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209 TEN Rethinking Responsibility in an Age of Anthropogenic Climate Catastrophe WilliamEdelglass INTRODUCTION This year, many thousands of people will die as a consequence of malaria moving to higher altitudes, a shift made possible by warmer temperatures.1 Do we bear any moral responsibility for their deaths? And do we bear any moral responsibility for the loss of the stunning gold toad, whose extinction from the cloud forests above Monteverde, Costa Rica, is often attributed to climate change?2 If the consequences of my own daily actions are negligible, do I bear any responsibility for the suffering that results from climate change when cumulatively the consequences of our actions are catastrophic ? Today, many people ascribe blameworthiness to individuals who make choices that result in significantly greater greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than other reasonable alternatives and praise those who choose more sustainable practices in their daily lives. Are these judgments of praise and blame, and the attribution of moral responsibility associated with them, justified? My purpose in this chapter is to argue, against several recent views, that as individuals we are morally responsible for the suffering that results from climate change, and to do so I draw on the 210 William Edelglass work of Emmanuel Levinas. I begin by framing climate change in moral terms. I then turn to three philosophers, Hans Jonas, Baylor Johnson, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who argue that while environmental challenges, such as climate change, are indeed of utmost importance, our individual GHG emissions are inconsequential and global warming can only be prevented by policy changes, and therefore as individuals we are not morally responsible for the emissions we cause. Drawing on the work of Dale Jamieson, I argue that one of the reasons climate change is difficult to recognize as a moral issue for which we as individuals are responsible, is that it lacks the characteristics of a “paradigm moral problem,” namely clear victims and perpetrators who intend harm and understand the consequences of their actions. Jamieson, and others such as Ronald Sandler, argue that the problem of inconsequentialism that motivates arguments against individual moral responsibility is best countered by environmental virtue ethics, which argues for cultivating humility, temperance, and mindfulness in relation to our own carbon emissions. While I agree that environmental virtues are necessary, I argue that more is needed to provide a normative force for individual responsibility to others who suffer from the consequences of climate change. I then explore the ways in which Levinas provides resources for understanding individual moral responsibility in the context of anthropogenic climate catastrophe. I begin by arguing that Levinas’s account of responsibility is, as Diane Perpich claims, an inversion of the “standard account” and thus opens up possibilities for understanding responsibility in situations where agents may not be able to act otherwise and do not intend to harm victims, who may be spatially or temporally distant. Because Levinasian ethics begins in, and ever returns to, the suffering other, the suffering of those whose lives are negatively impacted by climate change rupture arguments that justify, or justify neglecting, individual GHG emissions. Levinas acknowledges that in nourishing ourselves we take food that can feed others. Thus, I argue, from a Levinasian perspective we are morally responsible for meeting our own needs even if this leads to harm against others, regardless of whether this harm is unintended, as with GHG emissions. Another aspect of Levinas’s account of responsibility that is helpful for understanding individual climate ethics is his insis- Rethinking Responsibility 211 tence on ethical work as being for those who are beyond the horizons of my own existence. Thus, Levinas’s exhortation, borrowed from Blum and Nietzsche, is apt for thinking about climate change: “Let the future and the things most remote be the rule of all the present days!” Against interpretations of Levinas that would suggest that his phenomenology of moral consciousness has no relevance to concrete situations, I argue that Levinas’s understanding of the relationship between the ethical and the political can indeed be a helpful resource for understanding individual responsibility for the sufferings that follow from climate change. I argue that Levinas provides a way of understanding how the singular subject’s moral responsibility is the condition for the possibility of collective responsibility; this in turn allows for a response to those who make a strong distinction between collective action problems and individual action and who conclude that individuals do not in fact bear any responsibility for climate change. Finally, I suggest that...


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