Climate Change Ethics
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Climate Change Ethics

Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm

Donald A. Brown

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Climate Change Ethics

Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm

Donald A. Brown

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About This Book

Climate change is now the biggest challenge faced by humanity worldwide and ethics is the crucial missing componentin the debate about what to do about this enormous threat. This book examines why thirty-five years of discussion of human-induced warming has failed to acknowledge fundamental ethical concerns, and subjects climate change's most important policy questions to ethical analysis.

This book examines why ethical principles have failed to gain traction in policy formation and recommends specific strategies to ensure that climate change policies are consistent with ethical principles. Because climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution and given that many nations refuse participation due to perceived inequities in proposedinternational solutions, this book explains why ensuring that nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses and individuals acknowledge and respond to their ethical obligations is both an ethical and practical mandate. This book is the first of its kind to go beyond a mere account of relevant ethical questions to offer a pragmatic guideon how to make ethical principles influential in formulatingthe world's response to climate change.

Written by Donald A. Brown, a leading voice in the field, it should be of interest to policy makers, and those studying environmental policy, climate change policy, international relations, environmental ethics and philosophy.

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Part I

Introduction: The Climate Change Debate

Chapter 1


Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm in Light of a Thirty-Five-Year Debate

The Book’s Purpose

This book has been written because although climate change raises many obvious world-challenging ethical issues, there has been a 35-year debate about what should be done to reduce climate change’s immense threat. A debate that for the most part, as we shall see when we examine it in detail, has utterly failed to recognize the ethical dimensions of human-induced warming. Unlike most previous literature on climate change ethics, this book is interested not only in what are the ethical issues entailed by climate change but, more importantly, how to make ethical guidance more influential in policy formation. Any concern about the ethics of climate change needs to consider how to assure that ethics is actually taken into consideration when climate change policies are formed. In addition, ethical analysis of climate change must also be sensitive to the actual ethical issues that arise when solutions to climate change are under discussion. As we shall see, the absence of ethical reflection on positions taken on climate change is stunning given the fact that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem.
Climate change has been called the greatest environmental and social threat facing the human community. Of course, there are other grave problems that are competing for recognition as the world’s most dire menace, such as terrorism, or social chaos created by the inability of the global economy to produce living wages for billions around the world. Yet, as we shall see throughout this book, the claim that climate change is the most threatening issue facing humanity is entitled to serious respect given that the scientific “consensus” view about climate change holds that: (a) the planet is heating up due to human actions, (b) the consequences of this, under business-as-usual, are dire particularly for some of the world’s poorest people in the short- to medium-term, and for most of humanity later in this century, (c) some people are causing this problem much more than others and those who are most vulnerable can do almost nothing to reduce the threat, (d) to prevent great harms, hard-to-imagine global policy responses are required, and (e) the chance of these conclusions being wrong, although not 100 percent certain, is increasingly improbable.
Climate change is an immense challenge to the human race, not only because of climate change’s potential catastrophic impacts on human health and the ecological systems on which life depends all around the world, but also because of the hard-to-imagine responses from the human community that are needed to avert extraordinarily harsh impacts if the mainstream scientific view is correct. Climate change is, therefore, both an ominous threat and a hard problem to solve.
As we shall see in the book, the urgently needed policy responses must be understood not only for civilization’s self-interest, but are also demanded by basic morality. This is because hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts, and these same people have done little to cause the problem. In fact, climate change must be understood in its essence as an ethical problem for many reasons discussed throughout this book. Yet a review of the 35-year debate about climate change, looked at in this book, reveals that the ethical dimensions of climate change policy are largely being ignored when actual arguments are made concerning what to do about climate change.
This chapter introduces the ethical issues that need to be considered in policy formation in light of a 35-year debate about climate change policy responses. Subsequent chapters review the history of the climate change debate and deduce in more detail the ethical issues relevant to arguments that have been made in support of, or in opposition to, the responses to proposed climate change policy.
This analysis has been motivated by the fact that although climate change raises many civilization-challenging ethical issues, for the most part, the international community, national and sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals have not responded to or even acknowledged their ethical obligations. Not only have those who have responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions failed to admit that they have ethical obligations, as we shall see during the 35-year debate discussed here, there has hardly been a murmur in the press or in domestic political discussions about the ethical duties of nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This book explores why this is so and makes recommendations about how to assure that ethical guidance is much more influential in government, organizational, and individual responses to climate change.
One might ask what hope there is that turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of responses to climate change will make any practical difference. If people around the world are mostly motivated by self-interest rather than ethical obligations, what evidence is there that expressly injecting ethical reasoning into the policy debate will change anything? If the solution to climate change requires massive social change, one might ask whether ethical arguments are capable of successfully contributing to or causing the needed social change. Although these issues are beyond the scope of this book, several things may be said about the potential efficacy of moral arguments to make a practical difference in public affairs.
First, climate change is a problem that requires a global solution. There is little hope of achieving a just solution to climate change unless moral arguments are made. If a global solution is not just, climate change policies will, very likely, exacerbate existing patterns of injustice in the world, making the poor both poorer and more vulnerable to harsh climate impacts. For this reason, encouraging the world to seek a morally acceptable solution to climate change should be the goal of climate policy, for it is the right thing to do. And so, as long as there is any hope that persuasive ethical arguments could lead to more just solutions to climate change, they should be made.
In addition to making ethical arguments about just responses to climate change because it is the right thing to do, there is considerable evidence that persuasive ethical arguments have been an indispensable ingredient in causing needed social change in successful social movements including civil, women’s, and human rights movements around the world, the criminalization of genocide and other crimes against humanity, and in the establishment of fair judicial processes in many countries. In other words, moral arguments have often been influential in bringing positive social change on some issues (Appiah 2010).
However, moral arguments by themselves may need to be supplemented by other social strategies to achieve significant positive change. For instance, Appiah (2010) describes how moral arguments often had to be coupled with strategies to change a culture’s understanding of when honors should be bestowed on its members before cultural social norms changed. In making this point Appiah examines the end of dueling in England in the early 19th century; the cessation of the practice of foot-binding women in China at the beginning of the 20 th century; and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In these cases moral arguments needed to be augmented by strategies to convince people that the dominant social codes of the clan, tribe, or social structure were dishonorable; yet moral arguments made initially by a courageous minority in the culture were indispensable elements in achieving positive social change. And so, if widespread social change is necessary before countries like the United States will adopt climate change policies—which are both sufficient to achieve the hard-to-imagine greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change; and also achieve just solutions—ethical arguments are necessary but perhaps insufficient elements in any strategy designed to achieve social change.
Therefore, greater understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change policy issues may not make a significant difference in policy outcomes unless ethical argumentation is supported by additional social action. This action might include, for instance: (a) strategies to raise public awareness about the dishonorable behavior of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of self-interest, (b) acts of non-violent civil disobedience, or (c) other strategies to heighten awareness of the immense human suffering caused by the unethical behavior of some who are causing climate change.
And so discussion of the ethical dimensions of climate change may not alone achieve policy change without organized social action. Ethicists can help those who organize social action designed to achieve acceptance of global responsibilities for climate change, but academic climate change ethics by itself is not likely to achieve social change.
Although a few ethicists were engaged in climate change ethics before 2000, during the last decade there has been a growing scholarly and policy interest in climate change ethics.1 Yet for the most part the analyses of ethical questions examined in the recent climate ethics literature have been focused on broad ethical questions, such as what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Climate change ethicists have rarely engaged in actual climate change policy disputes as they have arisen in contentious climate change policy debates.
As we shall see, because there has been little acknowledgement of ethical issues in policy debates about climate change, there has been little recognition of ethical duties, responsibilities, or obligations that should be seen as limitations on national, regional, organizational, or individual self-interest in formulating domestic policy climate change policies, or in international negotiations seeking to create a global solution to climate change that are now more than two decades old.
This book both examines priority ethical issues entailed by climate change and makes recommendations on how to make ethical considerations become influential in policy formation. It will explain why those interested in a just climate change solution must engage more directly as policy options are debated and formed. They must focus more on what is ethically problematic with positions taken by disputants in climate change debates rather than on what perfect justice requires of climate change issues. Most of the previous climate ethics literature has focused on ethical analysis of significant climate change issues rather than on ethical problems with specific positions taken by disputants in climate change debates.
In its examination of this long-term debate, the book teases out of policy arguments the most important ethical questions that need to be confronted to overcome opposition to the formation of climate change policy. The book will also demonstrate that ethical guidance has been a crucial missing consideration in actual climate change debates, despite the fact that climate change policy disputes raise many civilization-challenging ethical issues.
In A Perfect Moral Storm, the Ethical Tragedy of the Climate Change, Stephen Gardiner (2011) argues that climate change must be understood as a moral problem. Yet Gardiner points out that there are certain features of climate change that make citizens resilient to the pull of moral responsibility. Gardiner and a few other ethicists who have written recently on the subject, have emphasized that climate change must be understood essentially as a moral problem. It is a moral matter because many of the policy issues that need to be resolved to achieve a global solution must look to ethical principles for their resolution. In other words, to resolve such questions as to what levels of greenhouse gas emissions each nation is responsible to achieve a global solution that limits warming to tolerable levels, nations will necessarily have to consider what constitutes each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. The question of “fairness” is not a factual matter that can be resolved by the application of “value-neutral” analytical tools, but can only be resolved by appeal to ethical guidance including principles of distributive and retributive justice.
This book will demonstrate that different ethical issues arise in different stages of policy development. They all can’t be understood abstractly in advance of policy making. Even when determining what emissions levels are “safe,” ethical questions arise such as safe to whom, what levels of scientific confidence should be acceptable about safety levels, and who should have the burden of proof to resolve uncertainties about what constitutes “safe” atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.
Of course all environmental problems raise both factual and ethical questions. Yet climate change must be understood as a uniquely civilization-challenging ethical problem, because it is a problem caused by some people who are putting others—who have done little to cause the problem—at great risk. Harms to the most vulnerable will likely be catastrophic if significant emissions reductions are not made in the forthcoming decades, and those most vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts may not petition their own governments for protection from climate change. They must hope that those causing the problem will limit their greenhouse gas emissions because they are motivated by duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. In other words, climate change must be understood essentially as an ethical problem because of the gravity of the problem and the strong likelihood of an inadequate and unjust response if there is a widespread failure to respond to climate change’s ethical dimensions.
There are several civilization-challenging ethical issues raised by the formation of climate change policy as discussed in the relevant literature on climate change ethics. They include such diverse issues as how to fairly structure reduction pathways of greenhouse gas emissions, the appropriate role of economic tools such as cost-benefit analysis in climate change policy formation, ethical issues entailed by scientific uncertainty, and the moral dimensions of geo-engineering solutions to climate change, just to name a few. As we shall, each of these ethical issues raises different ethical questions. There is not just one central ethical issue raised by climate change, but different civilization-challenging ethical issues that raise diverse ethical questions which should be considered in global warming policy formation.
Although there is a growing literature on climate change, Gardiner’s (2011) recent book is unique in that its major focus is not solely on the evaluation of ethical issues raised by climate change but also on why civil society has thus far mostly failed to respond to some of the obvious ethical questions raised by human-induced warming.
Gardiner’s main thesis in this regard is that climate change is a problem having certain attributes, or using the metaphor “storms,” that act to encourage moral corruption or the propensity among those who cause climate change to ignore their duties, responsibilities, and obligations, which must be recognized if climate change responses are to be just.
A great portion of Gardiner’s book is devoted to identification of the features of climate change that are responsible for the moral recalcitrance that we have seen in the inadequate responses in the world. Gardiner groups the features of climate change producing the moral storm into: (a) the global nature of the problem, (b) the intergenerational timescale on which climate change takes place, and (c) the inadequacy of current theoretical models, i.e, ethical and political theories that are often called upon to guide public policy on other sustainability issues.
Yet the most important contribution of Gardiner’s book may be in explaining why climate change presents extraordinary challenges for those who seek to put climate change policy on a strong moral footing. Some of the many challenges to the morally based climate change policy identified by Gardner include:
  • 1 the propensity of those who want to put off action to hide behind the excuse that the worst impacts will not happen in the present
  • 2 the inadequacy of our analytical tools that are usually used to frame public policy questions such as cost-benefit analysis
  • 3 some scientific uncertainty about consequences
  • 4 the challenges entailed by the fact that this problem is very similar to cases that can be described as examples of the “tragedy of the commons” and cases that create a situation referred to in game theory as the “prisoner’s dilemma”
  • 5 the separation in time and space of those causing the problem and those who will be harmed
  • 6 the complete inadequacy of international institutions to deal with this problem
  • 7 the fact that the fossil fuel industry needing to be transformed to solve climate change is deeply embedded in modern economies
  • 8 the complexity of the problem overwhelms the application of ethical principles that often can be more easily applied to other less challenging public policy problems.
Another important contribution made by Gardiner’s book is a description of how moral corruption about climate change has been made possible by the moral storms discussed in the book. Gardiner defines moral corruption as a state of mind which has been developed through rationalization that casts doubt about the validity and/or structure of moral claims. If people are morally corrupt, their sense of moral duty has been weakened or undermined by rationalization, and thus they foll...

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