The following is the first of a two-part series.
The earth has reached a critical point in history. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activity and progress have created so much stress on natural environmental processes that the damage is soon to be irreversible. The ever-rising production of greenhouse gases and over-harvesting of resources threatens our atmosphere and the future of generations to come. World leaders are now faced with a decision with looming, catastrophic consequences: either take great strides to alleviate the human created stress on the earth’s ecosystems and mitigate already prominent side effects, or continue to brood over legislation and mitigation talks, passing the buck of responsibility and delaying substantive action.
The world population watched in eagerness as the United Nations recently held its twelve day conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to address the current situation of climate change, with many world leaders, activists, and representatives in attendance. Yet, the fruits of the summit proved to be only meager. In an attempt to grasp the severity of the situation and understand the reasoning behind the legislative promises and lofty resolutions to enact further change put forth by the conference, one finds the source and true nature of the problems hindering substantial progress and unearths the moral and ethical underpinnings of what these leaders are facing. To accomplish this, one may turn to the writings of Immanuel Kant. One of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment,
Kant laid the foundation for the analysis of many different disciplines. In regard to the climate crisis, his moral and political philosophy can be employed not only to understand the depth of the situation, but also allude to who must accept culpability and what action must be taken. Finding this source of contention and the moral battleground on which it rests through Kant’s writings helps formulate an understanding of the most recent climate summit’s structure, outcome, and the various influences and reactions regarding its efficability; in turn, it also allows us to see what Kant would claim to be the concept through which we must begin our path of truly addressing climate change, namely cosmopolitan responsibility.
Only recently has the climate crisis and global warming been drawn into the international spotlight, even though it has been a recognized issue for decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created by the United Nations in 1988 in order to provide objective reports on current climate statuses and research pertaining to action, policy, and areas needing further research. These reports, generated every five to seven years, form the basis of all policy making and information on current climate standings. Since then, the UN has established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an agreement solely responsible for the support and perseverance of global climate change response. The UNFCCC consists of 197 Parties, and hosts a Conference of the Parties (COP) once a year to document efforts and current standings. It is the founding entity of the two major global legislations regarding climate change: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 meeting was delayed, allowing hopes of momentous progress to magnify as people were forced to stay at home and address their style of living. Finally, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, was held from October 31 to November 12, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland, with nearly 200 countries represented.
The creation of such a federation of Parties begins Kant’s theoretical role in the fight against climate change based on his idea of original common possession: “All men are originally in common possession of the land of the entire earth (communio fundi originaria) and each has by nature the will to use it (lex iusti) … ” (197-198). To Kant, humanity shares possession of the earth, as we are all relegated to life on the same sphere. We use the same oxygen to breathe and the same atmosphere to keep us alive; therefore our common possession necessitates a unified war front towards a peace of relative climate stability. Jakob Huber elucidates the relevance of this concept of common possession:
To think of the earth as possessed in common illustrates the requirement, directed at each particular agent, to take a reflexive stance towards their own existence as an embodied agent in a world of limited space. It is a standpoint through which we acknowledge our ability to locate ourselves vis-à-vis everyone else, and from which we act and interact with others with the aim of negotiating justifiable terms of coexistence. Rather than treating them as passive recipient of goods, this model empowers individuals to see themselves and each other as agents of justice that can come together in order to settle the terms of interaction as free and rational beings.
To face any global threat, parties must first acknowledge that it is a consistent danger to all. Individual locations are not relevant in the face of climate change as it encompasses every corner of the earth. In order to combat this, first it must be recognized that each “agent” or party holds an (stately) individual contribution to the problem, which because of our relativity based in mutual shared space, not only affects the individual state but also every other party inhabiting the same sphere. As agents of justice, party leaders are tasked with the reconciling of differences in order to promote a collective response and path of protection for our shared space.
Out of this mutual determination to cultivate a system of relational coexistence and action towards climate change, the UNFCCC is named as the collection of individual agents aiming to coexist and work together to ensure peaceful negotiations. Pauline Kleingeld summarizes Kant’s theory, outlined in his work Towards Perpetual Peace: “Kant’s well-known view is that peace is in every state’s interest and that states will be moved to join a voluntary league out of sheer self-interest if not out of nobler motives. Underlying this confidence is his long-held assumption that the consequences of war will eventually become so costly and destructive that states have an interest in avoiding war (368).” In this case, the war would be individual states battling against the intangible enemy of climate change. Peace, on the other hand, is only attainable by the coalition of parties working in conjunction to address the global threat.
The insistence on international cooperation is further reinforced in the Glasgow Climate Pact, the proclamation set forth from the November meeting of the parties: “Recognizing the role of multilateralism in addressing climate change and promoting regional and international cooperation in order to strengthen climate action in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, … ”. Therefore, it is recognized that a foundational pillar of this fight is global interaction. If left unattended, every corner of the planet will in some way, if it has not already, feel the devastating effects caused by global warming, thus prompting this multilateral approach.
As the most recent global treaty on how to address the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement embarked on an unprecedented task of bringing together all nations to present this united front: “The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” While the agreement sets common objectives and goals, states are left to decide the method with which to reach these points through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), which will be submitted prior to global conferences and revisited every five years. These NDCs will chart current standings, timelines of meeting goals, efforts implemented to reach said goals, and further expectations in the next five years.
With COP26 being the first summit to obtain these NDCs, the leaders of COP26 boasted great progress and teamwork at its conclusion, stating the summit reinforced the global agreements made by the Paris Agreement and finalized any outstanding points of contention. However, many smaller parties were frustrated during negotiations: “The problem is no longer that countries disagree that there is a problem. They just still disagree on who needs to do more, or pay more, or take what types of action.” This issue stems from the decision to let parties decide their own implementation strategies through the NDCs. While it most likely was a legislative necessity given that there is not an arm of the UNFCCC that can enforce any type of concrete action across international borders, the decision to allow individual parties also has roots in Kantian philosophy.
In discussing the following of the moral law, Kant writes: “But surely there is a great difference between what we are counseled to do and what we are obligated to do” (53). While the UNFCCC provides counsel and direction to parties, it does not dictate formal instructions for the parties to follow. For Kant, if freedom of choice is taken away, the action loses its moral adherence due to it becoming a requirement and not an action of free will. The moral law must be followed by the will, not forced into submission by external forces requiring compliance. Therefore, the decision to let parties control their own climate change efforts not only forces parties to willingly take action (or inaction), it also reinforces the moral obligation to take action based on self-interest and the realization that if it is determined something must happen by universal law, it necessarily supposes that there are conditions that allow for action to be taken.
For something would not be morally advised if there is no way to follow it: “He judges, therefore, that he can do something because he is conscious that he ought to do it, and he cognizes freedom within himself–the freedom with which otherwise, without the moral law, he would have remained unacquainted” (44). With the UNFCCC highlighting the moral law and counseling the need to take action, parties are allowed to face the fact that they ought to address climate change within their own states, preemptively cognizing that parties have the capacity to do something. Further, the NDCs allow the parties to have the freedom to determine the best course of action, thus reinstating willing adherence to the moral law. In addition, forced compliance would go against Kant’s idea of an ethico-civil community: “An ethico-civil state is one in which they are united under laws without being coerced, i.e. under laws of virtue alone” (127). Under this definition, the UNFCCC can be further analyzed as a moral approach to climate change. Formal legislative laws would again discredit the idea of a united front participating in the fight against climate change, instead creating a coerced front. Political laws would negate any voluntary efforts, thus removing any moral inclination.
Yet if parties have the moral obligation and freedom of choice to act on climate change, the hesitant and slow progress shown at COP26 is rightfully upsetting. However, Kant also provides an explanation for the lack of prompt response:
On the principle of the autonomy of the power of choice, what is to be done can quite easily and without hesitation to be seen by the commonest understanding; under the presupposition of the heteronomy of the power of choice, what is to be done is difficult to see and requires acquaintance with the world. I.e., what [one’s] duty is offers itself on its own to everyone; but what brings true, lasting advantage, if this advantage is to be extended to [one’s] entire existence, is shrouded in impenetrable obscurity and requires much prudence in order that the practical rule attuned to that [aim can] be adapted even tolerably to life’s purposes by means of suitable exceptions (54).
Within the ethico-civil community of the UNFCCC, the autonomy of the power of choice would be commanded only to combat climate change, and this is the way it is conceived by the masses. Party leaders and representatives, however, are under the influence of the heteronomy of the power of choice, given that in making decisions pertaining to climate change action, they take into account all other external factors such as political reputations/constituent support, legislative agreeability, financial considerations, economic impact, and security. These external considerations have contributed to the majority of the reluctance to enact sweeping changes in the face of climate change: “For decades, UN climate negotiations remained mired in debate and recriminations over who should bear the costs. Developing countries held firm that wealthy nations – who have benefitted from centuries of fossil-fueled economic growth – have an obligation to move first. Wealthy nations meanwhile remained reluctant to take on obligations seen as an impost for their economies.”
However, even in the face of these external conditions, the moral law still does not waver, and thus neither should its following. Kant accounts for these outside forces, yet explains that moral obligation is not to be swayed by any outside relevance. It is a choice whether to have autonomy or heteronomy of the power of choice, and it boils down to whether or not the moral agent chooses to fulfill his obligations or not. Patrick Frierson reiterates Kant’s original proclamation: “Kant here reasons from ought to can, not vice versa. That one has an obligation proves that one has the capacity for fulfilling that obligation, even without confidence about what one would do. Moral obligations cannot be excused due to difficulties in fulfilling them; that one recognizes that one has a duty shows that there is a way, however difficult, of fulfilling that duty” (36). The external forces will not disappear or subside; therefore they must simply either be reformulated to work in conjunction with climate change efforts or ignored in order to promote the well-being of the planet.
A shining example of a heteronomy of the power of choice and coexisting relationality is President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2016. President Trump cited multiple external influences culminating in his decision to exit the Agreement, including “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on [the United States].” He also asserted that other countries such as China “can do whatever they want for 13 years. Not us.” Yet President Trump admits, in the same speech, that the Paris Agreement is non-binding. Furthermore, the use of NDCs grant state sovereignty in relation to what contributions are put forth. In withdrawing, President Trump allowed the presumed external conditions to justify his deviation from the moral law that the UNFCCC highlights.
In addition, this decision illustrates a flaw in accordance with Kant’s idea of a federation of states. Kleingeld explains: “For one thing, truly perpetual peace should be backed up by the appropriate normative convictions, not just by the fact that it is in everyone’s interest, because a peace that is based merely in self interest is not really secure” (317). President Trump based the United States’ withdrawal purely on state self-interest, explicitly stating that it did not serve America’s interests by claiming that the deal was in fact not about the climate crisis, but instead it was an attempt to garner a financial advantage over the United States. Of course, the decision to exit the Paris Agreement also showed the delicate relationship between the efforts of remaining parties:
The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has, of course, undermined efforts to mitigate climate change. In 2016, the US was the second largest GHG emitter in the world (Olivier, Schure, and Peters 2017), so its non-participation therefore challenges any success of consolidated international efforts to counter the problem. Moreover, it demonstrates how states’ national interests can have a direct bearing on what is considered fair and, consequently, on the exercise of larger responsibilities when it comes to international efforts to combat climate change (197).
So while his withdrawal highlights heteronomy and the poisoned apple of self-interest, it also reverts to Kant’s concept of common possession and the need for such a federation to cooperate. Just one party reneging on its commitment created almost insurmountable consequences for parties dedicated to a unified front. The exit of the United States further proved that now, the relationship between states in a globalized society confronting climate change is intricately woven together; the actions of one party, no matter how big or small, has eminent effects on all other regions of the planet.
Dianna Able is a graduate student at the University of Denver. She is Assistant Editor of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.