Who is Responsible for Climate Change?

The Threat

On December 12th, 2015, countries from all over the world came together in solidarity, to confront one of the largest threats society has ever faced. Armed with the knowledge of the consequences if they weren’t successful, it was agreed that all would take responsibility to actively combat this threat. It was here that the Paris Agreement was approved to fight global climate change. Now in 2019, 185 parties have ratified the agreement, and have promised to work towards mitigating their contributions to climate change.

Climate change sees to displace millions in the coming decades. The higher temperatures experienced will contribute to crop failure from drought. These same droughts will lead to increased risk of diseases like malaria and cholera. All over the globe, unpredictable and severe weather patterns will cause flooding, destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods, leading to further displacement. All of this combined is guaranteed to lead to great economic and social instability all across the world. We are poised to see increased death and suffering all over the world as a result of these events. These threats will not only affect those currently alive, but will be a continuous threat to future generations, and all life on earth.

As our opportunity to make change diminishes, many people often ask who’s to blame for climate change and excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But when we face such an unbiased threat, we should be asking: whose responsibility is it to take action? The collective? The individual? After all, we have not all equally contributed to this issue, yet we are all at risk.

The Simple Answer

Well, to most the answer is simple. Big business, and corrupt governments. They were the polluters and they are the ones that should pay for it. This at first seems like a very intuitive approach.  After all, as kids we were told to clean up after our messes and to take responsibility for our actions; so why can’t these large institutions do the same? This allows the burden of pollution to fall on these large entities rather than the individual. After all their influence is far greater than any one person could ever have. Obviously, all of us are opposed to climate change and the immense suffering it will cause. No moral person would condone the behaviour of these entities for the sake of profits. So, the cost of climate change falls in their hands. Whether or not they take action is another question.

After all the promises made at the Paris Agreement in 2015 were exactly that… promises. And as we have seen 3 years on, promises are easily broken. There is little that is being effectively done to keep individuals or governments accountable for a lack of GHG mitigation. So while governments equivocate on their stance toward climate change, we in industrialised nations wait for them to take action. We don’t take any responsibility to reduce our own environmental impact. Instead, we reap the benefits of their emissions, adding to the problem of climate change without any sort of accountability. But why do so many accept this? After all, it becomes a lot easier to justify unethical behaviour when you delegate responsibility to a higher power.

Children are Drowning

If not the collective, why should the individual be burdened with the responsibility? After all, none of us chose to live in a country that is so reliant on fossil fuels. It seems rather unfair to think that we should pay for these past behaviours. However, for many of us in an industrialised nation, it is possible to actively reduce our carbon footprint (in this context I simply mean the total amount of GHG emissions expelled as a result of our lifestyle choices). Due to a higher standard of living, greater economic flexibility and security, and reliable infrastructure, we can - if we so choose to - drastically cut our emissions and overall pollution. This is a luxury that those in developing countries do not have. After all, it would be unethical to expect them to compensate for GHG emissions when they do not currently have the means to, or cannot survive by making such changes. That is why, as affluent individuals, we have a responsibility to make these changes instead. Not just for ourselves, but for all across the globe.

The drowning child thought experiment encapsulates this perfectly. I highly recommend taking part in the thought experiment yourself by clicking this link here. This way you will be able to get a proper understanding of the thought experiment, and the extent of your own moral obligation. However, to briefly explain the scenario it goes like this:

Assume you’re on your way to work one day, and along your regular  route there is a shallow pond you pass every day. However, today you notice a small child struggling to swim in the water. They are distressed, crying out for help and seem at risk of drowning. Being the physically capable person you are, you know you could easily save the child without suffering from any harm. Your clothes may get wet and you will have to get changed, making you late for work.

Do you have an obligation to save the child?

The thought experiment continues by placing your in similar, but slightly altered situations.

Would you save the child if an old bike you owned was at risk of being stolen?

Would you save the child if bystanders nearby were not helping the child?

It ends by posing this question.

Would you would save the child, regardless of the geographical distance?

Moral philosopher Peter Singer created the thought experiment with this question in mind. He did so to highlight the moral obligation we have to help those in developing countries who are currently suffering, starving and even on the verge of death. Afterall, many of us have the capacity to save these suffering people through specific donations to efficient charities. These are all actions that can be taken to save those currently suffering around the world. The same is true of those who will suffer as a result of climate change. But what if we put up a fence around the pond? What if we could save those children that have yet to start drowning?

Build a Wall

In the same way, we can actively help those suffering through our individual actions,we can also save those that have yet to start suffering, and build the proverbial fence. It's through our individual actions that tangible change to reduce our GHG emissions and stop the effects of climate change. A threat that, as mentioned, will cause great suffering all across the globe from drought, famine, disease and social upheaval. It's through our individual actions that this can be mitigated, but only if we start acting now.

Its small changes, that although seem difficult, have very small ramifications for our personal lives. We can decide to take more public transport or ride a bike and use our car less. We can do so by reducing our consumption of material possessions - a lot of which cause direct suffering for individuals in developing countries that make the products. Our dietary habits are a luxury that causes extreme environmental degradation and contributes substantially to GHG emissions. Therefore cutting out animal products is one of the biggest changes an individual can make to mitigate GHG emissions.

At first these changes may seem uncomfortable, unwarranted or possibly unfair to some. However, if we return to the thought experiment we see that we were willing to save the drowning child and risk ruining our clothes, or even having our bike stolen. It is because we understand that these material things, while important are not as valued as the life of another human. And if we admit that we are morally obligated to help those suffering elsewhere in the world, our excessive consumption of material goods, animal products and fossil fuels becomes a lot harder to justify.

If we as individuals refuse to make these changes, the incentive for businesses and governments to enact change is drastically decreased. Unless their mission as a business revolves around ethical practices, businesses are less willing to make ethical changes for their own sake. More often than not, that incentive comes from stakeholder demands, public scrutiny and a loss of profit. Unless those individuals in power are actively going to make changes, the only other incentive comes from consumer demand. That is why, the habits that you and I employ are not only crucial to preventing the future suffering of humanity but to also incentivise businesses to take action too.

What is an Ocean made of?

The major objection to this mindset is that one individual can’t make a difference. There’s no doubt that often times it can seem futile. When faced with such an unbiased threat, how can we truly expect individual change to make a difference? Well, we can expect it through our everyday actions. With 50% of the world's population living on less than $5.50 a day, the $5 that you donate to an efficient charity has a much larger impact for someone in a developing country than it would if you had just spent it on a coffee this morning. Likewise, by reducing your consumption of animal products, you substantially use less energy to produce your food, cause less air pollution and habitat degradation, and reduce your overall contribution to global warming. However, the active contribution to mitigate climate change, starvation and global poverty isn’t enough for some. People raise the objection that:

“if no one else is doing it, what’s the point?”

While you choose to live more morally, and can easily help those suffering across the globe through minor changes to our lifestyle, is there much point if no one else is doing it? To that I ask: if you were to see that child drowning in the pond, and saw bystanders walking by, indifferent to the child who was very clearly struggling to breath, would you still be obligated to help the child?  I like any other moral person would say, yes. Why should it matter what those around you do? And since we have also concluded that geographic distance is not a barrier to helping someone, why should we refrain from helping those elsewhere in the world on the grounds that no one else will? The answer to that is simple: we shouldn’t.
Regardless of what others do, it’s only through these small actions that we can hope to see change occur. Those that underestimate the influence of an individual stop themselves from changing. It's the actions of one that can inspire dozens more to make the same changes. And it's these dozens that see collective change occur. After all, what is an ocean but a collection of drops?

With that being said it is true that, despite the overwhelming moral obligation to combat Climate change and reduce our GHG emissions, there will be some that cannot, or refuse to take any sort of action. Simon Caney recognises this and instead proposes 4 duties that every person on earth has to mitigate their GHG emissions.

Of those, is the duty for the affluent to compensate for those who cannot or refuse to reduce their GHG emissions. Its for this reason that if we want to truly see the threat of climate change we need to compensate for the poor. As already discussed we can’t possibly expect these people to take action against climate change when they have not benefited from any amount of GHG emissions, and are not in a position to actively mitigate any pollution they contribute.

Likewise Caney states as affluent individuals we must also compensate for those that refuse to. This means those within our own countries that act selfishly, and fail to see the immorality of ignoring climate change. We must make greater strides as individuals to reduce our GHG emissions so that the impact of those acting selfishly will not jeopardise our future, and the future of those across the world.

It's understandable that many will take issue with this. Afterall, why should those actively trying to better the world now have to also compensate for the selfish. For this reason Caney adds his final duty for those in earth: to create and influence institutions to discourage noncompliance.
He elaborates by saying,

the most advantaged have a duty to construct institutions that discourage future non-compliance… We should not take pollution as a given and then act in a reactive fashion: rather, we should be pro-active and take steps to minimize the likelihood of excessive pollution.
— Simon Caney

While Caney does not fully elaborate on what this would entail and admits as much,  I have interpreted in this way. As individuals we must directly influence the institution we interact with. Whether it be our workplaces, local communities, friends and families; we have a duty (according to Caney) to influence pre existing structures so that those that will not mitigate their GHG emissions, can less easily do so.

This may be a politician advocating for climate change policies, and higher taxation of environmentally detrimental goods, such as animal products. It may mean a business owner introducing more sustainable disposal of waste in their workplace, or using ethically sourced resources. Or, for you and I it may mean exercising our ability to vote with our dollar and abstaining from environmentally damaging goods. It may mean lobbying to our local governments for greater action to occur. The most recent example of this was the School4Climate protest that occured on March 15, 2019. The event saw tens of thousands of Australians actively protest the innaction our our governments. As individuals and even more so as a collective they understood that the responsibility of climate change falls on each and every one of us. They were protesting to keep the government accountable. They were protesting to ensure that noncompliance of the government would not be tolerated. They were protesting because they know we are all under threat. It’s these actions as individuals that see greater systematic change occur. But it can only start from the decisions you make as an individual. If we do not start here, we may have very few options left.

Drown the Children

While I do not have all the answers, what I do know is that something must be done. Innaction cannot be excused when we are talking about an issue that sees to threaten all of humanity and life as we know it. For that reason alone the answer to the question that this essay poses should be obvious. Everyone is responsible for climate change. If we as individuals cannot recognise that, then we are faced with a very real problem. A problem that is going to cause mass suffering all across the world, in all sorts of forms. A problem that will not only cause suffering to those in developing nations, but here in industrialised countries too. America, the UK, China and Australia are not going to be exempt from the threats of climate change.

WIthin the coming decades the full effect of climate change will be felt in these nations. Sooner or later the issues of the drowning thought experiment will no longer be hypothetical. They will be real. If we do not recognise our individual responsibility, we will see even greater suffering than already exists. And if we are going to do that, we may as well hold them under while we watch them drown.


Caney, Simon. “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change.” Leiden Journal of International Law, vol. 18, no. 04, 2006, p. 747., doi:10.1017/s0922156505002992.

“Homepage.” Vegetarian Victoria, www.vegvic.org.au/.

“Nearly Half the World Lives on Less than $5.50 a Day.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/17/nearly-half-the-world-lives-on-less-than-550-a-day.

Stafforini, Pablo. The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle, by Peter Singer, www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/199704--.htm.