Terence Cuneo: the Philosophy of Action


This blog is the third in a series of profiles written by 350VT intern Julie Elfin. Julie got the chance to speak with Terence Cuneo of Williston, whose experience as a philosopher calls him to climate action. This is Terence’s story.


Philosophers are taught to be patient. The issues we usually study aren’t that urgent. They tend to be more theoretical, with little immediate impact on society. But in the case of climate change, we don’t have time to mess around. It’s utterly urgent. The kind of disruptions we’re seeing today–record-high temperatures, widespread forest fires, out of control hurricanes–it’s far worse than I’d anticipated, than I’d been led to believe when I started following climate science in the 1990s.

I teach the ethics of climate change, the necessity of doing something, in all of my philosophy courses at the University of Vermont. The logic is simple. Humans are intellectually responsible for the well-being of the planet. The evidence is clear that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it. When we observe effects on this scale, we are rationally required to act. So then the question becomes,“What are the rational decisions to make and actions to take in response to the evidence?”

I first got interested in climate change through cross-country skiing. I’m sensitive to what’s going on with the weather, especially here in New England where we’re experiencing higher than average warming trends. I’ve always had a love for the outdoors, and for winter in particular. I connected deeply with the book Long Distance by Bill McKibben, then found his writing on climate change. I cared about the issue, but I wasn’t personally involved until the Vermont Gas pipeline was proposed.

My house was along the pipeline route, in the so-called “incineration zone”. If anything went wrong, we were goners. Vermont Gas offered $1,800 as compensation for putting a pipeline through our property. How do you put a price on that? And if you do want to consider value, our land would lose a significant amount of property value with a pipeline running through it.

It’s hard for me to come to grips with the politicization of climate change. How is this a divisive issue? It’s the survival of the planet. And even if you don’t believe the science, conservatives should be concerned about corporations seizing private property through eminent domain.

I was shocked how little the state of Vermont was interested in helping landowners. Most people in my community didn’t even know what was happening, didn’t know about the pipeline or eminent domain.The community had so little power in that situation, and the corporation had so much. At that point you have to ask who the government is really working for.

I didn’t always call myself an activist, but the last thing I’d want to be identified as is complacent. It’s become very clear that natural gas is not a clean source of energy and that this pipeline does not benefit the public good or the climate. I didn’t want to be complicit in exacerbating the problem of climate change. I had to fight.

My family eventually lost in court. Our lawyer counseled us not to appeal. If I’d thought an appeal would have delayed the pipeline, I would have appealed, even if I knew I couldn’t win. But the court was against us and we didn’t have the time, money or energy to keep the legal challenge going. We started a legal fund, but we only got about two donations.

For my family, this fight changed everything, how we think about everything. We’ve moved into a new house, and we’re outfitting it with heat pumps, going fully solar, doing everything we can as individuals to reduce our climate impact. Individual action is important, but it cannot take the place of mass movements.

I constantly ask myself, “What are the most effective ways to use my time, money and energy?” I don’t know the answer to that question. For me, it’s a constant process of balancing the intellectual–writing papers on climate change for academic journals and other philosophers–with getting out there, teaching, doing more direct activism and engaging with decision makers. Electing local officials who are attuned to and willing to act on this issue is the only way we’re going to prevent something like this pipeline from happening again. Of course, we also have to hold the federal government accountable. If that means marching on Washington, calling the White House and the Capitol, whatever it is…we’ve got to make our voices heard.

Check out the previous profile!

Julie Elfin is a senior at the University of Vermont studying the environment and communications. This profile series is her culminating project for her Online Organizing internship with 350VT.