Climate Change Ethics: where to start?

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY.

Ethics is the subject of Moral Philosophy.  It concerns itself with what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust, and what is virtuous.

Climate change per se cannot have an ethical position; only people can do things that are just and unjust, right or wrong.  Climate can’t do right or wrong any more than an earthquake can, even though it might cause enormous death and destruction, or an asteroid hurtling toward us about to wipe out all life as we know it can be said to be doing wrong.   It’s not the climate’s fault.  If there is a wrong being done here, we are doing it.

That being the case it is very tempting to find the wrong doers and chastise them — to name and shame (in the language of human rights advocates) hoping that those named will feel such remorse that they will start to act differently.  There is plenty of that going on; most of which I believe is a huge waste of energy.  None of the wrong doers seem to be listening — why would they, they haven’t listened to any arguments based on the best science or economics; why would they listen to an argument based on ethics.  Perhaps the greatest benefit to identifying the wrong doer is that we, by implication, identify ourselves as being the right-doers and establish a virtuous high ground from which to look down upon others.  Scientists (and I am one of them) tend to indulge in this a lot.  I don’t think this is going to get us anywhere and it is a morally dangerous place to stand.  It may have lead scientists at East Anglia to feel that had the right to suppress data and interfere with the publication of dissenting views – clearly they thought they had right on their side and were justified.  But what they did, in my view was unethical.  And it’s foolish.  Surely the very best way to show that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about is to let them talk.

How do we enter a discussion of ethics in climate change?  A couple of years ago I was at a meeting with Kofi Annan and told him I was soon to go to a meeting on climate change and human rights, and wondered how he might approach the subject. He said that the thing to do is to look very carefully at the world the way it is now, and ask whether the climate changes that might plausibly take place will lead to a better world or a place that is not a better world.  That is, will climate change enhance or diminish the attainment of human rights?

If you look at the world the way it is now what you see is a place that needs a lot of improvement.  We live in a world with greater inequality than at any time in history. This is because those at the top are racing ahead while those at the bottom are staying in place.  In ethical terms, the world therefore displays in sharp relief the injustice of poverty and inequality.  Said differently, the enjoyment of the basic right to a reasonable life has been achieved very unevenly around the world.    We should try to make the world a more equal place.  Peter Singer, the moral philosopher has made this point many times and it is not a new thought.  His defining essay on the subject is in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs volume 1 number I Spring 1972.  In it he states an important ethical principal – “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it”.   The global scandal of poverty and inequality is “bad”, no question.  We have the moral obligation to do something about if it is in our power.

This approach gets us away from the name and shame problem and helps us think about what we should be doing (rather than who we should be blaming) and how to frame the climate change discussion.  First think about this:  how would climate change make things worse – increase the bad thing of inequality and poverty?  To answer that you must first establish that climate has something to do with the inequality in the first place – after all, if climate right now has little or no role in determining human well being, why would changing the climate change human well being?  There is a quite clear broad-scale relationship between climate and well being that we all know but don’t think about too much.  Conjure up in your mind’s eye a map of the world and place on it the world’s poorest people.  You’ll find that overwhelmingly they live in the tropics.  Basically the world divides into three huge zones – the tropics where people live poorly, the temperate zones where we live well, and the Polar regions where hardly anybody lives at all because it’s too cold to grow food.  Jeff Sachs at Columbia and Bill Nordhaus at Yale have made these points in academic papers and public discussion.  So climate can be “blamed” for some significant fraction of the current global inequality.  So, extending this simple thought, if climate gets warmer on average the tropics get larger and hence the place where it is hardest to live gets bigger and … you can fill in the rest.  That means that in Singer’s terminology, something bad will come about by climate change and we have a moral obligation to prevent it.

But maybe that’s not what will happen.  If the tropics expand maybe the temperate zones, where living is easy will expand too and the Polar regions, where we can’t hardly live at all now will become much more livable and we can grow corn above the Arctic Circle.  Perhaps food production overall will increase!   We tend to talk about climate change benefits in a rather sotto voce tone, gloss over it quickly and then dwell on the harms that may come, and we shouldn’t do that.  We need to be open and discuss both the good and the bad that will come from changes in the climate.

What you have to imagine is this thought experiment: we all pack up and leave the planet; go somewhere else and wait.  Wait until the planet has settled down into its new, warmer state.  Then we all return, but not to the geographic location from which we departed but to a place that has about the ambient climate of the places we left.  That will be a different place but mostly we would be able to find somewhere kind of the same.  You have to suppose that no one from Manitoba, now living in Spitsbergen will mind if New Yorkers take over their old homes, but we can hope that will work out too.  We might find that there is a strip in the equatorial region that is truly unlivable but that is compensated by the fact that a piece of the Arctic is now balmy and Kerguelen Island in the deep southern Indian Ocean will become the new Hawaii.  Coastal areas will flood, yes but high altitude areas like mountain plateaus will become milder.  Maybe it will all work out.

But we can’t leave, and that’s the problem.  We are stuck with this planet and we will have to deal with things by staying where we are.  And that’s very different and very much harder; a real experiment much harder to conduct than my thought experiment.  The newly productive lands will not be in the countries that have experienced coastal inundation.  The political figure of the Earth will remain even if the climate figure changes.  If natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina are any guide and the poor people of New Orleans, stuck in their attics as the waters rose around them are a stand-in for the people of the world stuck in their countries, what we can expect is that the inequalities that currently exist will increase.  New Orleans, always deeply divided by race and rank has become even more divided along the very same fault lines, but now with greater offset as the wealthy cope well and the poor cope poorly.  Does Katrina portent a world under stress from climate change – an unjustly divided world more divided still; even more unjust.

As the waters encroach, croplands dry up, rain comes either in torrents or not at all, as the canvas of the Earth is slowly painted over with the brushstrokes of climate change dipped from a new palate of colors but with its original political, ethnic, social and cultural boundaries showing right through, how will we know what we should do?  What principals will guide us as we try to prevent this bad thing from happening?

Neither the voice of science or the voice of economics has given much useful guidance.  We need a new compass to point the way and tell us how to act in a world so that can properly deal with the changes we can expect. Here is where I think ethics and human rights will really matter and can have a positive role.  They provide a moral compass.

The main difference between an approach based on ethics compared to one based on a benefit-cost economic analysis say, or one that has so-called environmental sustainability as a goal is a focus on the rights of the individual.  A rights-based approach, one based in ethics would argue that the rights of all individuals and their individual good must be preserved no matter what we do (or don’t do).   That helps to ensure that we do not violate Singer’s constraint of not “sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” as we act to “prevent something bad from happening”.   For me the thing of greatest moral importance is the universal rights of the individual, and that is where our conversation on the ethics of climate change should begin.

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  1. It’s great to see an ethical approach to climate change being written about on here. Whilst there are a growing number of political and moral philosophers writing about the issue, in the mainstream the ethical side of climate change is so often brushed aside in favour of cost-benefit analysis of the problem.

    World Ethics and Climate Change by Paul G. Harris examines in detail international environmental agreements and the progression they’ve gone through in the past 30 years or so up to today’s climate talks. Harris strikes a fine balance between explaining the moral and philosophical reasons behind the need to mitigate climate change, whilst also focussing on the practical implications – what actually needs to be done if we are to stop dangerous climate change from occuring.
    He quotes figures from the Global Carbon Project to show that global carbon emissions since 2000 have actually been growing at a rate four times higher than in the 1990s – growth which exceeds even the worst-case scenario of the last IPCC report?

    Therefore far from being on-track to mitigate climate change, the current rate of emissions growth means that the predicted effects of climate change are likely to be stronger and happen sooner than even the most pessimistic predictions of the IPCC. The main argument of Harris’ book is that with the developing countries now emitting on a scale never seen before we need to change the way we look at the problem of climate change as being an “international” issue, and start seeing it as a “global” issue.

    Harris argues for “cosmopolitan diplomacy”’, which sees people, rather than states alone, as the causes of climate change and the bearers of related rights, duties and obligations. (He donates all the royalties from the book to Oxfam.)

    The affluent members of all societies (including developing nations) need to reduce their emissions and help the least affluent and most vulnerable to climate change in all countries (rather than developed versus developing states).

    The book itself is an enlightening read for anyone interested in the ethical issues surrounding climate change and international politics, a brief summary of the chapters can be found here: