Clean Energy Insights

Do we have an individual obligation to reduce greenhouse gasses? An ethical examination

7 minute read

In his Integrity Argument, Hedberg claims that “individuals have a prima facie obligation to reduce their individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, unless they are already doing all that they can be reasonably be expected to do to reduce the impacts of climate change (pp. 1–3)” (Hedberg 67). As Hedberg defines it, integrity’s core values are “coherence, stickiness, and resoluteness,” which presumes that an individual with integrity would manifest actions that are committed to their principles (Hedberg 68). So if your political stance is towards the effect of fighting against climate change, your actions in your daily life should be consistent with that. Therefore, “Even if reductions in one’s individual emissions do not reduce overall harm, integrity nonetheless requires this harmony between one’s political objectives and personal life” (Hedberg 66). Thus, Hedberg concludes that an individual has the moral obligation to reduce their GHG emissions.

I argue the following, which closely follows a counterargument from Baylor Johnson:

  1. Individual GHG emissions do not produce visible harm.
  2. Climate change is a collective problem which has effects that individuals share on a global scale. 
  3. Individuals reducing their GHG emissions results in little change in (2) because of (1). 
  4. Thus, on an individual level, it is not morally obligated to reduce their emissions. (pp. 1-3)

I believe that the basis of integrity is not enough to justify an individual’s obligation to unilaterally reduce their own GHG emissions, since it is not equitable. Hedberg qualifies his definition of integrity by relenting that individuals can have competing commitments, in which their values can be in conflict.  For example, consider an individual who has family in a different country who they can only visit by means of a plane. This individual may have a political stance that they should act against climate change, and by Hedberg’s Integrity Argument should choose to act in a way that reduces their personal emissions. On the contrary, this individual values their quality time with their family. Hedberg would say that acting one way or the other does not necessarily deem this individual lacking integrity since they are still acting in coherence with their values. However, this brings up the question of up to what point should individuals have to make sacrifices to reduce their GHG emissions? To this point, Hedberg proposes “the following general principle: whatever a person of integrity is presently doing to reduce her emissions, she ought to strive to do a little bit more and in the process gradually push herself toward a higher level of sacrifice” (Hedberg 72). I feel that this is too lax a statement as it puts into question the equity of sacrifice between different classes. Hedberg tries to acknowledge the difference in capability to access and afford reducing an individual’s GHG emissions through this proposal, but it fails to do so. A person who has higher capabilities to reduce their emissions can do the same amount of reductions as someone who has less capability and still be considered adhering to their moral obligations.

Hedberg makes many exceptions on the basis of moral luck, that is a circumstance in which an individual is “treated as an object of moral judgment despite the fact that a significant aspect of what she is assessed for depends on factors beyond her control” (Nelkin). This allows individuals to avoid responsibility for their actions and decisions, since they are held to a lower moral standard if their circumstances are not favorable. That is, an individual can be led to believe that, determined by their circumstances, their actions weigh less, so there’s less moral accountability. On the other end, an individual who has the capacity to reduce more of their emissions may be shamed for not doing more. That is, they should make more sacrifices since, when considering their more favorable circumstances, it is less meaningful. For example, when comparing a millionaire versus an average person donating $1,000, we may view the average person to be more virtuous since $1,000 seems like loose change to a millionaire that they won’t notice gone. Further, we may even think the millionaire is being stingy since they can clearly afford to donate more. This undermines the premise of moral responsibility, which lays judgment on an individual’s behavior (action or inaction) based on circumstances outside of their control.

Due to my above criticisms, I am not convinced by Hedberg’s argument for individual’s obligation towards personal reductions in emissions. However, I do think that individuals should participate in a collective action to address the issue of climate change. Additionally, arguing that individuals have a personal moral obligation to reduce their own emissions distracts from the bigger emitters that make the biggest contribution to climate change. I think that the burden of obligation in question falls more on individuals with power, not necessarily reducing their own emissions, but creating the systemic changes that motivate individuals, and collective entities, to act towards reducing their emissions.

Johnson describes climate change as a common problem. Individuals as a collective share the land, air, waters, and climate as a common resource and thus have an collective effect on them. Asserting that an individual has a moral obligation to reduce their emissions “is mistaken because it fails to distinguish acting unilaterally from acting as one of many in a cooperative scheme to address a problem. At least in addressing the commons problems, unilateral, voluntary actions typically have no reasonable chance of achieving their object” (Johnson). It is possible that unilateral volunteer sacrifice of an individual will have little effect, especially since it is not guaranteed that others will follow suit in action. The lack of concerted effort diminishes the impact that can be made, and makes it less justifiable for an individual to make a sacrifice, especially if that sacrifice is a result of having to disregard their other values or commitments. Thus, in addressing climate change, collective action would be necessary and more effective.

A skeptic may clarify if I argue that individuals do not ought to act unless they are sure that others will act in cooperation. I would say no, that is not what I am arguing at all. I argue that an individual can act or not act to reduce their GHG emissions, but they do not have the moral obligation to do so or otherwise. While there is merit in promoting individual responsibility for reducing GHG emissions, it's essential to recognize its limitations in the face of a common problem. Additionally, one could argue that for collective action to occur, there needs to be individual initiative. I argue that this initiative should not necessarily come from an individual from the general population, but from an entity that has the responsibility to act for the collective good as a result of the position they hold. This refers to politicians who were elected for the purpose of acting and making decisions that are in accordance with goals their constituents want to achieve. They have the power and thus the responsibility to create the incentives that drive individuals, and larger more polluting entities, to act towards the collective goal of reducing overall GHG emissions.

In closing, since climate change occurs on a global scale, the solution is a group obligation. It requires cooperation among groups of people rather than individuals unilaterally making sacrifices. 


About the Author:


Solar Ambassador Catherine Lisama is a senior at Stanford University studying Earth Systems: Energy, Science, and Technology and Computer Science. She is interested in learning about renewable energy and transitioning the grid. Her hobbies are playing golf, baking, and watching anime.

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