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According to the news, Russia is burning off, or "flaring," about 4.34 million cubic meters of gas a day because it does not sell it to Europe. That's apparently an equivalent of 9,000 tonnes of CO2. Is not any CO2 I could ever emit by driving a car, eating meat or heating with gas marginalized by a behavior like this to the extent that I can never be made responsible for any global warming damage? Thanks for some insights from the philosophical side.

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    By your logic, stealing a little is OK, when there are people who steal a lot, and your contribution to the global ethic is minimal... until everybody is a thief. Some call this a "race to the bottom". Sep 5, 2022 at 19:45
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    There is no more gas being burned than if it had been distributed and burned by the consumers. Yet somehow it is no longer you who is responsible, when we are all responsible, in one way or another. The real problem with global warming is the collective behaviour, and as they say, charity begins at home. Sep 5, 2022 at 20:08
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    You are not the only one "picking up two ears" but one among millions, perhaps billions of people. Sep 5, 2022 at 20:24
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    It seems easier to hold one government responsible than billions of individual people. Fuel that was wasted probably has to be replaced by the people who would have used it. So it does needlessly increase the CO2 emissions.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 5, 2022 at 22:57
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    9000 tons sounds rather low, are you sure that figure is correct and you're not missing a million or billion somewhere? For example the U.S./Canada as the biggest per capita CO2 source (ignoring the really small countries) is at 16.1 ton per capita so that's just 600 people or a small village
    – haxor789
    Sep 6, 2022 at 6:47

11 Answers 11

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It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Suppose it is immoral to steal a wallet. Now, suppose that you learn that someone else has robbed a bank of a lot of money. Does it now become moral for you to steal the wallet?

In moral matters, you consider only your own options and which options are more or less moral than others. To be moral is to choose the option available to you that is more moral, relative to the other options available to you.

It makes no difference if that option is more or less moral relative to some other action of some other person. That doesn't change the options available to you or the morality of those options relative to each other.

If Russia is burning huge amounts of oil, this does not make it less moral for you to do your own small part to avoid pollution. However, it does change your available options in the following way: it makes it more beneficial to take action to limit Russia from burning that oil. By yourself, you can't do much, but if many others think like you, together you can make a political impact that could influence Russia's behavior.

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  • How can we get some more effective options on the list? How can we stop violence and destruction, without using force? I think that 'influencing' those who have already gone that far is not possible. We did use atomic bombs, when it seemed nothing else would stop Japan, and no one else had one. What new thing do we have now that will work?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 6, 2022 at 10:33
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    I don't find the analogy very apt. With a stolen wallet, we can point to a specific victim and significant harm, which is unrelated to the bank robbery harm. The original question is much more nuanced and interesting.
    – usul
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:37
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    @ScottRowe I do not think the moral term like "being hurt" or "stupid" are appropriate for the discussion. As soon as civilians are killed, the non-aggressor become an aggressor. How should we stop the non-aggressor from becoming an aggressor?
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 7, 2022 at 5:36
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    The analogy necessarily leads to an "all or nothing" ethic, which is not at all an apparent need for the ethics involving emissions, else we'd all conclude to live naked in the woods. Is this a category error?
    – user10479
    Sep 7, 2022 at 13:45
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    @usul I think you'll find that specific people are suffering the effects of the climate crisis. Just because the damage of individual actions is more spread out doesn't make it less real
    – njzk2
    Sep 7, 2022 at 21:04
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Important context:

The idea of you personally being acountable for your personal CO2 footprint (and that reducing it is relevant and important to combatting climate change) is not a natural idea as such, and a quite new one at that.

The individual carbon footprint as a concept was pioneered by BP to shift the focus (and blame) from systemic perpetrators like oil giants and nation states to the (almost powerless) individual.

Sadly, this mentality, of going after the individual instead of demanding/acting for larger and systemic change has permeated public politics and debate incredibly thoroughly, reducing conversation around actual change on any relevant levels.

So not from a really philosophical side, but from a historical/societal one: Yes, you can't really do that much, and you'd know that if the organizations who could do much hadnt spent millions to get us to think otherwise.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/23/big-oil-coined-carbon-footprints-to-blame-us-for-their-greed-keep-them-on-the-hook

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    Companies and public institutions don't emit CO2 for fun. Your purchasing decisions certainly have an impact. Not to mention behavior which more or less directly causes CO2 emissions like driving a car or heating your home with fossil fuels. Of course regulations (which depend on your voting decisions) also have a big impact. Unfortunately proper CO2 taxes are unpopular.
    – Michael
    Sep 6, 2022 at 10:56
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    @Michael normally I'd be in agreement with you on the "purchasing decisions" argument, but here we have found a weird edge case where they kind of are. This an crypto-mining. We need outright bans for some things.
    – Clumsy cat
    Sep 6, 2022 at 12:53
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    What has really suprised me is that gas crisis in Europe hasn't been the catalyst to move away from fossil fuels. Far from it: in 2021 UK’s OPRED rejected Shell’s Jackdaw gas field development plans, but in 2022 they did a U-turn and approved it. Sep 6, 2022 at 13:16
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    Why not both? We should demand systemic change while also not participating in the system ourselves, to the extent possible.
    – user253751
    Sep 6, 2022 at 14:44
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    @WeatherVane this is veering off into Politics SE discussion, but the "green energy" solutions are not here fast enough for the coming winter.
    – qwr
    Sep 6, 2022 at 23:40
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You're comparing the CO2 emissions of you as an individual to those of an aggregate of people (Russia) without accounting for the size of the aggregate. If you spread the responsibility for Russia's additional 9000 tons of CO2 per day across all the 140 mio. Russians (or e.g. across the 440 mio. EU citizens for whom that gas was supposedly for) then the increase in CO2 emissions per individual of this particular incident is much lower than your own personal CO2 emissions.

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    Yes but the CO2 emissions per capita doesn't really matter, what matters is the total CO2 emissions. The former is about who is to blame the latter is about how screwed we are regardless of who's to blame for that.
    – haxor789
    Sep 6, 2022 at 14:18
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    but the total emission is the emission per capita, times the population.
    – njzk2
    Sep 7, 2022 at 21:08
  • @haxor789 But the question in the OP is specifically about moral blame.
    – ajd138
    Sep 7, 2022 at 23:13
  • @njzk2 Actually, not quite. There can be large users of energy that I don't use the products of already. If everyone used the same energy I do, it could be very different than if everyone used someone else's energy demand profile. The problem is, no one is everyone. But more efficient processes and products (as we are already trying to implement) affect many for no effort by those people. If all lights are more efficient, for example, it is harder to be wasteful. Make good easy and cheap, and bad hard and expensive and it will largely fix itself.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 1:35
  • @ajd138 It's in the subtext, but technically it's about whether one's own insignificant contribution can make a difference or whether one could/should adopt defeatism.
    – haxor789
    Sep 10, 2022 at 12:28
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The amount of gas Russia burns is the amount it usually sells. If you previously bought gas from Russia, you are contributing to the burning now. Stopping the purchase of gas now won't change the amount Russia burns. But where is your gas coming from now - some other equally bad dictatorship like Saudi Arabia? Should Saudi Arabia get similarly sanctioned for its war in Yemen, it will burn the amount of gas it usually sells, and you'll be glad if you didn't contribute to that.

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    We shouldn't be using fossil fuels. The source doesn't matter. Similarly, who wastes it doesn't matter. But if I am careful and others waste vastly more than I could ever affect, it seems pointless for me to take that action.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 7, 2022 at 1:49
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    @ScottRowe Russia is burning this gas that they can't sell now, because they don't want to reduce their production, because they hope to be able to sell gas again in future (and stopping production now and then starting it up again later is more costly than running some of their production for no revenue, for a while). In the long run we need all fossil fuel production to be dramatically cut, which will only happen if we reduce demand for it so that production isn't profitable.
    – Ben
    Sep 7, 2022 at 4:10
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    @ScottRowe You cannot single-handedly achieve this, but reducing your personal demand is part of an aggregate effect. If you give up on that and increase your demand again, you are instead a part of an aggregate effect increasing global demand, which actually helps Russia profit from actions like this.
    – Ben
    Sep 7, 2022 at 4:10
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    @ScottRowe yes, you can vote to outlaw fossil fuels in your city/state/country.
    – user253751
    Sep 7, 2022 at 13:10
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    @user253751 Heaps of unused and obsolete fuels remain, so you're clearly wrong about that.
    – user10479
    Sep 7, 2022 at 14:13
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9,000 tonnes of CO2 per day is not a lot.

Take into consideration that EU member countries have a total emission of 2,393 million metric tonnes of CO2 per year (2019). The 9,000 metric tonnes per day from Russia (3.3 million tonnes per year) is only 1.4% of that. And much less if you look at in on a worldwide per capita increase. It doesn't put you in a situation in which your actions won't have an impact. It doesn't completely invalidate your efforts if you manage to reduce your emissions by even 2%.

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Normally Russia would (probably) be selling that gas, for whatever CO2 intensive purposes. Now (you say/suggest/whatever) they have to waste it because they are at war. Obviously the problem of fossil fuels is not changed. The personal question concerns magnitude. Why should one try if a hundred oppose? Overall the world statistics are not encouraging. It really is about magnitude, and whether governance can get a grip.

You may find of interest this review (for all its faults) of Prof. Yehezkel Dror's For Rulers: Priming Political Leaders for Saving Humanity From Itself (2017).

Even before his 2001 book The Capacity to Govern: A Report to the Club of Rome Dror has advocated a more aligned world strategy.

Can the world get a grip?

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  • I'm betting on AI.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 5, 2022 at 22:57
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    But do you suppose that the original intended users of the gas simply won't heat buildings, etc? That the global use will not rise due to intentional waste? You defeat your own argument.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 5, 2022 at 23:03
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    Certainly the global use will rise due to intentional waste. But I think the OP's point is about waste being so great what is the point of trying to help. And that is about global governance, because they need to get it together. Sep 5, 2022 at 23:12
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    The counterpoint is that natural competition is ferocious. Are we going to go to extinction as brawling countries? So pathetic (ouch, resonance). Sep 5, 2022 at 23:15
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    That is to say: Sad Sep 5, 2022 at 23:21
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While Russia is burning is a huge amount, yet your personal contribution will of course add up to that. Look at it differently though. It's always good to save some energy, if only for financial reason, or for the reason that you're less dependent on energy if you are able to live with not so giant amount of that. Especially with such big shortages it helps.

Additionally, I feel like Russia is trying to pressurize us into giving them money by saying "we burn this gas, because you don't like us". That is not acceptable behaviour on their part. We are at war, Russia vs Civilization. We will not give in and buy their gas ever. And we should vote for political parties, that don't subsidize fossil fuels.

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Is your goal to be personally morally pure, or to cause the most reduction in CO2 emissions across society?

You have correctly identified that stopping the big polluters is going to be more effective than reducing your already tiny personal CO2 output. Therefore, it is not going to be an effective use of your time to reduce your personal CO2 output. Instead, you will be more effective if you focus on stopping other people from polluting.

The important thing is to not let the above argument become an excuse to do nothing. You have to actually try to stop the big CO2 producers from producing CO2.

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  • Agree. Any suggestions?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 1:17
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If the question is how to evaluate your contribution to global warming (something I struggle with myself):

The accounting would need to consider whether your lifestyle up to now has been such that the Russian gas or any harmful substance/practice was demanded in the first place to keep you in your lifestyle - no matter how indirectly.

Eg if you buy a new car because you want a brand new car, you're part of the demand for new cars and are complicit. That goes to all the energy and resources used to make the car - everything, down to the last gloop of eyeliner used by the marketing team.

Another situation: my local village is resisting drilling for onshore oil. An argument for it is that the UK needs oil and it's better than transporting it via tanker from Saudi Arabia, thus wasting hideous amounts of oil (fuel) just getting the oil here. Actually: that's irrelevant because the Saudis (or whoever) will still extract and sell all oil they can. The (relatively tiny) UK extraction just adds to the total amount on the world's surface. So the notion is .. leave it in the ground. The less we extract, the less we burn.

So back to gas: If you consider the world's liveable surface to be one big bag of air and water, it really doesn't matter where or how any fossil fuels are being burned. It all hurts the ecology.

The question then becomes whether your lifestyle thus far holds an equal demand, through all channels no matter how indirectly, to the global average demand for gas or petrol, etc. per person.

Russia burning gas is clearly a waste in that no-one gets any benefit from it, but it would have been burned anyway if it was used for heating homes. The fact that it (and any fossil fuel/ harming chemical) been extracted at all is the root problem, and for that we're all responsible.

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    I think the idea that anything that has touched it is also now poisoned (complicit) is tenuous. But, at least you're addressing the ethics of the question, unlike most the other answers, so +1.
    – user10479
    Sep 7, 2022 at 14:05
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    I also think it's a little quick to separate "brand new car purchase" from all others as a meaningful distinction in this argument.
    – user10479
    Sep 7, 2022 at 14:07
  • In most cases where "we're all responsible" someone finds a solution that everyone can use. For example, light bulb meant not burning various things for light, motive power, etc (early generating plants were hydro). We cannot all fix this, just like we can't all perform surgery. So who will do what to make it happen?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 1:25
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    @ScottRowe I guess like her or not, that's what Greta Thunberg is trying to do. I think more productive ways of doing that would be to welcome new cleaner technologies and perhaps new paradigms like "you can no longer expect to be able to use energy like you did in1985, without a second thought". If it were one person .. Elon Musk? Lol I don't know maybe it would be one movement or one political leadership that paves the way. Nov 2, 2022 at 13:40
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    Just looking at this again in 2023.. I agree with the comments above, as they show it's not that easy a thing to untangle. May 12, 2023 at 9:20
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This is your mind trying to work around the fact that everything needs to change in order to combat climate change.

So no more flying, no meat, no car -not even a Tesla- and definitely do not get more than two kids.

(Putler is actually speeding up the transition to green energy with these gas prices.)

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  • Also, no clothes, no house, no breathing, and definitely no humans.
    – user10479
    Sep 7, 2022 at 14:00
  • How do children specifically add to CO2 (besides breathing, which everyone does)?
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 1:19
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    Speaking of Tesla: New Prius Helps Environment By Killing Its Owner - The Onion
    – qwr
    Sep 8, 2022 at 3:36
  • Lovely Prius :D @ScottRowe If you think about childrens lifetime CO2 emissions it's roughly: average C02 emissions per capita per year in the US is 15 tonnes * life expectancy of 80 years = 1200 tonnes of CO2 per kid.
    – Casper
    Sep 8, 2022 at 7:15
  • Sure. We could save a lot on geriatric care right now. In fact, you just seem to be taking up space here... Ha ha :-) But kids in other countries contribute less CO2. "Some are more equal than others."
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 10:22
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I'd say it's a question of whether or not you think the earth is doomed already (because of Russia, among other things).

If so then there's no ethical dilemma I can see. The ship has struck an iceberg, broken in half, and is on the way to the bottom in the frozen seas with no life boats and no help anywhere. We are definitely doomed. Is it unethical for you to drill a hole in the boat? Eh. It's probably fine. You can't possibly make things worse.

If we're not doomed then yes there's an ethical problem. Russia has fired a cannon and put a hole in the side of the ship. But the pumps are going and the ship might well still be saved. Is it ethical for you to drill more holes in the ship? Your holes are smaller, after all. But you'll be adding to the problem and while your lone drill hole probably won't spell the difference between doom and not-doom, every passenger on the ship making their own hole would be a bigger problem than Russia's cannonball, so now the sinking ship is your fault, too.

(Probably a good lesson here on the messaging of climate change. We should worry, but if we are convinced we're doomed beyond hope then eh, "do what you want, won't be any humans left to care in 100 years no matter what you do".)

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  • Well, deliberately wasting lots of fuel seems different from people using fuel in the same way they have all along (assuming they were trying to be reasonably efficient). Exhorting everyone to change their individual behavior when it was not previously considered 'wrong' doesn't seem the same as someone deliberately doing something everyone knows is wrong. To use the wallet analogy, finding money on the sidewalk is not the same thing as robbing a bank.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 8, 2022 at 17:32

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