Lecture 9: Why Is Climate Action So Hard?

This event is part of the Berlin Science Week

For the better part of four decades, national leaders and their citizens have been warned that human activities are causing our planet to heat up – and that, if we do not change our ways, our descendants will have to cope with a harsh – possibly uninhabitable – environment.  Despite repeated messages, very little has been done.  Even when there are apparent successes, as with the 2015 Paris agreement, the targets set for reduction in emission of greenhouse gases have been inadequate.  Since then, very few of the signatories are pursuing trajectories that will allow them to come close to attaining the goals to which they have committed themselves.

Climate action has been sporadic, and far too slow.  Why?  The obvious answer: distrust of the science.  Yet, even in places where the scientific findings have been accepted, and even as skepticism is waning, the response remains sluggish.  I suggest two main causes.  First, current inequalities, within and between nations, generate a four-sided dilemma (or quadrilemma).  Besides the impact on future generations, many nations and many people reasonably fear that their own futures will be devastated by the kinds of action proposed, unless serious efforts are made to protect and aid them – and they do not expect those efforts to be made.  Second, the probabilistic character of the decision problem, coupled to our ignorance of the crucial probabilities (both now and in the foreseeable future), fosters the illusion that the safest course is not to modify the status quo.

The lecture will present the predicament, explain the two main causes of inaction, and offer some proposals for making progress.  The best hope for a remedy would be to organize a world-wide venture in deliberative democracy, in which the quadrilemma was systematically confronted, and attempts were made to satisfy all constituencies.  It is almost certain that any solution will not only have to revive democracy at the most fundamental level, and also mitigate the character of contemporary global capitalism.


Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. Before, he taught at the University of California, San Diego, and of Minnesota.  Early in his career, he was primarily interested in philosophy of mathematics and general philosophy of science.  During the late 1970s, he became very concerned with the philosophy of biology. That concern led him to investigate not only conceptual and methodological issues in biology, but also questions about the relations of biological research to society and politics. During the 1990s, his interests broadened further to embrace the role of scientific inquiry in democratic societies. Since coming to Columbia, that line of investigation has been further elaborated in relation to pragmatism (especially William James and John Dewey). Part of this work advances a program for naturalistic ethics (one he takes to be Deweyan in spirit).  He has also developed a program of research in philosophical themes in literature and music, focusing so far on Joyce and Wagner, and, in a recent book, on Thomas Mann and Mahler.


Philip Kitcher “Can we sustain democracy and the planet, too?”, in Janet Kourany and Martin Carrier (eds),  Science and the production of Ignorance, MIT Press, 2020, 89-120

Philip Kitcher “How to play Russian Roulette”, Los Angeles Review of Bookshttps://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/play-russian-roulette/

Philip Kitcher The Seasons Alter: How to Save the Human Future in Six Acts, (co-authored with Evelyn Fox Keller), W.W. Norton (Liveright): April 2017


PERITIA launched a series of public lectures  around the topic of ‘[Un]Truths: Trust in an Age of Disinformation’. Read more about the upcoming lectures here.


2 November 2021

4 PM Dublin
5 PM Berlin
7 PM Yerevan


Online event

Open to the public; registration mandatory

Register here