Eric BeinhockerFri 20 Sep 2019 11.45 BST
Human-induced climate change is a moral wrong. It involves one group of humans harming others. People of this generation harming those in future generations. People in the developed world harming those in the developing world. Each of us is emitting carbon that is harming those caught in climate-driven superstorms, floods, droughts and conflicts. And there’s the greatest moral wrong of all – the mass extinction event we have triggered that harms all life on Earth.
Yet until recently, climate change has not been argued as a moral issue. Rather, it has been presented as a technocratic problem, a cost-benefit problem, where the costs of action must be weighed against the benefits of avoiding disaster. The debates have been around taxes, jobs, growth and technologies. While such debates are important – there are better and worse ways to tackle the climate crisis – the effect has been decades of inaction, denial and delay. When something is a moral wrong, particularly a deep, systemic moral wrong, we don’t wait around debating the optimal path or policy; we stop it.
Looking back in history, the climate movement can draw inspiration from another effort to right a deep moral wrong: the slavery abolition movement. There are clearly important differences between slavery and climate change, and I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the two; slavery was a unique moral horror and climate change is immoral in its own terrible way. But the climate community can find inspiration in the 19th-century abolitionist movement’s courageous efforts to make slavery illegal around the world.
Those who fought against slavery did not agonise over the costs and benefits. Their goal was morally righteous and powerfully clear: abolish slavery, make it illegal. It is time to do this for climate change: to make human carbon pollution illegal in every country in the world. It is time for a “carbon abolition” movement, to put an end to emissions.
This is exactly what the science tells us we must do. In order to contain warming to 1.5-2C we need to bring global human carbon emissions to net-zero between 2030 and 2050. Not just reduce it. Stop it. This principle is enshrined in the Paris agreement, although few signatories have grappled with its implications.