Monday December 24, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN

I believe that most people want to do good. This includes helping the poor, the infirm and other individuals or causes, either by money or by our labors. This time of year provides ample and obvious opportunities.

Most people are also sensitive to the demands of justice, but may benefit from some training in its requirements. Whereas while doing good we see a need and respond to it, we have done nothing to create others’ needs. Under the demands of justice, though, we respond because we have helped create the problem. John Broome, an economist turned ethicist, makes this helpful distinction in "Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World," published by WW Norton last summer.

It can be hard to know whom we have wronged. The burden of Broome’s book is that we in the developed world, every day, by our manner of living, contribute to worldwide climate change, whereby we are injuring everyone in the world but most especially those in countries not as well off as ours.

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This is undeniably so. By emitting carbon we are shortening lives. As climate change contributes to agricultural change, we are condemning people to the slow death of starvation. As the climate changes, various diseases and toxic creatures move to new areas. Warming temperatures increase the ferocity of storms, forcing people out of flood plain homes. Most dramatically, rising sea levels cause the dislocation of coastal residents, with all the pain and suffering that results.

I know this is shocking and depressing, a real downer on the eve of Christmas. Yet we have to understand it because we are inherently people who want to do good and do justice. The good news is that, once we understand, we can respond.

It is a great blessing -- a miracle, really -- that in spite of the distance we have gone down the road of heating the climate, in spite of all the tipping point we have tipped, in spite of all the feedback loops that have been engaged, still everything we do to limit emissions will pay off by reducing the extent of suffering and death in the world.

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To meet the requirement of justice fully, we would have to emit no carbon, for most of us an unlikely possibility. We can, however, adjust our lives to reduce our emissions substantially and we can offset much of the remaining emissions. Reducing emissions is a matter of choices, such well-publicized actions as driving less, insulating our homes more, eating less meat, becoming infrequent fliers and calling on governments to take action. Offsetting emissions can be easy and relatively inexpensive, such as sending money to groups that buy up carbon emission permits or planting a tree.

Oh, not just one tree, really, because trees eventually die, releasing the carbon they absorbed during their lifetimes; rather, committing to planting trees through time, so that growing trees replace those burning slowly through decomposition.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.