It’s time for a reckoning.

Boris Johnson declared it was one minute till midnight on the eve of COP26. If that is the case, then the clock has struck 12:00, and it is now well past midnight.

Climate Blame Game

The question of personal and collective moral responsibility may well be the most misunderstood and overlooked aspect of the climate crisis. Respond-ability, something that has clearly been in short supply on the climate front, is intimately related to ethical notions of personal responsibility. Two-thirds of people around the world said climate change is a global emergency that requires major actions. Perhaps if we all had a clearer ethical sense of our own responsibility in relation to the climate crisis, we might be more responsive collectively.

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The implications of this blame game, engaged in by both media and activists, is clear: it’s not our lifestyle that is the problem here, it is those nasty corporations who make our lifestyle possible that are to blame. THEY’RE responsible for this mess, not us! This is fundamentally a paternalistic model of responsibility.

Climate Responsibility

So what is the alternative to participating in the paternalistic blame game?

“Unlike a blame model of responsibility, [shared] responsibility does not seek to mark out and isolate those to be held responsible, thereby distinguishing them from others, who by implication are not responsible… Most accounts of collective responsibility aim to distinguish those who have done harm from those who have not… Political responsibility, on the other hand, is a responsibility for what we have not done.”

Isn’t that radical? Let’s return to the simplistic example of a group of people facing a tsunami, which is an apt metaphor for climate trauma:

  • With a shared sense of responsibility, they’d shout things like “PUT ON YOUR LIFE VEST & HELMET!” or “HEAD TO HIGHER GROUND!”
  • Only one of these groups has any chance of surviving the tsunami.

“Finding some to blame, it does not thereby exculpate others; people are guilty primarily for what they have not done… the moral status of background conditions (e.g. consumerism) is brought into question… Responsibility for the outcome does not belong strictly to some individuals or to some collectives: humans have a shared moral responsibility for global climate change.”

And then, what we choose to do is not so much measured by the intended result, as with say voting for Democrats or the Labor Party, but rather by the actual results measured over time.

“When there’s several million, and hopefully billions, of people making ethical choices in the impact they make every day, then we start moving towards a world that we can feel a little bit happier to leave to our children.”

This vision stands in stark contrast to the individual’s perceived powerlessness under the paternalistic model of distributed responsibility, where everyone is at the mercy of top-down solutions, waiting to be told what to do by protectors of the status quo.



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