Tag Archives: IPCC

A Universal Right to Protection Against Anthropogenic Climate Change (Draft)

There should be a universal human right to protection from or against anthropogenic (human caused) climate change (ACC). However, since most rights are not expressed in the negative form, e.g., everyone has a right to not to killed, but rather, as Article 3, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person;” it seems pertinent to express this right in its positive form.[1] Therefore, the right should be expressed as such:

Everyone has the right to a sustainable and healthy environment in which to live that is free of the effects of human caused pollution; that is either harmful and or negatively impacts the normal range of human functioning or basic capabilities; that negatively impacts the development or maintenance of political self-determination and territorial sovereignty; or that negatively impacts and individual’s or a peoples’ ability to provide for their own subsistence.

ACC is a global issue that supersedes any and all national borders because of the manner in which Greenhouse Gasses (GHGs) distribute throughout the planet. Furthermore, the health and wellbeing of the planet and its many environments are among the essential interests of all human beings who require them to live and thrive. However, as the situation currently stands, we as a global civilization currently lack the appropriate apparatus to adequately manage ACC. However, should this universal human right be adequately defended and supported, it could provide the necessary foundation for forming the international and intergovernmental apparatus to address and manage ACC. At the very minimum, the individuals of all nations would at least have the means to seek help in formal and legal institutions and to appeal for assistance and redress when the harmful or negative impacts of ACC are expressed.

The strongest opposition to the universal human right to a sustainable and healthy environment is a three-part objection. (1) That the incumbent positive duties of mitigating or preventing ACC that will result from the right are too-demanding and as such are infeasible. (2) That the infringements upon individual and state sovereignty as a result of this right will be too great. (3) That the impacts of ACC now being felt were not the responsibility of the current generation, the greatest impacts of ACC will not be felt or experienced by this generation, and because of these conditions it is unfair to burden this generation with the responsibility for addressing ACC. The last of the three-part objection (3), is not the strongest argument against a right to a sustainable and healthy environment, but it is the first argument that must be overcome, then (1) and lastly (2). However, for the sake space only (3) will be addressed in this argument. The three-part opposition relates directly to conceptions of responsibility, obligation, and practicality, and all of which are morally important, but none of which take into account the very real people who are being and who will be harmed by ACC. The underlying motivation of universal human rights is to assert the value and importance of each and every human being and, to provide the necessary recourse to any imposition in violation of what is deemed to be sufficient to achieve a minimally decent human life. A person’s or a peoples’ right does not and should not depend upon who is responsible for the imposition, what duties the right obligates, or the supposed practicality of fulfilling those duties.

The strongest argument in support of the right to a sustainable and healthy environment is that every human being has an interest in protecting the integrity of the planet, and are all entitled to a safe and secure territory where they may fulfill the plans for their life. Drawing on David Miller’s assessment of strategies for defending a universal human right, the direct, instrumental, and the cantilever it can be shown that the right to a sustainable and healthy environment satisfies the conditions of all three strategies.[2] The strongest objection to this argument is that individuals and groups have a right to self-determine, which supersedes the rights of other groups or individuals, even when that determination may impose harm upon others. The difficulty with this objection is that it is neither always true, nor always false, it is case dependent. Thus, it may sometimes be permissible for a group or an individual to act in a way that may cause some harm to others when their own survival depends upon it. For example, there are countries that have a minimal carbon footprint as compared with countries such as the United States and that for survival and development purposes are permitted to burn fossil fuels and emit GHGs even though their minimal contribution does lead to some global harm. Notwithstanding those very particular cases, although many arguments will be made in terms of self-defense or subsistence not all will qualify as such, and will be subject to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. The result will be that it is not permissible under most normal conditions to impose harm upon innocent others, unless the act is done for the sake of survival, and this will include acts that can lead or contribute to anthropogenic climate change.


The science of climate change is cumbersome and complex and is beyond the scope of what can adequately be addressed here. However, that is not meant to suggest that there is not broad consensus on the facts that climate change is real and that human influence upon the environment is not only exacerbating a natural phenomenon, but also expediting the rate at which it is occurring. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),[4] an organization put together by the United Nations (UN) in coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO), has published five extensive reports since the 1990s consolidating and synthesizing the best science on the subject. The best expert predictions reveal that given current projections of the burning of fossil fuels and the emitted greenhouse gases that will accumulate into the atmosphere that a 4° C (not uniform, but mean) increase throughout the planet over the next century, as shown in the graphic above. There is not one part of the planet that will remain unaffected. The first places that will be affected are near the equator, which are predominately populated by people of color. But soon after that, in the latter half of the twenty-first century the rest of the globe will start to feel the brunt of the impacts.

Anthropogenic climate change is the result of an increased amount of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted into the atmosphere. Most of what is released into the atmosphere remains there for a very long time and with continued emissions the magnitude is compounded. As energy is received from the sun by the earth, these GHGs trap the energy within the earth instead of releasing it back into space. This effect becomes compounded by increased GHGs in the atmosphere since they are not released and additionally, there is a latent affect so that the impacts are not immediately experienced, but rather, become expressed over time.

The IPCC has identified multiple layers of harms that will occur as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Following the temperature rise of the earth the polar ice caps are melting, which is causing sea levels to rise at increased rates. This will result in the loss of many coastal and island regions. In addition to this the ocean is acidifying because of the volume of GHGs that return from the atmosphere and are absorbed by the ocean, which is and will result in continued depletion, if not extinctions of fish populations. The temperature changes that are being exacerbated will also result in ecosystem shifts that will cause desertification, loss of biodiversity, and the extinction of many plant and animal species. These conditions will result in loss of food sources due to loss of arable farming lands and migrating, depleted, or extinct animals. Food security will be undermined due to population depletion of both fish and animals, and the loss of arable farm land, which will also potentially result in violent outbreaks as different groups and individuals complete for limited resources. And all of this will increase the magnitude of migration pressure of humans towards areas that are less affected and better able to manage the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, as a result of the loss of food security, depleted resources, and ecosystem shifts morbidity and mortality rates will increase and the rates and spread of infectious diseases will dramatically increase further undermining people’s ability to live and to thrive.[5]

Given these predicted and highly likely outcomes and the relevant lack and utter absence of protection for the average human being against such unjust and immoral impositions that are not necessary, i.e., many do not have to occur, a universal human right to a sustainable and healthy environment must be defined and ethically supported. There is a long history of isolationism, self-protection, state sovereignty, and development which all entail important arguments both for and against them. Likewise, there are also many strong and important moral arguments both for and against a right to protection from anthropogenic climate change. Hopefully, by fleshing these arguments out and setting them side-by-side they can be analyzed and their merits can be deciphered thus, coming to the conclusion that a universal human right of this magnitude is vital, timely, and necessary for every individual on the planet, both for this generation and for the generations yet to come.

The argument of due responsibility that asserts this generation should not be held liable and thus obligated to bear the burdens of anthropogenic climate change has significant moral appeal. First, as noted above, the current generation is not entirely responsible for the collective and compounding effects of GHGs in the atmosphere that are contributing to ACC. This is in fact true and it seems morally problematic to assign burdens to those who are not entirely, or of themselves responsible. Second, there is a non-identity problem that has raised concern about claims of harming future generations that as a result of the current and previous generations’ actions will never actually exist. The theory is that for blameworthiness to be applicable that there must actually be a person who exists to be harmed. However, if there is no person to be harmed, then there is actually no harm. This is also a major ethical and moral problem. Third, it is usually thought that for someone to be morally blameworthy or at least morally responsible that they must have knowledge that what they have, are, or will do is wrong. This poses a particular problem for both the current generation and previous generations who for the most part were unaware that the burning of fossil fuels could or would have the impact on the environment and thus, the planet that it is and that it will. At the crux of this component of the objection is the concept of intent. It is argued and rightly so in many circumstances that there was and is not often a direct intent to cause harm to the planet or the human being who occupy it by the burning of fossil fuels. Lastly, it is often argued that either anthropogenic climate change is not real or that its effects are not currently being felt by this generation. The first argument has been disproved by scientists from all over the world. The second argument has a corollary, since it is not this generation that are being harmed and it is not this generation that will receive the benefits of the burdens being placed on the current generation, this is an unfair burden. All of these arguments about the assigning of responsibility have both moral and ethical importance and should be taken very seriously because responding to them appropriately answers the question: why this generation.

Responding adequately to this objection with all of its sub arguments will require an objective point of view. A point of view that can take into account the past, current and future generations, but it is not actually possible to bring all these generations together to develop an objective point of view. Nonetheless, John Rawls, a mid-twentieth century philosopher who proposed the theory of Justice as Fairness, developed a method for achieving an objective point of view, called the Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance. The original position is a hypothetical decision making situation wherein all who are party are assumed to be ignorant of their personal characteristics, but still possess their ability to be rational and intelligent beings. What the parties are ignorant of is their age, sex, class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, generation and so forth. However, they do have an understanding of history and of current affairs, the caveat is that no one knows where in the society they will return to after leaving the original position. This hypothetical situation is supposed to simulate what would be agreed to in terms of what is just by all people at any given time because all are ignorant to the conditions that they would agree to, and acting in their own self-interest would negotiate for the best possible outcome to return to. These of course are not actual agreements and are not to be considered legally binding. However, insofar as it can form the basis of what is morally just, the hypothetical agreement situation is a vital and effective tool.[6]

Applying the Original Position to the case of anthropogenic climate change and in particular, the claim that responsibility for and burden of addressing and managing ACC should not fall upon the current generation, the objection loses it moral force. Ignorant of which generation the parties to the hypothetical situation are from and to which they shall return, none would agree that it would be morally right for them to be forced to suffer the negative effects of ACC if they had not caused it. Furthermore, they would agree that the future generation(s) would have every moral right to object to that situation being imposed on them and would have a claim on the previous generations to act so as to mitigate and or prevent ACC. The parties would agree that the current generation, although not entirely responsible is not free of blame or responsibility, and that while they had been left with an unjust situation, it was not as unjust as those who would suffer from the long-term effects of ACC. Thus, prior to leaving the original position, the parties would agree that since the current generation has the capacity and the opportunity to mitigate much of the negative effects of ACC, and since, if they do not do so, a morally wrong situation will obtain, it would be agreed that they have a moral obligation to prevent the ACC from occurring. The current generation would not be viewed as morally blameworthy, unless after possessing knowledge of ACC and the objective point of view, they acted contrary to their obligation to limit, mitigate, or stop anthropogenic climate change. Thus, the objection based on generational responsibility loses its moral importance when considered behind the veil of ignorance, and therefore reveals that placing burdens on the current generation is not of itself morally unjust or objectionable, but rather, obligatory.

The objections pertaining to responsibility, obligation, and practicality have not been entirely overcome, but it has been shown that there are morally compelling reasons to suspect that they do not have the infallible moral force that seemed originally apparent. Still remaining are the costs of preventing or mitigating anthropogenic climate change, and the interference with individual and state sovereignty. It is to these latter concerns that the argument now focuses.

John Locke in The Second Treatise on Government (1690), argued that human beings will elect to leave what he called the “state of nature” when there is complete liberty because it lacks a known and codified law, an impartial judge, and enforcement power that can be gained by entering into civil society.[7] Furthermore, Locke argued that for civil society to form as such, that actual consent was initially necessary and that the individuals who consented would be compelled to sacrifice much of their liberty to join. The problem is that the rights that grew out of Locke’s treatise, namely, those associated with property (life, liberty, and estate), were both an extension of the Doctrine of Discovery[8] and provided a rationalization for colonization and imperialism; all of which are now considered immoral and unethical.

To be more explicit, the principles Locke proposed were a justification of the arbitrary domination of one group over another. Locke wrote:

“The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”[9]

This was written during the heart of European colonization which eventually led to the establishment of many of the national borders that now exists. An example of this principle being put into practice was that the colonists to the Americas did not believe that the indigenous population had “mixed” their “labour” with “Nature” in the appropriate manner to count it being their property and thus, they took the lands from indigenous peoples. The important thing to draw from this is the implicit norm that it is permissible for a group, and in this instance a “civil society” to develop in a self-determined manner, even if some others may be harmed in the process. This is often referred to as state sovereignty.

However, Locke’s treatise also provided that the civil society, once formed, also had a claim and a right to defend itself from outside infringements. Locke explicitly states: “to employ the force of the community at home only in the execution of such laws or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries and secure the community from inroads and invasion.”[10] By this logic it follows that whenever a group of human beings forms a “civil society” that they then have the authority and autonomy, and thus the right to self-determination and the right to defend their own interests.

John Stuart Mill, a rule (social) utilitarian believed that society was most just and assured the greatest net utility when certain rights of all individuals were protected. Mill purported that every rational human being should have the liberty of conscience, which included opinions, thoughts, sentiments, and the publishing or otherwise expression of opinions; the liberty of tastes and pursuits; and the liberty of association. Mill believed that these liberties were necessary to achieve the greatest net utility of a society and that they should be protected even when in a particular instance the government determined that a particular act would not achieve net utility. In Mill’s work, On Liberty (1859) he proposed the “Principle of Harm,” which reads as follows:

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[11]

Thus, the only reason that Mill could justify any of the liberties he identified as basic and essential to the individuals of a society was in the prevention of harm being done. Mill unfortunately did not expand or generalize this for all human beings in all states, but only those in a particular society, and as such, falls short of what we understand as a universal human right, at least as we understand them today. Later in On Liberty, Mill asserts that, “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end” (emphasis added).[12] Aside from this caveat and a few other like it, Mill was primarily arguing against paternalism and arbitrary imperialism. However, like Locke, Mill thought those who were external to, or who did not fulfill their conditions of “civil society” were neither granted the same respect and dignity, nor the full rights of other human beings.

Two very historically important events were occurring when Mill wrote On Liberty, Manifest Destiney was coming to a close in the United States and indigenous peoples were being stripped of their lands and being exterminated, and in Europe the Industrial Revolution was well under way and migrating to the U.S. The relevance of the ending of Manifest Destiny is that indigenous peoples in the U.S. were considered, by white Americans to be ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians,’ and the same is true for most of the rest of the colonized world at the time. People of African descent in the United States were still being enslaved at this time, denied education and any kind of citizenship as well. Furthermore, most of the colonized lands were prior to invasion, primarily inhabited by people of color and they were their lands. The relevance of the Industrial Revolution is that the mid-eighteenth century marks the period when scientist have identified as being the shift from natural climate change to anthropogenic climate change. It was a technological revolution that was sweeping throughout Western Civilization, but it was incurring a cost that at the time no one was aware of, namely, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would lead to human caused climate change. Nonetheless, two principles were being employed: (1) that not all human beings were equal and as such were not entitled to the same respect, dignity, and rights; and (2) that in the interest of self-determination and development a “civil society” was permitted even if other human beings were harmed.

The doctrine of state sovereignty, which entails the two principle just mentioned above has been used from the Industrial Revolution to the present day in a top-down reasoning process to derive the particular moral judgment that it is permissible to burn fossil fuels and to emit greenhouse gases. It is this particular moral judgment that is objectionable and is the reason for proposing the universal human right to a sustainable and healthy environment. By again utilizing Rawls’s original position, but instead of different generations being party to the decision making procedure it is representatives from one particular generation a similar objective point of view can be derived from which it will be possible to reason bottom-from. Ignorant of the climate conditions of their home territory no one party to the procedure would agree that it is morally permissible for their environment to be arbitrarily damaged to the point that it negatively impacts their normal range of functioning or basic capabilities; that it negatively impacts the development or maintenance of political self-determination and territorial sovereignty; or that negatively impacts and individual’s or a peoples’ ability to provide for their own subsistence; merely so that another nation could exercise its right to self-determination. However, it would most likely be agreeable to the parties that some level of harm that does not undermine another nation’s ability to survive would be permissible if the reason for the cause the harm indirectly was for the purpose of survival, that it would be permissible.

Therefore, reasoning from the rejected particular moral judgment that that it is permissible to burn fossil fuel and to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and new moral norm is discovered. It may be permissible for a state, nation, or “civil society” to cause a level of harm to others that does not undermine their ability to exercise their right to self-determine, their territorial sovereignty, or their ability to provide for their own subsistence; and does not impede their normal range of functioning or basic capacities; when this harm is caused for the sake of self-determination, territorial sovereignty, the ability to provide for their own subsistence, functioning or basic capabilities. This new development of the moral norm seems to capture the essence of the nature of state sovereignty, namely, that all states, nations, of civil societies desire sustainable and healthy environments in and from which they can flourish. As such, this reveals that a sustainable and healthy environment is therefore, one of the basic human interests that all human beings have. And thus, by working top-down from the new moral norm a new particular moral judgment is derived: a state, nation, or civil society is only permitted to burn fossil fuels and to emit greenhouse gases so long as doing such, is to provide for their self-determination, territorial sovereignty, the ability to provide for their own subsistence, functioning or basic capabilities and only incurs a level of harm to others that does not undermine these same things in their nation, state, or civil society.

By conducting the bottom-up revision of the moral norm of permissible harm, another particular moral judgment, namely, the Harm Principle, has also been revised. Mill argued quite explicitly for the principle to apply only to one society. In revising the other particular moral judgment, the Harm Principle had to be expanded from intra-society to inter-society, and also had to be expanded to permit some particular harms so long as a strict threshold is maintained regarding how much harm is permissible. Furthermore, it now seems that the effect of the principle and the language of the principle have been brought more into alignment since the principle specifically states “mankind” as the agent responsible for intervening in the liberty of others. To see why this is so, first remember that Mill distinguished between “mankind” and “barbarians” who were external to the society whose liberties were not to be protected as such, but rather, that it was justifiable to subject them to “despotism.” Barbarians in the contemporary understanding were mostly people of color and mostly the people who were being colonized or stripped of their lands, and are also now the people most likely to be impacted by anthropogenic climate change. The very people who most need a right to a sustainable and healthy environment, but who, according to the original interpretation of the Harm Principle would not have been counted, but discounted. However, that particular moral judgment is neither consistent with universal human rights, nor our common sentiments. Thus, it needed to be revised to incorporate an inter-society interpretation.

The instrumental argument for this proposed universal human right is that the sustainability and the health of our environment are requirements and as such are necessary conditions for the fulfillment of many other universal human rights that are already codified. Article 3, the “right to life;” Article 13, the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state;” Article 15, the “right to a nationality;” Article 17, the “right to own property;” Article 23, the “right to work, to free choice of employment;” Article 25, the “right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself and his family;” Article 27, the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.”[13] Anthropogenic climate change is predicted to result in the rapid rise of sea levels and the desertification of territories, as well as to increase morbidity and mortality, all of which will infringe upon each individual’s right to life. These very problems and more that with high certainty will obtain in the near to long term future, and some of which are already occurring directly undermine the right of people to own property, the right to a standard of living, and so forth. Thus, providing for a sustainable and healthy environment is a precondition to the actualization of these other rights.

The cantilever argument is that by “logical extension” from Article 3, the “right to life;” and Article 25, the “right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being,” the right to a sustainable and healthy environment follows. Often the right to life is conceptualized in the negative respect, that is, an individual is not to be arbitrarily deprived of life. However, as Henry Shue has argued in Basic Rights, the right to life is also to be conceptualized in the positive respect.[14] Therefore, not only does the right to life incur the negative duty to non-interference, but also the positive duty to create institutions to protect those who are vulnerable to such infringements. It could be argued that merely expanding the program of immigration would alleviate much of the burden that will result from ACC, but that argument would not be taking into account the expansiveness of the problem or how many people would need to migrate in order to satisfy the right to life. And given the already burdened immigration system and the push back to both refugees and other migrators, it does not seem practical to expect that nations will be more apt to address the increased magnitude of migrators. Therefore, since the right to life incurs the positive duty to provide for institutions to protect life, the conception of what types of institutions exist should be expanded to also provide and protect sustainable and healthy environments. Merely stating that one has a right to life does not make it clear enough that the environment is intricately linked with the life of any individual or a people, and that needs to be clearly distinguished. If an individual has a right to life and also to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, then one has a cantilever right to a sustainable and healthy environment as well because the two cannot be teased apart.

The direct argument is that neither the planet nor any of its environments is owned solely by one individual or state, or collection of individuals or states, but is rather a good that everyone has a share of and ownership in, i.e., it belongs to no one and it belongs to everyone. No one individual or state, or collection of individuals or states has the right to so damage the planet that others cannot enjoy it or participate in the basic activities of life, which include but are not limited to living, working, having a family, and participating in a culture that is linked with the lands of their ancestors. Furthermore, as has been argued above, every individual, state, nation, and civil society has an interest in the maintenance of a sustainable and healthy environment which permits for self-determination, territorial sovereignty, providing for the normal range of functions and basic capabilities, and to provide for one’s own subsistence. Furthermore, from all of the preceding arguments it is clear that every individual has the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of these basic necessities. Without an environment from which to live and thrive in, neither is human life possible, nor are any of the things that most agree life is worth living for, and even a minimally decent life is nearly if not altogether impossible. Thus, every individual has a right to a sustainable and healthy environment in which to live.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) while containing many rights provisions that should be entailed within a universal right to protection against the effects of anthropogenic climate change, nonetheless, does not provide specifically for this. At the time of the drafting of the UNDHR in 1948, anthropogenic climate change was not an empirically accepted phenomena, so it is neither surprising, nor is it blameworthy that it was not provided for in the document. However, over half a century has passed and our understanding of the world we live in has dramatically expanded and now anthropogenic climate change is as close to an empirical scientific fact as there can be. Rising sea levels that will result in the submersion of low-land shore regions and islands throughout the planet; increased desertification of arable lands that will most likely result in famines; increased rates and prevalence of communicable diseases; dramatic increases to immigration pressures; and more are projected to occur mostly impacting impoverished nations that are predominantly populated by people of color who have been marginalized politically and economically through colonization and imperialism. The agents primarily responsible for anthropogenic climate change are nations that are more affluent and in particular, are industrialized nations and their citizens because of their burning of fossil fuels that resulted in excess greenhouse gases (GHGs) accumulating in the atmosphere. When the effects begin to be felt however, it will not only be the citizens of less affluent or impoverished nations, but citizens from most nations throughout the globe, so we all share a common problem and have a common interest in providing for a right to protections against the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

It has been shown that there is sufficient reason to doubt the objections of responsibility for addressing and managing the effects of anthropogenic climate change belong to the current generation. It has further been shown that there are good and important moral reasons for re-conceptualizing state, nation and civil society sovereignty. It has also been shown that there are good moral and ethical reasons for limiting the amount of harm that these agents can impose upon others, that the previous conceptions belong to set of traditions and beliefs that or current generation no longer believes to be moral or permissible, and that through reasoning from a particular moral judgment a new norm has been developed. It may be permissible for a state, nation, or “civil society” to cause a level of harm to others that does not undermine their ability to exercise their right to self-determine, their territorial sovereignty, or their ability to provide for their own subsistence; and does not impede their normal range of functioning or basic capacities; when this harm is caused for the sake of self-determination, territorial sovereignty, the ability to provide for their own subsistence, functioning or basic capabilities. Then by reasoning top-down to a new particular moral judgment it was discovered that: a state, nation, or civil society is only permitted to burn fossil fuels and to emit greenhouse gases so long as doing such, is to provide for their self-determination, territorial sovereignty, the ability to provide for their own subsistence, functioning or basic capabilities and only incurs a level of harm to others that does not undermine these same things in their nation, state, or civil society. Since it primarily the burning of fossil fuels that lead to unsustainable and unhealthy environments, the proposed universal human right will entail protection against such an infringement.

What is yet to be addressed is the practicality and the costs that will be associated with the proposed right. Those determinations however, will rely largely upon what the institutions and the procedures for mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change will be. However, given the current international political situation, and the effects that are already being experienced, in addition to the lagging effect of GHGs that are already in the atmosphere this right should be ratified and incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Anthropogenic climate change is a global issue that supersedes any and all national borders, is a common essential interest to all human beings, is primarily a state versus individual issue, and only a universal right to a sustainable and healthy environment is sufficient to address the problem. As the situation currently stands, we as a civilization lack the appropriate apparatus to adequately deal with climate change, what Steven Gardiner calls the “Global Storm,” or in other words a global collective action, prisoner’s dilemma, type of problem. This human right, should provide a sufficient foundation from which the necessary international, intergovernmental apparatus to address anthropogenic climate change can be formed. At a minimum, the individuals of all nations, states, or civil societies would at least have the means to seek help in the formal, legal institutions to appeal for assistance and redress when the harmful effects are experienced.

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

[2] David Miller, “Is There A Human Right to Immigrate,” Center for the Study of Social Justice Department of Politics and International Relations (CSSJ), SJ033, (April 2015), University of Oxford, p. 8.

[3] Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), p. 10 http://ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), http://ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml

[5] Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Work Group II (2014) http://ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/

[6] John Rawls, Fundamental Ideas and The Basic Structure as Subject

[7] John Locke, “The Second Treatise on Government” in The Philosophy of Human Rights (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2001) p. 71-79

[8] The Doctrine of Discovery has a long and painful history that predates the voyage of Christopher Columbus (Cristobol Colon) in 1492 by nearly eight decades. In 1414, the Council of Constance was convened to settle the issue of whether the religious order of Catholicism, of which the Pope was the highest authority second to God, could justify the acquisition of property and governing rights of humans considered to be “infidels” by their religious leaders.[8] In formulating its ruling, the council was drawing on the legal commentary of Pope Innocent IV in 1240 who concluded that “pagans,” a term used to define and group those who were either polytheistic or who worshiped nature, “had some natural law rights and that Christians had to recognize the right of infidels to own property and to govern themselves.” [8] The Council of Constance determined that “heathens” possessed natural rights, but unless they “complied with European concepts of natural law [they] risk[ed] being conquered,” and thus losing the rights to their lands and resources.[8] These European concepts of natural law included an opposition to things such as “cannibalism, sodomy, idolatry, and human sacrifice.”[8] If and when Europeans believed that a group of “pagans” were in violation of their concept of natural law, they were permitted by alleged Catholic authority to engage in what was called a “just war,” that is, a war waged to protect and to ensure the Christian way of life against the pagans and to strip them of the full measure of their natural rights.

Robert J. Miller, et al. “The International Law of Discovery, Indigenous Peoples, and Chile,” Nebraska Law Review Vol. 89 (2011). http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol89/iss4/6/

[9] Locke, p. 74

[10] Locke, p. 79

[11] John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in The Philosophy of Human Rights (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2001) p. 143-144

[12] Mill, On Liberty

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

[14] Henry Shue, Basic Rights, p. 37

Environmental Racism

First of all, it is not just apathy or a lack of concern for particular communities that is the problem; it is the blatant oppression and harm to particular communities that is the problem. What Shell and other fossil fuel companies are engaged in is Environmental Racism. Now, I know this may be a concept that is difficult for most people to wrap their heads around so I will explain it to you.

When people in America hear the term racism, they tend to think of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Jim Crow and the segregation with all its relevant signage, and Slavery. When people in America think of the consequences of racism they tend to think of Lynchings, Police Brutality, or events such as the Holocaust or the Genocide that occurred in Rwanda.

What is distinct about the list above is that they are all easy to identify, they all possess the characteristic of a particular individual or group as being the cause of the harm done. To flesh that out, the person or group responsible for the harm is seen in proximity to the person or group that is harmed. For example, in these recent police shootings of Black People that are plaguing our country, we can easily trace the path of the bullet from the gun it was fired from, which includes the person who pulled the trigger, to the person who was shot. A person with no scientific experience could identify this.

Climate Change on the other hand, has an issue of proximity, wherein the cause ‘seems,’ and only seems, to be dislocated from the harm that is done. Nothing about the atmosphere occurs in isolation, there is not microcosm about emitting metric tons of carbon on one side of the globe; as to imply that it will not affect the other side of the globe. A teeter-totter is a prime example and elementary algebra is another; what is done to one side of the equation directly affects what occurs on the other. However, regardless of the distance or the time between the cause and the effect, that does not absolve the causal chain and responsibility of what is done on one side of the globe.

The largest consumers of fossil fuel are those in Western Civilizations, such as, the United States, which has a Carbon Footprint of 4 Earths. What that means is that if everyone on the planet were to consume resources at the rate at which US citizens do, that it would require four earths worth of resources to meet that demand. While conversely, countries such as Ethiopia have a carbon footprint of 0.80. Thus, the largest production and emission of carbon is coming from countries such as the US, which is being supplied by companies like Shell at rates vastly surpassing those of countries not counted as being members of Western Civilization.

When carbon is emitted into the atmosphere it is distributed throughout the globe creating a sort of insulating blanket that locks in the heat that our planet naturally receives from the sun in terms of solar energy. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon that has been cycling for millions of years, but since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th & 20th Centuries in many Western Civilization countries, we have exacerbated and augmented this naturally occurring process and exponentially increased the rate at which the insulating blanket is forming. The best scientist in overwhelming consensus (something like 98%) have identified a two degree limit that will result in a plus or minus 25 degrees respectively throughout the planet. The IPCC or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided this research and the consequences of not changing our behavior to our governments. The results will be #Desertification depletion of water resources, and rising ocean levels.

Now, most of the countries in Western Civilization have the resources, technology and infrastructure to protect their countries from the harms of climate change. But, the best scientific models do not identify the areas to be most impacted by climate change to be n the Global North, which are primarily populated by people who either are white or look white. The regions that will be most impacted by climate change will be in the Global South, which is populated primarily by people of color, many of who are indigenous peoples, who lack the resources, technology and infrastructure to mediate the harms that will result from climate change.

Here it is prudent to incorporate into this analysis the effects of Colonialism and its offspring Capitalism and its foundation of Liberalism and Hierarchical structures. Indigenous peoples throughout the planet have been held in a subjugated position for centuries, and have been continuously denied the ability to develop their own infrastructures and economies. Each time they have attempted to throw off the oppressive reality, they have been confronted with State Sanctioned Violence usually in terms of a military force, but often times in the form of police institutions suppressing their assertions of autonomy and independence from Western Civilization. These Anti-Colonial and Anti-Capitalism movements are nothing new and have been occurring since the advent of colonialism. To clue you in to how far the government and its tool of indoctrination Public School is willing to go to restrict access to this truth take Tupac Shakur for instance. He was named in honor of Tupac Amaru, who was an indigenous revolutionary in Peru in 1780-1781 which at the time was under the colonial rule of Spain. The Crown dispatched a treacherous, rapacious, villainous, genocidal army who murdered indiscriminately the indigenous population of the Andes to suppress the uprising. This was followed by the disbanding and rewriting of the history of the Inca people and the Tawantinsuyu Empire that the Spanish Empire ‘conquered’ in South America. The government, the state, would like the people to believe that the indigenous people, first of all, no longer exist in the lands of their ancestors; and second, that they consented to their lands being stolen and their brethren being viciously exterminated because it makes occupying our lands much more palatable for the average American.

That needed to be fleshed out because I foresaw the rebuttal that if the indigenous people had only ‘assimilated‘ into Western Civilization or ‘made their own way’ that they too would have the resources, technology and infrastructure to mediate the harms of climate change; that I have shown they are not even responsible for. So, that argument will not work here.

This now brings us full-circle back to the issue of causality and the fact that the Global North is engaged in Environmental Racism against the Global South. Racism does not require that the person or group responsible for the discrimination be conscious or cognizant of the thoughts or practices they are engaged in that is causing harm to others. Furthermore, racism requires a system of hierarchical power that stratifies and relegates particular groups of people to positions of inferiority. There is no such thing as Reverse Racism and the very term is repugnant. Anyone who argues that reverse racism is a thing first and foremost acknowledges that racism exists. The second thing they acknowledge is that it does cause harm, and this is revealed by the fact that they do not want racism done to them because of its harmful characteristics. And third, it acknowledges that they do not want to do anything to change the impacts of racism because the argument is usually made in response to a suppressed people or their allies promoting some project, policy, practice, or legislation to make the system more equitable. A person who benefits from the hierarchical system of power that stratifies and relegates particular groups to positions of inferiority does not need to be cognizant of the benefit they receive from the system to benefit from it. This is White Privilege and as Sarra Tekola has put it, Climate Change Denial is a “white privilege” because they do not have to be conscious and cognizant of the impacts of climate change, given that they are not in the Global South.

The Shell Oil Rig that is parked in the harbor in Seattle the Polar Pioneer which the corporation is attempting to ship to the Arctic off the coast of Alaska is a continuation of the colonialism, capitalism, liberalism, and oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the entire planet. If they gain access to that deposit of oil it is guaranteed that we will cross the two degree threshold the IPCC has outlined as the point of no return before we enter into a feedback loop of climate change and global harm. If Shell is ignorant of the Global Impact their enterprise will have, that does not absolve them of responsibility or of the blatant racism of their actions. The Selfishness of those who benefit by white privilege is racism when that selfishness has an impact on people of color.

The Capitalist Dilemma: An Environmental Cause for Concern

Hoover Dam

A short time before the trip to Arizona State University (ASU) for the Clinton Global Initiative (C.G.I.), Sarra Tekola and me watched a documentary titled, “Last Call at the Oasis“, 2011 (http://ffilms.org/last-call-at-the-oasis-2011/) from which we heard about the depletion of our most vital resource; water. In particular, the documentary spent considerable time discussing the Colorado River that passes through the Hoover Dam in Nevada and supplies Las Vegas with its water supply. So, when we had the chance to see it for ourselves and gather some data we could not pass up the opportunity.

The irony is that a city like Las Vegas, Nevada sprouts up in the desert, without a water source and has a population explosion within the last hundred years to a population of 596, 424 according to 2012 statistics; with a continual influx of visitors that was reported at approximately 39,668,221 for the year of 2013 (http://www.lvcva.com/stats-and-facts/visitor-statistics/). Walking through Las Vegas you cannot help but to be struck in awe at the astonishing monstrosity of the city. Gigantic buildings as far as the eye can see that appear to have grown out of the earth in the middle of this desolate and lonely desert.

Why was this ever thought to be sustainable?

“The Colorado River Basin states are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Each state is party to the Colorado River Compact entered into in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 24, 1922” (http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/pao/brochures/faq.html#states).


The water is not only unevenly divided between these states and their citizens, but also Mexico is not receiving the volume of water, if any that it used to receive from the Colorado River; they now at best only receive approximately 10% of the original flow from the river.

“There are 29 Tribes with reservations within the Seven Colorado River Basin States” all competing with the United States government to maintain water rights because the over consumption of water is depleting the resource, dislocating peoples because of either building dams or the displacement of water after the dams are completed (http://www.crwua.org/colorado-river/ten-tribes). Either way, the manner in which the United States is addressing its water needs is having dramatic impacts on both the Native American way of life and their rights to life and the liberty to plan their own lives which predate the United States by a few millennia.

Troubling moral problems and ethical issues?

First, “Manifest Destiney” as an ideology (http://www.ushistory.org/us/29.asp), whereby the citizens of the United States in the 19th century systematically expanded across the continent, displacing and exterminating the Native American population, was at best morally flawed and at worst the most evil and diabolical genocide this planet has ever witnessed. In addition to that, through a series of treaties the United States government, who possessed an unfair bargaining advantage, stripped the tribes of their water rights. All of this had the effect of systematically destroying entire cultures and those that remain are struggling to maintain their heritages. If in fact, we do have an obligation “not to harm,” then this obligation when applied to this situation both from a time-slice perspective and from a historical perspective poses a serious moral problem because it is clear that people and peoples are being harmed by the practices of the United States government.

Second, if we also believe that “cultural imperialism” is wrong then, we are necessitated to also believe in “normative cultural relativism,” whereby each culture has the right to practice the norms of their culture without having another culture imposed upon them. This line of reasoning also has the caveat of forming an inconsistency in terms of opposing cultural imperialism, but also believing that each culture has a right to its own culture, thereby disqualifying any action to change an imperial culture’s actions (Talbott, William. Which Rights Should Be Universal, p. 39-47). (https://www.phil.washington.edu/users/talbott-william-j)

However, this issue is about the United States being the imperial force, so that caveat does not hold because this is a bottom-up change from within the imperial culture. Thus, given the historical nature of the appropriation of lands and the imposition of American culture, and in particular for this line of reasoning, material culture in the form of technology, is wrong because Native American cultures are at best being changed and at worst eradicated.

The third moral problem concerns property rights. In accordance with Leif Wennar’sIron Law of Political Economy,” whereby resources tend to gravitate to those that are stronger and away from those that are not as strong, ownership of those resources are then protected by coercive means (Wennar, Poverty is No Pond: Challenges for the Affluent, 2010, p. 11). To flip the nail on the head, so to speak, of those that think they feel justified in the status quo, they would not feel it to be just if their property was wrought from their possession by someone who had the coercive means to do so. This shows that even if Wennar’s “Iron Law of Political Economy” is an accurate representation of the way the world is, that it is not just and since it is not just, then it is morally wrong.

The right to own property is a human institution, not a right that is inherent by birth like some sort of feudal privilege. Nor is it infallible, that is to say that one, it is always appropriate, especially in a case wherein the ownership of a particular resource causes undue harm to others, a perhaps unintended effect, but definitely an externality not taken into the calculus of the economic equation. And two, that property rights are not something that should be guaranteed by birth. If for the sake of argument, we were to step into the Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, as John Rawls suggests, ignorant of our circumstances (race, class, social status, gender, generation, etc..) and our bargaining power, then in this hypothetical and fair deliberation wherein no one knows where they came from and where they will go when they leave the deliberation, that no party present would agree to inherited property because they may be the one without the power over others that comes from owning property. Thus, when we truly consider the institution of private property it does not appear to be just in any form, especially when we consider the morally arbitrary distribution of the possession of resources, we can see again that the status quo of the ownership of property is unjust and as such is morally wrong.

However, if the situation is considered in a historical context, avoiding the ahistorical and counterfactual appeals, then the coercive force that has been utilized by our ancestors to secure for their progeny the resources that now give them power over others, that can be labeled as unjust. So, even if an individual, group, institution or government is beholden to the fact that they did not employ coercive means to acquire the resources that they now possess, they are still benefiting from the unjust acquisition of those resources and that is unjust. So, no matter how we look at the situation, in terms of private property, the institution is an unjust and morally corrupt institution.

So, there are definite issues with property rights and what people do with the property they believe they are entitled to, especially when those actions impact others.

Returning to the water crisis that began this discussion the question now becomes, how did it come to this?

Climate activists and scientist have been screaming at the top of their lungs for decades about the impact of our societal practices and how they were going to lead to the destruction of our planet. However, most people sat back on the sidelines and chose to believe that these people were lunatics on their soap-boxes screaming about conspiracy theories and millenarian predictions foretelling the end of the world. The climate change deniers all clamored for proof, and given the volumes of irrefutable data, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (http://www.ipcc.ch/), and prolific activists/authors like Bill McKibben (http://www.billmckibben.com/) who have clearly identified the problems, their causes and proposed potential solutions, but still they have denied. It is true, that there is hardly anything about any science that is irrefutable and a definite in all situations so, there is potentially a margin of error involved, but this denial runs deeper than the questioning of research. For thousands of years people have believed that we were descendent from or created by gods, and only two centuries ago did Charles Darwin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin) propose the Theory of Evolution. Nearly two-hundred years later there are still people who refute the theory, even with the insurmountable data to support it, but by and large it has become accepted by a vast portion of our civilization; at least to some extent. So, if the conception of where we came from and how we came to be, a concept that has been with us for thousands of years can be revised as a result of scientific data, then there must be more at work than just the relevance of scientific data because climate change by far, has less impact on how we conceive of ourselves and our world than the Theory of Evolution.

The problem is I think, as Steven Gardiner put it in, A Perfect Moral Storm (2006), a series of dilemmas that converge like three great storms to form a massive and catastrophic event. First, there is the Prisoner’s Dilemma that suggests that people have a rational reason to defect in a community action problem as oppose to cooperating. In terms of climate change this plays out by first suggesting that climate change is a problem that affects more than one individual and that the only remedy is through collective action because if there are defectors then the actions of the rest do not make a difference. I think the problem is the structure of the system because when every individual and state is in competition for limited resources (land, fuel, energy, potable water, clean air, food, etc…), even though the best outcome for all is to be found in cooperation, there is no reason to trust that the other agents will not defect and “free-ride” on the efforts of the others.

Automobiles and Carbon Emission

Thus, when we have a problem like carbon emissions, that although as Walter Sinnot-Armstrong , in the essay, It’s Not My Fault (2010), points out, that carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring and necessary chemical for the survival of the planet, the aggregate effect of carbon emissions by humans causes a failure in that system. The failure being that excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will cause the warming of the planet to the point that it is no longer inhabitable for human beings and other animals that depend on the temperature remaining relatively close to what it has been for thousands of years. Furthermore, Sinnot-Armstrong suggests that each individual’s contribution is so minuscule that it does not make a difference whether they produce carbon dioxide or not because it is an aggregate problem. He likened it unto pouring a glass of water into a stream that was already going to flood regardless of the cup of water that was poured in. Sinnot-Armstrong’s ultimate conclusion was that there is no moral principle that can obligate individuals to not contribute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but that it is wrong on an aggregate level, so the responsibility must fall to a governmental agency to manage the problem and to mitigate it.

Sinnot-Armstong’s argument, compelling though it is, seems to mostly support the claim that Gardiner made in that climate change is a collective action problem. The example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma showed us that each individual has a rational reason to defect and not to cooperate however, there is more than just defecting that is the problem with why people have not been so quick to accept the science on climate change. Because of the nature of climate change and carbon dioxide pollution, there is a spatial and temporal differential between the people who are the cause of the harm—those that receive the benefits of maintaining the status quo—and those that pay the cost of the harm—usually future generations. Gardiner called this the “Dispersion of Causes and Effects” and that “the impact of any particular emission of any greenhouse gases is not realized solely at its source, either individual or geographical; rather impacts are dispersed to other actors and regions of the Earth” (Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm, 399). Further, that there is a temporal dispersion because greenhouse gases will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years and the impacts of increased amounts are not immediately experienced, but are rather “seriously backloaded” and left for other generations to suffer with. As a result of these two conditions, the people who produce these harmful effects do not feel an obligation to not contribute carbon emissions and moreover also do not feel an obligation to mitigate the problem because it is in their best interests not to do so.

In effect, even if the people of today were able to enter into Rawls’s hypothetical Original Position behind the Veil of Ignorance, future generations would not be included as a party in the discussion and thus, we would not be able to take into account their opinions. As such, future generations and the impacts of our actions on them are discounted in this generation. Now this has the unintended effect of what Gardiner called the “multiplier effect,” wherein each generation is presented with a set of circumstances that were presented to them by previous generations and it is more cost effective for them to continue the status quo then to mitigate the problem and leave it for a later generation, which serves to compound the effects of the harm and to diminish the likelihood that the problem will be addressed until it is too late. This is not as complex of an idea to wrap our minds around even in today’s day and age when the Cold War stretched for half a century and over three generations, and even had its precursors prior to World War II when the conflict between Russia and the United States was escalating as two divergent ideologies continued to collide. Generations not responsible for the creation of the Cold War, were almost obliged to pick up right where their predecessors left off. Climate Change and carbon emissions are no different. Oil retrieval, refining and burning as a source of energy began in the 19th century and as the world became more industrialized it also became dependent on it for survival, and now there does not seem like a way to wean ourselves off of it, even if it means our destruction to maintain the status quo.

In sum, I believe the aforementioned reasons are what have led to opposition to the theories on climate change and why there has been so little action to stop a problem that can be remedied. I have not touched on corporations much and I will not break from that except to note that corporations have a financial interest in maintaining the status quo. Drawing from a point that I made earlier, they have the resources they do because of an unjust acquisition of those resources. But to drive the point in further, corporations because of their “resource privileges,” their power to control resources (Pogge, Thomas W. Assisting the Global Poor, p. 11), can afford to control the agenda with political debates and funding, lobbying, and via the media and other forms of marketing that the average person is influenced by. They of course are also affected by the same factors as climate deniers, but they are doubly constrained because of their financial stakes in the production and sales of fossil fuel technologies. And although climate change should not be an externality in economic terms because if there is not a sustainable climate from which to garner resources and a population to sell their products to, then there will be no economy, it nonetheless is an externality. What we are left with aside from that contradiction is almost an entire civilization that is either unwilling or unable to do anything about the climate change problem which we are now faced with.

The climate change deniers, it seems evident, do not deny it as much because they do not believe the science, but because of a moral dilemma that causes them to focus on issues that seem to be more immediately important and relevant to them. They base much of this rational on the fact that they believe they do not have an obligation to future generations, but as has been shown that is not accurate because if we were to trade places with a future generation and have to deal with the problems that we left them with, then we would not find it to be just. So, if it is not just from that perspective, then it is not just in our perspective now. Because it is not just, that necessitates an obligation of our generation not to leave the world worse off than when we found it. The problem is getting people to see and understand that obligation and to devise practical ways that we can meet that obligation. Sinnot-Armstrong may be right in the assertion that we need our governments to take action to secure our future and to make the types of changes that individuals are reluctant to make themselves. However, I am doubtful that this will be a just situation because of what we have seen of how the United States government imposes its interests on others.

Now that we understand why people have not accepted climate change as a problem, what exactly is the problem and why is it so important?

The climate deniers clamored for proof and yet when they received scientific proof of the cataclysmic changes facing our generation, they refuted and denied its accuracy for many reasons, but now the proof is not coming in the form of scientific papers, it is coming in the form of the ruin of a water supply. Until this point the two may have seemed to be unrelated, but I will show how climate change and a depleting water supply are interconnected. The primary factors are over population and our seemingly unbreakable reliance on fossil fuels, which are both interconnected and interdependent and are the cause of global warming and in turn is the cause for the water depletion.

Throughout history, even when a civilization has grown beyond its means like Rome did in the late 2nd and 3rd c. C.E., when the population became too great to maintain it, the civilization had the potential to disband or devolve and for people to disperse. That is not the case any longer and the nature of our problems with their contemporary causes, are much different than any civilization which has predated us. In times like those with circumstances like theirs, the earth was not locked into a globalizing phenomenon wherein what happens on one side of the planet affects what happens on the other side of the planet and further to future generations.


No, the world we now live in is plagued by problems that supersede nation and state borders such as rising oceans from the melting of the polar ice caps, nuclear contamination of ecosystems, loss of carbon sinks due to deforestation of tropical forests, global warming resulting from an excess of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, and of course fresh water depletion and that means there is no escape from these problems by moving elsewhere on the planet. Historically, overpopulation has been associated with a starvation because of a lack of food, but now with the advent new technologies that have been in use since the 19th century we, as a civilization, have created environmental problems that threaten our very existence on the planet.


In the late 19th and early 20th century, agricultural technology made a vast leap and as a result more people were able to gain access to the food that they needed for two reasons; first, food production increased; and second, as a result of the increase in food production the price of food was dramatically decreased because of the law of supply and demand, whereby greater supply with equitable demand forces a downward shift in the price of a good. With more people able to live because they had access to a relatively consistent supply of food, they moved up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from satisfying their physiological needs, to higher-order concerns such as building and living in oil, gas and electrically heated homes with lights and enjoying pleasures that we now take for granted, like owning and driving cars to get back and forth to work. None of the things that I have mentioned would pose any problem to the planet if it were not for the mere volume of people who now drive cars and the massive operations undertaken by corporations to supply our population with energy, like mining for and refining coal, drilling for oil and gas fracking, nuclear power production and so forth. Although, it is true that the mere volume of automobiles on the roads do contribute a vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, their contribution is far overshadowed by the volume of pollution created by the energy production industries. One of the primary factors for the volume of energy production is because of our ballooning population with its exponential demand for energy, but that is not the complete story, as I have argued elsewhere, corporations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo because they are financially invested and stand to lose money by shifting to more sustainable sources of energy production.

It is also the case that a civilization experiencing overpopulation can and often does over-consume and over-tax the resources available to it whether that is food, air, timber, oil, the atmosphere or water. There is a finite pool of resources of which we have to draw from in order to sustain our population, but when we have a ballooning population with an exponential growth in demand for those resources it is inconceivable that the resources would not be depleted. In fact, this is the basis of economics, which concerns how and why people make choices of how to employ limited resources which have alternative uses, in the face of scarcity. Implicit in the discipline of economics is the concept that the rarer the good is, the more it is worth and the more demand there is for it because it is rare—the law of supply and demand. In the 18th century, Adam Smith (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Smith.html), the author of The Wealth of Nations, surmised that the market was controlled by the “Invisible Hand” of price, and that price, which shifts in accordance with the amount of supply in negative correlation to demand; when the supply decreases and the demand remains static, then the price must shift upwards to limit the amount of people who are willing and able to purchase a particular good.


The concept of price being the invisible hand that controlled markets was purported to be able to limit the overconsumption of resources. However, that has proven not to be the case, as is evinced by the fact that even though price is prevalent in the markets of the planet that resources are still being depleted.

The Capitalist Dilemma.

Capitalism is founded on free trade between parties and suggests that all parties can be made better off by unencumbered trade, but does not take into consideration the depletion of resources. The system is incentivized to over-consume and over-tax resources because it is free to meet whatever demand the population has. This means regardless of the invisible hand of price which is supposed to control the market is undermined by the self-interest to be made better-off (recall the factors of collective action problems discussed earlier). Another incentive created by the system of capitalism is the incentive to destruct or eradicate a resource because, if the supply is decreased then, price must increase to maintain the equilibrium thus, in accordance with self-interest, which is the hallmark of capitalism, there is more profit to be made by the depletion of resources, and this is what I call the Capitalist Dilemma.

What has essentially been created is a system of consumption that is designed to over-tax and over-consume the finite resources we have, not a system that is designed to be sustainable. Interwoven into the very fabric of the structure of society is the inherent goal to eat ourselves out of food, to destroy the atmosphere, to deplete our water supply; and overall to systematically eradicate any chance our civilization has of survival.

So, Las Vegas?

(http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=37228 )
(http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=37228 )

Las Vegas, Nevada with its water crisis is a microcosm of what the rest of the world, in a short time, will be faced with. And though, it is an extreme example in our contemporary context because the city arose in a desert that did not have the resources to support it and so, it had to commandeer resources from neighboring regions to sustain its static population in the influx of visitors, which its economy is based upon. Nonetheless, Las Vegas provides us with the real life proof of what climate change activists and climate scientist have been screaming about for decades; our use of fossil fuel energy and our rate of consumption will lead to our destruction. So, the estimate that millions of people will be impacted by the crisis facing the city and the region (Colorado River: Setting the Course. The Great Depletion’: Historic Alarm Triggered at Lake Powell, http://www.coloradoriverbasin.org/blog/2013/08/14/the-great-depletion-historic-alarm-triggered-at-lake-powell/), as a result of overpopulation and over-consumption of a vital resource becomes a principle source of evidence, albeit not the type of evidence the climate deniers clamored for, of the effects of climate change.

Hoover Dam Water DepletionLas Vegas has been receiving its water from the reservoir Mead Lake, which was created by the Hoover Dam and is fed by the Colorado River. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal; “[b]y April 2015, the surface of Lake Mead could sink to 1,075 feet above sea level, triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the river and prompting water supply cuts for Nevada and Arizona” (Federal officials cut water delivery for Lake Mead, speeding reservoir’s decline, August 17, 2013, http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/federal-officials-cut-water-delivery-lake-mead-speeding-reservoirs-decline).  Within the last hundred years the static population of Las Vegas has grown to 596, 424 according to 2012 statistics; with a continual influx of visitors at the end of 2013 that was reported at approximately 39.6 million people.

(http://www.lasvegasicc.org/ )
(http://www.lasvegasicc.org/ )

Hotels, sky scrapers and casinos with a surrounding civilization that has all the trappings and industries of any other United States metropolis compose Las Vegas and demand water for their survival. In such an area, watering one’s lawn is not just watering a lawn that should not be there because it is not only non-indigenous to the region, but the only source of water for the lawns is simultaneously also the drinking water source. Now lawns may seem like a trivial subject to bring up, but it is the possession and maintenance of a lawn in Las Vegas has dire moral implications involved with it that can be generalized to evaluate the management of water.

First, a lawn is not a necessity, that is, it is not necessary for survival and as such, this means that it is a luxury possession. Yet, while there is water shortage crisis there are still thousands of lawns and if this is not an example of Conspicuous Consumption then I do not know what is because not only is Las Vegas in jeopardy of losing its water supply, but the Colorado River basin supplies six other states, 29 Tribal Reservations, and Mexico, which are all being adversely impacted by this catastrophe, and the wealthy still show their wealth by possessing lawns. Las Vegas at Night in front of the Bellagio HotelTo remedy this problem, the government of Las Vegas has begun to issue stipends for people not having lawns because it is considered an infringement of peoples’ individual rights to force them not to have a lawn, but rather a more native type landscaping design that is sustainable in the region. The principle of the individual right stands in direct contestation of the collective right and is a prime example of how one defector can cause a collective action situation to fail. Thus, in accordance with both Pogge’s “Resource Privilege” and Wennar’s “Iron Law of Political Economy,” we can see how those with the coercive power to protect a resource can overpower others even if it is to their detriment and is in direct violation of our obligation to do no harm. If there is this much trouble in regulating whether people waste a resource as precious as potable water a lawn that is unnecessary for survival and that has dire impacts on millions of people’s lives, it is no wonder that there is a water shortage problem, especially when hotels like the Bellagio can make artificial lakes for show.

There are two principle factors that are contributing to the depletion of this water supply; first, the population’s demand for water and its willingness to consume beyond sustainable measures; and second, the global warming that has resulted from the greenhouse gas emissions—from the use of fossil fuels—into the atmosphere has caused both the climate in the mountainous regions that feed the Colorado River to shift so that not as much snow falls and also the snow pack that is achieved melts faster and earlier in the year. This is precisely what Steven Gardiner argued in A Perfect Moral Storm, with his discussion of community action problems, wherein the rational response is to defect and act in one’s own self-interests, or to consume as much water as is desired regardless of the overall impact; and is right in line with what I have called the Capitalist Dilemma, the propensity of the system to promote the destruction and the eradication of a resource.

In the end, what we are left with is an entire system, from the acquisition of resources, to the justification of the over-consumption of those resources that is morally bankrupt. Lands and resources were stolen from a people that were decimated by the United States and its citizens. Then the very same governmental institution tolerated and promoted the proliferation of capitalism, technological advancement with its subsequent destructive polluting potential, and instituted a regime in which dissenting voices are silenced or dismissed as heretical so that the agenda is controlled and the people remain docile. The incentive is to maintain the status quo, but that is no longer, not to imply that it has ever been, appropriate for the circumstances facing us as a civilization. What is occurring to Las Vegas, and in fact to the entire Colorado River Basin is just a microcosm, a portent of what is to come for the rest of the planet if we allow ourselves to fall victim to collective action problems like the environment.

For further reading check out “Global Government: A Remedy to Collective Action Problems”