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  • Writer's pictureBernard Morsink

Utilitarianism and Climate Action: How Rethinking Happiness Could Solve Climate Change

Over the past years, the world has experienced an increasing amount of extreme temperatures, natural disasters and failing ecosystems. Yet the cause of these events, climate change, still does not receive the attention it deserves. The process of tackling climate change has evolved into a geo-political game, in which powerful states and corporations awkwardly dance around their responsibilities by pointing at each other and compromise until nothing remains. While the game looks fun, the crisis expands. On the other hand, the ones judging this political ineffectiveness are often guilty of the same crime. Those who vote for ‘climate parties’ can’t say no to that tasty burger, and the ones screaming their lungs out at a climate march can’t refrain from taking that plane to Barcelona. The worst part about this – the failure of both international politics as well as individuals to take decisive climate action -, is that it is all quite understandable. Tackling the problem of climate change is hard; it requires a bird’s eye view, counter-intuitive thinking, and extremely rational behavior. Utilitarianism provides just that.

Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century philosopher, believed that the purpose of human existence is not finding the truth or living a good and religious life. All we have to do is, he said, be happy. This belief led him to think that the purpose of life is to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Every act should be evaluated according to the amount of happiness (or pain) it produces. For this to work, however, happiness needs to be quantifiable, otherwise one can never be certain whether the amount of happiness produced by act A truly exceeds the amount of happiness produced by act B. In other words: you need to know if the pleasure produced by you eating that tasty burger exceeds the total amount of happiness produced by you not eating that burger. Even though Bentham acknowledged that tying a feeling of happiness to a number is an extremely tricky thing to do (he even identified different dimensions and facets within happiness), he eventually managed to come up with a formula to measure happiness: the hedonic calculus. The hedonic calculus is a mathematical formula and takes into account seven different factors: purity, remoteness, duration, intensity, certainty, extent, and richness. The total amount of pleasure an act produces is in other words dependent upon (i) the likelihood that the pleasure will lead to other pains, (ii) how far of in the future the pleasure will take place, (iii) how long the pleasure lasts, (iv) its degree of intensity, (v) the certainty of the pleasure taking place, (vi) the amount of people affected by the pleasure, and (vii) the likelihood that the pleasure will lead to other pleasures. Applying these seven factors to the case of climate change illustrates the amount of happiness produced by decisive climate action. For the sake of simplicity, I will only discuss the seven factors without paying attention to its mathematical translation.

Let’s start with the downsides. First, choosing to solve the climate crisis will to some extent be at the expense of tackling other crises. Especially in the short term, climate action will lead to some ‘pains’. The money spent on climate change will, for instance, be at the expense of money needed to improve healthcare, education or fighting terrorism. The second factor, how far in the future the pleasure derived from climate action will take place, also decreases the positivity of climate action’s overall outcome of the hedonic calculus. One could argue that the main reason why the degree of climate action has been so constrained is due to the fact that money spent on climate change takes a relatively long time to transfer to a utility and create happiness. This delay in transfer makes drastic climate policies unattractive and extremely hard to sell to the public. To put it simply, governments must choose between spending a tremendous amount of money today on either solving crisis X right away (a housing crisis, economic crisis, etc.) or solving crisis Y (climate change) in several decades. For most governments, communities, and individuals, this is an easy decision to make. Up until this point, climate action would have a negative score on Bentham’s hedonic calculus and would therefore not be worth pursuing. It is important to note that these two factors alone seem to have played a major role in the stagnation of climate policy. What the other factors clearly show however, is that while refraining from taking decisive climate action indeed creates happiness at first, it completely misses the bigger picture.

Climate action taken today benefits everyone in the future, the pleasure that is derived from climate action basically sustains forever. This has an enormous influence on the overall quantity of happiness produced by climate action. Moreover, the pleasure produced by effective climate policies is relatively intense since climate action has the potential to save many lives from future weather extremes and natural disasters. Climate action taken today would also prevent other pains in the sense that it for instance averts several climate-caused migrant flows and decreases further global inequality. The certainty of these pleasures produced by climate action is high. There is a clear consensus among academics that climate change is real, and that climate action will decrease climate change’s negative influence on our well-being. The sixth factor shows that while some parts of the globe are more vulnerable to climate change than others, rigorous climate action would at the end of the day benefit everyone. Seventh and last, the pleasure produced by climate change is omnipresent. The pleasure ranges from economic prosperity in the long run, to preserving (and reviving) nature’s beauty. From taking away worries about the future, to saving lives. Furthermore, research shows that climate action is cost saving, reduces health risks, and will lead to more jobs. The hedonic calculus thus shows that the overall quantity of happiness derived from drastic climate action far outweighs the pains.

In conclusion, relating the issue of climate change to utilitarianism provides an interesting insight in the underlying rationale behind climate action. Utilitarians believe that finding happiness is the goal of human existence and therefore seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Applying the hedonic calculus to the case of climate change provides an extremely rational and insightful explanation of the need for immediate climate action. The application perfectly illustrates the ways in which the undertaking of climate action would create pains and pleasures. Consequently, it shows that rigorous climate action would serve as an effective way to come closer to the greatest happiness of the greatest number and is therefore the only rational thing to do. In order to solve the climate crisis, we must acknowledge the complexity of our happiness and strive for a deeper, more rational understanding. Sure, the political game played by our leaders, eating tasty burgers, and taking that plane are fun. But will they truly make us happy in the long run?

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