More Fun with Collective Action

Here’s a question and answer from AskPhilosophers that bears on the question of individual moral obligation in matters where only coordinated collective action can make any meaningful difference.

If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so that’s morally bad.If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly that’s also morally bad.Which is the morally correct thing to do?

December 4, 2007

Response from Thomas Pogge on December 7, 2007

In dilemmas of this kind, always start by thinking about whether they are really inescapable. One escape in this case it to speak with your sister. If she likes New Zealand, she is unlikely to be indifferent to the environmental degradation that is already so much in evidence elsewhere. Plus you can offer to donate the flight cost to a good cause of her choice, in honor of her wedding. In any case, it is much easier for her to understand and accept the decision if she was herself involved in making it or at least in thinking it through.

BTW, I checked your numbers because 4 tonnes seemed like a lot. But you are basically right. A Boeing 747-8 takes a bit over 200 tonnes of fuel (over half its take-off weight), roughly 137 gallons of fuel per passenger. Each gallon produces 20 lbs of carbon dioxide. So that’s about 1.3 tonnes per person. But then one tank does not get you there, plus you’ll have to fly back as well. So 4 tonnes is a very good estimate. Way too much, indeed.

Well, I sure wouldn’t have given Thomas Pogge’s answer, which I think is really quite silly. Even granting what I’d guess are the underlying extreme AGW assumptions, surely the correct answer is this:

Your choice is very unlikely to determine whether or not a airplane leaves London for New Zealand. So, chances are extremely high that the same amount of carbon will be emitted whether or not you choose to go. Staying or going will make no difference at all to the condition of the atmosphere. But even if your choice quite improbably keeps that plane in the hangar, the effect of that flight is infinitesimally small in the overall scheme of things. Your choice is also likely to do nothing whatsoever to improve the probability of enacting some kind of future global climate treaty or some kind of scheme for incorporating the cost of the environmental externality into the cost of plane tickets. So, if not being a horrible selfish brat of a brother matters to you at all, then you should go. In fact, you sound suspiciously like a shit trying to find a bogus, holier-than-thou excuse to wriggle out of ponying up for a flight to your sister’s wedding. If you’re broke or cheap you’ve got to tell her the truth about why you won’t go. You are emphatically not allowed to hide behind Al Gore.

Thomas Pogge is an eminent moral and political philosopher, and not a complete idiot, so what’s going on here?