Climate Change and Existentialism

J.P. Sartre: philospher of collective action

At its core, climate change is essentially a collective action problem. The political scientist Stephen Walt has a very fine blog post which lays out why collective action on this issue is so difficult:

In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won’t be evenly distributed and won’t occur for several decades, which means that today’s leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That’s do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor “cap and trade” systems while other prefer a straightforward “carbon tax.” Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that’s not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.

As a policy analyst, Walt is of course most intent on the practical side of this question, looking at the barriers to action. But collective action problems have a philosophical dimension as well. They are essentially problems about human freedom, and the paradox that humanity can in masse create a future that no one individual would ever will. Jean-Paul Sartre thought a great deal about his paradox of freedom. In Marxism and Form, Fredric Jameson offers a commentary on Sartre that seems highly relevant to the current dilemma facing our species:

This alienation takes yet another form, owing to the identification already commented on between matter and sheer multiplicity or number, here the source of deflection is less some external object than it is simply the uncontrollable result of a host of collective actions and wills working together. Sartre’s examples of this process are the deforestation of China and the inflation which took place in Renaissance Europe as a result of the influx of Spanish gold from the New World. In both cases, a host of individual positive actions (each peasant removes trees from his own land in order to make it cultivable; earch conquistador enriches himself personally, encouraged in that by the state itself) add up to a negative sum: with the trees gone, the Chinese landscape enters its classic rhythm of devastating floods; and Spanish currency depreciates at a pace terrifying to contemporaries.

The parodox of freedom that Sartre explains why so many people feel powerless today. Alientation and bad faith remain the dominant modes of experience. This existential side of the climate change needs to be grappled with as much as the policy issue. I would invite any philosophers who are reading this blog to do an essay revisiting Sartre in the age of carbon footprints.

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