutional Barriers to Climate Responsibility. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/21550085.2022.2133941

Tim Christion teaches philosophy at Wells College. His research interests centre on the philosophical implications of climate change. He has published multiple articles on the ethics and politics of climate change and served as a guest editor for a special edition of the journal Environmental Philosophy dedicated to bringing underrepresented philosophical perspectives to bear on this issue. He lives in Ithaca, New York, USA.