by Eva Maria Parisi

Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich


The climate is changing. Scientific evidence shows unequivocally how the emissions of human society are strongly influencing the earth, causing a rise in global temperature and in sea levels, a reduction of the ice sheet, glacial retreat, ocean acidification and an increase in the number of natural catastrophes. These phenomena, however, are so massive that it can be difficult for single individuals to recognize their responsibility in causing them. It is, in fact, the emissions of millions of individuals, not merely a few of them, which make a difference in ruining – or saving– the planet and the species living on it. But still, something is happening and even not considering who is to blame, the world has developed differently than it should have. (See Lawford-Smith 2014 p. 392.) What is my moral obligation to remedy this situation?

The aim of the following essay will be to confront this question. This will be done mainly in two steps: first, it will be argued that, in spite of a general skepticism about the difference we actually make by contributing to the earth’s pollution with our emission, our actions do make a significant difference in defining our identities as persons. Then the focus will be set on the social structures to which we belong and which play an important role in determining the responsibility we bear toward one another, even in the context of climate change. It is exactly through these structures that, as we will see, we must be determinant in some specific sense.


The question our considerations start with is a provocative and much discussed question concerning individual actions and their connection to the issue of global warming: Do I really make a difference? The philosophical as well as the political debate of the last years attempted to answer this question with moral arguments, data and statistics. However, although, on the one hand, it has been shown that in the field of global warming we make a difference: namely myself, together with thousands of other individuals, and my acts, considered within the setting of acts these others find themselves involved in, (See Parfit 1986, pp. 67 – 86.) on the other hand, the fact that I make a difference still has not been proven. If I were the only person emitting carbon dioxide, my act would not affect the process of climate change.(See Kagan 2011, p. 109.) Even if I stopped emitting carbon dioxide, planted trees and engaged myself in political parties defending the earth, the climate would still change and I, through my actions, would not be in a position to make any difference in the condition of the climate.

These considerations, I assume, are shared by many of us. However, I shall argue they are based on a common mistake: the one of considering the rightness or wrongness of our actions as merely depending upon the effects they produce. Although consequentialism, as has been shown, can be saved by objections which consider it an unsuitable theory for defending individual responsibilities within social processes producing unjust effects, (See, among others, Kagan 2011, pp. 105-141.) I fear it is not suitable enough to show why my individual pollution should be considered morally wrong. Therefore, let us approach the phenomenon from a Kantian perspective, according to which the judgement of the rightness or wrongness of my acts does not have to be based on their consequence, but on my own will and on my intended actions. According to such a perspective, the question whether I, by my individual acts, really make a difference, whether my individual impact on the climate is significant or not, loses part of its meaning. That is, the question, “Do I make a difference?” acquires a new evaluation: I make a significant and not a negligible difference by acting in one way rather than in another way, it is a difference which concerns the way I perceive and constitute myself as the person I am. (See Korsgaard 2009, pp.20- 26.) Therefore, even if (and I emphasize“if”) my actions would make no difference in the process of global warming, they would still make a difference in the definition of my moral integrity and personal identity.


As considered in the previous section, asking ourselves what we morally have to do about climate change is strictly connected to a deeper question which asks how we define the kind of person we want to be. I will argue that the answer to the question is based on the definition of  what “I” is or, more generally, what individuals are, namely parts of social structures which, in part, determinate them and, in part, make them determinant in some relevant sense.

Part of our personal identity is defined by the interpersonal structures that we, voluntarily or not, belong to. We come into the world as sons or daughters of someone else and live in the world as citizens of a given nation, customers of chosen products, friends of selected people etc. These structures confer upon us certain rights and impose upon us certain duties and constitute in this way a source of responsibility: It can be plausibly argued, in fact, that as long as the social structures we belong to produce unjust outcomes – as in the case of global warming – then we bear responsibility for those outcomes and must strive to find a remedy for them. (See Young 2006, pp. 102-130.) Let us consider the case of global warming and we will see that the mistakes and omissions we make every day make it easy to recognize our responsibility in destroying the planet: as parents not educating our children to have a deep respect for nature, as citizens for not putting enough pressure on our representatives to reduce the national emissions, as customers for putting our own comfort above the basic needs of future generations. Now, even if we do not want to be responsible for the problem of global warming, if we started acting in the best possible way, we would still be part of structures – such as the political or economic ones – that lead to climate change. Escaping our responsibilities, escaping moral mistakes,would be impossible for us.

However, pointing the finger against ourselves is still not sufficient to remedy the problem of global warming. Instead, we risk creating a general skepticism which fosters the attitude that since everyone is causally responsible for ruining the planet and no one really has the power to save it, then even trying to do it is useless. Let us keep in mind that the actions we choose make a difference in the construction of the persons we are and let us begin by considering the social structures we are part of as a possibility to be determinant rather than as structures which condemn us to moral failure. For the sake of the following argumentation we will assume for a moment that culpability could be put aside in order to focus on the case “where we might intuitively think the world has gone other than it ought, without any agent doing other than she ought, which is to say, without culpability.” (Lawford-Smith 2014, p. 393.) Considering this scenario, we will see that even if none of us were blameable for the problem of climate change, even if no outcome or causal responsibility could be identified or assigned to any of our actions, each of us would still have an obligation to remedy it. And this because of the structures connecting us to one another and through the relational dimensions that constitute human society, where relationships represent the bonds which connect people, each single person with the others, in the infinite web which makes of a crowd of single individuals a group of people living together.

There is, I shall argue, a moral obligation to help due to the relational dimension binding individuals together, obliging us to renounce the maximization of our own interests in order to secure the basic needs of all human beings. Now, someone could object that there is no relational structure binding someone like oneself to the individuals in Bangladesh, for example, which is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the possible effects of climate change (See Bose 2015). This consideration is, in my opinion, wrong. There are, I could argue, economical structures binding me to the people living in that faraway country, where many of the products I buy are produced, and there are political structures binding our nations together, proven by the existence of embassies. But still, even if the economical and the political structures did not exist, there would still be a relationship binding me to the community in Bangladesh, vulnerable to the phenomenon of climate change, and this relationship is given, I would say, by the fact that I am in the position to know about that community’s vulnerability. This means, I have the choice of acting, or not acting, in order to provide help. As long as someone is in the position to know about the existence of someone else, as I am in the position to know about the situation of those individuals living in Bangladesh, then even not doing anything to help them is an action within an interactional structure binding one to those individuals. And it is a fact that there is an interpersonal relationship binding me to someone in need, to someone vulnerable, (See Goodin 1985 Ch. 4. and Scheffler 1997 pp.189–209) that gives me reasons to provide aid.


The climate is changing. What do I morally have to do about it? This essay primarily reveals that there is something I morally have to do about it and that this something is strictly related to the interactional structures I am part of. What is missing is an answer to the question how to be determinant in the concrete sense. What I would need is a list of those actions I should morally undertake in order to do my part. This is not fortuitous, as not fortuitous is the fact that the question is set in the first person singular: its answer only can be found in the first-person perspective. Given that we all morally have to be determinant through and because of the interpersonal structures we are part of, each of us will be in the position to be determinant in different ways, according to his or her means, according to his/her role within his/her political, economic or religious community, according to the interpersonal bonds he or she is part of.

Being determinant. This is what I morally have to do about climate change, even if I were the only one reducing my emission, teaching myself and others respect for nature, and placing the safety of global basic health standards above the optimization of my own comfort. Even if the climate still changes, I have to put pressure on my political representatives to find proper solutions for the problem of global warming, and to become the proper representatives of my political community if none of my representatives will defend the interests of our earth, which is in my own interest and the interest of those who are most vulnerable to climate change, most vulnerable to my choices and actions. As a human being and as the person I want to construct through my choices and actions, I morally have to provide them withhelp.


  • Bose, Pablo S., Vulnerabilities and displacements: adaptation and mitigation to climate change as a new development mantra, in Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12178, 2015.
  • Goodin, Robert, Protecting the Vulnerable (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  • Young, Iris Marion, Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model, Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 23, pp. 102-130, USA 2006.
  • Kagan, Shelly, Do I make a Difference? in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 39, Issue 2, Spring 2011.
  • Korsgaard, Christine, Self Constitution, Agency, Identity and Integrity, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Lawford-Smith, Holly, Benefiting from Failures to Address Climate Change, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2014.
  • Parfit, Derek, Five Mistakes in Moral Mathematics, in Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, pp. 67 – 86, 1986.
  • Scheffler, Samuel, Relationships and responsibilities, in Philosophy & Public Affairs 26, pp.189–209, 1997.

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