Volume 25, Issue 2, Fall 2011
Climate Change and Structural Emissions
Moral Obligations at the Individual Level
Given that mitigating climate change is a large-scale global issue, what obligations do individuals have to lower their personal carbon emissions? I survey recent suggestions by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Dale Jamieson and offer models for thinking about their respective approaches. I then present a third model based on the notion of structural violence. While the three models are not mutually incompatible, each one suggests a different focus for mitigating climate change. In the end, I agree with Sinnott-Armstrong that people have limited moral obligations to directly lower personal emissions, but I offer different reasons for this conclusion, namely that the structural arrangements of our lives place a limit on how much individuals can restrict their own emissions. Thus, individuals should focus their efforts on changing the systems instead (e.g., the design of cities, laws and regulation, etc.), which will lead to lower emissions on a larger scale.