All sorts of environmental issues are now presented not just as practical but as moral issues - if you don't recycle, you aren't just a wasteful person, you are a bad person. In Radio 4's Start the Week today, Andrew Marr's guests included Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar turned journalist, who has put together a programme for Channel 4 called God is Green, arguing that environmentalism is a religious issue. So now it's not just practical and moral, but religious.
Another of Marr's guests, Michael Portillo, was an honourable dissenter from this view, but Dowd's view was supported by the other guests - Wangari Maathai (Kenyan environmental and human rights campaigner) and Christine Riding (curator of Tate Britain). Majority support in the studio for a moralistic approach to environmental issues may well reflect the tendency in the country at large.
Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that it is a religious question to the extent that it is a moral question. Dowd tries to make the case that it is more than that - it is embedded in the religious texts. But his example - the fact that there are 261 references to the creation in the Quran - does not seem like strong evidence that environmental care is mandated by God's instructions. So let's stick to the question of morality.
Some projected consequences of global warming, if accurate and allowed to proceed unchecked, are clearly immoral. If global warming caused the destruction of home and habitat through flooding and drought, and my actions contributed knowingly to global warming, those actions would be immoral in so far as they were reasonably avoidable, where I had done nothing to mitigate their effect.
The latter provisos are important. To some extent, my very existence is contributing to global warming. I emit carbon dioxide when I breathe, methane when I fart, and rely on production and transport of goods to satisfy my wants. I might be able to minimise my dependence on produced goods, but it is unrealistic, in a world dependent on division of labour to maximise efficiency, to imagine that I will eliminate entirely my dependence on others' produce. Were we to set that as the moral "gold standard", we would have to acknowledge that a necessary corollary of complete self-sufficiency is the abandonment of mechanisation (which requires factories for production of the machines) and chemical fertilisation, both of which have substantially increased agricultural yields. In such a world, the population that could be supported without further encroachment into uncultivated land would be very much lower than it is today. Moralists would have to explain how this dramatic reduction of world population is to be achieved (and for those religions opposed to birth control, how the lower level is to be maintained).
Any realistic moral philosopher would have to recognise that some continuation of division of labour, mechanisation and transport is necessary to the welfare of mankind. Happily, the Earth has the ability to absorb a certain amount of carbon annually. Upto a point, carbon emissions can be not only necessary to human welfare, but also beneficial to our environment. The trouble comes (in theory) when we emit more than the Earth can absorb. But as every inhabitant of the Earth is contributing to carbon emissions to some extent, it can be difficult to identify which emissions are responsible for which effects. How are we to distinguish by ethical assessment which activities are moral or immoral?
One approach is simply to dictate that certain acts are "good" and other acts are "bad" - simplistic, rules-based morality. We are told that recycling is good. The trip to the bottlebank fills the recycler with a sense of wellbeing that they have done a good deed. But what if the contents of those bottlebanks cannot be sold for a price that justifies the transport to the factory, and are instead tipped in a landfill? That is not an uncommon result. Or what if the carbon released in the travel to the bottlebank, in the transport of the broken glass to a reprocessing factory, and in the conversion of the broken glass into useful product exceeds the carbon that would have been released if those products had been produced from raw materials? Was the act of recycling moral in those circumstances? A rules-based approach to environmental morality is insufficiently flexible to be realistic. Policy to deal with global warming requires consideration of real impacts in real and variable circumstances, not one-size-fits-all dirigisme.
Another approach is to apportion equally to every member of the human population rights to emit their share of a "sustainable" level of greenhouse gases, and condemn as immoral any activities that cause a person to exceed their allocated emissions rights. But why would equal allocation be fundamentally moral? Communist economies (in China or the Soviet Union), by ensuring all had very little, were not inherently more moral than capitalist economies, where even the poorest are better off than were the majority under communism, but where allocation is inherently unequal.