Global warming just isn’t that important

With the hyper-active behaviour surrounding Copenhagen this year, climate-gate, and the failed climate change bills in the US and Australia; it might be time to take some perspective on our situation as a species and global warming as a problem. We are destroying the planet, but not in the way you might think. Global warming is a serious issue that threatens countries and people, but it is a superficial, easy to solve and a fundamentally materialistic problem.

Global warming is caused by the overconsumption of fossil fuels, used for the transportation and production of goods and services. Therefore, the solution is quite simple – reduce our use of fossil fuels. Global warming is a secondary level problem. When you steal an item off a store shelf, you are directly committing an immoral act and harming another person. When you burn a barrel of oil, you are indirectly harming people, but the indirectness reduces the level of immorality you might feel. Global warming is a secondary issue, it is therefore not as significant on the moral scale of crimes.

Global warming and other environmental issues are external to ourselves, while they might affect us and be our fault, they are manifestations of our failure as a society, not the actual problem.

In fact, there are much more pressing issues to solve.  In 2010, there are over 26 million slaves in the world, nine hundred thousand women are raped every year, over six million people are behind bars, and over 200 million children are abused while working every year. To these people, pollution, global warming and other middle class issues could not be more remote. Slavery, inequality, and poverty are fundamental problems of society – pollution is a consequence.  A doctor always strives to treat the source of a sickness, not simply mask the symptoms. We need to attack the root of the problem.

To tackle global warming, we must fist address the underlying issues that plague our society. Not only  is it morally urgent to address human suffering, it is also beneficial to the overall improvement of the environment. Let me be perfectly clear, you cannot put a price on human suffering and life and you can therefore not equate carbon reductions with a child slave. Priorities matter. Therefore, it follows that we should first address the issues with the greatest moral weight and and largest potential dividend.

Some will say that we need to tackle all these items – global warming, women’s rights, slavery, etc. But resources are finite and even more limited is the ability to keep the public engaged on an issue. As an example, contrast the fundraising results during large natural catastrophes such as the Haiti earthquake or Asian Tsunami with the average fundraising efforts. It therefore follows that we should focus on the items that have the largest moral potential first. I cannot conscientiously ask for money for carbon credits when our fellow humans are in such misery. The problems of inequality and injustice go to the root of civilization and the way we treat each other. They are therefore much more difficult to resolve than secondary level issues such as climate change.

Not only are the victims of our crimes within reach of our help, the perpetrators are also  within our sphere of influence. We choose not to act because it is fundamentally a reflection on ourselves. The diamonds on your wife’s hand may be tainted, the clothes on your children may have been made by another child, and your cellphone contains coltan dug by slaves in eastern D.R. Congo whose mothers were likely repeatedly raped. By recognizing the failure of mankind, we inevitably confront our own failure to change.

To truly effect change we must change ourselves, we must ask ourselves, “What am I doing on a daily basis that may be making the world worse, not better”. Find one thing, and change that. Day in and day out, if done on a global scale, we could begin to change things in a fundamental way. It is far too easy to point the finger and say, not my fault!

Pollution is easy to externalize. The poor countries claim the west created the mess, the developed countries point at the coal factories in China, and individuals blame corporations. While we recognize we are all part of the problem, none of us think we are at the root of the problem. By focusing our media attention on global warming, we are actually making ourselves feel better, which is exactly what global warming advocates are doing. Green people, myself included, too often go to bed saying, “Yes, climate change is a big problem, but it is not my problem, I drive a Prius”. Global warming just isn’t that important when placed against other issues. All of these issues are intertwined, but we must focus on those with the largest moral payback and which lie at the root of our ills?

In my opinion, not a penny should be spent on climate change programs while children die of hunger, women are raped and slaves toil away around the world. The money proposed for climate change initiatives could have far more moral impact if it were employed to reduce poverty, improve medicine, increase the equality of women, and strengthen democratic institutions. The problems I propose to address first are so massive it may mean we never solve climate change. But do we deserve to solve environmental problems if we cannot address our most fundamental societal failures?

Published on August 11, 2010