By Kermit Hovey
Could the trolley problem give us some insight into the challenge of the climate crisis or our response to it? Or could it at least highlight issues of those who block action? And what the heck is the trolley problem?
“The trolley problem is the name given to a thought experiment in philosophy and psychology. It has sprouted a number of variations, but is distilled to something like this: you are riding in a trolley without functioning brakes, headed toward a switch in the tracks. On the current track stand five people who stand to be killed if the trolley continues on its path. You have access to a switch that would make the trolley change to the other track, but another individual stands there. That person is certain to be killed if the switch is activated.” (Courtesy of https://www.Merriam-Webster.com/)
Do you act and cause harm, fatal harm, to one person? Do you not act, which is arguably itself an “action,” and cause harm, fatal harm, to multiple people?
To apply this problem to the climate crisis, first let’s note the intensifying evidence that the climate crisis is really happening, really serious, really human-caused, and that we can still really do something about it. It threatens us all. It impacts us all. It does so more and more intensely with each passing year we fail to “hit the switch.”
Next, let’s tweak the problem into more of a metaphor, maybe even an allegory. The five people facing the oncoming trolley represent everyone — the entire world’s population doomed to death, disaster, and deprivation by the climate crisis hurtling towards them. The one person on the second track represents all of those who would be doomed if somebody took action to divert the climate crisis. And switching the trolley from the first track to the second track represents the collective, cumulative, and corporate action needed to divert the climate crisis from colliding with the world’s population.
What do we do? Do we hit the switch and kill the one to save the five? This is part of the ethical quandary.
But wait, we’re in luck! We have a way to weasel out of the trolley problem’s dark dilemma. There is no one on the other track. Everyone is represented by the five people on the first track because everyone will be affected by the climate crisis. Logically and ethically, we need to hit the switch, to take the action needed to divert the climate crisis.
This stroke of luck not only makes the decision to hit the switch ethically correct; it also aligns it with humans’ primal instincts for self-survival. Taking action all but literally becomes a no-brainer.
So why haven’t the people responsible for the hurtling “climate crisis trolley” hit the switch to divert it?
Because there are people who think wealth for self is better than commonwealth. A select few still get plenty rich from selling fossil fuels for combustion. Those select few have gone out of their way to mislead and deceive others into dismissing and ignoring the climate crisis. As a matter of fact, a 2017 report identified 100 major corporations as responsible for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. If the CEOs of those corporations had “hit the switch” to create a clean energy future, they might have diverted the climate crisis trolley already.
Let’s reconsider the trolley problem with one person on the second track to stand for those 100 CEOs. If we had that person step off the track and leave their hat behind, that would better represent their situation. Hitting the switch to divert the climate crisis trolley would not doom them. It would inconvenience them while averting disaster for everybody else.
How then can we apply these insights from the trolley problem to counter the rich and powerful? Historically, when the rich and powerful abuse their privilege and fail to serve the needs of society, we in the U.S. have applied the tools of democracy. That includes organizing, lobbying, protesting, voting, and more.
In the spirit of representative democracy, we must work to select and direct our leaders to act for the benefit of “we the people.” In this case, we need to get all parts of society and every level of government to collectively “hit the switch” that diverts the climate crisis trolley.
Let your representatives know that the climate crisis is real and really important to you. Start with anyone from this list — city alder, county supervisor, state and U.S. representatives and senators, city mayor, county executive, state governor, U.S. president. Let any of them know we want all of us to “hit the switch” collectively. Let them know we want them to take significant climate action and to make sure that everybody involved does as well.
In particular, they, and we, should:
- View the problems, challenges, and opportunities we confront through a climate change and equity lens.
- Ask questions and make decisions in light of the need to protect and restore the climate equitably for our sake and the sake of our children.
- Support spending money for government systems, procedures, and operations that shift us away from dirty fossil fuels and to clean energy (e.g., Middleton funding solar energy arrays at two water utility well pump stations as proposed for the new budget and replacing old fossil fueled fleet vehicles with electric vehicles).
- Incentivize, guide, and support the community at large to do the same (e.g., Middleton funding the Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing support program proposed for the new budget).
- Tell leaders at different levels of government that the climate crisis is critically important and we need big action now. Use the following links with their writing prompts and contact information to reach:
To stay politically engaged as a citizen of our democratic republic, Kermit Hovey volunteers and leads in various groups including ClimateCaretakers.org, 350Madison.org, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Madison Chapter, Wisconsin Creation Care Ambassadors, and the Middleton Sustainability Committee to advocate for a livable, healthful world powered by clean energy and untainted by dirty fossil fuel pollution.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.