What would Plato, the father of Western Philosophy, say about global warming and what we should do? Those of us hoping he would give his opinion on how to mitigate climate change would be sorely disappointed, for he believed that we could only discover the answer we seek through dialogue. Instead, he would be the one asking us the questions, and making us more self-conscious about our widely held beliefs.
Before turning to Plato, perhaps we should first ask ourselves what philosophy has to do with climate change – if anything? The answer is everything. Global warming is not simply a problem for technology or science to solve. It’s an issue of human choices: how we articulate and address this reality determines the actions we choose and, to a large degree, their outcomes. Whether we realise it or not, we already engage in philosophy when we debate such issues as our wellbeing, or the distribution of finite resources, or the future of our society.
The issues of climate change go well beyond the narrow confines of political theory to questions that are more existential. Most of us would share the same moral viewpoint that we should care about decisions that affect the lives of future individuals. If we do not act on climate change, it’s hard not to argue that people born one hundred years from now will lead impoverished lives. At the same time, we face the problem of time itself because we consistently judge distant events as less important than immediate ones. Discounting tomorrow should involve much more individual thought and less automatic acceptance of someone else’s analysis. Stop, and ask yourself what level of discounting is ethically defensible when it relates to the survival of humanity?
Discounting is partly a reflection of uncertainty about the future. Philosophers have been talking about scepticism – the theory that certain knowledge is impossible – for a long time. Climate sceptics understand that ninety-seven percent of scientists disagree with their position, but they focus instead on the fringe research that says otherwise. Increasing the volume of evidence does not necessarily change this sceptical view, any more than decreasing the odds of winning the lottery makes you certain that you hold a losing lottery ticket. According to Professor Pinillos at Arizona State University, the effect of scepticism is countered by switching the focus from knowledge to probabilities. Once we switch to this perspective, claims to “not know for certain” become less relevant, and the debate turns to more objective probabilities and more constructive action.
If you accept climate change is a moral issue that we cannot discount or doubt, on what basis should we act? According to existentialist philosophy, this basis is the impact our individual actions would have on society as a whole if everyone else acted in the same way. Individual freedoms cannot be preserved if all individuals are completely free to choose their actions, and so instead we should choose to take individual action with a collective conscience. In our increasingly individualistic society, a philosophy that validates our personal freedoms while emphasizing our collective responsibilities holds great potential to provide meaning to a large number of people.
The Greek philosophers were preoccupied with the question, "how do you lead a life that matters?" If global warming had existed in Plato’s time, we would be profoundly grateful to the Ancient Greeks today if they had taken a moral stance in preventing climate crisis and made collective sacrifices for future generations. In doing so they would have found the answer to their question. And therein lies our answer too.