Access published pdf version To those of us who work on environmental issues, political inaction in response to urgent problems is often a source of puzzlement and frustration. Recent political failures - most notably the failed COP15 negotiations and the continuing inability of the U.S. Congress to pass climate legislation - have left many observers in a state of despair. Despite all of the scientific data we have amassed, all of the moral, economic, and political rationales for action, and all of the time and effort that has gone into forging national and international agreements, we are poised to make none of the institutional changes necessary to mitigate climate change in any significant way. How to understand such failures and what to do in the face of them has been a recurring theme in the pages of this journal. The papers in this issue suggest a variety of ways in which we need to improve our understanding and approach environmental problems differently and - one hopes - more successfully.
Brigitte Nerlich (2010) sheds some light on the surprising success that climate sceptics have had in influencing public opinion about climate change. Her study of the debate about the 'climategate' scandal clarifies one important way that climate change sceptics have successfully shaped public discussion: by invoking religious metaphors, they have portrayed climate science as populated by zealots who accept climate change as a matter of faith. Nerlich's conclusions make clear how much the public's acceptance of climate science relies on their trust in climate scientists and how easily that trust can be undermined.
Marion Hourdequin (2010) shows how a flawed model of the relationship between individuals and society can convince us that climate change is a problem properly addressed by political institutions and not individual consciences. Hourdequin recommends replacing the Homo economicus model of human behaviour with a Confucian relational model of the self. According to the latter, solutions to climate change involving coercive measures will not be successful unless individuals also embrace the values that they are designed to promote: frugality in our carbon emissions, equity in our sharing of environmental burdens, concern for the ecological systems that we live within.
Kevin Behrens (2010) offers a different but similarly appealing picture of what a relational understanding of the self might look like and how it might be understood to ground environmental obligations. Arguing against those who claim that African environmental ethics is thoroughly anthropocentric, Behrens points out that many seemingly anthropocentric theorists also emphasise the interrelatedness of humans with the rest of the natural world. This interdependence is akin to a family relationship, and fostering this involves concern for the welfare of nonhuman parts of the natural world.
The study by Liberty Mweemba and Honjuan Wu (2010) also suggests some important insights about influences on individual behaviour. The Zambian students that they studied showed a much greater concern about local environmental problems than about global ones. They also listed 'social and political actions' as the least important way to effect environmental change. This might go some way to explain the lack of global outrage over the continuing failure to reach significant agreements on global climate change.
Lars Samuelsson (2010) brings these practical concerns back to the arena of theory and asks how we ought to think about the value of nonhuman nature. He argues that for value claims to have practical relevance, we must understand them as providing reasons for action. He argues that intrinsic value claims are indispensible for ethical theorising: they are about which things give us direct reasons rather than indirect reasons for action. Accepting this, he argues, allows us to get on with the important business of environmental ethics: showing what kind of reasons there are for caring about the natural world.
So how might we improve humanity's recent dismal performance on environmental issues? We can help the public to see why the conclusions of climate science really are trustworthy; we can think of good environmental behaviour as part of what it is to be a good person and to do right by our own communities; we can insist that our political systems do better at solving the problems that are put to them; and we can show why the world we live in is one worth caring for.
Behrens, K. 2010. 'Exploring African holism with respect to the environment'. Environmental Values 19: 465-484.
Hourdequin, M. 2010. 'Climate, collective action, and individual ethical obligations'. Environmental Values 19: 443-464.
Mweemba, L. and H. Wu. 2010. 'Greening our future and environmental values: an investigation of perception, attitudes and awareness of environmental issues in Zambia'. Environmental Values 19: 485-516.
Nerlich, B. 2010. '"Climategate": Paradoxical metaphors and political paralysis'. Environmental Values 19: 419-442.
Samuelsson, L. 2010. 'Reasons and values in environmental ethics'. Environmental Values 19: 517-535.
Other papers in this volume
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