Corona and the climate

A striking double standard

November 15, 2021

Image courtesy of Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator, March 11 2020

»The total emissions of the richest 10 percent alone are set to exceed the 1.5°C-aligned level in 2030, regardless of what the other 90 percent do

Oxfam-study “Carbon inequality in 2030”, 2021


The climate crisis of the rich

Imagine the autumn of the year 2023. Once more, the summer has been the hottest in the history of temperature recordings. Europe has been hit by a severe heat wave, causing more than 100.000 premature deaths, surpassing the record 70.000 additional deaths caused by the 2003 heatwave.

In an unprecedented move, governments across Europe decide to take immediate and strict action to protect vulnerable parts of the population – predominantly the elderly. To this end, they introduce a “climate certificate”. When applying for a climate certificate, citizens have to provide full information on their lifestyle: How often do they travel by car or airplane? Which food do they eat? On how many square meters do they live? The answers to these and many other questions are used to estimate how much CO2 each citizen emits.

Citizens can obtain a climate certificate on a voluntary basis. However, certain activities are possible only for those who can provide the certificate. For instance, buying a car, eating meat in a restaurant, or taking the plane to go on holiday is restricted to those who have not yet depleted their lifetime CO2 budget, which is calculated based on the Paris Agreement. People whose certificates reveal that they have emitted a lot of CO2 are publicly shamed by politicians and the media. Recently, a tabloid paper even introduced the notion of the “climate crisis of the rich”.

Does this sound like an Orwellian dystopy? States collecting large amounts of individuals’ consumption data and excluding parts of the population from public life because they are personally held responsible for the climate crisis does indeed sound scary. Probably not many people would support such a strategy to tackle the climate crisis.

Inconsistent liberalism

Especially in liberal Western societies, the freedom of the individual has an extraordinarily high value. We allow people to smoke, we allow them to drink alcohol, to eat unhealthy food, not to do any sports, do drive a car, or to do risky activities such as climbing or skydiving. All these activities have a scientifically well established probability of creating a burden for society – either by harming themselves (e.g. smoking, eating unhealthy) or by harming others (e.g. driving a car).

Consequently, many would find it unacceptable to exclude certain parts of the population from public life in order to reduce a nation’s CO2 emissions – although it is very clear that certain activities (like eating meat) cause more emissions than others (like eating vegan).

Interestingly enough, however, the liberal values that have fundamentally shaped our societies are largely disrespected in the current debate around Covid-19. All of a sudden, a majority of the population supports government decisions to exclude unvaccinated people from large parts of public life. In Austria, unvaccinated people are not allowed to leave their apartments anymore once the number of Covid cases in ICUs has surpassed a certain threshold value.

The argument behind such drastic measures: Unvaccinated people contribute more to the current case numbers than vaccinated ones. Therefore, it is justifiable to lock them up at home in order to protect public health and the health care system. Some even go so far as to assign the main responsibility for the current pandemic to unvaccinated people – well reflected in the notion of the “Pandemic of the Unvaccinated”.

Resolving the moral double standard

Left aside whether such an attribution is appropriate or not, the comparison with the case of climate change raises important questions: If we argue that individuals cannot be held responsible for large systemic problems such as the climate crisis, why do we do exactly this in the case of Covid? If we invest huge sums to adapt our societies to the consequences of climate change which is caused disproportionately by certain parts of the population, why haven’t we invested accordingly in increasing the capacities of our health care system over the past 1.5 years? Why do we protect the freedom of people to emit CO2, but not the freedom of people not to get vaccinated, given that both personal choices can have immediate impact on others’ health and well-being?

These questions are not supposed to take any stance on whether or not vaccines are the right strategy with respect to the current pandemic. Rather, they should point towards a fundamental inconsistency in how we deal with different crises. In the pandemic, we make the unvaccinated responsible for the pandemic situation and strongly limit the range of activities they are allowed to do. In the climate crisis – arguably a much larger crisis than the pandemic – we stress the freedom of the individual, which may not be limited by the state.

Wouldn’t it be an important criterion for any moral system to be universally applicable? Should a moral standard be applied to a certain situation, but then be reversed for another – very similar – situation? If we aim for moral consistency in how we deal with the pandemic and the climate crisis, there are two options:

First, we can apply the standard of the climate crisis to the pandemic, which implies that unvaccinated people must no longer be discriminated against vaccinated ones, and that the state makes significant investments into the health care system to treat the increased number of cases which can be expected to appear regularly with every new wave of Covid.

Second, we can apply the standard of the pandemic to the climate crisis, which implies that people who have already emitted a lot of CO2 are not allowed to do any further CO2 emitting activities, such as eating meat, taking an airplane, or buying a car.

Which of the two options one prefers is a personal question. Choosing one of the two seems, however, important to resolve the current moral double standard.

»It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.«