As of Friday 17-2-2017 the American Senate has confirmed Scott Pruitt as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of all Trumps nominations for Cabinet, this has been one of the most controversial (and let’s face it, the competition has been fierce). Setting aside the fact that Pruitt is known to have sued the EPA 14 times due to environmental policies he thought troublesome for the economy, he has been criticised for openly denying [by human-activity intensified] climate change. Scott Pruitt’s actions have not only revealed that his interests clash with the philosophy of the EPA, but it also goes directly against their mission to reduce climate change.
A controversial appointment for this position was expected: Trump himself has called climate change a “Chinese hoax”. Furthermore, he has articulated his wishes to reverse environmental-regulations implemented under the Obama presidency, as well as withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The proliferation of absurd declarations from President Trump during the first month of his presidency can obscure the weight of this particular appointment, but it has severe consequences for future environmental-policies, and this notion cannot be overlooked. With Pruitt in charge, it is now more important than ever to facilitate and sustain the environmental and – as I will show – humanitarian mission of the EPA.
Within the scientific community there exists a consensus regarding the veracity of the occurrence of climate change. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been this high: global temperatures keep increasing, and sea-levels keep rising. The amount of CO2 has stagnated excessively since the Industrial Revolution. Correspondingly, 97% of scientists agree that the worldwide trend of global warming is most likely the result of human activity, and is largely due to the production of greenhouse gasses.
Reducing climate change is not just a mission for environmentalists, it is an issues that concerns us all. Actualising a sustainable ecology is necessary to preserve our planet and to support human life. This fact is acknowledged by international political bodies, and many leaders have incorporated counter-measures in their policies to reduce climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement has indeed been a great step towards a more ecologically sustainable policy.
Increased attention to this topic in the media and in politics seems to show that more and more people care about this issue, that they are aware of the damaging effects on our planet. Nevertheless, in our day-to-day life most of us seem to maintain an apathetic attitude towards this pressing matter. The way Pruitt prioritises his financial gains over ecological sustainability is a perfect example of the neglect of this pressing matter. For those lucky enough to live in a developed, high-income country, the impact of climate change on human life seems nothing but an abstract, distant risk. However, the signs are present, and the consequences are already affecting people’s lives. So why should we be motivated to reduce these damaging effects?
Although we can debate about who bears moral responsibility of the global inequality in income and welfare, it is safe to say that global capitalism has created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
Whether due to political actions, economic policy or the whole of institutional frameworks: more developed countries tend to have easier access to technological knowledge and material resources needed to ensure protection from the harmful effects of climate change. Conversely, third-world countries are more vulnerable to the damages of these effects – they are less able to protect themselves from floods, extreme heat and food shortages due to failed crops. Morally speaking, are we not supposed to uphold a duty of assistance towards those in need?
Ironically, the contribution to the exhaustion of greenhouse gasses is typically greater in the more rich and more developed countries – this is where most of the industry takes place and where larger parts of the population own a car. Accordingly, this is where we find a higher average of emissions. For comparison: Co2 emissions [in metric tons per capita] for the United States (specified as a high income country) is 16.4. Co2 emissions for Zimbabwe, a low income country, is 0.9 . Even though it may not always be visible in our day-to-day life, our actions can and do have great effects on those living far afield. If one is not convinced, however, that developed countries be obliged to assist those in less well off countries who have been victimised in virtue of the effects of climate change (that developed societies are largely responsible for engendering), perhaps one should at least ask themselves where the moral blame and associated responsibility regarding human-induced climate change lies.
Human Rights & future generations
A debate in the realm of ethics concerning Human Rights is that of climate-refugees. The policy in the EU is to grant asylum to war-refugees. The moral reasoning behind this is rather straightforward (and one would think commonsensical): In their homeland they have to fear for their life, and every person has the right to live. Furthermore, every person deserves access to basic human needs such as water, food, shelter. Why would this line of argument not hold when it comes to climate-refugees? Why shouldn’t they deserve and be given a life in which their basic-needs can be fulfilled? This parallel is not drawn in order evoke an argument for open borders; rather, what is being pointed out is that climate change does have an actual inexorable impact on human-beings, and this effect is, whether we want to believe it or not, strictly linked to fundamental issues concerning human-rights. It is not just a disconcerted, abstract concept that lingers in the air.
If we are unresponsive to the ecological consequences of our human conduct, perhaps an alternative can be grasped if a stronger motivation to tackle climate change can be obtained by way of the Human Rights concerns at stake. These concerns not only relate to those affected now, but they relate to those future generations, too. After all, our moral duty and responsibility is not merely, by definition, limited to the current world-population:
“I shall ask only what right those who were not afraid thus to debase themselves could have to subject their posterity to the same ignominy, and to renounce for them those blessings which they do not owe to the liberality of their progenitors, and without which life itself must be a burden to all who are worthy of it. “ –Jean Jacques Rousseau