You’re to Blame for Climate Change

Seriously.  You are to blame.


120114-Not My Fault copyClimate change is your fault. From the moment you get up in the morning to when you sleep, and even while you’re sleeping, you’re causing our climate to change. From turning on the lights and kettle for coffee or tea (even if it is Fair Trade), to your hot shower or bath, to your car or bus or train or subway ride, or God forbid, your airplane trip, to all that electronic equipment you desperately rely on (smart phone, tablet, laptop) — it’s all revving up the global temperatures.


 In a recent posting on Grist, David Roberts, one of the clearer voices on environmental issues in the US, laid out a theoretical experiment by the British analytic philosopher Derek Parfit on “harmless torturers.” Here is Roberts’ variation on that experiment:

Imagine a room in which 1,000 victims lie strapped to tables. Next to each table is a device that delivers electric current, operated by a torturer. All the torturers have cranked their machines up to 1,000 volts, leaving their victims in excruciating pain. These torturers are obviously doing something morally wrong, yes?

Now imagine the same room: 1,000 victims strapped to tables, only this time the tables are all connected by long wires to a single device. One by one, 1,000 torturers file by. Each one increases the device’s output by a single volt. A single-volt boost causes no discernible change in pain among the victims, yet by the end of the process, the victims are in the same agony. Each of these torturers committed an act that, taken in isolation, caused no harm, or at least indiscernibly small harm. They are, in Parfit’s term, “harmless torturers.” Yet the cumulative effect was the same. Has a harmless torturer done something morally wrong? Is she culpable like the torturers in the first example?

After applying the implications of the theoretical experiment to various street assaults, based on race or gender, Roberts turns to his main interest, climate change, and asks to what extent we are all “harmless torturers,” when it comes to climate change.

If you thought I was being unkind, even accusatory, at the beginning when I claimed that you are to blame for climate change, here’s Roberts claiming you’re a “harmless torturer” for climate change. Through every workaday or leisure activity, as noted above, you are ensuring the suffering of millions of distant victims, some of whom are your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Roberts proceeds to distinguish climate change from other forms of harmless torturing, to give you some moral comfort. The most important difference is that torturing people has no benefit for you, other than some masochism, whereas continuing to emit carbon does have its benefits, like heating your home, powering your electronics, even feeding you.

At the end, Roberts throws up his hands and wonders how we can convince people who are torturing others that that is exactly what they are doing.

The first two steps are self-awareness and acceptance of what you’re doing and causing.

Are you prepared for that?



David Roberts, “How climate change is like street harassment,” Grist (6 Nov 2014).





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