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Climate emergency and moral dilemmas - a COP26 special

As the biggest world powers are gathering in Glasgow in the coming days to talk about their response to climate change and the race to net zero in the hope of reaching some firm commitments, I wanted to reflect on the greatest challenge our and the next generations face, more specifically on the moral dilemmas that this challenge involves.

Earlier this week, asked about climate change, Sir David Attenborough told the BBC that "we have a moral responsibility to do something". On the same day, a reporter on radio 4 mentioned the that we all faced dilemmas when it comes to supporting the sustainability efforts. Let's first try and define what we mean by these words; as is often the case, concepts can be interpreted in many different ways. In a book about morality at work, Kvalnes (2015) defines morality as "a set of personal shared beliefs about right and wrong in the interaction between human beings"; this is clearly set in the context of interactions between individuals, rather than in the context of our relationship with the environment or sustainability more broadly. However, the idea of beliefs about right and wrong can apply here just the same - and of course, defining what is right and wrong makes this all a highly subjective and contextualised topic. Interestingly, Nietzsche had defined morality as being "a weapon of the weak to bring everyone to the same level", in other words, a way to try and reason those with power not to exercise this power to the detriment of others; the way Nietzsche has worded this definition gives morality a negative, almost inconvenient connotation (which can be seen also in the way other expressions are being used, such as the "moral high ground"), and for many, talking about morality about the environment sadly still comes with a sense of inconvenience. When it comes to moral dilemmas, these describe situations where someone is required to make a decision between two paths, where both paths have got a certain moral value. As Kvalnes puts it, "a moral dilemma is a choice between wrong and wrong", as "something of moral value will be lost" when a decision is made. This immediately brings up the question of whether a choice that involves a more sustainable option can really be seen as a dilemma - I'll come back onto this later on.

I see two main types of moral dilemmas, or choices, in relation to climate change. There are the smaller, everyday-type decisions we all have to make on a regular basis, mostly at an individual level and then the deeper choices that need to be made, in terms of lifestyle for all of us, but also at a societal level.

"I'll have a soya latte in a reusable cup - have I saved the world yet?"

The first set of choices we all have to make seem quite straightforward at first, and much has been said about little choices that make a big difference. Reducing single use plastic on a daily basis, reducing meat consumption, walk and use public transports, limit the amount of long-haul flights taken each year, recycle, reuse; there are so many different ways in which everyone can take a step in the right direction, from the well-known such as using bags-for-life for shopping, to the still slightly more obscure - did you know you could calculate the carbon footprint of sending an email? Documentaries have helped developed a certain level of consciousness, be it by seeing the impact on polar bears and the melting ice, the fields of plastic rubbish in the seas, and I am sure many of us cannot see a plastic drinking straw without reliving the agony of the turtle having one extracted from its nose in Blue Planet.

With all this said, many of these things should be no-brainers. Yet they still remain slow to catch on in many respects. Reasons for this are varied and complex, and I do not pretend to be in a position to get to the bottom of the issue (and can anyone pretend to - that's a question for another time!). However, there are a couple of aspects of psychology which I believe to be relevant here.

First, there is a matter of perceived distance between the individuals and the subject of the dilemma. In an organisational setting, a study by Hofer et al. (2021) has found that, for a decision on a moral dilemma involving people, individuals were intuitively displaying more lenience in the way they were judging the decision, the further removed they were socially from the people impacted. This connection between moral intuitions and distance can be translated in the context of environmental responsibility, to suggest that individuals feeling distant from the outcome of the dilemma will intuitively put less pressure upon themselves, and would therefore be less likely to take action. Unfortunately the chain of events and reactions that goes between me grabbing an extra plastic bag at the supermarket, and a series of catastrophic floods, is still a long and obscure one for most people, which will keep them seeing their own actions far removed from the issue.

And second, it is also worth bringing in social identity theory, which is the way in which shared beliefs and values shape the identity of a group of individuals, and in turn how this developed identity reflects back on certain decisions and actions from members who have integrated them. The group in question can take many forms, be it a team at work, or other social groups. Taking actions, even small ones, that change behaviours in order to protect the environment impacts some of the beliefs that groups may have or share. For example, if using a reusable cup isn't something widely done as part of a team, one individual may feel like they would be going against the team's shared beliefs if they suddenly were to do so. It equally has the reverse potential to become part of the team's shared way of doing things, influencing individuals which on their own account might not have taken this decision. In this case, finding ways to trigger these discussions in groups and uncover common grounds or beliefs could help drive the adoption of more positive actions. This becomes connected with the broader way of considering morality in relation to the environment, at a broader level.

From awareness and compliance to responsibility

At a more macro level, moral dilemmas involved in the climate emergency and protection of the environment go on to reach different dimensions. These relate to the policies governments are willing to put in place, or to the strategies set out by private organisations for example. There too, some decisions may appear as being straightforward, as the path might come through quite clearly if we really want to favour positive action towards sustainability. However, dilemmas may come into these decisions in many forms. The most obvious one is the immediate people impact in terms of employment; for example, if a coal power plant is being shut in favour of other cleaner means of producing energy, the people employed by that plant are nonetheless finding themselves without jobs - unless effective redeployment plans can be put into place. Of course, the cynics may argue that if it was a matter of profit rather than environment, companies may not hesitate much before making decisions affecting people's employment. This brings us back to Nietzsche's view of morality, and how it could be used selectively to serve particular interests, especially for those finding themselves in a weakened position.

There is another insightful study by Tang et al. (2020), which looks at how morality is perceived at an organisational level, against how it is perceived for the individuals making up this same organisation. The findings show that people put more accountability and responsibility on an organisation as an entity, than they do on individuals who make up the organisation - with the exception of moral failings clearly attributed to one single individual. This shows the importance of framing issues relating to morality. In the context of sustainability and the environment, it shows the potential weight of taking a stance at an organisational level, and embedding a certain commitment as part of the organisation's overall strategy, rather than making it a point of accountability for certain individuals within the organisation only. Of course, expressing views in the name of the organisation, and making associated commitments can be a dilemma in itself, as it puts the organisation in a situation of greater risk, should any of its actions go against these expressed views.

With that said, the risk coming with taking a stance and making commitments towards the protection of the environment and reduction of carbon footprint will lessen, the more this gets into mainstream ways of operating across organisations, both public and private. Commitments made by organisations, and by entire countries as expected during COP26, need to drive more than mere compliance to sets of measures, but a genuine shared sense of responsibility, which is felt at organisation levels, so it can filter through all levels of these organisations, and become part of the organisations' shared identities and beliefs.

So, if we get back to the definition of a moral dilemma, which is about making a choice between wrong and wrong, it may well be that right now many decisions in support of the environment remain moral dilemmas, because the alternatives still involve causing inconvenience or harm in some way. The challenge related to climate emergency therefore becomes about ensuring that measures put in place in all areas of society help make sure that we move away from situations of dilemmas, and that consequences are mitigated in a way that the environmentally responsible course of action becomes unequivocally the right course of action, always.

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