Bringing the Climate Ethics Debate Home

Editor’s note:  The following short post argues that we need to develop simple narratives about the ethical dimensions of climate change to effectively communicate the ethical issues. This is the first in a series of posts that will explore how to communicate to the public the ethical dimensions of climate change discussed in

Bringing the Ethics Debate Home
Much has been written about the ethical implications of climate change and the moral imperatives for governments to take action to mitigate causes, to aid adaptation to changing conditions, and to reduce poverty.  But most of this rhetoric has been aimed at negotiators or at decision makers at the national level.  The arguments often name and shame, and demand that governments take particular actions to combat climate change.

Such arguments are necessary but not sufficient to support international action.  We often forget that negotiators rely on domestic public support for their decisions.  It will do no good to negotiate a new agreement in Copenhagen if the agreement cannot be ratified when negotiators take the agreement back home.  Climate change action will require political support at the national, state, local, and individual level.

Ethics involves issues of fairness, justice, rights, duties, and responsibilities.  People discuss what is right and fair every day, and make judgments about when people should be held responsible for their actions and what remedies should be made available to people who are injured.  By focusing these discussions on climate change, people can better understand what is at stake and what actions can be taken both to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its impacts.

Conversations about climate ethics need to take place across scales and engage individual citizens, local officials, and national decision makers as well as climate negotiators.  Right now, this may be happening most effectively within both environmental groups and faith-based communities, both of which are accustomed to dealing with questions of personal responsibility and stewardship for the earth.  What we need are narratives that will engage others in conversation about procedural and distributive ethical issues and the need of poor countries to develop.  These stories should show the real differences that changes in behavior at home, or transfers of money or technology to distant countries, can make in peoples’ lives.  They should show how action on climate change can make lives better at home and abroad. They should demonstrate how quality of life can be improved for future generations as well as for those of us alive today.  And they should show how human activities can affect the natural systems on which we depend and with which we share this planet.

Simple narratives are needed to show how human activities are affecting the global climate, which in turn is producing adverse impacts on distant people and ecosystems.  We need stories about how families in marginal agricultural areas, coastal environments, or in other areas at risk will be, and in some cases already are, affected by a changing climate.   And we need narratives about how climate change could change the world for future generations.

Many effective narratives already exist.  Dale Jamieson has constructed a clever series of increasingly complex scenarios involving the theft of a bicycle that demonstrate the difficulties involved in holding someone responsible for actions separated in space and time from their impacts.  (Jamieson, 2007) The Inuit Circumpolar Council has done a wonderful job of communicating their story to the world.  By appearing at international meetings and through stories reported in the media, they have shown how their lives have already been impacted by climate change, and how their traditional practices are threatened by changing conditions.  Pictures of the iconic polar bear have made people more sensitive to changing ecosystems and the threats to species.  Rotary International has produced an effective television advertisement about the positive impacts of their programs.  It begins with an arid cartoon landscape.  Then, with the turn of a spigot, it shows how water flows through the land, turning it green, producing crops, and feeding people.

These stories need to be extended to other people, other species, other lands, and other times.  But we need to portray more than the problems that climate change creates.  We need to empower citizens by showing them how they can make a difference in reducing the drivers of climate change, and how they can help people at home and in distant lands and future times to deal with the challenges of a changing climate.  We need narratives that show there is hope where there is a will to help.  We need to teach citizens about climate ethics so that they will understand the issues and support action when their negotiators finally bring a climate agreement home.

Marilyn Averill
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado at Boulder

Jamieson, Dale , The Moral And Political Challenges Of Climate Change, 2007


~ by Cory Morningstar on May 11, 2009.

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