How Do Ethical Considerations Inform the Debate on Climate Change?

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of the new book  'Climate Change: A Wicked Problemby Frank P. Incropera (Caimbridge University Press, 2015): 


The ethics of climate change

By now, you would probably agree that the issue of climate change is wrapped in science, technology, economics, and politics. But is there yet another dimension? Many would say “yes,” maintaining the existence of a moral imperative. To address climate change from such a perspective, we’ll examine some of the philosophical pillars of ethics, as well as foundations of ethical behavior derived from religious traditions. From both philosophical and theological perspectives, how do ethical considerations inform the debate on climate change?

Ethics involves reflection on human behavior and how to channel it in appropriate ways. A central question involves life and how it should be lived. Another involves the nature of good and standards by which an action is judged good or not. Such questions have been addressed by philosophers for millennia in attempts to delineate between right and wrong. But in applying these standards, difficulties often arise because many issues are multifaceted, complex, and nuanced.

10.1 Ethical dimensions of climate change

Technology has allowed humans to conquer space and time. Modern transportation systems provide movement of goods and people from one location to any other; modern communication systems enable ideas and knowledge to flow almost instantaneously across the world. Globalization has had an enormous impact on raising living standards throughout the world. But underpinning it all has been rising energy consumption, particularly from fossil fuels, and attendant environmental degradation. Some environmental damage is local, such as mining coal by mountaintop removal, or regional, such as acid rain. And most degradation is manifested over relatively short time scales, from immediate to months or years. But climate change is global and manifested over decades to millennia. Today’s

GHG emissions have consequences for all, anywhere on Earth, and for the unborn as well as the living. When I burn one gallon of gasoline, I discharge almost 9 kg-CO2 to the atmosphere, putting the entire planet at greater risk to the effects of climate change. When the U.S. transportation sector consumes 215 billion gallons of fuel, as it did in 2012 (Davis et al., 2014), it adds about 2 Gt-CO2 to the atmosphere, with Americans enjoying the benefits of consumption while calling upon the world to share the burdens.

For GHG emissions there are spatial and temporal separations of cause and effect. Spatial separation relates to the fact that richer nations have derived the greatest benefits and are the least vulnerable, while poorer nations have derived the least benefits and are the most vulnerable. Globally, benefits and vulnerabilities are asymmetrical. Countries that historically contributed disproportionately to emissions by building their economies using abundant and low-cost fossil fuels are wealthier for having done so and by virtue of their wealth are better able to adapt to the effects of climate change. In contrast, poorer countries that have contributed far less to legacy emissions are least able to adapt to climate change. This spatial separation of cause and effect adds a social justice implication to the dimensions of climate change.

The relevance of climate change to equity, fairness, and social justice is underscored in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC (2014c), which emphasized the threat it poses to the food security of the world’s poorest nations and its potential for exacerbating poverty and inequality in both developing and developed nations. The report also points to the increased frequency and intensity of extreme drought and flooding and their disproportionate effects on the world’s poor. Recognizing that “water is life, but too much or too little of it can become a threat to life,”

Shiva (2002) equates “climate injustice” to “water injustice” and provides many examples of how the world’s poorest have suffered from extreme weather events. 

Garvey (2008, p. 67) associates justice and equality with a shared distribution of “goods, resources, burdens (and) benefits” – concepts that are well established in systems of civil and common law – while allowing for unequal distributions if “there are good reasons to the contrary.” Justice can be served if collective benefits are derived from the goods and services produced by people and nations disproportionately using a limited resource and if associated burdens are shared. But justice is not served if the fruits of disproportionate use are self-serving and the burdens are borne by others.

From the time of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the twentieth century, Western nations contributed disproportionately to the world’s annual GHG emissions. And when integrated over the last two centuries, Western nations contributed even more disproportionately to the atmosphere’s store of GHGs. The ethical issue is therefore the following. Should wealthy nations that contributed so much to the atmosphere’s inventory of

GHGs make the greatest efforts to reduce emissions and the largest contributions to assisting those most affected by and least able to adapt to climate change?

If richer nations have benefited from past GHG emissions, do they have a moral responsibility to reduce their emissions, while ceding a larger portion of future emissions to developing nations? To some extent redistribution is already occurring, albeit for other than ethical reasons. Although OECD nations have disproportionately contributed to and benefited from GHG emissions, developing nations are rapidly increasing their emissions, with China now the world’s largest contributor. Who bears the largest responsibility for reducing emissions – China which has yet to break the bonds of poverty for hundreds of millions of people, or a nation like the United States, which has achieved acceptable living standards for a large majority of its citizens and has far larger emissions per capita? Were a cap to be placed on global emissions, how would ethical considerations affect redistribution among the world’s nations? To what extent would some nations be expected to reduce and others to increase their emissions?

A temporal separation of cause and effect is a matter of intergenerational ethics, of weighing the needs of future generations and the natural environment against the needs and wants of current generations. I and other

Americans of my generation have been beneficiaries of living standards derived from industrialization enabled by fossil fuels. And we will likely live our remaining days without having to endure any of the more onerous effects of climate change. Can the same be said for our children and grandchildren and for those who follow?

Because of the inherent inertia of systems affected by GHG emissions (Section 3.5, Appendix D), adverse effects of past and current emissions are not borne as much by the emitters as by future generations. The long residence time of atmospheric GHGs and the long lag time associated with their full effect on warming and rising sea levels mean that, although the benefits of today’s emissions are realized immediately, adverse consequences will be progressively experienced by future generations. In the words of Gardiner (2011, p. 198), the consequences are “substantially deferred” and the problem is “seriously back-loaded.” The image is one of current and past generations of OECD nations as profligate consumers of fossil fuels, ergo wanton emitters of GHGs, leaving future generations with depleted fuel stocks and the adverse effects of climate change. By passing the burden to future generations, Gardiner (2011, p. 36) refers to the situation as a “tyranny of the contemporary.”1

Yet another ethical issue relates to the effect of climate change on the natural environment. Are actions that eliminate other species and entire ecosystems in the biosphere morally justified? Is it right to have an exclusively anthropocentric perspective, one concerned only with the effect of climate change on humankind? Or should we extend our thinking to include its effect on all species?

In summary, the central ethical challenges posed by climate change deal with its impact on (1) the poor, (2) future generations, and (iii) the natural environment. Can ethical theories and religious traditions provide guidance in dealing with the problems of climate change?

10.2 Ethical theories and principles

Ethical theories lie in the realm of moral philosophy. They are systems (frameworks) of thought that address moral rights, duties, and behavior, and three such frameworks will be considered in terms of their ability to guide moral judgments on climate change. One theory is based on obligations termed categorical imperatives. In the context of climate change, an imperative could simply be that it’s wrong to inflict the dangers of global warming on the poor, the unborn, and other species of the biosphere.

A second theory, termed utilitarianism, couches ethical behavior in terms of outcomes. Actions should bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, where good implies outcomes such as happiness, pleasure, and satisfaction. The third theory, termed virtue or Aristotelian ethics, delineates character traits that work for the benefit of society and hence the greater good.

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