Searching for Free Will in Climate Change

The wind was chilly, assignments were still to be finished, and the tents were gloomy. Fossil Free Stanford, our university's movement to divest from companies in the fossil fuel industry, was holding its long-awaited sit-in in front of the President's office, and it was by no means a glamorous affair.

Student activism is often slammed as idealistic and out of touch with reality, and Fossil Free Stanford is no exception. But perhaps our delusional, starry-eyed gaze into the future isn't all that ridiculous. Rather, the current policy discussion of how to manage and distribute climate change's costs, playing out in Paris and across our newspapers, completely misses the point. Instead of applying cost-benefit calculus, we should use instead climate change's effect on our abilities to live meaningful lives as our criterion.

Climate change is a responsibility all of society, not just our leaders, bears in relation to our innate human values, not our markets or our bottom lines. Climate change, without action, will limit our capacity for faith in the future and thus our free will. To preserve our future freedoms, we should fight climate change specifically when it manifests itself as oppression on human behavior.

The possibility of unrestricted choices and action can come about only if one has faith in the future, namely an imagined future scenario where those choices are made and actions are done. It is impossible to achieve true free will without the requisite political, social, or economic opportunities to achieve this freedom of personal choice. But opportunities are only useful is if people believe they will lead to better outcomes.

More generally, humans are only able to freely choose personal values or goals if they have faith in the future, and not necessarily of the religious kind. People can only choose moral values if they can envision a future where society does abide by those values. Similarly, people can only set up personal goals if they can place their faith in a future where they have achieved that goal. In this way, present actions have purpose--the belief in a better future means belief in present choices' ability to lead to a better future. Only then do we have free will--if we are able to open ourselves up to faith that something better exists.

We know the whole climate change shebang: our arable land has been irrevocably depleted, food demand is skyrocketing, farmers will have less predictable agricultural seasons, and shifts in land productivity inevitably lead to migration and conflict. But the point is that climate change-induced conflict may take on a fever pitch and open the possibility to renewed ethnic conflict or international warfare. Without investment in new technologies, this certainly isn't inconceivable. Islamic State fighters have already shut off dams to starve regions of their means of living, and India and Pakistan fight over Kashmir not only because of ideological war, but because it's the source of the life-giving but increasingly unreliable Indus River. Struggles over resources certainly have always motivated conflict, but climate change may intensify this resource motive beyond present belief.

This kind of violence negates our ability to sustaining pursuit of personal goals. Fear for one's life always preempts concern for higher purpose, and constant survival becomes oppression on the mind's imaginative freedom. Individuals in conflict zones are forced to act in certain ways to survive in a situation for which they are usually not culpable. This harms faith in a future beyond conflict in the short run. And since climate change's destabilizing effects have only recently begun manifesting themselves and might only amplify in the future, individuals could very well lose their capacity for hope in a world after climate change, i.e. a world with peace.

But even in scenarios where climate change doesn't result in outright acts of violent aggression, it has already increased poverty. This undermines the extent to which people can live in meaningful ways. It transforms into psychological oppression. Due to already unstable crop yields and weather patterns, more and more individuals dedicate their lives to searching for the material means of living. Millions risk falling back into poverty, where there is no capacity to consider any personal goals beyond pure survival. Poverty thus undermines the faith people can have in the future, for poverty becomes all-consuming in a person's mind. And for those in poverty, attempts to escape from it are rebuffed by unpredictable environmental conditions around every corner. This may well demoralize individuals from trying to create goals for an imagined future beyond climate change-induced poverty, for without a reversal of current trends, the effects of climate change on the poor will only worsen.

While some present effects of climate change are likely irreversible, we know we can always change the course of predicted future climate change through a systematic change in present action and a devotion to investments in new energy technologies. Yet the world's current utilitarian attempt to compromise over what obligations to place on whom is misguided. Combating climate change, unlike competition for resources, is not a zero-sum game, for humanity's existence and ability to be free transcends concern of self-preservation at another group's expense. We can't get lost in the details of how to divvy up the burden among all the countries seated at the round table in Paris; it's a collective obligation. Climate change is manmade, and so man must stop it.

In Hebrews, the Bible calls faith "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." We must be able to imagine both to achieve higher aspirations, fulfill goals, and to be human. To have free will, we must also shoulder our responsibility to help free all those who are and will be oppressed by climate change. We are free only if our fellow woman and man, wherever they may be in this world, are free. Our negotiators in Paris should seriously commit to cutbacks in carbon emissions, yes, but all of humanity, from students at Stanford to beyond, must assume solidarity in struggling against what ultimately affects all of us.