Individualism Submerged: Climate Change and the Perils of an Engineered Environment
115 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 22 Mar 2015
Date Written: August 9, 2009
Current approaches to addressing the negative impacts of climate change rely on collective capabilities. Cost-benefit analysis and contractualism, the two conventional perspectives that dominate the debate, support the pursuit of adaptive strategies such as large-scale geoengineering projects to reduce solar radiation or ameliorate sea-water inundation. In place of returning greenhouse gas emissions to natural levels, these approaches put the global climate system and compensation for losses resulting from climate change under the control of some group of fellow humans. In other words, they privilege mechanisms that increase each individual’s dependence on a collective decisionmaker and decrease the individual’s capacity to function on her own in the natural world. The climate change debate has ignored or overlooked this tremendous impact on individual capacities and individual responsibility. Individualism does not seem to register as an important source of ethical consideration among the legal thinkers, policymakers, economists, and others who are influential in that debate.
This Article seeks to remedy that void. It excavates the relationship between individualism and environmental degradation, articulating the importance of individual capacities as part-and-parcel of our character, central to who we like to think we are or aspire to be. A commitment to individualist values requires recognition that climate change and its proposed solutions threaten a loss of individual capacity and individual responsibility that is a distinct and, in its own way, catastrophic kind of injury. The Article concludes that concern about loss of individual responsibility justifies a stronger push for a rapid return to natural levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than current analytical approaches and solutions. Individualist values support a race to the top, in which demonstrations of the feasibility of living in ways that produce less greenhouse gas emissions create a duty on the part of others to lower their emissions. Preserving a world in which individualism is a dominant feature requires maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations within the natural range for humankind.
Keywords: climate change, individual, individualism, economics, adaptation, greenhouse gas emissions, cost-benefit, environment, geoengineering
JEL Classification: A11, D6, I31, K32, K40, O13, O14, O33, Q20, Q30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation