How do we live with climate change?

17 August 2012

Professor Dale Jamieson
Professor Dale Jamieson: "Virtually everyone is involved in some way in manipulating carbon and it's unclear how to allocate responsibility among them."

Should Arnold Schwarzenegger be driving a Hummer? Does flying to Mecca for the Hajj needlessly emit greenhouse gases? These are among the questions posed by environmental studies Professor Dale Jamieson from New York University, who next week will deliver a free Sydney Ideas talk 'Living with Climate Change' at the University of Sydney.

Professor Jamieson has been wrestling the moral and political challenges of climate change for 25 years. His talk offers consolation and motivation as the human race faces the sobering realities around the issue.

For those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, he suggests distinguishing between luxury emissions from subsistence emissions and abstaining from activities that produce the former. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hummer produces luxury emissions, while a Kenyan farmer cooking her dinner on a dung fire produces subsistence emissions.

"However, for a large range of cases it's difficult to distinguish luxury from non-luxury, and subsistence from non-subsistence emissions," he says. "How should we regard the millions of people who travel by plane or car each year to visit Mecca for the Hajj?"

Professor Jamieson is among those who have argued for a scheme entitling people to equal per capita emissions, indexed to fixed population levels. Under this scenario it would be permissible to emit more emissions only if people purchased emissions from those willing to emit less.

Aside from encouraging people to reduce their individual emissions, Professor Jamieson suggests climate change believers give political momentum to their views through voting, writing letters to the editor or even "occupying Wall Street". While we might feel isolated in taking such actions, we should try to reduce our contribution regardless of others' behaviour, he says.

"We are more likely to succeed in doing this and living a worthwhile life by developing and inculcating the right virtues than by improving our calculative abilities."

Professor Jamieson will discuss human rights aspects of climate change during his address. While he believes climate change is a human rights issue, he acknowledges, unlike other human rights violations its perpetrators are difficult to pin down. "Climate change depends on complex and unknowable causal chains," he says.

Coal is a case in point. Mined in Australia, coal is shipped to China where it is burned to generate electricity used to power factories that make products consumed in Europe and the United States.

"Virtually everyone is involved in some way in manipulating carbon and it's unclear how to allocate responsibility among them."

Event details

What: 'Living with Climate Change' with Professor Dale Jamieson, Director of Environmental Studies at New York University, a Sydney Ideas lecture

When: 6 to 7.30pm, Monday 20 August

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions

Cost: Free, bookings not required

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Contact: Jocelyn Prasad

Phone: 02 9114 1382

Email: 2957532c3e382b1c37380a58282d3a4b110f3b304c1e2d3038461331