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‘I think therefore I am … a climate activist’: Philosophy in times of crisis

Kian Mintz-Woo. Image: Tomas Tyner
Kian Mintz-Woo. Image: Tomas Tyner

‘Perhaps the most valuable thing you can do for the climate is just to talk about it with others,’ argues UCC philosopher Dr Kian Mintz-Woo.

“My life has been defined by curiosity,” says Dr Kian Mintz-Woo, when asked what inspired him to become a researcher.

Mintz-Woo is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and an affiliate of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork (UCC).

“I want to know what the world is like and what can be done. Furthermore, I tend to think about things at a high level and abstractly, so philosophy is my natural home,” he says.

Alongside his research, which looks at moral and social issues related to climate policy, Mintz-Woo is also a member of the Irish Government’s Carbon Budgets Working Group, where he helps to propose and support national planning.

He has degrees from the universities of British Columbia, Oxford, Reading and Amsterdam, as well as UCC, and completed his PhD in moral philosophy at the University of Graz in Austria.

Here, Mintz-Woo explains how his research intersects with scientific work on the climate crisis and why philosophers are well-placed to translate scientific imperatives into greener behaviours.

Tell us about your current research.

When we emit, the effects are not equally distributed around the world. Those who contribute the most to climate change (the wealthy in the Global North) are generally not those who suffer the worst effects (the developing regions in the Global South). This means that climate change raises issues of morality and injustice.

My research tries to engage with some of these issues. What kinds of policies, such as carbon taxes, could help discourage unsustainable choices? (I think there is a strong case for these kinds of policies, partially because if we make emitting free, society pays the costs and not the polluters.) Could we share the revenue for these policies to make them fairer? What arguments could be made to fund carbon capture and storage technologies? What considerations of justice might be relevant to climate change? And is climate change a societal risk?

To develop these questions of justice, I work with scientific colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a research centre that develops work that is useful to governments for policy purposes. IIASA actually has a fascinating history because it was the neutral location for scientific research during the Cold War for eastern and western scientists to coordinate.

Since I am interested in work that contributes to good policy, I am working on justice in carbon budgeting for the Irish Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council. This involves examining the moral assumptions used in the Irish Government’s carbon budgets.

I also think that the best research reflects the best students. I direct UCC’s master’s in health and society, which combines philosophy, economics and public health to prepare students for roles in health policy, advocacy and administration, where I teach on philosophy and health and the ethics of death and dying.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Climate change is an incredibly complicated subject, requiring familiarity with a variety of disciplines and research programmes. My view is that philosophers are well-placed to synthesise these different streams and, in my own work, I have tried to maintain this high-level coordination role.

In terms of impact, I am already seeing results – I have attended two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change COP meetings, where I have argued that engagement is important. I have also contributed to policy advocacy in ways that I hope push society towards greener and more just decisions.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

The first is that people think that policies exist that discourage emissions and are free. For instance, some people think that it’s free to have car emissions standards, but if they are working, they mean that manufacturers will build cars differently than they would without the standards. Those differences will generally cost money and generally raise the price of cars. My point is not that this is a bad thing, my point is that more explicit pricing schemes, like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, are doing the same thing as more familiar climate regulations – but, and this is critical, they do so systematically and with more transparency.

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The second is that people think that carbon pricing policies would never work. Yet, we have existing ones that do work (eg in British Columbia, Canada and Sweden). Furthermore, we have a wide variety of evidence that if you tax things people will use them less (eg alcohol or tobacco taxes).

Finally, not pricing things does not make them free – it just means that society pays for them in other ways (like fighting fires in Canada or Australia or building seawalls in Florida or the Netherlands).

Do you think public engagement with science and data has changed in recent years?

This is a really important question. I think that Covid-19 taught us something important: people can act to protect others, and can do so quickly. For many people, getting vaccinated or wearing masks was less about protecting yourself than about making sure there was social protection (especially for those who are elderly or those who have weak immune systems and cannot take vaccines themselves). In some ways, climate change is like that: countries need to act partially to protect more vulnerable countries, countries which are often both poorer and without the infrastructure to protect themselves. I think those are heartening lessons and I hope we transfer them to other ways of protecting the vulnerable.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I think that people are really curious about climate change. In fact, perhaps the most valuable thing one can do for climate is just to talk about it with others. My students (whether in our MA or in our general philosophy modules) are really engaged in understanding about applied ethics – they want to know what principles we can use to guide our decisions and what arguments support various positions.

So, I feel like encouraging engagement with my work is like pushing on an open door. Climate ethics are too important to be ignored; all we need is for people to consider these issues and see how they can bring them into their own lives.