Philosophy 192 - 10.2.1 The Emerging Crisis

Humans directly and indirectly change and shape the natural world. Our reliance on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, for example, releases a key greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), into the air as a result. Greenhouse gases trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in changes in the planet’s climate. The two countries that produce the most CO2 are the United States and China. The United States is the biggest gasoline consumer in the world, using approximately 338 million gallons of gasoline per day. China is the biggest coal consumer, burning approximately three billion tons of coal in 2020—more than half of the worldwide total consumption of coal. Our demand for the energy provided by fossil fuels to power our industries, heat our homes, and make possible travel between distant locations is the main factor that has contributed to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Human activities have had and continue to have significant impacts on the natural world. The term anthropogenic climate change refers to changes in Earth’s climate caused or influenced by human activity. Severe weather and natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity because of the changing climate. As just one example, record-setting wildfires were experienced in recent years in both the United States and Australia. In a span of just five years (2017–2021), the United States experienced four of the most severe and deadliest wildfires in its history, all of which occurred in California: the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2020 Bay Area Fire, and the 2021 Dixie Fire. In 2020, Australia experienced its most catastrophic bushfire season when roughly 19 million hectares burned, destroying over three thousand homes and killing approximately 1.25 billion animals.

Distant view of the landscape with enormous clouds of smoke rising from fires burning on the ground.
Figure 10.7 The wildfires that affected Australia in 2020 are one among many effects of climate change that have harmed both human and animal life in recent years. (credit: “Australian Wildfires” by National Interagency Fire Center/Flickr, Public Domain)

Environmental ethics is an area of applied ethics that attempts to identify right conduct in our relationship with the nonhuman world. For decades, scientists have expressed concern about the short- and long-term effects that human activities are having on the climate and Earth’s ecosystems. Many philosophers argue that in order to change our behaviors in ways that result in healing of the natural world, we need to change our thinking about the agency and value of the nonhuman elements (including plants, animals, and even entities such as rivers and mountains) that share the globe with us.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax