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A Kantian Look at Climate Change

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A Kantian Look at Climate Change
  Essays in Philosophy   Volume 11Issue 1 Climate Ethics  Article 7 January 2010  A Kantian Look at Climate Change Casey Rentmeester University of South Florida This Essay is brought to you for free and open access by CommonKnowledge. It has been accepted for inclusion in Essays in Philosophy by anauthorized administrator of CommonKnowledge. For more information, please Rentmeester, Casey (2010) "A Kantian Look at Climate Change,"  Essays in Philosophy : Vol. 11: Iss. 1, Article 7. Available at:   A Kantian Look at Climate Change This essay is available in Essays in Philosophy:   Essays Philos (2010) 11:76-86 1526-0569 | A Kantian Look at Climate Change  Casey Rentmeester Published online: 14 January 2010   © Casey Rentmeester 2010 In 1992, representatives from almost all countries met in Rio de Janeiro to discuss whatthey took to be one of the most pressing issues the world had to tackle: that of globalclimate change. Since that time, little has been done to combat climate change. Wenow have a full-fledged crisis on our hands. The Rio Earth Summit of 1992 did practically nothing to fight climate change, and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 has beencalled “the single worst failure of political leadership that I have seen in my lifetime” by one of the leading experts on climate politics, Al Gore. 1 The hard, “inconvenienttruth,” which we are now forced to acknowledge, is that climate change needs to bedealt with if we hope to provide a sustainable future for our species.The topic of climate change is surrounded by several elements of uncertainty. But atleast two things are indisputable. First, climate change is globally recognized as a crisis.Despite continued attempts by right-wing American conservatives to convince us thatthere is nothing to worry about, the best scientists from around the world all agree thatthe planet is experiencing climactic changes with unprecedented rapidity. TheIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reflects this consensus, stating that“warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” 2 There is no longer any question as towhether or not climate change is happening. The second indisputable fact is that human beings are the main perpetrators of climate change. The IPCC states that “globalincreases in CO 2 concentrations are due primarily to fossil fuel use, with land-usechange providing another significant but smaller contribution.” 3 Since humans areresponsible for both the burning of fossil fuels and the changes in land use, climatechange emerges as a human-made phenomenon. Climate change is anthropogenic.Although we can lament the sad truth that human beings are destroying the Earth bytheir unsustainable practices, there is a  positive aspect behind the fact that human beings are the perpetrators of climate change. This positive aspect is simply that wehave some control as to the direction of the future of the Earth System. Unlike previous _____________________________  Corresponding Author: C. Rentmeester University of South Floridaemail -   Essays Philos (2010) 11:1 Rentmeester | 77 crises that threatened the existence of large populations (such as the bubonic plague),we know the main source of the problem. And, since we are the source, we are in thefortuitous position to actually do something about it. The big question that lies beforeus is where we should turn to take on this issue. Like any other major problem, one of the first good places to look for solutions is our own tradition. Instead of trying to takeon the problem blindly, we should first ask whether there are any tools alreadyembedded in our tradition that we can use to confront the situation. I think the answer to this question is that there are, and that Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is a good placeto start.Kant has been dead for over 200 years (he lived from 1724 to 1804), but there are manyways in which he was way ahead of his time. His conception of nature is considered byscientists to be “the essence of modern models,” 4 he pr edicted something akin to theUnited Nations with his idea of a “League of Nations,” 5 and he thought thatuniverses“exist along a larger oscillating chain of Big Bangs and Big Crunches,” 6 therebyanticipating the most recent cosmological theory of “The Big Bounce.” 7 Moreover, hewas one of the first philosophers to lament the ecological destruction that he witnessedhappening around him. In his Critique of Judgment  , Kant bemoans the destruction of the pine forests near his hometown of Königsberg. 8  What is Climate Change, and why is it happening? Before we look at the ways in which Kant’s philosophy can help us deal with our climate crisis, we need to get some idea as to what is going on with this phenomenon.John Houghton provides the following explanation of anthropogenic climate change:Human activities of all kinds whether in industry, in the field (e.g. deforestation)or concerned with transport or the home are resulting in emissions of increasingquantities of gases, in particular the gas carbon dioxide, into theatmosphere…Because carbon dioxide is a good absorber of heat radiationcoming from the Earth’s surface, increased carbon dioxide acts like a blanketover the surface, keeping it warmer than it would otherwise be. With theincreased temperature the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere alsoincreases, providing more blanketing and causing it to be even warmer. 9  Various human activities such as burning fossil fuels (whether it be for driving vehiclesor powering factories) and land-use changes (from deforestation, irrigation, etc.) arecreating excess amounts of carbon dioxide (the most dangerous greenhouse gas), andthis causes there to be more heat in the atmosphere than the natural level. This excess of heat not only raises overall temperatures, it also places more energyin the Earth’sclimate system. The increase in temperature leads to several problems. 10 One of them isthe melting of snow caps and glaciers, which increases the overall sea level and thereby puts both island and coastal regions at risk of submersion. On land, the melt leads to an   Essays Philos (2010) 11:1 Rentmeester | 78 increase of run-off in certain regions, which negatively affects the quality of various bodies of water. Another major problem is an increase in heat-related moralities invarious regions. The IPCC Report of 2007 cites increases in deaths caused by heatstroke and an increase in infectious diseases. 11  Along with the increase in temperature, the increase in the amount of energy in theclimate system leads to an imbalance. The Earth System tends towards a steady state if left to its own devices. This may mean that there are certain times when it has toexpend large amounts of energy, which thereby creates stints of bad weather. However,these stints are normally not so intense so as to be unbearable for human beings andthey rarely last for long periods of time. The problem with adding more energy into theEarth System is that it the energy has to go somewhere, such as more frequent and moreintense severe weather patterns, such as storms, with a consequent increase in naturaldisasters.We do not know exactly what will happen in the future with regard to climate changeor how severe the changes are going to be. We do, however, know that there will be anincrease in temperature, an increase in severe weather, a decrease in habitable land, andan increase in tropical diseases. If we keep going in the direction that we have beenwith regard to our unsustainable practices, it is certain we will both reduce the qualityof life of future generations and imperil the existence of our species.The good news, however, is that the anthropogenic causes of climate change are in principle in our hands. We can cut back on fossil fuels if we so choose. Moreover, weare already in a position to mitigate the effects of climate change. The IPCC states that:there is high agreement  and much evidence that all stabilisation levels assessedcan be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialised in coming decades,assuming appropriate and effective incentives are in place for their development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion and addressing related barriers. 12  So we either already have or will soon acquire the necessary technologies to fightclimate change. The challenge that lies before us is to start being responsible citizensand utilize these technologies. If we simply stop engaging in unsustainable activitiesand start practicing ecologically friendly ones, we will provide a future in whichupcoming generations can flourish. Kant’s Categorical Imperative as imperative Where can we turn to for guidance in the quest to be ecologically conscious? There aremany strands in our tradition that could steer us in the right direction, but Kant’s moral
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