Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

Individualism Submerged: Climate Change and the Perils of an Engineered Environment

Academic journal article UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy

Individualism Submerged: Climate Change and the Perils of an Engineered Environment

Article excerpt


Current approaches to addressing the negative impacts of climate change rely on collective capabilities. Welfare economics and contractualism, the two conventional perspectives that dominate the debate, support the pursuit of adaptive strategies such as large-scale geoengineering projects to reduce solar radiation or ameliorate sea-water inundation. In place of returning greenhouse gas emissions to natural levels, these approaches put the global climate system and compensation for losses resulting from climate change under the control of some group of fellow humans. In other words, they privilege mechanisms that increase each individual's dependence on a collective decisionmaker and decrease the individual's capacity to function on her own in the natural world. The climate change debate has ignored or overlooked this tremendous impact on individual capabilities and individual responsibility. Individualism does not seem to register as an important source of ethical considerations among the legal thinkers, policymakers, economists, and others who are influential in that debate.

This article seeks to remedy that void. It engages legal philosophy to excavate the relationship between individualism and environmental degradation, articulating the importance of individual capacities as part-and-parcel of our character, central to who we like to think we are or aspire to be. A commitment to individualist values requires recognition that climate change and its proposed solutions threaten a loss of individual capacity and individual responsibility that is a distinct and, in its own way, catastrophic kind of injury. The article concludes that concern about loss of individual responsibility justifies a stronger push for a rapid return to natural levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than do most current analytical approaches and solutions. Individualist values support a race to the top, which demonstrates the feasibility of living in ways that produce less greenhouse gas emissions create a duty on the part of others to lower their emissions. Preserving a world in which individualism is a dominant feature requires maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations within the natural range for humankind.


[W]e must consider ... the danger of catastrophe that is created by the fact that technological progress is much more rapid than progress in developing and implementing methods of controlling the dangers that technology creates. Just compare scientific progress since 1800 with the progress in politics, law, and morals over the same period. Not that there hasn't been progress in those spheres.... It's just been slower.... (1)

--Richard A. Posner



     A. Rising Greenhouse Gas Concentrations and
        Their Effect on the Energ, y Balance of the
     B. Predicted Impacts in the Natural World
     C. Predicted Coping Mechanisms
        1. Geoengineering as Adaptation to a
           Perturbed Climate System
        2. Targeted Adaptations
           a. Adaptation to Sea Level Rise
           b. Adaptation to Disruption of Natural
              Water Supplies
           c. Adaptation to Extreme Weather
           d. Adaptation to Changing Agricultural
           e. Adaptation to Ecosystem Degradation
           f. Adaptation to Ocean Acidification

     A. Individualism
        1. An Intuitive View of Individualism
        2. What an Individualist Values
     B. Individualism and the Perils of Climate Change
        1. Geoengineering and Individualism
        2. Alternative Adaptations and
        3. Substitutes for the Natural World and the
           Ethics of Individualism

     A. … 
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