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. (more…)