Chapter 8 Why the individual ethics of greenhouse gas emissions matters to climate law
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By definition, the response of legal systems is a collective, governmental response that seems to be independent of any considerations of individual ethics. Indeed, many activists for government response to climate change draw a sharp distinction between individual lifestyle greenhouse gas emissions and political legal measures, arguing that “systems change, not individual change” is needed. But individual lifestyle emissions of the wealthiest ten percent of the world’s population (which includes the median U.S. household) account for well over half of global lifestyle emissions. Residents of the developed world make an outsized contribution to climate change through their choices to live in large climate-controlled houses far from their places of employment, drive alone in inefficiently large fossil fuel powered vehicles to get to work, consume diets high in red meat, and take far flung vacations in jet aircraft that also make an outsized greenhouse gas contribution for each passenger. However, legal mechanisms cannot address climate change without addressing this imbalance in individual emissions. “System change” versus “individual change” may thus be a false distinction, as a system of law and politics will only impose restraints on unfettered freedom of markets and individual choice when the restraints are perceived as driven by a moral imperative to respond to a problem. In this way, law does not direct individual morality so much as follow collective notions of individual morality. Many of the mitigation and compensation approaches discussed in this book depend on changing individual patterns of energy consumption, transportation, housing, dietary choices, and leisure travel. In order for society to accept these changes, there must be a consensus that these changes are the morally correct thing to do. Classical ethical systems do not easily address the problem of global climate change. Ethical thought is largely directed at assessing the morality of individual choices in the context of relationships with other individuals and communities. Ethics has not developed a context for addressing the impacts of collective choices on far flung communities and future generations. This chapter is a highly simplified introduction to application of some of the prevailing theories of ethics to the problem of climate change and the role of individual lifestyle consumption choices. First, this chapter will consider the application of utilitarian ethics to lifestyle greenhouse gas emissions. Second, this chapter will consider the application of duty-based ethical systems to the problem of climate change. Third, this chapter will consider the application of principles of virtue ethics to the question of individual lifestyle contributions to climate change.

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