Justifing the Export of Fossil Fuel


The Prime Minister of Australia, hereafter PMA, said these words on January 29, 2020 at an address that was broadcast nation-wide.


 “You will also not reduce the number of coal-fired stations in the world today by forcing the shutdown of Australian coal mines and Australian jobs that go with them. Other countries will just buy the coal from somewhere else, often poorer quality with greater environmental and climate impacts.”


Australia has a great deal of coal and it mines and exports a lot of it, very efficiently, and it earns a great deal of money by doing so. It is one of the world’s two largest coal exporters, supplying 30% of total exports. The industry employs a relatively small number of people in regional Australia, but they have an impact on national elections disproportionate to their numbers. All things being equal, coal is therefore a good thing, for which Australia should be grateful? But all things are not equal. Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, which is greenhouse gas and hence Australia is exporting a substance that others use to produce greenhouse gases. This raises the question as to whether we in Australia should therefore stop exporting (so much) coal, because greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut drastically if we are to stabilise the climate. Indeed, it seems that Australia should not export coal because we know that this contributes to climate change which is bad, and hence that it is wrong for Australia to export coal. The remarks made above are PMA’s response to this kind of charge. Is it convincing?


Shifting responsibility and blame is a tactic employed in many areas and in many guises, and it can particularly appealing when it is used to defend or promote the interests of a group, when the interests in question appear to entail actions that are some species of wrongdoing. Here are three ways to deflect blame and responsibility from an agent (or group) who does something wrong. The PMA’s response is a species of 3.


1.     If X is a wrongful act, action or practice, namely something that one should not therefore enact or take part it, does the (presumed) fact that others will step in and do X if we do not, mean that it is now justifiable to undertake X?




2.      If X is a wrongful act, action or practice, namely something that one should not therefore enact or take part it, does the (presumed) fact that others will step in and do X if we do not and the outcome is even worse that if we do it, mean that it is now justifiable to undertake X?




3.     If X is a wrongful act, action or practice, namely something that one should not therefore enact or take part it, does the (presumed) fact that others will step in and do X if we do not and the outcome be even worse that if we do it and if we thereby forgo benefits and incur costs be refraining from doing X, mean that it is now justifiable to undertake X?


At this point we could discuss the meaning of “wrong” and introduce an account of morality in order to make things a bit more formal (and we may well do so at some stage later on) but for the moment I want to address these responses without such analysis.


Looking first at 1, the suggestion is that if we know that X will be done or enacted anyway – it is not that X might be done or could be undertaken, there is assumed to be no uncertainty here – then we are justified in doing (or carrying on doing) X. To say that we are justified in doing X means that we are no longer guilty of wrongdoing. Here I will appeal to a philosopher’s distinction, between a ‘prima facie’ judgement and an ‘all things considered’ judgement’. The former, the ‘first made’ response, just looks at the action itself and judges whether an act of this kind is wrong, while the latter is the outcome of a full consideration all other relevant and possibly mitigating considerations. So the assumption here is that acts of kind X are wrongful; that is the prima facie response. The claim made in 1 is that when we realise that someone else would do X, then it is no longer wrong to do X because the outcome will, after all, be the same.


This is surely not at all convincing. If a harmful act will be committed regardless, it still matters to me that I am the one who does the deed, because I am both responsible for doing X and to blame for doing X. That there are other actors waiting in the wings is not relevant. Here is an example which makes it clear that blame cannot be avoided simply because there are others prepared to do X. Suppose A has a reliable supply of cheap alcohol, transport and a license to sell to members of remote communities of indigenous people. What A does is legal, but A knows full well of the evil effects of alcohol on there individuals and on their communities as a whole, and knows the significance of such communities on maintaining traditional ways of life that are undermined by alcoholism. The supply of alcohol is uncontestably the wrong thing to do and A knows it. But A maintains that she is not to blame for any wrongdoing because if she did not supply alcohol, then someone else would take up the license and continue the practice. I think, I certainly hope, it is clear that A is indeed to blame for destroying the individual and community life.


It might be thought that this example would only be convincing if it were illegal to sell alcohol to the indigenous people. We shall now see that this qualification is not necessary to make the point, and in so doing reinforce the conclusion that A is guilty. It is possible contrive a whole range of examples in which A attempts to justify her (now)  criminal behaviour by saying that someone else would muscle in on her operation if she quit. We can imagine that A runs a protection racket, fences stolen property, scams old-age pensioners, pushes drugs, or whatever. These things are clearly wrong because others are harmed, and there is no justification for inflicting such harms, certainly not by pointing out that other gangs would take over if A pulled out. It is not, however, that what A does is against the law that is the essence of her wrongdoing: it is what she does that it is wrong and what she does is against the law because it is wrong.


We are now in a position to address the qualifications added in 2 and 3, and we will see that these are also unconvincing. Turning to 2, the suggestion is that when the ‘all things considered judgement’ takes into account that A does X in such a way that causes less harm than would be the case were A to desist and others take over, then this is a (an additional) reason for A to be held blameless. This may seem to make a difference. If one outcome is worse than another, and we are able to ensure that the lesser of the two evils occurs, then should we not do so? The suggestion may now seem to be that one really ought to act, not merely that acting is not blameworthy.


The issue here depends on the kind of relationship which holds between the agent and the outcome. If X1 and X2 are the two outcomes, with the former being the lesser evil, then if A does X she thereby causes X1 to come about. On this basis she is responsible for the outcome and, given that it is harmful, we hold A to account and judge that she is blameworthy. But if A desists and some other actor steps in, then A does not thereby cause X2, someone else does, and that other actor is then to be blamed. Circumstances are such that A has a choice as to which outcome eventuates, depending on whether she acts or refrains from acting, but she is only responsible for what she does, for how she acts.


This example is interesting, for the following reason: normally an agent is held responsible for the choices she makes because these lead to outcomes that affect others, and if such effects are harmful, we hold the agent to account for her choice. This is because in normal circumstances the agent’s choices have different and distinct causal consequences that tie them to outcomes and so underpin judgements of responsibility. Here, by contrast, A can only be said to choose which outcome eventuates if it is given that another will take her place if she desists. But she does not choose for the other agent to take her place in the sense that this is not what she wants or intends. Some hold that agents can be responsible for what they omit to do as well as what they actually do do. According to this viewpoint, agents can be responsible for outcomes that they do not cause. I mention this but will not discuss it further here, as A is not omitting to do X, rather she is desisting from doing X, and that is a different issue.


Now we come to the additional qualification mentioned in 3, which can also be dismissed. If A’s wellbeing and that of her family, friends, associates, dependents, clients, etc., will suffer if she does not continue to do X, then this is not a reason to exonerate her. This is true even if A’s dependents are entirely deserving. Going back to the example of the seller of alcohol to the indigenous communities: if A uses all her profits to fund charities and other worthy causes, this does not allow the harms that her activities causes to be offset. This example may seem strange – why should A do good works when she also deliberately does harm? - but I am constructing an example that is similar to coal exporting. The principle here is that it is wrong to harm innocent people, regardless of what of the further consequences there might be. 




I will now return to the quotation by the PMA and discuss it in the light of our analysis of 1-3. Australia exports coal which is burned in coal-fired power stations and this produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the gas which has been responsible of most of human-induced global warming. When individual and sectional interests are set aside, there is virtually universal consensus that we must stop burning fossil fuels like coal if we are to reduce the effects of climate change and avoid some of the more catastrophic consequences. The effects of climate change are not local, in that they are not, for example, restricted to the neighbourhood of a coal-fired power station. The carbon dioxide that the latter produces is added to the world’s stock of the gas. Furthermore, the effects of climate change are not uniform, in that they can be severe in some parts of the world and less so in others. So, burning coal does not simply to harm those it benefits, it harms others who are innocent in the sense that they are not in any way connected to the process that causes the harm and do not deserve to be harmed. Burning coal is therefore a species of wrongdoing, and so is exporting coal for profit in the full knowledge of what it will be used for.


The PMA says that if Australia does not export coal someone else will do so instead. I assume this is intended as a justification for continuing the practice in the face of criticism that it is wrong, given the present state of the climate. If so, then it should be dismissed for the same reason that we have dismissed all such attempts to justify wrongdoing by claiming that the wrongdoing will continue regardless of what ‘we’ do. Agents are responsible for their own actions, not for those of others, so (potential) wrongdoing by others cannot offset and cancel ‘our’ wrongdoing. This was made clear by the examples given above.


The next attempt at justification by the PMA is that those who would step in would export lower quality coal, the assumption being that the outcome of burning this coal would be worse, for an as yet unspecified reason, than it would be for Australian coal – one assumes more pollutants would be produced. These effects could be local and affect only those who burn the coal, as would mostly be the case if the coal had high sulphur content. If that were true, the qualification would be irrelevant because the ‘inferior’ coal would not contribute more to the problem that is the seat of the wrongdoing, namely increase in greenhouse gas. So I assume that this is not the issue, and that the alternative inferior coal does somehow lead to more greenhouse gas. What of this?


The approach taken here is to breakdown the PMA’s statement on coal exports into three parts and address each in turn. That statement is carefully crafted to be as persuasive as possible, beginning with the claim that if Australia does not export coal, someone else will and then quickly moving on to the two further considerations designed to reinforce the point. But if the first claim fails, then so do the other two because the extra considerations do not change the fact that the first claim fails to evade the charge of wrongdoing. And this fails because all attempts to justify the status quo on the grounds that others would step in and continue the wrongful actions fail. However, it may appear that the second consideration amounts to a different argument in favour of coal exporting, namely that that supplying Australian coal prevents the situation getting worse.


If an agent has to choose between two course of action, both of which have harmful outcomes, then she should choose the ‘lesser evil’. It is hard to dispute that proposition. But Australia and its government is not forced to choose between two courses of action: it does not have to export good quality coal or export poor quality coal. If it is granted that poor quality coal will indeed be exported to take up the market share, then there will be outcome worse that the status quo. But this will not be Australia’s responsibility: this is not a ‘choose the lesser evil’ situation. What needs to be done, in practical terms, is to convince all nations that export coal that it is wrong for them to do so, and that they should stop.


Finally, the PMA points to the loss of Australian jobs, and the implied hardship that goes with that outcome. This issue did not require much discussion, for it is clearly wrong for there to be an industry whose output is harmful. Of course, it has only been apparent relatively recently that global warming is a real danger that has to be addressed and that burning fossil fuel must come to an end. So what it necessary is for the jobs in the coal industry to be replaced by others, as has happened in many other parts of the world.