Professor of Philosophy examines Vassar climate ethics

The Adam Joseph Lewis Center, at Oberlin College, is just one building in a new generation of net-zero emitting structures springing up on college campuses. Seidman asks: Why can’t Vassar emulate such a model in its future infrastructural projects? Courtesy of Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

How should Vassar, as an institution, respond to climate change? Combating climate change is not part of Vassar’s mission, and Vassar’s financial resources are finite. So resources that Vassar spends to reduce our carbon emissions are, often, resources that Vassar could instead be spending on its core, educational goals. How should Vassar, and those responsible for stewarding its resources, think about this tension?

The urgency of this question is increasingly obvious, even as most non-scientists still fail to appreciate the magnitude of the emergency we face and the speed with which it is rushing at us. The world has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The 2018 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes what a 1.5 degrees world will look like. It will be a world with far more, and much more intense, extreme weather, like the hurricanes now savaging Mozambique; a world in which wildfires, like the extraordinary ones that choked the American West last summer, are larger, more intense and normal; it will be a world in which large swaths of the world’s population face severe water shortages and food insecurity due to diminishing agricultural productivity and outright crop failures; it will be a world in which warming oceans kill the fisheries on which human populations depend; it will be a world of climate refugees numbering in the hundreds of millions—dwarfing by orders of magnitude the refugee flows which have already destabilized European politics. And it will be a world of severely diminished economic growth, with trillions of dollars of wealth destroyed. On its current trajectory, the world may hit 1.5 degrees of warming as soon as 2030; we will blow past that milestone to a much, much worse 2 degree rise in the decades after that, and will hit a civilization-threatening 3.1 degree to 3.7 degree rise by the end of the century (IPCC, “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC,” 01.2019; The World Bank, “Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” 03.19.2018).

Thinking about how it is appropriate to respond is difficult, not only because we are in an emergency that few recognize as an emergency. Climate change confounds ordinary moral intuitions. Morality evolved for direct, observable causal relationships: If A aims a gun at B and pulls the trigger, everyone knows how to assign responsibility for B’s death. The causal relationship between burning fossil fuels and the suffering and death wrought by climate change is, by contrast, indirect and diffuse. Most people have not internalized the fact that fossil fuel emissions cause suffering and death at all, and no one can trace a path from a few cubic meters of natural gas burned to a few extra pounds of CO2 in the atmosphere to any single death.

And yet, precisely because the scale of suffering and death from climate change is so enormous, we can draw a direct line from our decisions to their human consequences. On our current trajectory, hundreds of millions of people will suffer or die from climate change in just the coming decades. Every miniscule fraction of a degree of warming adds to the toll, and every ton of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere warms the earth by a miniscule fraction of a degree. We do not know precisely whom we harm when we burn fossil fuels (though we know that most of the initial death and suffering is already being felt by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, who are responsible for few emissions, and that the most widespread and severe effects will be felt by generations who are not yet born). But we do know, with certainty, that with each new increment of gas we burn, we are killing people, as surely as if we fired a gun into a crowd.

Once we understand our responsibility for climate suffering, a clearer moral framework for thinking about decisions around sustainability comes into view. The philosopher Robert Nozick points out that we do not ordinarily think of respecting the rights of others (for instance, by refraining from murdering them or stealing from them) as a goal for our actions, to be weighed or traded off against other goals. Rather, we think of it as a side-constraint on our actions, as we pursue our goals—the boundary between actions that are “on the table,” eligible to be chosen among, and actions that are simply off the table, out of consideration (Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” 1974).

This is how morally decent people think in ordinary cases, where the causal connections between our actions and the results they bring about are direct and obvious. It is not how many morally decent people think about climate change, where the indirectness and diffuseness of the effects of our actions obscure them for us. But the cases are fundamentally the same. Words like “sustainability” mask this truth—and distort our moral understanding of the decisions we face. Sustainability sounds like a positive goal, something that is desirable to achieve, but that it is appropriate to trade off against other, worthy goals. But when we talk about “becoming more sustainable,” what we’re really talking about is pulling back from ways of operating that are causing and will cause suffering and death to human beings.

What does all this mean for Vassar? In 2016, President Hill formally adopted a Climate Action Plan for Vassar, which committed us to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their current level of over 20,000 metric tons per year to net-zero by 2030 (Vassar College, “Climate Action Plan,” 08.12.2016). This is an aggressive plan. It will require retrofitting much of the existing energy infrastructure of the College, including the central heating plant. As the IPCC report makes clear, if the world as a whole becomes this aggressive, we can limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and avoid the worst of the disaster that our current global trajectory is pointing toward.

The good news is that we have, in President Bradley, a president for whom climate change is a priority, and who is taking leadership on the issue. President Bradley restated the commitment to net-zero by 2030 in her inaugural address, and she regularly attends meetings of the Climate Action and Sustainability Committee. Under her leadership, the College has commissioned a well-regarded engineering firm, Ecosystem, to study Vassar’s energy infrastructure and to lay out exactly what reaching net-zero will require. We will have the results of that study in the autumn, with an array of options and their associated costs. When that report lands, it will be a moment for some collective soul-searching, and for a College-wide conversation about what we stand for.

In the meantime, the College faces two more immediate questions, both stemming from the planned Inn and Institute (I/I), and both of which will likely be made this summer. On April 25, engineering consultants to the architect for the I/I presented three options for energy use to Vassar’s I/I committee. Two of these involved burning natural gas on the premises; the third option, which President Bradley has asked the consultants to explore further, would see the I/I powered entirely by electricity which could come from renewable sources. Likewise, the College is in the process of seeking developers to offer proposals for new faculty housing to replace Williams, which will be torn down to make room for the I/I. The College must decide this summer whether or not to consider proposals that would burn natural gas. If we adopt natural gas for these brand new buildings, we will lock it in for decades to come.

The costs of decarbonizing our existing infrastructure will likely be formidable, and so the conversations around them, in the autumn, may be difficult. Whether or not we agree about the questions we will face then, we should agree on something simpler in the meantime: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Putting fossil fuel infrastructure into new buildings would mean we are actively choosing to pursue our institutional goals at the cost of increasing our carbon footprint. If we conclude that it really would be too expensive to build the I/I without doing this, then we should conclude that we cannot afford to build.

If an institution with the knowledge and resources of Vassar College will not find a way to stop burning fossil fuels, or even to stop adding to our fossil fuel infrastructure, then of course we cannot expect that others will. This fact speaks to a central insight of Immanuel Kant. Kant argues that, in figuring out how it is morally permissible to act, we ought to ask what would happen if everyone acted on the principles that we are considering acting on (Kant, “Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals,” 1795). In this case, the answer is simple. If everyone continues to add fossil fuel infrastructure, we will collectively raise the world’s temperature well beyond 1.5 degrees, and we will collectively doom ourselves—starting with the most vulnerable among us, but soon enough leaving no one untouched—to a world of devastation and suffering that will only intensify for our children and grandchildren.

The converse is true as well. If Vassar joins the ranks of those aggressively decarbonizing, we can act as a leader, and inspire others to follow, by giving one more proof that it can and must be done. Our actions can be a source of hope, rather than despair, in a world which could sorely use some hope.

One Comment

  1. Hi Jeff:
    I loved your article. I tried to reply on the posting site but it wouldn’t take it – no idea why. You write well, Jeff. I hope you’ll let me see more of it.

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