Global Climate Change and Ethics

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The science section discussed several human activities that are accelerating global climate change. These include:

  • Burning fossil fuels and emitting an excess of CO2 gas into the atmosphere.
  • Manufacturing inorganic fertilizer, operating massive field machinery, factory farming, transporting food globally--industrial agricultural practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Cutting down massive tracks of forest and jungle, thus removing vegetation needed to absorb CO2.

1

Ethicist Stephen Gardiner calls global climate change a “perfect moral storm” because it intersects several highly complex ethical problems.1 First, climate change is a global problem in a world without an international political authority fully capable of managing it. The United Nations is a highly valuable institution, but it does not--in itself-- possess sufficient power to effectively enforce its planetary policy on CO2 emissions (see the Kyoto Protocol). The global political system remains a group of 195 independent nation states, each rationally driven to secure their own self-interest, and thereby often engaging in actions contrary to the best interests of the world as a whole.

Secondly, climate change is an intergenerational problem. Because the greenhouse gases that we continue to release into the atmosphere will stay there for a very long time, future generations will suffer the greater effects of global climate change.

Closer Look

In 2013, the governments of Norway and Tanzania sponsored an East African Youth Conference on Climate Change. Young people from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi and South Africa attended and discussed issues of climate change and intergenerational justice. Watch this video about this conference.

But unborn future generations have no voice in contemporary affairs; they cannot press politicians to make policies today that will be necessary for survival tomorrow. Because politicians must show achievements within the short period of time they are in office, most are unwilling to propose costly climate actions today that will only show rewards in the future.

Finally, a power differential exists between the people suffering most from climate change and the people responsible for causing it. In the global economy, the latter are financially powerful—and enjoy lifestyles wedded to the consumer goods responsible for CO2 emissions; the former are financially powerless—and have lifestyles that utilize comparatively little of the goods responsible for CO2 emissions.

Looking Back:

To review the foundations and norms of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, return to the Healing Earth Introduction.

This “perfect moral storm” reminds us of the basic questions posed at the end of the Mongolian Herders case study that opened this chapter.

  • Global climate change has created new moral problems not only for Mongolian herdsmen, but also for every human being on Earth. What are these moral problems?
  • Who is responsible for these problems?
  • What moral principles, goals, and virtues should guide our response to these problems?

The moral problems raised by global climate change call us back to the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic:

  • The natural world has intrinsic value.
  • The natural world has instrumental value.
  • The value of sustainability balances nature’s intrinsic and instrumental values.

These three ethical foundations give rise to the moral principles, goals, and virtues that should guide our response to climate change.

Moral Principles

The biotic and abiotic features of the natural world have an intrinsic value worthy of human respect. This means that the climate enveloping and sustaining our planet has value. To respect this value, humans must care for Earth’s climate. The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States concur. In their statement on global climate change, the bishops affirm that “the atmosphere that supports life on Earth is a God-given gift, one we must respect and protect.”2

Removing plant life from the Earth increases CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. However, a moral distinction exists between practices that increase CO2 concentrations, but are sustainable (top photo), and practices that are unsustainable (bottom photo). 1

This does not mean that every human action that creates greenhouse gases is morally wrong. Using fossil fuels, farming the land, and cutting down trees are not, in themselves, immoral actions. Immorality occurs when the scale of our fossil fuel use, industrial agriculture, and deforestation goes beyond the ability of the Earth’s atmosphere to restore itself. As we have repeated throughout Healing Earth, our planet’s natural resources have instrumental value for human and non-human life. However, the fundamental moral value of sustainability must guide and temper our instrumental use of these resources.

Calculate your carbon footprint. 1

 

 

 

The actions of one person cannot typically make a major alteration to planetary CO2 levels; but every effort adds up. By knowing that the cumulative effect of human action is warming Earth’s atmosphere, each of us has a moral responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint by making real efforts at lowering the use of fossil fuels, reducing our consumption of unnecessary products, buying more food from local organic farmers, and recycling. As stated in the Roman Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “the climate is a good that must be protected” and, to that end, consumers must “develop a greater sense of responsibility for their behavior“.3

climate refugees

In India, the slums of Dhakarta are growing due to the influx of climate refugees from Bangladesh.1

Global climate change also affects our efforts to respect human rights. Today, nation states around the world are unable to honor their citizens’ rights to security, food, water, and healthcare because local, regional, and national governments cannot manage the social impacts of climate change-induced droughts and rising sea levels. In 2013 alone, 22 million people were displaced from their homes due to natural disasters related to climate change.

Should international refugee law include climate change displacement?

Today, international law does not help people seeking safety abroad if their homes and livelihoods are destroyed by climate change-related phenomena. Should it do so? If so, should countries that emit the most CO2 be held responsible for relocating climate refugees? Read a discussion of this issue

The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that countries such as Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon islands, the Marshall islands, and the Maldives are likely to lose all or a significant part of their land in the next 50 years due to rising sea levels.4 Already today, it is estimated that the number of climate refugees in the world is three times greater than the number of people driven from their homes by war.5

In 2014, New Zealand became the first country in the world to accept refugee applications from families citing global climate change as the reason they cannot return to their homes.6 In the United Nations, the International Refugee Convention does not yet recognize climate change and sea level rise as legitimate conditions for requesting refugee status.

The atmosphere encompasses all of Earth’s habitats and inhabitants. It is an environmental common good, a feature of nature required for human beings to have “access to their own fulfillment”.7 Again, as the US Bishops write in their statement on global climate change:

Responses to global climate change should reflect our interdependence and common responsibility for the future of our planet. Individual nations must measure their own self-interest against the greater common good and contribute equitably to global solutions.8

Closer Look

The effects of climate change, such as drought, create conditions of starvation in many parts of the world. As a result, violence sometimes breaks out over the distribution of scarce resources. See this video showing what happened to villagers in northeast Kenya as a result of climate change-induced drought.

The ethical principle of the common good calls all of us to reduce greenhouse gases and make every effort at providing for the survival needs of climate refugees.

No country owns the atmosphere; it is part of the planetary commons.  This means that the ethical principle of the universal destination of goods includes climate. This principle holds that the availability, or ‘destination’, of goods necessary for life is ‘universal’; that is, a basic good such as a habitable climate is “owned” by everyone, it should not be compromised for some people by the actions of others. To state the principle, positively, all of us have a moral obligation to care for the atmosphere for the good of all.

As noted above, the people suffering most from the effects of global climate change are the poor, the majority of whom did nothing to cause it. How is this the case? The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research cites six reasons.

  • the poor are at greater risk because their nutrition and health status is much worse than those of wealthier people.
  • the poor are more likely to live where the climate is already extreme (very hot or arid, drastic seasonal variations, extreme weather events).
  • the livelihood of the poor is often based on climate-sensitive natural resources (agriculture, forestry, fisheries).
  • the poor usually have trouble accessing information (severe weather warnings).
  • the poor have fewer monetary assets and no insurance coverage against the hardships of climate change adaptation.
  • the poor are often excluded from their government’s political processes, making it harder for them to access state support before, during, or after a climate-change induced natural disaster.9

Closer Look

For an excellent summary of moral principles applicable to global climate change, see this presentation by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

On the other hand, those who suffer least from global climate change are people from wealthy and rapidly industrializing nations who are most responsible for creating it. From an ethical perspective, this puts a special responsibility on the most advantaged people to protect the poor by mitigating behaviors that contribute to global climate change. This action is called for by the moral principle of preferential option for the poor.

Questions to Consider

Imagine your small village of 1,000 people is asked to accept into the community 50 climate refugees who had to leave their island home due to rising sea levels.

  • Make a list of the practical challenges that this request might pose to your village.
  • Make a list of the moral principles, goals, and virtues relevant to maintaining your village as a safe and prosperous community.
  • Make a list of the likely needs of the 50 climate refugees.
  • Make a list of the moral principles, goals, and virtues relevant to your decision about accepting or rejecting the climate refugees into your village.
  • Make a decision and explain the practical and moral reasons behind your decision.

Moral Goals

The central moral goal with regard to global climate change is the reduction of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. To reach this goal, people and nations must work to:

  • eliminate fossil fuel usage
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduce consumption of unneeded products with embedded CO2 emissions
  • reduce deforestation activities
  • reduce industrial farming practices
  • reduce energy inefficiencies of old buildings
  • increase the use of wind, solar or other renewable sources of power
  • increase reforestation activities
  • increase sustainable farming practices
  • increase energy efficiencies of new buildings

Kyoto Protocol Participation: Countries in green: signed and ratified; yellow: signed, ratification pending; red: signed, but ratification declined; grey: no position. 1

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, nations around the world signed an agreement to control greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama announced his Climate Action Plan for the United States on June 25, 2013. One goal of the plan is to reduce CO2 emission in the United States by at least 3 billion metric tons cumulatively by 2030. This amounts to more than half of the current annual CO2 emission.1

This United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) did not set binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, but provided a framework for specific treaties (or protocols) that would be negotiated in the future.

In 1997, 191 nations and the European Union signed the Kyoto Protocol which set binding obligations on industrialized countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases during two commitment periods from 2005-2012 and from 2012-2020. The United States signed but did not ratify the Protocol and Canada withdrew from it in 2011.

One of the reasons the United States leaders did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol was their feeling that greater participation was needed from rapidly industrializing countries (such as China) which were predicted to surpass the United States in greenhouse gas emissions within 25 years. In the case of Canada, withdrawal from the treaty meant, in part, avoiding $14 billion in penalties the country anticipated facing by not meeting its required emissions reduction goals.

Despite setbacks, international treaties and national plans (such as President Barak Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan for the U.S.) will need to be part of humanity’s attempt to meet the moral goal of mitigating global climate change and ensuring a sustainable Earth for future generations.

Questions to Consider

You first learned about the "tragedy of the commons" in the Ethics section of the Natural Resources Chapter.Some ethicists view global climate change as a “tragedy of the commons”. They mean that even though a healthy atmosphere is part of the “commons” desired by everyone, most people do not feel sufficiently motivated to change their personal lifestyles and reduce their CO2 emissions. Thus, the tragedy of climate change.

Can you imagine a way to motivate people to change their lifestyles and reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and unneeded goods? Can you think of any manageable moral goals that might help people feel motivated to act to reduce their CO2 emissions?

Moral Virtues

Closer Look

Dr. David Suzuki has been a longtime courageous activist for reversing climate change. Watch this brief video to meet Dr. Suzuki and this longer video to hear his views on global climate change in detail.

The moral virtue most needed in addressing the challenge of global climate change is justice. We all need a greater felt sense of fairness to be motivated to act on the atmosphere in ways that alleviate the suffering of the poor and coming generations.

This includes the courage to stop externalizing the environmental costs of using fossil fuels. As Markus Vogt says in Climate Justice, “We are using the atmosphere as a rubbish dump and are burning, quite literally, the future of our children and grandchildren.”10 We must continue exploring ways to include the environmental effects of CO2 emission into the manufacturing and purchase price of products that use fossil fuel. 

According the US Bishops, “our response to the challenge of climate change must be rooted in prudence.”8 What this means is that it is essential for us to understand what is going into the atmosphere when we consume natural resources and produce waste, to identify the ethical principles at stake, and to adopt appropriate courses of action. Given the sound scientific evidence on the danger of excessive CO2 emissions, prudence dictates that we eliminate fossil fuel use and shift to renewable energy sources.

Temperance is another important virtue for responding to global climate change. Temperance is the virtue of moderation expressed through personal restraint. While renewable energy sources are in development, people must be willing to restrain their use of electricity by turning off electrical appliances when not in use and lowering thermostats (combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the single largest source of CO2 emissions). People also need to cut down on their use of transportation (the second largest source of CO2 emissions is highway vehicles, air travel, marine transport, and rail).

Closer Look

Read the Philippine Roman Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Exhortation on Climate Change.

These actions also reflect the virtues of kindness and generosity toward others and gratitude for the gift of Earth’s atmosphere. As the Roman Catholic Bishops of the Philippines state in their Pastoral Exhortation on Climate Change,

The task of addressing global warming and climate change is thus an urgent one. It begins with deep gratitude for the created gifts God has given us, and a renewed commitment to the sacred trust of caring for these gifts.11

By calling our care for the atmosphere a “sacred trust”, the bishops invite us to consider the spiritual dimension of our relationship with the natural world. It is this dimension that supplies us with the conviction and energy we need to live the ethical principles, goals, and virtues needed for healing Earth’s climate. To identify our own spiritual relationship with Earth’s climate, it is helpful to explore this relationship in people with spiritualities rooted in the religions of the world.

Questions to Consider

What kind of moral virtues do you feel a person needs to be both an environmental scientist and an environmental activist? Do you know a person with these qualities? If so, consider interviewing this person to discover how they entered into their career and how they came to care for the environment. Can you see yourself caring for the environment as you move into your life career?