The busy doctor: a thought experiment on declaring a climate emergency

Imagine there are two doctors that are walking home from work. They stumble upon a man who has been stabbed and is bleeding to death. One doctor looks at the man and says ‘he’ll be fine, there’s nothing wrong with him. So, I’ll do nothing to help him’. The other doctor says ‘he is bleeding to death and needs our help! But I am busy. I need to get other things done at home. I’ll come back in an hour to help him’.

The question I ask from this thought experiment is: Is there any morally relevant difference between the two doctors?

One could try to argue that there is a morally relevant difference, which is that one is acknowledging the problem and the other is not. However, coming back in an hour and not doing anything at all would produce the same consequences: the man will be dead by then. Furthermore, one could argue that the second doctor is worse than the first, because at least the first doctor has the excuse of being an idiot. The second doctor knows better.

So, it seems there is no morally relevant difference between the two doctors. This is important to consider in respect to arguments about ‘letting the perfect get in the way of the good’. This is also sometimes known as ‘perfectionist reasoning’ or ‘the nirvana fallacy’. The fallacy is when we reject somebody doing good when it wont produce perfect outcomes. An example of this would be: “Why bother giving to charity since it won’t solve world poverty?”

Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed gave an interesting rebuttle to ‘letting the perfect get in the way of the good’ response to his criticisms of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the US having a neoliberal ideology, which was “Yes we can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, but we also can’t let what’s possible blind you to what is necessary”. I would like to amend his phrase to “can’t let what’s easy blind you to what is necessary” since the way he expressed it could be interpreted as what’s necessary is impossible.

I believe this can be applied to many governments officially declaring a climate emergency. I endorse governments to do so, but what I care about more is what they will actually do about it. A government that declares a climate emergency but fails to do what is necessary is, in my view, no different than the doctor who acknowledges the man is bleeding to death and says he’ll come back an hour later.

Some may object that those declaring a climate emergency are attempting to reduce their targets, whilst others who are not recognising it are not. Fair enough. However, to use my own country as an example. The current government under the Liberal Party has not yet declared a climate emergency, whereas the opposition Labor Party does call for the declaration of a climate emergency. However, the current targets set by the opposition is to acheive a net zero emissions by 2050. Contrast this with Extinction Rebellion Australia, who is calling for a target of a net zero emissions by 2025.

Who do you think is acting more consistently with the belief that we are in a climate emergency? The one calling for zero net emissions in 5 years time or 30 years time, if the word emergency means anything at all?

There is a rather brilliant thought experiment by George Monbiot in his argument against the very notion of emissions targets, where he says:

“When firefighters arrive at a burning building, they don’t set themselves a target of rescuing three of the five inhabitants. They seek – aware that they may not succeed – to rescue everyone they can. Their aim is to maximise the number of lives they save. In the climate emergency, our aim should be to maximise both the reduction of emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of global heating: every increment kills.”

In the face of an emergency, virtue signalling and easily achievable targets should impress no one. Governments: If you declare a climate emergency, then act like it.


Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “The busy doctor: a thought experiment on declaring a climate emergency”

  1. Politicians will only reflect what most people think of. Climate change was important for many but not most, and a few long-term promises that may or may not get done show exactly that. After all this mess is over, it will be interesting to see how the public opinion changes and if it does on a massive scale, governments will have to take the climate change matter seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

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