The Measure of a Fog: Ethics

Climate change is a technological and political challenge the likes of which humankind has never before seen. It’s also a moral problem.

Years ago, the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced the notion of “enlarged thought” — the idea that we can only truly comprehend the world if we are able to step outside of our own subjective understanding of it and consider the experiences of others. It’s a notion that has great currency in the debate over climate change, and the social and cultural inertia that has left us struggling to address it.

In this multi-part series, filmmaker Ian Cheney examines the scale of climate change, in all its many dimensions

In this multi-part series, filmmaker Ian Cheney examines the scale of climate change, in all its many dimensions. Click the play button in the video above to view the short documentary.

“It is hard for us to spend a whole lot of time thinking about, and caring about, what’s going on with other people.”

Enlarging our thoughts in an era of climate change would mean, for example, including future generations, faraway people, and non-human species in our everyday moral reckonings. And the imperatives for doing so are not hard to argue. Runaway warming will inevitably cause suffering in the world: ice melts, seas rise, coasts flood, people suffer.

But a sound argument doesn’t always translate into consistent moral behavior. How many of us take future generations, or the plight of individuals far away and unseen, into account on an everyday basis? “As creatures,” notes Yale political scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, “it is hard for us to spend a whole lot of time thinking about, and caring about, what’s going on with other people.”

Do we reach our empathetic limitations when we ask ourselves to grapple with a problem that stretches far beyond the visible horizon and deep into the future? Kant didn’t seem to think so — and as a filmmaker and documentarian, I guess I don’t either. I’m still hopeful that we can rise to this challenge, and that even those of us who are comparatively wealthy and comfortable by global standards — for whom climate change will register, at best, as a mere inconvenience for decades to come — are capable of enlarging our minds to consider the less lucky, the less culpable, and those generations yet unborn.

As storytellers, we need only to tune in and listen for those voices, and to repeat them.

To cynical minds, that surely sounds naïve and improbable — not least in an era when the moral drift appears to be lurching in the other direction, toward inwardness, tribalism, self-protection, and denial. But one needn’t look very far to identify countervailing forces and more compassionate voices the world over. Religious leaders from across the spectrum of beliefs, along with philosophers, ethicists, politicians, students, and ordinary people everywhere — they’re calling out, more forcefully and in larger numbers than ever before, for progress, for transitions, and for dedicated, collective action.

As storytellers, we need only to tune in and listen for those voices, and to repeat them.

I guess that’s ultimately what I am doing here with “The Measure of a Fog.” Climate change is such an enormous and complex problem, with challenges on scales that, as a species, we’ve never confronted before. That’s why, in the first episode of this series, I suggested that the problem — a vast, interlocking puzzle of science and probability, culture and politics, wealth and poverty, and of energy, space, time — demands “a great stretching of our minds.” It does.

But as the series comes to a close, it strikes me that we might face an even more essential challenge than that: the need for a great stretching of our hearts.

Top visual: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Barcro/Barcroft Media/Getty
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4 comments / Join the Discussion

    Science has know for a century. Climate scientists have been actively warning for decades now. Media analysis clearly shows widespread public opinion manipulation since the 1980’s at least. All advertiser funded news organizations are complicit in learned ignorance. The ethical lapse is in citizens who enjoy a type of apocalyptic cornucopianism. Since we feel no pain now, why bother with the true victims – future generations.
    Our politically correct moral passivity prevents any forceful command of the future.
    There is a thought experiment in morality that asks if someone was forced to choose between sacrificing a young family versus a fat old guy. An easy choice to make. However, when the task is to physically contact another human in sacrifice so that many others would live – strangely, humans are struck by an ethical paralysis.
    Unless humans are willing to forcefully unite to assure life support, this spells a self inflicted suffering for all our children. They will be forced to decide to act with ruthless resolve that we could never recognize. Even now. with scenarios, the only way doom is assured is by inaction.
    I’m old, I’ll probably miss out in seeing how this resolves, but in the next century, there will be very few humans on this planet. Their lives and culture will be unrecognizable. These are really, really interesting times.


    Great comment Nicholas! I’d encourage you to check out Climate Connections – a series of 90-second stories broadcast each day on more than 300 radio stations nationwide. It’s also available as a podcast and at the website below.

    Climate Connections tells the stories of people across the nation who are not only suffering the impacts, but innovating the solutions here and now, connecting the dots between global climate change and our daily lives and values. Check it out!


    Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve been on the hunt for something of that nature.


    This video series has been great – truly thought provoking and I’m glad to see the full complexity of the climate change crisis being brought to light. However, I’m concerned that there was too much focus on the massive, unfathomable scope of the problem. While it’s true that the problem is massively complex, I think it’s important for those who are concerned about climate change – young people especially – to understand that it’s not unsolvable. Yes, it’s important to come with with big ideas for a big problem. But no one big idea, and no small collection of big ideas, is going to be capable of completely addressing the climate change crisis. What we need is an infinite number of small ideas, small solutions, small tweaks to business models and ways of living. Climate change was caused by a massive tangle of smaller, seemingly far removed decisions that combined to form the fog that you outline in this video series. I believe that climate change will be solved in the same way – with tons of tiny solutions that may seem unrelated.

    I think it’s important to bring to light just how important every individual small step is toward a more sustainable world system. It’s important to inspire young people to seek careers that may seem to pale in comparison to the scope of the issue, but that will have a tangible impact on solving the problem. We can’t try to tackle the issue all at once, and it worries me that most of the discourse around climate change seems to center around how massive of a problem it is and how hard it’s going to be to solve.

    I’d like to see a follow up series that focuses on tangible things people can do in their everyday lives to begin solving the climate crisis. Illuminate career paths, business models, real-world examples of small-scale success stories. Realizing the complexity of climate change is important, but if we’re concerned about solving it – we must scale down the scope of the problem.

    How about a series that inspires and empowers people to do their part? That provides exemplars for young people to follow, that both offers new small scale solutions that can be adopted by an average person, and brings to light solutions already being adopted? The problem is big, but the solutions will be small, they will be many, and only when viewed from afar as a collective entity will they be appear to be a fog.

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Ian Cheney


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