By Justin Donhauser (Rotman Institute of Philosophy)
At a conference of environmental ethicists some years ago, I somewhat nervously introduced myself to J. Baird Callicott—a central figure in environmental ethics and hero to many working in environmental philosophy and science. After some discussion about his work, and mine, and the future of environmental philosophy, Callicott gestured toward Andrew Light and said to me: “Philosophers would be doing a lot more for the world, if we were all trying to do what he’s been doing.”
You see, much of Light’s work focuses on finding pragmatic ways to improve peoples’ lives through responses to mounting environmental challenges. Where many philosophers try to motivate environmentalist efforts by attempting to convince us that we have moral obligations to nature and animals, Light’s work is significant and unique because he underscores the fact that environmental problems are problems for people. Where many others lament the great tragedies of environmental degradation, and paint our world as one in which humanity is doomed, Light urges that it’s more profitable to approach “environmental problems” as challenges and opportunities; opportunities to improve the quality of peoples’ lives and to build better communities and social institutions through initiatives that facilitate political participation and community engagement.
What is also exceptional about “what Light’s been doing” is that he has effectively led by example in showing us how philosophers and other “academics” can apply their strengths in problem-solving and argumentation quite directly to help solve critical practical and ethical problems. This is, by getting actively involved in problem-solving processes and working with organizations and scientists, economists, and politicians, who are attending to problems of social significance. Most notably, Light has done this by embedding himself in political institutions and processes with potential to have a massive, and unprecedented, positive impact on people’s lives all over the world.
Serving as Senior Adviser to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, and as a climate adviser in the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning, Light has helped bring about international acknowledgment that climate change is an ethical issue; and one that requires addressing critical issues of fairness and distributive justice. In his advisory roles, he’s also had a hand in the (very very long) process leading to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement reached in 2015 in Paris, which is: the largest organized international response to the impacts of global climate change; in every sense the biggest environmental agreement ever; and the first legally binding international agreement requiring international cooperation in actively addressing experienced injustices (“losses and damages”) due to climate change.
In my view, the Paris Agreement is a historic success. It is supported by nearly 190 countries. It lays a foundation for making substantive progress on building the international sociopolitical infrastructure needed to appropriately respond to losses and damages that are being, and will be, experienced due to climate change. And I believe it lays a solid foundation for making substantive progress on addressing many grave distributive justice issues. Of course, whether the Agreement is a success is contentious, and whether we should be optimistic that it will actually facilitate the realization of positive changes at the international level is hotly debated.
In his upcoming talk, Light will provide some insider’s insight into the bumpy and complex sociopolitical process of bringing the Paris Agreement to fruition, and discuss his views on the significance and potential outcomes of the agreement.
Image credit: Paris by Roy Cheung