Why Climate Change Must Be Seen As An Ethical Issue

To read full article visit: http://climateethics.org/?p=138

Although this is an article focused on U.S. – it is easily applicable to all G8 countries including Canada – the world’s worst performing country on climate change.

Why Climate Change Must Be Seen As An Ethical Issue

Yet, 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. For instance, a recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum found that human-induced climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is now affecting 300 million people around the world. (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009) This report also projects that increasingly severe heat waves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030.

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 this issue as if the only legitimate consideration is how our economy might be affected.

The US press almost never challenges those who oppose climate change on the basis that policies will increase cost. This is curious because the debate at the international level has created a consensus among all countries that those developed countries most responsible for climate change should take the first steps to reduce its enormous threats. In fact the senior George Bush administration in 1992 agreed that the rich developed countries including the United States should take the lead in combating climate change when it negotiated and finally ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (UNFCCC Art. 3, 1992)

In the United States, however, even those supporting climate-change policies often follow the same implicit reasoning on cost by responding that climate-change policies will create jobs. Although this may be true, depending upon the actual policies implemented, this limited focus on job creation undermines the need to help Americans see their ethical duties while giving unspoken support for the notion that the reasonableness of climate change policies turns on whether they will create jobs.

Because the majority of climate scientists believe the world is running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change, a case can be made that there is a urgent need up the to turn volume about American duties to others to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

Economists can help us figure out how to meet our obligations at lowest cost, yet increased cost alone is not a sufficient excuse for failing to meet our responsibilities.

By:
Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law,
The Pennsylvania State University
dab57@psu.edu

“Climate policy is characterized by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. There is an urgent need to understand global warming and the tipping points for dangerous impacts that we have already crossed as a sustainability emergency that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise. We are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.”
David Spratt, Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red, Australia, Published July, 2008

~ by Cory Morningstar on August 10, 2009.

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