Understanding Climate Change Ethics as a Subset of Global Ethics

I. Introduction – Global Ethics

Ethics is understood to be the domain of inquiry that examines claims about what is right or wrong, obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human action. Global ethics is usually understood to be the field of inquiry examining ethical claims that apply universally to all citizens of the Earth. That is, global ethics examines the nature and justification of ethical norms that are argued should obligate all people. (Dower, 2002)

Interest in global ethics has increased recently due to; (a) the increasing pressure of global problems requiring global solutions, (b) the general phenomenon of globalization, (c) revived interest in citizenship, and (d) revived interest in cosmopolitanism or global ethics. (Dower, 2002)

Many proponents of global ethics see new connections between people around the world as the basis for their interest in global ethics. For the first time in human history it is becoming obvious that people in one part of the world can harshly affect the human health and environment of people in other parts of the world separated from those who are causing the problem by time and great distance.

Climate change is a strong example of this. However, there are many emerging global environmental problems that also can be understood as problems being caused by some people that harshly effect others. Examples include, the loss of upper atmospheric ozone, over fishing by trawlers from developed countries at the expense of subsistence fishermen in poor developing countries, and long range transport of toxic chemicals in the atmosphere that are deposited at long distances from emissions locations. Some toxic substances are known to put animals and people at risk at great distances from the place of emissions.

In addition, it is now clear that irresponsible banking practices in one part of the world can economically devastate others far away. Inadequate food inspection in one part of the world can make people sick thousands of miles away. Inadequately secured nuclear materials on one continent can lead to terrorist destruction on another continent. Among global problems that have recently triggered an interest in global ethics recently include global environmental problems such as climate change and loss of biodiversity, global vulnerability to economic collapse, new interdependency due to global trade, international terrorism, and international telecommunications.

Topics investigated under global ethics include: huge disparities between rich and poor, the nature of obligations between developed and developing countries, how to make trading arrangements fairer, the responsibilities of those causing global environmental problems to those who are most vulnerable to them, how might military intervention be better regulated, and the power of international institutions. (Birmingham, 2009)

Not too long ago a person’s responsibility to poor people separated by great distance was understood to be a matter of charity now because of emerging understanding of direct causal effects of one person’s behavior on the basic needs of others new ethical duties can be identified.

Global ethics sometimes is discussed under the category of “cosmopolitanism,” a social/political philosophy according to which all human beings belong to one domain, the domain of the world or cosmos. (Dower, 2002) Cosmopolitanism usually holds that all humans have duties to each other because they share the Earth.
Global ethics often is also concerned with recognition and enforcement of human rights, the moral basis for a right to self-determination, the limits of nationalism and patriotism, and what response might be morally justified for such global problems as population growth and climate change. (Birmingham, 2009) Another issue receiving increased attention in global ethics literature is the ethics of migration and immigration. (Markkula, 2009)

Proponents of global ethics often are also often concerned with whether existing international institutions are sufficient to assure that global ethical obligations and goals will be complied with and achieved. For this reason, proponents of global ethics often concern themselves with such issues as whether existing United Nations institutions are adequate for achieving the goals of the international human rights frameworks or whether nations should cede some sovereignty to international institutions. Opponents of world government often resist arguments made by proponents of expansion of global ethical frameworks often because of fear of loss of liberty. In response, proponents of global ethics often argue to improve international governance frameworks on those issues agreed to in democratic processes. If global international obligations are agreed to by democratically elected governments, no loss of liberty necessarily follows.

II. Criticisms of Global Ethics

Two criticisms of global ethics are often discussed under the ethical theories of “relativism” or “communitarianism.” According to relativism, moral values differ among cultures and societies and therefore cannot apply to all people around the world. (Dower, 2002) Relativism is often seen as denying the universality of values. In a similar way, communitarianism is usually understood to argue that ethical obligations only apply to the society or community to which one belongs because ethical and moral obligations originate among those who are in community with each other. (Dower, 2002) In their strong forms, both relativism and communitarianism undermine claims to global ethics. If obligations exist only to the communities that people belong to, then no global ethical obligations can be claimed. Yet recently relativism and communitarianism are rarely held in their stronger forms. A more frequently held position is that some ethical obligations are acknowledged to be binding at the global scale while others are relevant only at the national, regional, and community scale. (Dower, 2002)

Advocates of global ethical responsibilities respond to relativism and communitarianism by making several arguments including the following:
• Although it may be true that not all people agree with global ethical principles, they ought to as a matter of ethics accept global obligations;
• Those that believe in relativism have no principled way of condemning atrocities of one group on another such as the conquistador’s treatment of the Aztecs.
• Even though moral obligations may arise from social relations with others, there is no reason why ethical principles developed at a local scale should not be extended to a global scale;
• Because people are often members of more than one cultural group to which they acknowledge duties, there is no reason why they should not acknowledge obligations to the global community. (Dower, 2002)

Other critics of global ethics argue that the values entailed by any global code are actually Western ethical ideas which proponents seek to impose on non-Western cultures. Those who make this argument sometimes charge that proponents of global ethics are guilty of cultural imperialism. In response, proponents of global ethics acknowledge that even in cases that adoption of tenets of global ethics would change the ethical principles of the more local culture, this is not a sufficient argument that this group should not accept the global ethical principles. (Dower, 2002) In other words, the factual truth that a local group does not acknowledge a global obligation within their moral code, does not necessarily overcome the prescriptive argument that they should acknowledge a new moral obligation to others on the planet. Moreover, proponents of global ethical principles deny that all global ethical claims are essentially Western and point to many examples of cross-cultural acceptance of the ethical principles they advocate be adopted universally.

III. Links Between Global Ethics and Climate Change Ethics

There are three reasons why climate change must be understood as a global ethical problem.

First, like the other problems being discussed under the category of global ethics, climate change is a problem caused by some people that adversely affects others. For this reason, as a matter of ethics, those emitting GHGs into the atmosphere may not consider their interests alone in developing policies about their GHG emissions.

Second, the consequences to those who may be most affected by climate change are potentially catastrophic. According to the consensus climate change science view as articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human-induced climate changes is already harming and will continue to harm with greater intensity human life, health, food security, plants, animals, and ecosystems upon which humans depends. Without doubt, climate change threatens not only things that humans value highly but life itself especially to those most vulnerable to climate change. For this reason, climate change raises profound ethical issues of several different types discussed in ClimateEthics.org.

Third, the national governments to which citizens of the world belong are not constituted to protect the interests of non-citizens, yet climate change will often affect non-citizens most harshly. Because people in one nation cannot assume that existing governments will protect those who might be harmed by their behavior, they must consider whether they have ethical obligations to those who are separated from themselves both in time and great distance. In other words, climate change raises with force the question of whether some people have obligations and duties to others that needs to be considered in developing climate change policies as the national, regional, and local level.

For these reasons, climate change ethics must be understood to be one of several emerging human problems that need to be considered under the category of global ethics.

Donald A. Brown, dab57@psu.edu
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Program on Science, Technology, and Society
401 A. Old Botany,
Penn State University,
College Park, Pennsylvania,


Dower, Nigel, An Introduction to Global Citizenship, Edinborough University Press, 2002.

Markkulla Center for Applied Ethics (Markkulla), Santa Clara University, http://www.scu.edu/ethics/articles/articles.cfm?fam=IHRM (last visited, April 15, 2009)

University of Birmingham (Birmingham) Center for Global Ethics http://www.globalethics.bham.ac.uk/aboutglobalethics.shtml. (last visited, April 15, 2009)

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