Climate Change and the Is/Ought Problem


In the 18th century David Hume posited the Is/Ought problem. Hume said there’s no connexion between something being the case and an action. That someone is drowning isn’t a reason in itself for attempting a rescue. If a rescue is attempted then it is for other reasons, which are separate to the fact of drowning. It might be thought that the only right thing to do, for a fellow human being, is to attempt a rescue. There might even be a sense of reciprocity at work: If I were drowning then I’d hope that someone would attempt to rescue me. Therefore:-

(1) Climate change is making the climate worse, and

(2) Something ought to be done to reduce carbon emissions

aren’t logically linked. Climate change activists assume it’s self-evidently true that emissions should be reduced because the climate is being damaged.


Climate change activists propose a global response to constantly rising carbon emissions, hoping to avoid a catastrophe. They prophecy climate change is a change for the worse. Whether change will be worse is an untestable value judgement. The counter-proposal that climate change is a change for the better is also untestable. There’s no possible resolution between these incompatible positions as both value judgements are held without evidence. There is overwhelming belief in the theory that climate change is a change for the worse. That a there’s a majority doesn’t add to its validity as an argument.

Climate change activists believe there will be a dystopian future. Activists say, ‘Life will be impossible’ subsequent to climatic change. Taken literally, this means an uninhabitable earth with humanity eliminated in an act of collective suicide. This apocalyptic scenario is implausible because there’s sufficient wealth, ingenuity and desire to avoid the slowly evolving cataclysm.

Suppose there are future unborn generations. Why should I sacrifice anything for unknowable people in the distant future?

Climate activists are demanding global society act altruistically by investing resources for the benefit of future generations. Unborn generations don’t have a right to demand* sacrifices and they haven’t appointed delegates either. Climate change activists can’t know today’s sacrifices aren’t a mistake and unborn generations needed more climate change. Human effects on the world are a fact but we don’t know whether they’re benign or not. We don’t know because the future is unknowable. We can only say that change means things will be different. That a change means things are different is trite but is the limit of the evidence base.

Climate change activists see norms being shattered and say, ‘Life will be impossible’. What they mean is current life models might impossible. This is a conservative viewpoint. To claim, ‘Life will be impossible’ is Liebnizian. He postulated that his world was ‘The best of all possible worlds’ (see addendum) and climate activists have a desire to continue our world because they feel positively towards it. They may even believe it’s perfect. A dose of Voltaire (see addendum) would cure that belief.

The ‘evidence’ activists use is evocative. Starving polar bears, flooded cities, savage droughts, storm damage and so on. Worse: people starving after crop failure for whatever reason. This is extrapolated forward as if it was evidence of systemic failure. Let’s suppose it is. In the aeons of time unfolding it might be that these events are seen as trivially contingent and unimportant. Let’s suppose that they’re real and important. And that that is the world they’ve inherited. So what?

Current generations can chose, or not, to rectify the damage (if it is damage) that’s been caused by a fossil fuel based society. We don’t know how unborn generations will live, or what they will need to live, or even if there will be any unborn generations. We do know that we can mitigate what is considered, by a majority of educated opinion, to be a disaster. Only unborn generations will know whether climate change is a disaster. In the meantime we make a Leap of Faith which reflects our belief in a continuing world and try to mitigate the changes our use of fossil fuels is causing.


Leibniz (d. 1716) formulated the concept ‘The best of all possible worlds’ in his attempt to prove that God created a perfect earth. Voltaire (d. 1778) satirised Leibniz with his character Dr Pangloss who resolutely ignored hideous events in his maintenance of the concept.


* How can they demand anything: they’re unborn.


For the Is/Ought problem see

For the cost of mitigation of climate change see This is only for the UK

For Leibniz see especially 7.1.1

For Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss see

For the possibility that there will be no world for unborn generations to live in see Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) A wonderful SciFi comic novel

For a Leap of Faith see

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