The Moral Dilemma of Climate Change

On Tuesday, December 1st, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, announced that he and his wife would donate 99% of their Facebook shares, currently worth $45 billion, to charity. This announcement comes days after his signing on to the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, made up of a group of billionaires who have pledged some of their wealth towards funding for clean energy projects.

Bill Gates organized this coalition to supplement the work of the Climate Change Conference in Paris. World leaders have gathered there to create a plan of action to fight global warming, and they’re increasingly relying on advances in technology for the answer.

They fail to realize that spending money on the development of technology addresses the symptoms of climate change rather than the root cause.

150 countries have submitted voluntary pledges to the U.N. to reduce future emissions. Some created carbon budgets, while others promised to preserve undeveloped forests. While the pledged cuts are collectively the biggest ever achieved, the math proves that they are still not enough. Most countries’ pledges don’t even extend past the year 2030.

Climate change is a problem big enough to require international cooperation. But the UN alone does not have the resources or enforcement power to do enough.

That’s where private donations like those of Zuckerberg and Gates come in. They propose to pick up the government’s slack, using their own private wealth to fund the creation of new clean energy technologies.

While private billionaire altruism is admirable, throwing money at a problem does not make it go away.

There’s no doubt that money makes a difference, especially for a fight as expensive as the one against global warming. Solar panels and wind turbines are green alternatives, but they come at a cost that developing nations cannot afford and developed nations are largely hesitant to pay. Many of the potential technologies that offer miracle alternatives, such as nuclear fusion, still largely exist only on the drawing board.

Even more critically, climate change is not just a scientific dilemma that can be solved with a bit of innovation and big personal donations. It’s fundamentally a moral one as well.

Human actions are undeniably to blame for the earth’s current state of disrepair. A shift in the way that people, especially those in developed countries, think about what and how they consume is essential.

The problem with facilitating this shift is that the average American does not view climate change as an immediate threat. In a poll done by researchers from Yale and Utah State University, 62% of U.S. residents aren’t worried about climate change affecting them personally. Even more alarming is that 80% of U.S. residents disagree that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.

Americans are concerned about jobs, taxes and terrorism, not how many degrees the earth’s temperature is rising by. Global warming doesn’t bomb buildings or hand out pink slips.

It’s simply not our nature to care about problems that we believe have no direct, personal impact on our lives.

Yet if we want the earth to be survivable for future generations, we must force ourselves to care. We must become willing to sacrifice our short-term interests for a benefit we will never reap. We must take responsibility for our way of life, and the damage that it has done to our home.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, illuminates this ethical dimension of global warming. He writes that, “Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centered culture of instant gratification.”

Our ethical obligations aren’t only to our children and grandchildren. They are also to the poor and marginalized that we only encounter while scrolling through the news on our iPhone screens. Theirs are the lives that feel the impact of climate change now. They are the ones facing hunger, drought, weather disasters and rising temperatures. They are the ones without the resources to mitigate the damage.

And yet so many, under the guise of skepticism and despite overwhelming evidence, refuse to admit that their suffering results from our choices.

Any generous donation towards the development of technology can do a lot to reduce carbon emissions and soften the consequences of past mistakes. But money doesn’t change attitudes or perceptions. Technology doesn’t critique the consumerism and materialism that caused climate change in the first place.

To ensure that the changes we pledge to enact in Paris are ones that will address the human causes of climate change, not just the observable symptoms, we need more than the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

A close, critical self-examination of our values and the way we translate them into action is a good place to start. A necessary second step is de-emphasizing the importance of the individual and consumerism in favor for a more cosmopolitan, moral view of the world.

There is no formula for how to change the way people think and act. Certainly, changing one’s way of life incurs major costs. Technology and money offer us comfort because their uses are defined and concrete. They work within our existing societal structures, and frankly, we trust them.

But we risk too much by relying on billionaires and governments to clean up our home, and it’s not fair to make them fight alone anyway. We can do better than those before us have done. We must.

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Jacqueline Carney