Ten Reasons Why Examining Climate Change Policy Controversies Through an Ethical Lens Is A Practical Imperative.

I. Introduction

If ethical and justice arguments about why climate change policies are necessary are taken off the table in the climate change debate, it is like a baseball pitcher unilaterally agreeing to not throw any fast balls or breaking balls during a World Series game. Yet, as we will explain, there is almost a complete absence of ethical arguments for climate change policies in the US debate about proposed approaches to climate change. This failure to expressly examine the ethical issues entailed by arguments made by opponents of climate change action has important practical consequences.

This post first looks at how climate change policies are usually debated. Next, the post looks at why these controversies must be understood to raise ethical questions. And finally, this post lists ten practical reasons why climate change policies must be examined through an ethical lens.

II. Common Climate Change Policy Arguments

Arguments against climate change policies are usually of two types. By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are assertions of various kinds of adverse economic impacts that will flow if climate change policies are adopted.

Examples of this are claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or will destroy the recovery from a recession. The second most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that adverse climate change impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven.

The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation or policies, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

Although these alternative economic and scientific arguments are relevant to whether climate change policies should be adopted, noticeably missing from the US debate are ethical and justice arguments for action on climate change. In fact, there is a hardly a murmur in US press coverage of climate change controversies about the ethical and justice reasons for adopting climate change policies when arguments against adopting climate change policies are made. This failure of the press to examine these issues is because advocates of climate change policies are rarely racing these issues.

III. Why Climate Change Policy Issues Must Be Understood to Raise Ethical Questions.

What distinguishes ethical issues from economic and scientific arguments about climate change is that ethics is about duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others while economic and scientific arguments are usually understood to be about “value-neutral” “facts” which once established are often deployed in arguments about self-interest.

Climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. This is so because several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating ethical responsibilities that limit a nation’s ability to look at narrow economic self interest alone when developing responsive policies.

First, climate change creates duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change, for instance, directly threatens human life and health and resources to sustain life, as well as species of plants and animals and ecosystems around the world.

Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms and damage to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, social disputes caused by diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. Climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are catastrophic. In fact, there is growing evidence that climate change is already causing great harm to many outside the United States while threatening hundreds of millions of others in the years ahead.

The third reason why climate change is a moral problem stems from its global scope. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of climate change. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law.

For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to get governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

Despite the fact that climate change creates obligations, the U.S. continues to debate climate change issues as if the only legitimate considerations are how our economy might be affected or whether adverse climate change impacts have been proven. ClimateEthics previously looked at the failure of the media to cover the ethical dimensions of climate change in The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions. Next we identify practical consequences of the failure to examine ethical questions of climate change policy proposals.

IV. Ten Practical Reasons Why Climate Change Policy Controversies Must Be Examined Through an Ethical Lens

Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical and justice issues, the failure to examine arguments opposing climate change policies trough an ethical lens guarantees that:

  1. Those opposing climate change policies on ethically dubious grounds will not be challenged on the basis of their ethically weak positions
  2. Those making economic arguments based upon short-term narrow self interest will not be forced to admit that those causing climate change have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others who can do little to reduce climate change’s threat but who are most vulnerable to climate change’s consequences.
  3. The ethical dimensions of economic arguments will remain hidden in public debate in cases where economic arguments against climate change policies appear to based upon “value-neutral” economic “facts” although the calculations of the “facts” contain ethically dubious calculation procedures such as: (a) discounting future benefits that make benefits to others experienced in the middle to long-term virtually worthless as a matter of present value. (b) economic arguments usually only calculate the value of things harmed by climate change on the basis of market-value thus translating all things including human life, plants, animals, and ecological systems into commodity value, or (c) the economic calculations often ignore distributive justice issues including the fact that some people and places will be much more harshly impacted by climate change than others.
  4. Important ethical issues entailed by decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty will remain hidden including: (a) Who should have the burden of proof?, (b) What quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof when decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty? (c) Whether the victims of climate change have a right to participate in decisions that must be made in the face of uncertainty?, and (d) Whether those causing climate change have obligations to act now because if the world waits to act until all uncertainties are resolved it will likely be too late prevent catastrophic impacts to others and to stabilize greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at safe levels.
  5. Because no national, regional, local, business, organization, or individual climate change strategy makes sense unless it is understood to be implicitly a position on its duties and obligations to others to prevent climate change, whether the strategy is just or fair in relationship to the entity’s obligations to others will go unexamined.
  6. Given that the world needs a global solution to climate change, and that only just solutions to climate change are likely to be embraced by most governments, barriers to finding an acceptable global solution will continue.
  7. Unjust climate change policies will be pursued that exacerbate existing injustices in the world.
  8. Because those who cause climate change are ethically responsible for damages caused by them, funding for adaptation projects needed by those most vulnerable to climate change will not be generated.
  9. Because no nation may ethically use as an excuse for non-action on climate change that it need not reduce its greenhouse gases to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations act, nations will continue to inappropriately refuse to act on the basis that other nations have not acted.
  10. Because the amount of reductions that nations should achieve should be based upon principles of distributive justice and not-self interest, nations will continue to make commitments to reduce their emissions based upon self-interest rather than what is their fair share of safe global emissions.


Donald A Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University

6 thoughts on “Ten Reasons Why Examining Climate Change Policy Controversies Through an Ethical Lens Is A Practical Imperative.

  1. A well presented piece in the above. By any chance is Hans Jonas’ Imperrative of Responsibility playing a roll in some of your arguments here?

  2. Great article. I believe the media in America has a certain ethical responsibility to cover climate data inconsistencies from the UK and even data here that has been compromised.

  3. My suggestion is to make failure to act on climate change issues an international criminal violation!
    Failure to act = criminal act
    Dennis Baker

  4. “That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.”
    Given that most of the worst impacts of manmade global warming are decades off, many if not most of the people who will be the primary victims have not yet been born. When considering the ethical responsibility of the developed nations who are spewing most of the greenhouse gases, we might also consider the ethical responsibility of people in the developing nations who are choosing the number of future victims. Burning fossil fuels, and creating children, are choices that people make. That fact that one group of people (in the developed nations) makes an unethical choice does not absolve another group of people (in the developing nations) from ethical responsibility as they participate in determining the number of future victims of climate change.
    If the developing nations voluntarily slash their birthrates, they can reduce their populations through natural attrition over the coming decades. As climate change begins degrading the carrying capacities of their lands, smaller populations will probably suffer less than larger populations. A shrinking population has a higher average age, greatly reducing the number of most vulnerable people in a crisis: children. Smaller populations will mean that compensatory payments from developed nations will provide more benefits per victim.
    This is unfair, just as it is unfair that I must lock my doors because some criminals exist. But complaining about the unfairness of crime never stops it. Potential victims must take the steps available to protect themselves first, in the event that ethical arguments do not stop their victimizers.
    Consider an analogy when an arsonist sets a building on fire. The doorman is not responsible for setting the fire, but if he knows what the arsonist is doing, he should not increase the number of victims by letting more people into the building when he knows it will burn down. The doorman has no ethical grounds to carry on as if the arsonist does not exist, even though the arsonist creates the problem and commits the larger crime.
    Another difficult problem is that the developed nations will only have wealth to share with developing nations if the developed nations continue to grow their economies. At present it is hard to grow an economy without burning more fossil fuel, which only adds to the problem. There is approximately zero chance of persuading whole populations in the developed nations to happily accept large across the board reductions in income, and forcing people to pay reparations tends to breed resentment as occurred in the Weimar Republic. It is difficult to imagine the developed nations ever choosing to pay for the full costs of their cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.
    There are also counter-arguments about the benefits to the developing nations of economic activity in the developed nations. The developing nations might not be able to develop at all without the technology and assistance they get from developed nations – reinventing all that stuff from scratch appears to be so difficult that the scientific revolution might have had only one chance to get started. A full accounting of the costs and benefits to the developing world would be difficult. In the meantime, the developing world can take steps now to protect itself from climate assault by slashing birthrates.

  5. Your premise that this is only a problem for future generations is not consistent with the mainstream scientific view. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose health and welfare are already being harmed by climate change.

  6. Yes, When I went to the New School for Social Research, Hans Jonas was on the faculty and I was very influenced by him.

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