For the better part of four decades, national leaders and their citizens have been warned that human activities are causing our planet to heat up – and that, if we do not change our ways, our descendants will have to cope with a harsh – possibly uninhabitable – environment. Despite repeated messages, very little has been done. Even when there are apparent successes, as with the 2015 Paris agreement, the targets set for reduction in emission of greenhouse gases have been inadequate. Since then, very few of the signatories are pursuing trajectories that will allow them to come close to attaining the goals to which they have committed themselves.
Climate action has been sporadic, and far too slow. Why? The obvious answer: distrust of the science. Yet, even in places where the scientific findings have been accepted, and even as skepticism is waning, the response remains sluggish. I suggest two main causes. First, current inequalities, within and between nations, generate a four-sided dilemma (or quadrilemma). Besides the impact on future generations, many nations and many people reasonably fear that their own futures will be devastated by the kinds of action proposed, unless serious efforts are made to protect and aid them – and they do not expect those efforts to be made. Second, the probabilistic character of the decision problem, coupled to our ignorance of the crucial probabilities (both now and in the foreseeable future), fosters the illusion that the safest course is not to modify the status quo.
The lecture will present the predicament, explain the two main causes of inaction, and offer some proposals for making progress. The best hope for a remedy would be to organize a world-wide venture in deliberative democracy, in which the quadrilemma was systematically confronted, and attempts were made to satisfy all constituencies. It is almost certain that any solution will not only have to revive democracy at the most fundamental level, and also mitigate the character of contemporary global capitalism.
About the speaker
Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. He is a mathematician, historian and philosopher by training, and he is regarded as one of the leading figures in the field of philosophy of science today.
He has authored over 15 books on topics ranging from evolution, epistemology, pragmatism, and secular humanism. His 2017 book ‘The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts’, co-authored with Evelyn Fox Keller, has been characterised as a “landmark work of environmental philosophy that seeks to transform the debate about climate change”, presenting the realities of global warming through a human-centered narrative to better assimilate the science of climate change and its very real implications for human beings.
Early in his career, he was primarily interested in philosophy of mathematics and general philosophy of science. During the late 1970s, he became very concerned with the philosophy of biology. That concern led him to investigate not only conceptual and methodological issues in biology, but also questions about the relations of biological research to society and politics. During the 1990s, his interests broadened further to embrace the role of scientific inquiry in democratic societies. Since coming to Columbia, that line of investigation has been further elaborated in relation to pragmatism (especially William James and John Dewey). Part of this work advances a program for naturalistic ethics (one he takes to be Deweyan in spirit). He has also developed a program of research in philosophical themes in literature and music, focusing so far on Joyce and Wagner, and, in a recent book, on Thomas Mann and Mahler.
How to join
Hosted by the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life and the American University of Armenia, the PERITIA Lectures are open to all upon registration via Zoom and moderated by science communicator Shane Bergin. This online series runs in two parts every second Tuesday, from April to June and from September to November 2021. Participants are invited to join an interactive Q&A debate after each lecture. Reading materials are available for academic purposes on this page. Registration is free.
Berlin Science Week
This lecture will be part of the 2021 Berlin Science Week. Berlin Science Week provides international scientists and science driven organisations with a stage to share insights into current topics, discuss grand challenges and envision the future together. More information here.