(Redrafted from 2014)
Philosophical reflection on climate change and the ecocrisis assumes three guises. The oldest and broadest is environmental ethics. Environmental ethics concerns questions of right and wrong about the human relationship to the natural environment. Climate change matters to environmental ethics as part of a larger whole, as expression and symptom of the ecocrisis. Environmental ethics deals with its topic by applying mainstream ethical theory. Yet it resists reduction to a normative application. It is also a foundational extension of traditional, continental, and comparative approaches, namely those that concern the meaning of life, the interplay of humans and world, and the problem of culture. Analytic and continental philosophers work in environmental ethics side by side; continental approaches seem to dominate.
The second type of philosophical reflection is climate ethics. Its first publications are about twenty-five years old and hit its stride less than ten years ago. Its roots go back to philosophy of law rather than to environmental ethics, and generally to analytic philosophy rather than continetal philosophy. The theoretical apparatus of the mainstream of this research program, or its analytic majority, has strong connections to British moral philosophy. With regard to its subject, climate ethics is the opposite of environmental ethics. Climate change matters as the context of the ecocrisis for environmental ethics, but the ecocrisis matters as the context of climate change for climate ethics. If environmental ethicists are philosophers who reason like naturalists, then climate ethicists will be philosophers who think like lawyers and arbiters.
The third and newest type is climate philosophy. That's my stick, and I've published on this for the past five, six years. It's close to environmental ethics and climate ethics but also different from either. In one sense it is broader than either of them, because in climate philosophy questions of ethics take a backseat to questions of existence. Questions of existence are the four classic questions formulated by Kant (in Critique of Pure Reason and in Logic): What do or can we know? What should we do? What may we hope? And what does or shall it mean to be human? They shift the focus of climate-arelated inquiry to culture, its social structures, its ideological outlook, and its economic design. The focus is trained towards the future, in particular with regard to the socioeconomic shift (which I call civil evolution) implied by a successful re-adaptation to planetary boundaries and environmental services, such as the carbon cycle.
In another sense climate philosophy is more specific than either environmental ethics or climate ethics, but this may have to do with the fact that climate philosophy is a niche pursuit. (Things have a way of broadening out when research programs expand.) The specific feature is that it proceeds from the premise that conventional ways of reasoning are historically implicated in having brough the crisis about; that they are part of the problem, and unlikely to be part of the solution. In other words, the premise is that climate change signals an environmental threshold crossing that will usher in a paradigm shift. The normal ways aren't working anymore, and there's a reason why this is so. To philosophers, this constitutes an opportunity--and imposes a responsibility--to think outside the box.