In Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come, Goodell stresses the importance of action in response to the crisis of climate change and subsequent rising sea levels while illustrating the detrimental effects that these phenomena are already having on society. In the quest to mitigate the effects of climate change, society is forced to examine the question of collective responsibility: who exactly is responsible for reversing the effects of this widespread issue and how should the burden of responsibility be divided amongst parties? This issue can be examined through the multiple ideological lenses presented in Michael Sandel’s Justice, in which Sandel constantly scrutinizes and evaluates the ideas of multiple philosophies from different angles and perspectives, using hypotheticals and applying their principles to real-life situations to highlight their strengths and weaknesses. Out of all the philosophies presented in Justice, the Rawlsian theory of justice is best utilized to justify action in response to the crisis of climate change while libertarianism is best utilized in the argument for inaction.
John Rawls’ theory of justice is contingent on two main ideas: the veil of ignorance and the difference principle. Rawls’ theory of justice clarifies the idea of the commonly quoted term “social contract”, putting forth that “the way to think about justice is to ask what principles we would agree to in an initial situation of equality” (Sandel 140). Rawls argues that if everyone came together to decide on the principles that would govern their society, i.e. write a social contract, that they would inherently have different opinions on how to shape society, as their views are influenced by their personal interests that come about as a result of different backgrounds; the agreement would never be totally just, as some people’s will would win out over others due to their superior bargaining power borne of arbitrary circumstance. However, if everyone gathered to make these decisions about how society would be governed without knowing where they would end up in the system (in terms of arbitrary factors like class, race, and socioeconomic status), the decisions would be made from a standpoint of equality. As such, decisions would be made so that basic and equal civil liberties would be guaranteed for all as well as the implementation of a system that “permits only those social and economic inequalities that work to the advantage of the least well off members of society” (Sandel 142).
From a Rawlsian perspective, it is the collective responsibility of the global community to act against climate change. Industrialized countries are largely at fault for the extreme carbon emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere – what is understood to be the main reason for the accelerated warming of the planet that is changing the overall climate trends. However, as a result of completely arbitrary circumstances, the people suffering the most are poorer, less industrialized countries that have not contributed to the problem nearly as much as industrial powerhouses like the United States. Due to these arbitrary circumstances, these poorer and less industrialized countries are unable to pour the large amount of funds needed into implementing even temporary measures to subdue the effects of rising sea levels and climate change. Instead, they are left suffering with their culture, livelihood, and way of life being threatened. From a Rawlsian perspective, if the global community came together under the veil of ignorance to decide whether or not to tackle the issue of climate change, people would choose action, implementing solutions to benefit the least well off members in society to ease the suffering caused by this phenomenon because they would desire assistance if they were cast into the circumstances of the least fortunate in society. By this line of reasoning, the entities that are in a position to be able to help mitigate the effects of climate change through a type of distributive justice, benefiting the least well off and most affected, would have an obligation to do so based on the difference principle.
Conversely, from a libertarian perspective, which emphasizes individual rights and frowns upon distributive justice, inaction in response to climate change is justified. Libertarianism, which favors unfettered markets and opposes government regulation (i.e. promotes the idea of the minimal state), acknowledges the presence of inequality in the world but maintains that no individual should be compelled to remedy this inequality, as it violates the rights of the individual to choose by forcing the responsibility of the redistribution of resources onto them; in other words, libertarians believe that “each of us [have] a fundamental right to liberty – the right to do whatever we want with the things we own, provided we respect other people’s rights to do the same” (Sandel 60). Climate change is an issue that will require numerous parties and varying approaches to overcome, something that will undoubtedly require government intervention. The libertarian philosophy dissuades the notion of collective responsibility, something that abounds in the argument over the decision to act in response to climate change.
Libertarianism fails to align with the idea of acting to combat climate change for multiple reasons. Combating climate change on the global level needed to yield viable results would require a healthy dose of governmental paternalism – something that libertarians readily oppose. The modern solutions that have been proposed and implemented to oppose climate change currently fall into two categories: infrastructural and legislative. Though these two ideas are very different from each other, they both violate individual liberties from the libertarian standpoint.
First off, regulations (such as the Paris Accords and the Clean Power Plan) set on cutting greenhouse emissions imposed on society through legislation interfere with free markets and therefore business according to libertarians. This interference falls outside the realm of “[enforcing] contracts, [protecting] private property from theft, and [keeping] the peace”, violating the idea of the minimal state and making taking action morally unjust (Sandel 60). Secondly, infrastructural solutions in the fight against climate change are extremely expensive – something that’s reflected in the taxes people pay to erect protective barriers and renovate damaged property in response to rising sea levels. The taxes that are raised to fund these infrastructural repairs and preventative measures are distributed across the population along legislative jurisdictions regardless of the geographic differences that may differentiate how said areas are affected. This point is demonstrated in The Water Will Come when Jeff Goodell states “By the end of 2016, the State of New Jersey had spent $4.6 billion on Sandy recovery efforts, 95 percent of which came from the federal government. In effect, people in Kansas and Washington and Iowa – people who will probably never see a Jersey beach – paid for the reconstruction” (Goodell 274). Libertarians maintain that their taxes should not be raised to pay for something that did not affect them, as the government has no right to mandate the redistribution of their funds without their consent. Both of these arguments go back to the overarching idea of collective responsibility – something that libertarians don’t approve of. If an individual truly owns themselves and therefore possesses personal liberty, they own their actions, their labor, and the fruits of said labor (Sandel 65). By this line of reasoning, taking away people’s money through taxation in order to mitigate the effects of climate change is unjust and a violation of an individual’s rights, as “the libertarian sees a moral continuity from taxation (taking my earnings) to forced labor (taking my labor) to slavery (denying that I own myself)” (Sandel 65).
There are justifications on either side of the aisle concerning whether or not to act on the issue of climate change, but I believe that it is imperative that the global community chooses to take action. The decision to take action is more defensible for a multitude of reasons. The libertairan standpoint fails to acknowledge that the plights of affected communities often come at no fault of their own and like libertarians’ wealth gained from labor, are simply results of arbitrary circumstances. Even if one does own their labor and therefore the fruits of their labor, those fruits are not necessarily deserved, as getting the opportunity to find that labor or have the skills necessary to excel at that labor are not a result of moral desert but completely arbitrary: that individual just happened to be born into those circumstances with the tools that allowed them to accomplish those things.
By that reasoning, no one deserves access to resources any more or less than anyone else, and the ability to save one’s way of life from the effects of climate change that are even now encroaching on communities should be a priority. This invalidates the argument for inaction, as none of the resources that anyone holds are truly deserved and therefore cannot be hoarded instead of being used to promote the common good in society by acting against climate change. The Rawlsian perspective is a viable justification for action because it takes every person into account regardless of circumstance, identity, and privilege, creating universally just policies. From behind the veil of ignorance, it is only natural to act against climate change and ease the suffering that is resulting from this phenomenon, as everyone would want assistance in the endeavor if they were the ones being directly affected. Further discrediting the libertarian argument for inaction by drawing from McIntyre’s perspective of justice, moral deliberation is more about the interpretation of our life story than exerting one’s will. It is an inherent trait of being born to possess social and historical connections that influence identity. Because of this, the global community does in fact have an obligation stemming from a collective identity to care for those affected by climate change: it is our responsibility to remedy these inequalities that are disproportionately affecting certain areas and populations of people.
Rising sea levels and climate change are issues that cannot go ignored for much longer if humanity does not wish to experience nature’s wrath. The decision to act on climate change is justified from multiple ideological perspectives and therefore a more defensible course of action than doing nothing to remedy this issue that is crippling the global community. Solutions must be implemented soon in order to stop both the current and future suffering around the world as a result of this phenomenon that will only increase in severity as time goes by.