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Climate Change: A Moral Debate

Climate Change: A Moral Debate

6 Mins
April 23, 2019

There has been considerable debate on the science of climate change and global warming on both ends of the spectrum from “deniers” to “alarmists” and everywhere in between. Yet the majority of people in the U.S. believe global warming is happening and is mostly caused by human activities. From the Yale Climate Change Opinion Communication for 2018, 70% of people believe global warming is happening and 57% believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Moreover, 77% recommend governments should regulate CO2 as a pollutant. In short, it would seem the general public believes climate change is real and the government should be doing something about it.

Yet according to a survey by the Cato Institute (March 8, 2018) 68% of Americans would not be willing to pay $10 a month in higher electric bills to combat climate change. Contrast this to an estimate that the Green New Deal would cost at least $10 trillion, which if spread out over 10 to 30 years would in fact cost thousands of dollars per year per household. Clearly people are conflicted between what they believe should be done and what they are willing to pay for it. What thinking underpins this conflict?

Few if anyone, Objectivists included, can fully comprehend all the climate change science. But virtually every individual comprehends what is necessary for survival on a daily basis. So the conflict many people are experiencing in the climate change debate is not so much a scientific one but a moral one, based on what each individual values.

In this essay it is not my intention to support or challenge anyone’s convictions about climate change nor the accuracy of scientific studies or predictions. Here I wish to elucidate and challenge the moral foundation upon which climate change recommendations are being made.


Environmentalists often claim man is “destroying” the planet. Are we? What moral value system is being applied to make such a harsh judgment against man? To clarify this with an example, consider the following: Manhattan Island, before man’s arrival, was once a pristine forest. Today it is a thriving metropolis. In your judgment, has Manhattan Island been “destroyed” in the transformation from a forest to a metropolis? Your answer is not a scientific one, as the fact that Manhattan Island has been transformed from a pristine forest to a metropolis is an irrefutable fact of history. But anyone claiming Manhattan Island has been “destroyed” in that transformation is making a moral judgment based on a value system, albeit one even eco-extremists living in Manhattan might not fully support.

The moral philosophy underpinning environmentalism and held by many climate change advocates is fundamentally anti-human.

Expanding this example to the planet at large, technically nothing material is ever destroyed, it is only transformed. Whether something has been transformed for better or worse begs the question of better or worse for whom or what? And again, that is a moral value judgment. Climate change recommendations are not based on science per se but on the moral principles any scientist, individual, or society in general holds. Scientists can present factual evidence that may identify a real or potential issue; but it is moral principles that underpin all their recommendations.

In his book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Alex Epstein elaborates the importance of fossil fuel use throughout history to improve man’s health, wealth, and wellbeing:

Instead of using a lot less fossil fuel energy, we used a lot more—but instead of long-term catastrophe, we have experienced dramatic, long-term improvement in every aspect of life.

Epstein also honestly acknowledges some of the negative impacts of the use of fossil fuels. However, his primary argument is that any recommendation for dealing with climate change must “hold human life as our standard of value.” Otherwise,

We must make clear we are willing to sacrifice human life for something we think is more important. With that standard, we must look at the big picture, the full context.

This is a moral argument based on the morality of humanism, defined as “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

Alex’s moral argument is consistent with the moral foundation of Objectivism. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness,

The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.

Unfortunately humanism is not the morality of many environmentalists. If it were, if their motivation was solely to protect the planet for the benefit of man, few would argue against that. But it’s not. Ayn Rand recognized this long ago when she stated in her 1970 lecture, “The Anti-Industrial Revolution,”

In all the propaganda of the ecologist, there is no discussion of man’s needs and the requirements of his survival.

The moral philosophy underpinning environmentalism and held by many climate change advocates is fundamentally anti-human. Their morality is based on the notion of biocentrism, “the view or belief that the rights and needs of humans are not more important than those of other living things.”

Biocentrism originated in the Postmodernist movement of the Left with its attack on reason and the subordination of the individual to a larger whole, including the environment. As Alston Chase notes in his 1995 book In a Dark Wood,

Individuals. . . following Hegel, do not have a separate existence; they are merely parts of larger wholes — the tribe, the nation, the environment.

With biocentrism as the moral foundation held by climate change advocates, it should come as no surprise that counter arguments to climate change recommendations based on a benefit to man (i.e., humanism) of utilizing fossil fuels fall on deaf ears. Climate change recommendations are simply the new rallying cry of the Left. Again, Ayn Rand predicted this decades ago in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution,

It has been reported in the press many times that the issue of pollution is to be the next big crusade of the New Left,. . . so clean air is not their goal or motive in this one.

This prediction has now become a reality in the 21st century. The 20th century was dominated by a morality of altruism demanding the sacrifice of oneself to others appropriately captured in the Marxist slogan of “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.” The human suffering and loss of life sacrificed to that cause is clear evidence of the failing of the morality of altruism to all but the true believers.

Environmentalists demand this sacrifice not to preserve the planet FOR man, but FROM man.

Nonetheless, the 21st century now seems dominated by a new crusade, a call by the altruists for the sacrifice of oneself to the planet. Look at all climate change recommendations and you will universally find a demand for individuals to make sacrifices. Environmentalists demand this sacrifice not to preserve the planet FOR man, but FROM man. One has to be equally concerned what the toll in human suffering and loss of life will be from such sacrifices by the end of the 21st century, not from failing to act on climate change recommendations but in fact from acting on them. If history is any lesson the altruists have no limit.

The response to this is the same now in the 21st century that it was in 20th century. As Ayn Rand said,

If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that man must reject.

Herein lies the root of the debate Objectivists should be focusing their attention to: the moral debate. My response in all climate change debates is to avoid the scientific debate altogether. It serves no purpose without first establishing the moral foundation for the debate. Debating climate change science has validity, but it is secondary in my mind to the moral debate. Moreover philosophy and morality are topics Objectivists are far more qualified and credible to debate. And that debate is for humanism over biocentrism, individualism over altruism and Objectivism over Postmodernism.


John Vincent

John Vincent is a retired entrepreneur living in Canada. He has an undergraduate degree majoring in Mathematic, Physics and Computer Science, along with continued undergraduate and graduate studies in these areas as well as Astronomy. He has been a student of Objectivism for over 45 years applying its principles to his own venture as well as those young entrepreneurs whom he has advised, mentored and invested in as an Angel venture capitalist. His personal interests since retiring are worldwide sailing, biking, architecture and astronomical research along with applying Objectivist principles to a number of current issues.

John Vincent
About the author:
John Vincent
Values and Morals
Political Philosophy
Environment and Energy