Climate justice and ethics: some thoughts

“We must use this moment as crucial leverage to push the planet in a new direction. Let us try. If we succeed, then we have risen to the greatest crisis humans have ever faced and shown that the big brain was a useful evolutionary adaptation. If we fail—well, we better to go down trying.”

Climate activist Bill McKibben

After experiencing a record-breaking heatwave of 45.9C in France last week, scientists have concluded that the heatwave was at least five times more likely because of climate change.
The climate crisis is real, so here’s a question: in order to achieve climate justice, since most people seem reluctant to change their damaging habits, what if individually and nationally we put into law strict carbon budgets? For example, if you flew frequently, your budget to indulge would be used up more quickly. Once you had depleted your budget, if you wished to continue to travel by air, either a massive tax of, say, 1,000% would be levied on each ticket, or you’d simply be prohibited from flying.
Nationally, one more pipeline carrying dirty oil would exceed Canada’s carbon budget. The world’s population will be close to 10 billion by 2050 – World Population Day is on July 11 – and the individual carbon budget would need to shrink accordingly.
In the short term, before there is a mandatory budget for climate justice, should we begin to speak about the criminal liability of governments and individuals for excessive use of fossil fuels? If this sounds too radical, consider that this conversation has already started in the USA with a group of young people suing the federal government for just that reason.
We each need to question our own engagement in activities that will accelerate the breakdown of our climate, irrecoverable loss of biodiversity, and the impoverishment of billions of people. The term ‘climate apartheid’ is being used to describe how the wealthiest 10% of the population is ruining the lives of the other 90%. The urgency with which this conversation needs to take place becomes clear with a NASA report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month that a massive shrinking of sea ice is occurring in Antarctica, raising sea levels.
It’s as if we delegate our ethical responsibilities to our representatives in government to fix the problems of this world after voting them into power, thereby absolving the individual of doing anything. Back in 1992, 1,670 world-renowned scientists signed the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, which concluded with these words: “A new ethic is required – a new attitude toward discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.”
In 2018 over 15,000 scientists endorsed a second Warning to Humanity. Clearly, government bodies, elected by their citizens, have failed to promote a new Earth ethic that perpetuates a healthy, inclusive world. But make no mistake: individuals have failed too.
In 1953 the American naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold had this to say: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… [An ecologist] must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Ten years later, the corporate vehemence and denial that attended the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring essentially summed up what most biodiversity scientists, climate justice activists and human rights advocates experience even today. So to say that the science is under siege is an understatement. Trump and Harper remain the kingpins for such activities, but Trudeau’s double-speak on supporting oil pipelines that he says will give us the money to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels speaks volumes. Many believe this to be a criminal activity. EcoJustice, Canada’s legal advocates for Nature, said: “The reality is that the government can put Canada on the path to a safe climate future… or it can push this pipeline through. It cannot do both.”
A new vibrant Earth dialogue has started. Will you join it?

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