How Philosophy Can Help Us Solve Climate Change

Updated: Feb 16

BY CAROLINE HADLEY


For this interview, I spoke to Andy Lamey, a professor, author, and director of the undergraduate philosophy program at UCSD. He currently teaches both lower and upper-division philosophy classes, including Ethics and Society and Philosophy of the Environment. Lamey explains how climate change poses ancient philosophical challenges, why we’re facing a global collective action problem, and the way the humanities are uniquely equipped to respond to the climate crisis.


Art by Sophia Hidalgo


Q: How can philosophy contribute to the conversation on climate change?


I think it can contribute in a couple of ways, and in ways that have changed since climate change has risen to public prominence. For a long time there was a debate about “should we accept science?” and philosophers have contributed a lot to that debate. We’ve asked, “what role does trust play?” in the scientific debate because most of us aren’t actively engaged climate scientists, and we have to take some of the science on trial and ask, “who are we trusting as a source [of information]?” That’s a very ancient question in philosophy- what is our basis of epistemic authority? What knowledge can we trust? In a class I teach all about climate change (Philosophy 28 - Ethics and Society II), we read about the correlation between climate change denial and conspiracy theorists. Philosophers have also been prominent in asking where change needs to take place (for climate change to be addressed)- is it at the collective level, or is it just something we should hope to see our elected official address, or is it something individuals have responsibility for? These are instances where philosophical clarity and rigor can really help. Philosophers have a lot to say about whether the climate is a collective action problem and how it needs to be tackled on a global scale.


Q: What got you interested in teaching about the environment and climate change in your philosophy classes?

In 2016 I joined a network of faculty who were interested in addressing climate change as a part of their class curriculum. It was initiated by my colleague Jane Teranes at Scripps Institute for Oceanography, and a big group of us got together for an event called the Faculty Climate Curriculum Workshop which created this larger movement to talk about climate change on campus. Now I’ve made climate change the subject of my Philosophy 28 class four times, which means that over 1000 students have been exposed to these issues, which I think is important.


Q: Since you began teaching about the subject, what changes have you seen in your student’s interest in climate change?


I don’t think I’ve noticed any significant changes (from 2017). I’ve noticed a change from when I was teaching around 2011 to 2013. Back then, most students were on board with climate change, but the debate around “is it really happening?” was more credible. My students were never in denial of climate change, but it’s much more accepted now. That seems like a huge and important shift. Up until 2013-2014, the climate impact of animal agriculture and our diets didn’t get very much attention, but now it’s starting to be talked about. That’s another major change I’ve seen.


Q: What do you think caused this change?


Well, there was a big U.N. report that came out in the early 2000s called “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, but it seems like since only around 2013, we have had reliable figures about the climate impact of agriculture. There was some debate about how much of an impact agriculture has on the environment - one report said 18% of global emissions were due to agriculture until that was revised to 14.5% - so it’s only within the past six or seven years that we’ve had this reliable estimate. Granted, 14.5% of global emissions is a lot, so that’s what brought the issue to public consciousness.


Q: Do you think the negative impacts of animal agriculture on the environment is primarily an American problem or a global one?


The impact varies. So it’s a question of, well, what figure (of emissions) matters, does the global figure matter, the national figure, or does the regional figure matter? From an environmental and philosophical perspective, it becomes a global issue because it’s having an effect everywhere. Agriculture’s effects seem most clear in places like South America, when you think about the deforestation of the Amazon. But the animal products there are mostly bought by people (in Brazil) and China, so you might think only they should worry about it. But I think we’ll have a better chance of getting them to change if we get serious about these issues, too.


Q: Do you think philosophers should play a larger role in deciding climate change policy?


There are a couple of philosophers who are very active in fighting climate change (at the policy level). Andrew Light, for example, is an academically-trained philosopher who has also been active for different Democratic administrations. Another example is John Broome, he’s a philosopher at Oxford University and he’s been involved in the drafting process of the IPCC reports. Obviously, one person can only play a very small role, and I’d say I care more about the quality of the policy rather than who is technically involved in it. I’d like to think that philosophers can make positive contributions in that area, but I wouldn’t say it has value for its own sake. A nice thing about philosophers though is that our interests aren’t directly tied to the fossil fuel industry, so it’s easier for us to talk about the environmental considerations. In that sense, philosophers (and other academics) aren’t as corrupt.


Q: What would you say to students who are interested in addressing climate change, but who don’t necessarily come from a science background, and see it more as a social justice or ethical problem?


Science is obviously really important, but climate change is also a political issue. Trying to bring about cooperation on the scale that’s required to satisfactorily address this issue places us in the realm of politics in a very big way. We want a vision of justice. So while climate change is a scientific problem, it’s also a matter of justice, which is very much in the vein of philosophy. Questions like, “to what degree should economic considerations interact with climate change obligations?” “Is there a difference between what Henry Shue termed ‘luxury vs. subsistence’ emissions?” These questions are not reducible to scientific understanding and require philosophical understanding. Because of its nature as a social justice issue, people in the humanities are absolutely essential, maybe even more so than scientists to solve the climate crisis.


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


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