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A Problem of Moral Philosophy
It is not the thought that counts but the result
This post will be special because I am looking for a solution to a moral dilemma and would be very grateful for your thoughts. So forget about climate change for a while and consider the following situation:
Let us assume we are all on board a ship taking in water. It might be possible to save it, but only if we all work together. We know there are not enough lifeboats, meaning many people will die if the ship sinks. The lifeboats are conveniently located on the upper decks, close to the first- and second-class cabins. The people traveling third class will probably not make it. To make things more interesting, we also assume that the people on the upper decks have essential skills and knowledge that would be needed to save the ship. The captain, the engineer who designed the vessel, some experts on maritime disasters, and a couple of retired admirals are all traveling first class.
If you believe the ship can be saved, it makes sense to stay and help operate the water pumps. On the other hand, if you think the ship is going down anyway, it is better to run to the lifeboats as quickly as possible to secure a space. Both choices are perfectly rational, and the decision only depends on how you assess the situation. It is not about good or evil because staying behind to pump water, even though you know that the ship is going to sink, will only remove you from the gene pool of humanity.
The best outcome is if we all work together and manage to save the ship. This way, we lose neither lives nor property. The problem is that the pessimists’ view is self-fulfilling: if everyone runs to the lifeboats, nobody will be left to pump water, and the ship will sink. Thus, we lose the ship and human lives for no good reason. This is the worst possible but also the most likely outcome.
What do we do?
One solution is the authoritarian approach. The captain gets up on deck with a gun and announces that anyone trying to enter a lifeboat without his permission will be shot. Suddenly, jumping the line for lifeboats is no longer rational. This is essentially the method used in most armies of the world: soldiers who refuse to obey orders are shot on the spot or at least severely punished. The problem with this approach is that it requires the captain to have absolute authority.
Another approach is based on the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). If we destroy all the lifeboats, the only option will be to remain on board. Unfortunately, this approach is not optimal as it could lead to everyone dying. Thus, the worst outcome has suddenly gotten a lot worse. Furthermore, as many people see the lifeboats as the only hope, they are likely to oppose their destruction.
The neo-liberal approach is to privatize the lifeboats and sell seats to the highest bidder. This does not solve any problem but ensures that wealthy people survive.
The revolutionary approach would be to rise up against the privileged upper class. The problem is that we need them to save the ship, and throwing them into the sea will only increase the total body count.
As far as I can see, the optimal approach is as follows:
We change the narrative and convince people that getting into the lifeboats will not save them because we are far out at sea, and they will probably starve or freeze to death before being picked up.
We agree that the lifeboats are reserved for the privileged if the ship goes down.
With this approach, everybody has much to gain and nothing to lose from remaining on the ship and trying to keep it afloat. This significantly increases the probability of the best possible outcome. If the ship sinks, on the other hand, the same number of people will drown as with most other scenarios. The only difference is that we have preselected the people who will survive.
The logic seems pretty straightforward. Please let me know if you have a better idea.
Otto von Bismarck once warned that it is an error to believe that anyone who does not agree with you is either stupid or evil. More often than not, people have perfectly rational reasons for their behavior, and you must try to understand their thinking if you want to negotiate with them. Telling the oil lobby to “listen to the scientists” is pointless because Big Oil knew about climate destruction more than 40 years ago. As Naomi Klein pointed out in her book This Changes Everything, oil companies probably understand the magnitude of the problem better than anyone else. They are definitely not stupid. They are also not necessarily evil. They see themselves as providers of an essential product to human society. Criticism of their behavior is brushed aside with the argument that “if you don’t like oil, don’t buy it,” which is simplistic but not entirely wrong.
The oil companies are right about one thing: modern society is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Changing this will be challenging. One problem is that we do not know what a sustainable society will look like, which is why many scientists have devoted their time to this question. It is a comfortable topic to work on, as it allows you to write scientific papers and participate in conferences, thereby furthering your career.
The second problem is how to break the political gridlock preventing any meaningful sustainable policies from ever being implemented. Working on this topic requires analyzing and criticizing existing power structures and is likely to get you killed if you are successful. It is not surprising that most of the scientific community has decided to rather work on problems considered harmless by the people in power. Especially since governments pay their salaries.
We live in a society characterized by an unprecedented concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small group of people, and I do not care whether you refer to them as the oligarchy, the global elite, or the Davos crowd. These people honestly believe that their power and wealth are going to save them from the effects of climate change. Asking them to surrender this advantage to help save the world will not work. They are simply too afraid to lose their space in the lifeboats.
Whether we like it or not, this means that we have to negotiate with the oligarchs and offer them something in return for their acquiescence. Please do not get me wrong: I dislike the oligarchy as much as anyone. I also do not believe that the capitalist free market will solve our problems, nor that the global elite is interested in doing so. I am only making the point – as was recently done by Noam Chomsky – that there are two ways of resolving conflicts. Either you achieve complete victory, thereby forcing your opponent to accept unconditional surrender, or you negotiate a deal. There are no other ways, and it looks unlikely that we will be able to crush the oligarchy during the next couple of years, especially as they seem to be winning at the moment.
Realpolitik is not about moral superiority but about results. Perhaps the time has come to swallow our pride and replace outrage with creative thinking. Many conservative voters are convinced that environmentalism is only a pretext for introducing socialism and taking their money away. The Swiss Peoples’ Party even made a helpful animated GIF to illustrate this point: the red devil hiding behind a green leaf.
In this political landscape, it is madness to call for eco-socialism. We will never be able to convince the financial sector that socialism is a good idea, but we might be able to convince the fossil fuel companies to act as tax collectors for a global carbon tax if it allows them to continue to operate and prevents the unraveling of the international order. If the tax is high enough, the financial sector will soon become irrelevant.
This is the idea behind Global Climate Compensation. It makes a very specific and reasonable demand to a small number of corporations. If they agree, they will be allowed to continue doing business more or less as usual. If not, they will have publicly declared themselves enemies of humanity, and no amount of greenwashing will save them. With sufficient societal pressure, the rational choice for them will be to join the plan.
I am not arguing that Global Climate Compensation will solve all of humanity’s problems, but we must not allow perfect to be the enemy of good. The plan would at least establish a global price on carbon emissions, invalidate any business models built on fossil fuels, end global poverty, and encourage international collaboration. Since it could be implemented immediately and is risk-free, we could simply try it out. If it works, we will have cut through the Gordian knot of climate politics. If not, we will still have learned a lot about the correlation between fossil fuel demand and the size of the economy.
Many people like to talk about the “need for unprecedented global cooperation” to solve the climate crisis but seem to forget that the oligarchs are people too. Not only that, but they also have all the power, all the money, and most of the guns, meaning that they could actually accomplish something if they wanted to. They already know about the problem. Now we must convince them that the cure is better than the disease.
Looking at the recent series of unprecedented heat waves all over the world, I am glad that I still own a house in Sweden. Climate change is very noticeable there too, but the new normal will at least be survivable. As a matter of fact, wine production in Sweden is on the rise, illustrating people’s uncanny ability to adapt to new realities. Would it not be easier to get used to expensive fossil fuels rather than catastrophic storms, heat waves, and wars?