I am a senior at Gonzaga University (’18) from New York, New York. I took Dr. Henning’s Global Climate Change Ethics class in Fall 2017. I am studying Political Science and Criminal Justice. This essay was a reflection on my experience in Dr. Henning’s class where I confronted issues of political partisanship as they relate to climate change and morality.
I have always been critical of the core curriculum at Gonzaga. I search for value in the classes that I am required to take and I am often left wondering how they will pertain to my life outside of academia. Sometimes I am able to find that value immediately, other times it takes awhile, but only once has a class ever left me feeling that it had been entirely pointless or invaluable to life outside of college. After that experience I was frustrated with the University and the entire concept of “core requirements”. That said, I picked Global Climate Change Ethics carefully. I wanted my final philosophy class to add value to my life or at least relate to my concentration and vocational aspirations. I also kept in mind that I am generally a libertarian with deep conservative values walking into a class with a title almost as liberal sounding as “Women and Gender Studies”. I was unsure of my thoughts on climate change; I don’t understand science and I generally don’t try to form opinions on things that I know little about. Even so, I hoped my questions would be answered and solutions would be offered. And of course, the “libertarian” in me would only take those questions seriously if they could be answered with unbiased information. The first half of this course answered all of my questions and more, while the remainder of the semester had an impact on my life unlike any class before.
As previously mentioned, I avoid forming opinions before understanding the facts of the topic to a certain degree. I have heard my grandparents make the argument that global warming cannot be true if it is snowing or polar bears still have ice to walk on. I’ve heard that it’s just part of the liberal agenda (not relevant, but perhaps still true) or some crazy scheme otherwise. I have also heard the exaggerated doomsday “we will all answer to God soon” side, or the preaching vegan that can do no wrong. Looking back, I think I avoided this topic because it is so hard to take the surface arguments seriously and the thought of walking into a classroom for fifteen weeks listening to it sounded hellish. How could I find value in something that no one can even properly argue about? The first class discussion made me feel more comfortable immediately. For once, I found a professor who could openly recognize that there is more than one side to the story. He emphasized that as a class, we should get used to the controversy and even invited discussion. Throughout the semester I realized that it is because the “sides” don’t matter. The scientific facts and the consilience of the evidence are enough to prove the severity of the problem. At the very least, climate change is a problem every single person is going to face eventually. As we learned, however, science does not offer the sufficient solution I had hoped for in my free write.
While science answered most of my original questions, I have been left with more unanswered questions that pertain to “real life” than I know what to do with. Until the last class I still wondered whether individual action would make a difference to the situation. For a long time I have followed a personal philosophy of taking as little from the world as I realistically can. Does it matter that I’ve never learned to drive because I refuse to take part in pollution for personal convenience? Does it matter that I do not eat meat? I do so many of the things that we are told will keep our footprint to a minimum and I have faced the challenges and arguments that come with that long before I had the facts that I do now. However this class has been the only time I have seen the power of the individual legitimately challenged for its worth in the world. Understanding climate change is only the beginning of a complicated solution. I was ignorant to the depth of this problem and not only am I left to grapple with the physical effects of climate change, but its implications on society, relationship with the earth, the value of life in all forms and how humans are supposed to proceed based on how we define and relate to those things. Studying geoengineering and stewardship in particular led many of us to the conclusion that we cannot leave the issue of climate change entirely up to the individual, as much as it pains me to say. I have been forced to face the idea that my efforts to keep my footprint to a minimum are simply inaction disguised as action. While it has been comforting to think I have been helping the world in some way, I am facing the reality that even though individual action may not be worth much, it is the only thing one can do to “help” as the debate drags on.
At first I was discouraged by feeling powerless as an individual, which will likely frustrate me for a long time. However that frustration is a reflection of the practical and ethical values and dilemmas that I have taken from this course that I will continue to confront long after college.