First, a bit of news: the Kyoto Protocol is dead. Even Tony Blair, one of the treaty’s godparents, has abandoned hope. Bjorn Lomborg, the Skeptical Environmentalist, has estimated that the treaty, for all its suffocating controls on growth and emissions that would cost at least $150 billion a year, will ultimately postpone the rising temperatures only a year or two.
Yet Kyoto has become a moral test. People who can’t be bothered to ponder the importance of marriage as an institution, or worry about murderous regimes like that of North Korea, daily work themselves into righteous indignation about the weather.
Second, a commentary on the famine in Niger. Some claim global warming is the culprit. Indirectly – so the argument goes – the rich industrial nations are destroying Niger’s climate, and victimizing Niger’s starving people.
Is that true? Nobody knows. No evidence has been presented in support of this proposition. Why not? I don’t know, but I suspect that, in certain circles, rich-country villainy and poor-country victimhood is taken for a self-evident truth. In this case, moralizing about the weather can be seen as a reflexive act, no more grounded on evidence than a facial tic.
Third and last, an ironic twist. I pretty much hate irony, and this is no exception: the UN Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a rich-country cabal if ever there was one, banned a pesticide that could have controled the plague of locusts laying waste to Niger today. So it may be that the environmentalists who are twitching over global warming’s effect in Niger, are (indirectly, to be sure) to blame for the starvation there.
The moral of the story is that morality becomes distorted, sometimes into its opposite, when aimed reflexively at complex questions of causation, with distant consequences. Large, historical problems – the environment, the poor, the pandemics of AIDS and malaria – tempt us with the wish that, if only right-thinkers would accumulate great power over many people, they could impose a solution. In fact, of course, the solution to every moral problem, large or small, must be worked out one human being at a time.