Demonstrators at the UN Climate Change Wall Street protest.

Credit: Alex Feldman

As election day draws near, it’s to important think about the environmental impact of your vote in Pennsylvania. It is sometimes tempting to think that ethics and politics are different matters, especially when what happens in the political sphere is often messy and unpleasant and out of step with privately held moral beliefs. In addition, the range of options available to us at the ballot box often fails to measure up to the gravity of the problems we face. This election, you can choose between candidates for several positions, but there’s no way to weigh in on more fundamental issues. There’s no option on the ballot to impose drastic carbon-reduction measures that would combat global climate change. It’s easy to feel cynical here, or to think that November 4th is not an ethically important moment.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, the German philosopher Hegel describes the character of the “beautiful soul” who flees from any actual engagements in the world. This moral character retreats into the purity of her own inner life and avoids compromising her values in actual action. [1]  Philosophers across the centuries have disputed the relationship between ethics and politics. Does politics have its own logic, best played by its own rules, without getting ethical concerns too wrapped up in the matter? Should we “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” as the Bible famously tells us, and let politics take care of itself? Is it better to worry about the state of your own soul, or how well you are keeping your private values, than to take on all the risks of trying to do the right thing at a public level?

Problems like human-caused climate change are global in proportion, and, as the last twenty years of international inaction have taught us, they require political solutions. Scientific evidence alone has not been enough to change public policy. What use is sitting around in the sanctity of your own private convictions about the climate and the environment if concrete steps aren’t being taken to reduce climate emissions? What makes climate change such an ethically thorny and unprecedented problem is that it implicates us all and requires us all to work together to come up with solutions. But in the world we live in, working together on such scale requires political action, even if it means taking the risk of compromising one’s beliefs or getting involved in a realm that is much more complex and opaque than your own beliefs appear to be. There’s no time left for beautiful souls, and even if you can’t change everything in one election, you can make a difference. What good are ethical beliefs if you don’t act on them in the ways available to you? Few of us are world leaders, few of us are in a position to enact dramatic change in energy policy or investment in green technologies, but those of us who are adult American citizens can vote. Ethics isn’t just a matter for academic discussion.

In Pennsylvania, fracking has been an enormously contentious issue for the last five years, and one of the major election issues this year is an extraction tax. Natural gas drilling by “unconventional” means—in plain English, fracking—is up once again this year in Pennsylvania, which hosts part of the Marcellus Shale formation that runs through the northeastern U.S. There is a growing body of evidence that links fracking to health problems for nearby residents, but, in part thanks to the industry’s use of so-called “nuisance easement” deals, the industry has been able to shield itself from widespread investigation

Natural gas companies have been able to get away with such aggressive tactics because they have successfully established a revolving door between the industry and the government regulators who are supposed to oversee them. In other words, individuals working in one sector often pass over into the other sector with little concern for potential conflicts of interest. Of Pennsylvania’s four governors since 1995, all three who are no longer in office work in jobs with connections to fracking. Tom Corbett, the current governor, worked in the energy industry before assuming office and received $1.8 million in donations in his last campaign. One of the major issues that distinguishes incumbent Corbett from his challenger is that the latter supports an extraction tax on natural gas production, whereas Corbett has actively opposed such a law in the past. Pennsylvania is the only major gas state in the country that does not have such a tax.

The new tax, which would generate far more revenue than the current “impact fee” (see preceding link), would be an important step in the right direction. Yet as November 4th approaches, we should keep in mind the larger issues, no matter how you choose to vote this year. First, one election will not change what is a fundamental and structural problem in our state: that the people who are supposed to be looking out for our environmental health and safety are often the same people (or will become the same people once they leave office) who have a financial stake in ignoring it. Second, even if natural gas provides money in the short term, greater natural gas extraction only exacerbates the real environmental crisis, catastrophic climate change caused by carbon emissions.

All of this sounds like messy terrain for those worried about the deeper impediments to action on climate change. Is there really much of a difference between the candidates when it comes to tackling our country’s addiction to carbon-emitting fossil fuels? There’s no straightforward answer here, but one thing is clear: retreating into the purity of whatever moral beliefs you might hold about the climate is not an option. Get out and make your voice heard on election day.


1. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 383ff.

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