The Problem Of Motivation

Even if what I have said is correct, a problem may linger. Morality is fundamentally directed toward action. Many would say that it seems clear that we are not motivated to address this problem. What is the point of seeing climate change as posing moral questions if we are not motivated to act? To this I have four related responses.

First, outside the United States, especially in Europe and the developing world, the problem of climate change is widely seen as a moral issue. Much of the anger at the American withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol can only be understood by appreciating this fact. Seeing climate change as posing moral questions is part of appreciating others' points of view. Of course, having appreciated how climate change can be viewed in this way, we are free to reject this perspective. However, I believe that once we appreciate climate change as a moral problem, this view is virtually irresistible.71

Moreover, rejecting the moral framing of the climate change problem and instead approaching it from the perspective of self-interest does not lead to solutions. Although I think we could get further on this ground than we have gotten thus far, ultimately acting on the basis of narrow self-interest locks us into collective action problems that lead to worse outcomes overall. This is borne out by the current state of climate change negotiations and also helps explain why we as individuals often feel so powerless in the face of this problem.72

Third, a moral response to climate change is difficult to escape. For the challenge of climate change is not only global and abstract, but also local and intimate. Once obligations are seen in the way described in the previous section - as forming a dense web of connections that link us in our myriad roles and identities to people all over the world - then it becomes clear that virtually everything we do is morally valenced. When we bike instead of drive or donate money to Oxfam, we issue moral responses to the problem of climate change. Denying responsibility, dissembling, and ignoring the problem are themselves moral responses.

Finally, I think that it is a plain fact that climate change poses moral questions. While I do not want to argue in detail here about the concept of morality or defend the idea that there is a simple and direct relation between grasping the way the world is and being motivated to act, surely there is some connection between seeing an act as morally right and performing it. That something is the morally right thing to do is a powerful consideration in its favor. It may not always carry the day, but it cannot easily be ignored.

Taken together, these considerations go some way toward demonstrating the utility of viewing climate change as a moral problem.

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