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Ten reasons why examining climate change policy through an ethical lens is a practical imperative

By Climate Guest Contributor  

"Ten reasons why examining climate change policy through an ethical lens is a practical imperative"


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Our guest blogger today is Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor for environmental ethics, science, and law at Penn State.  He blogs at ClimateEthics (a Time magazine Top 15 pick).

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.

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.

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 this issue as if the only legitimate considerations are how our economy might be affected or whether adverse climate change impacts have been proven.

Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical and justice issues, the failure to examine arguments opposing climate change policies through 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.

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35 Responses to Ten reasons why examining climate change policy through an ethical lens is a practical imperative

  1. Prokaryote says:

    Thanks great blog and i thought about sublime while reading.

  2. This is very smart and important. Readers who wish a better sense of how those ethical principles translate into policy might want to look at Tom Athanaiou and Paul Baer’s powerful work at EcoEquity (http://www.ecoequity.org/) and Greenhouse Development Rights (http://gdrights.org/). This is a crucial frame–and also quite politically useful for those of us trying, among other things, to do work in faith communities and on campuses, where these arguments resonate with particular power.

  3. ewh says:

    An excellent post. I can help being reminded, though, that one of the things driving American politics to the right, beginning in the late 70s, was responsibility fatigue. There got to be a critical mass of Americans who were simply sick and tired of hearing about how our lifestyles were harming other people and our responsibility to do something about it. I agree that the ethical argument is the real reason we need to act. But this is another case where messaging is important. Inter-generational justice is likely to be a more compelling argument for a lot of Americans than international justice.

  4. ken levenson says:

    to follow on ewh –
    look no further than today’s NY Times A1. Elizabeth Rosenthal appears to have been body snatched by Andy Revkin – in a bizzaro world where Roger Pielke Jr. represents “mainstream scientists”. Who knew?

    (no wonder Pielke was silent in the “who is a climate scientist” debate over the weekend on this blog…clearly biding his time for Rosenthal’s half-baked concoction. well done!)

    [JR: I'm on it.]

  5. Jezrah Limon says:

    Is it ethical to borrow trillions from our grand children? Then they make the payments? The old ways, parents left money for their children. This new order we leave them the bills.

    [JR: It is ethical to borrow money for investments that will benefit our children. People borrow money for their children's education, for instance. Borrowing money from our children to make investments that will harm our children, however, fail the test.]

  6. MarkOlsthoorn says:

    Thanks for the great analysis. But doesn’t the ethical lens paint different pictures for those that support the climate change consensus and those that don’t believe it is happening? In this piece the recognition that climate change is real, serious and unevenly distributed seems to be the starting point. Isn’t climate science denial a much used way to dismiss oneself from ethical scrutiny?

  7. Lou Grinzo says:


    And how ethical is it to impose immense environmental deficits on our kids and ensuing generations? Many of the planet’s most important sources and sinks are either finite or can’t recover in a useful-to-humans time frame.

    If all you do is focus on the cost of an investment, as you do in your post, and ignore the benefit, then you have a perfect formula for reaching bad conclusions. (Making the opposite error–looking at just the benefits from an investment without considering the costs is just as bad, of course.)

    The overwhelming scientific conclusion is that we have to make very large changes to how we do everything that involves energy, which is, basically, everything. When I say “we have to” I’m talking about what’s in the best interest of humanity, not some greenie utopian view of how we should live our lives. The combination over the last two centuries of population growth and the increase in environmental impact per capita have left us confronting peak oil and climate change. The sooner more of us recognize that and get serious about acting in our own best interest, the better off we’ll be.

  8. Chris Dudley says:

    I would say that much of the activism around Copenhagen was based on ethical arguments. And, those arguments are pushing the science harder than the usual pace, with a 350 ppm limit on carbon dioxide in the air coming to the fore.

    But, I’m not so sure that in the economic argumentation here in the US there is not an ethical or moral dimension. If we accept trickle down or rising tide propositions even just for the sake of arguments, then we are accepting that economic growth is an inherent benefit generally. So, when one side agues economic harm in mitigation, they are making an ethical argument, however much it may feel hypocritical. And, when one concedes that some people may not accept the science, an appeal to patriotism to boost the US economy over that of China is a moral argument even if it is invoked as a fall back.

    So, it is not that ethical or moral arguments are absent, it is that our reference frame is based on the idea that economic growth and competitiveness are moral/ethical goods.

  9. David Smith says:

    Predicting economic outcomes may be more difficult than environmental outcomes. The laws of physics are better understood and economics involves human interactions that are much more unpredictable.

    One of the dynamics that may be happening here, as has happened on occasion in the past, is a massive transition and power shift similar to the early days of industrialization. Structures of human power and influence will change, fall, become obsolete. New structures will replace them. This is not ethics, it is competition.

    Old industries are trying to preserve themselves. The shift towards a sustainable, clean energy economy is inevitable. The old ways will not survive. The only question is will we control the shift in a way that sustains life or will we do it as disaster recovery.

  10. mike roddy says:

    Great and important piece, and the comments, too.

    Joe, you and Bill are two of my inspirations, along with Randy Hayes (RAN founder) and Tim Hermach (Native Forest Council founder). All of you continue to fight no matter what, and are indifferent about personal rewards or penalties. You also seek truth, wherever that leads.

    Ethics is one way to frame it, but it really comes from love.

    Chris, I liked your point about how some see skepticism as deriving from the morality of assuring short term flow of goods and services. My personal experience is different: I see people like Pielke and Monckton as sad and damaged souls, who deserve compassion on some level, but who cannot be communicated with on ethical grounds.

  11. Leif says:

    Where else but CP can you find stuff like this. Thank you all.
    As long as we are talking ethics here, just what is so sanctimonious about the present allocation of money? The Rich have acquired their vast wealth largely by gaming the system and disregard for environmental consequences. (rape and pillage if you will). That humanity should be obliged to borrow money from said Rich and pay interest on same to reestablish a livable earth is ludicrous in my eyes. There is lots of money out there. It currently is held by folks who care not if earth retains viable life support systems. Humanity owes the rich, for the most part, ZERO. Sue them, reboot the economy, charge capitalism with long term sustainability first and shareholders second.

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    Yes, AND/BUT …

    I agree with Donald Brown’s ten points and thank him for the great post. Although all are VERY important, I think the points he raises in his points 3 and 4 are critically important and are practically absent from most discussions.

    In part, this problem may well be a matter of what the press understands (or rather, doesn’t understand) and what the press unfortunately and irresponsibly chooses not to cover. The press IS a big part of the problem, undoubtedly.

    But the problem (i.e., that these discussions are often lacking) is almost certainly also a result of not enough ethicists and moral philosophers speaking out loudly, clearly, effectively, and persistently about these things. For example, I’ve attended a number of large conferences of professional academic philosophers in recent years, and only a very few sessions at those conferences – and usually very small sessions – focus on climate change or try to tackle these particular ethical issues. And, alas, very few ethicists and moral philosophers show a willingness or eagerness to take a break from the sessions to march over, en masse, to the nearest national or state capital to demonstrate on the steps, with signs, about the need to face these sorts of issues. At the major conferences anyhow, MANY more people attend sessions about, and disagree about, what Hume or Kant or Aristotle or etc. said centuries or decades ago than attend the few small sessions about climate change or the particular issues Don mentions in his list, as they pertain to climate change.

    So, I think it’s reasonable and fair to suggest that both the press and ethicists/moral philosophers can – and should – do a much better job of “what they do” to call the public’s attention to these vital and urgent issues.

    But there is another issue too, at the root of how we understand these matters …

    Although I agree with the net outcome of Don’s post – his ten points – and I applaud his sense of urgency, some of his comments in his preamble suggest that he might accept some (what I would call) long-held misconceptions about the degree of separate-ness vs. relatedness between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, fact and value, and etc. Put another way, at least some of what he says in his preamble argument suggests, to me, that he is coming at the matter from a conventional – and not entirely correct, in my view – way of thinking about big “insurmountable gaps” between the realm of scientific understanding and the realm of morality. Doing so causes problems, because it overlooks some of the science of the matter (having to do with human morality itself), relies far too much upon ages-old arguments that are less grounded than they should be, and, in the end, misses some of the deepest roots of the moral case.

    We humans have our social-moral faculties in the first place because they, and the abilities and tendencies they enable, have facilitated our survival-plus-reproductive-success over the long course of time, albeit very imperfectly, with lots of bumps and so forth. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists use the word ‘adaptations’. Life scientists of all sorts refer to “enhancing fitness” and “reproductive success”. Life values its own survival AND continuance from one generation to the next, i.e., successful reproduction. And, we have our human “sociality” and associated skills BECAUSE they have helped facilitate that aim, more rather than less.

    Some scientists will put it this way: “Morality is an evolutionary adaptation to social living.” (Bekoff and Pierce). Others will put it like this: “The ultimate point of ‘sociality’ is enhancing fitness.” And it can be put in a wide range of other words as well.

    For present purposes, a main point is that morality itself has to do NOT ONLY WITH the present generations but ALSO with bringing about the future, or at least giving successful birth to it, in a way that allows and enables the next generation to survive and continue the life-stream, so to speak. Morality itself, viewed from above the fray and from the outside looking down, is not solely or even primarily about “me now!” but is also about the “us”, of course, AND about this generation plus one (and, to a degree, even two). Although what we can understand from science is mainly descriptive and explanatory in nature, a very solid combination of reasoning and fact can support an affirmation of this value, aim, and corresponding moral ‘ought’ at the meta level: We can reasonably conclude that we (humans) are justified in holding the view that we ought to try to survive as a species, on an ongoing basis, based on all evidence available to us. And I mean ‘ought’ quite literally here, in the full normative sense. Given that we are also aware of the dimension of time, and of our interdependence with the rest of nature, such an understanding leads directly to a grounded moral case for sustainability, as it should do. And this should not surprise us.

    Also, of course, if the human species ceases to survive, human morality itself will cease to exist. From a secular standpoint, you need to be alive to be moral (or immoral), happy (or unhappy), and etc. To the degree that something undermines human sustainability, it also undermines the very “point” and “reason for being” of morality itself, in essence.

    My main work involves the “common ground”, “common foundation”, “central connective matter” between the scientific understanding of human morality and the (secular) moral philosophy of the matter – or put another way, it involves “bridging” the science and philosophy of human morality into a grounded understanding. As it turns out, that understanding is very supportive of – indeed, inseparable from! – the grounded and vital moral case for sustainability.

    To be clear, Don’s ten points are VERY important, of course, and I think that both the media and ethicists/moral philosophers should be doing MUCH more on those matters. And I applaud Don for his persistence!! My only qualifying point, here, is that a more grounded and rooted understanding of human morality than is typical – i.e., one that combines scientific understanding and philosophical reasoning into a grounded understanding – provides a better understanding of morality and, at the same time, provides a much more forceful moral case for sustainability itself.

    I’ll end with several quotes that help shed light on the matter (for those interested):

    “Ethical philosophers intuit the deontological canons of morality by consulting the emotive centers of their own hypothalamic-limbic systems.” – E. O. Wilson

    “In ethics as in optics, we need stereoscopy to see the world in all its dimensions.” – Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Experiments in Ethics”

    “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein

    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” — Aldo Leopold

    “Some people would rather die than think; and many do.” – Bertrand Russell

    “You cannot be considered an ethical company if you do not follow sustainability principles. Nor can you apply sustainability concepts if you do not have a strong foundation of ethical principles. The two are intrinsically intertwined …” — Perry Minnis, Global Director, Ethics & Compliance, Alcoa

    “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” – Francis Bacon

    Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins
    www DOT ObligationsOfReason DOT com

  13. Daniel Coleman says:

    In airing his frustration that ethical- and justice-based arguments have not been duly considered in policy debates, Mr. Brown has ironically discounted the numerous ethical- and justice-based objections to the kinds of policies he endorses.

    Few seem to consider that sweeping governmental actions are unlikely to result in their intended effect, not to mention bring with them many damaging, unintended consequences besides. Few notice that those hurt most by such unintended consequences are as a rule the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Even fewer seem to ask whether this is a systemic problem with sweeping governmental actions, and if so why.

    Indeed, it is an injustice to frame the policy debate in the terms the author has chosen, as though we must choose between economic and ethical concerns. Those espousing widespread, coercive action do not have a monopoly on ethics, justice, or caring for the poor.

  14. Leif says:

    Daniel Coleman, #13: So, because pursuit of long term sustainability is not 100% guaranteed to be successful, humanity should accept the status quo which will be 100% successful in the destruction of earth’s life support systems. Very strange indeed.

  15. Brewster says:


    Very well said!

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    Foundations For The Moral Case For Sustainability, and etc.

    For those interested in morality itself, the relationship between morality and sustainability, the moral case for sustainability, and related matters, I offer and suggest some papers on my website.

    Although many of them are more detailed, “linear”, and written for philosophically minded scientists or scientifically informed philosophers, and some are fairly long and analytic or “step-by-step”, the three I’d suggest for present purposes are these (partly because they are short, they involve some thought-exercises, and they are directly relevant):

    “The Morality of Sustainability: A DIY Exploration”

    “Robot Revelations”

    “Darwin, Camus, and Hamlet went into a bar, AND …”

    You can find these papers, and the others, on my website, www DOT ObligationsOfReason DOT com. Just go to the “Additional Material From The Author” page of the site, using the navigation bar, and you’ll see links to these papers, by title, listed there.

    (People interested in the science of the matter, and the argument, in more detail, should consider some of my other papers, including “On Morality: Key Considerations and a Bridge”, “What good am I?”, “On Morality”, “On Morality: A View and Argument (one recent Abstract)”, and “To Scientifically Informed Philosophers and Philosophically Minded Scientists”.)

    I would also be happy to meet with anyone seriously interested in morality itself, and/or in the moral case for sustainability, and/or in the ethical issues associated with climate change, at the upcoming American Philosophical Association’s Pacific Division’s annual conference, which is coming up in less than a couple months in San Francisco.

    Thanks for your consideration, and …

    Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins

  17. Chris Winter says:

    Daniel Coleman wrote: “Indeed, it is an injustice to frame the policy debate in the terms the author has chosen, as though we must choose between economic and ethical concerns. Those espousing widespread, coercive action do not have a monopoly on ethics, justice, or caring for the poor.”

    Let me take these two points in reverse order.

    First, what is this “widespread, coercive action” you refer to? Is it the proposed cap and trade bill? Every tax, regulation, or mandatory fee is coercive by definition. The ethical questions involved are: “Is the measure necessary to achieve some social good?” and “Does its impact fall on various groups equitably?” In the case of cap and trade, it clearly is necessary to impose some price on CO2 emissions (here I assume you accept the reality of climate change) and a permits-trading scheme brings in market mechanisms, thus improving both fairness and effectiveness.

    At least, this is the potential of permits trading. However, it can be argued that the horse-trading that gave us the final form of the House bill favors those entities most responsible for the original problem. If this is the case, why do we still hear protests against it from representatives of coal-mining states, or from those beholden to energy companies?

    Second, I think you misread the author’s argument. He’s not saying we must choose between economic and ethical concerns; instead, he points out that ethical concerns should be added to the economic (and scientific) concerns.

    He’s right about that. The debate thus far has been mostly about a) the reality of scientific observations, and b) the costs of adaptation vs. mitigation. If I may put them simplistically, the arguments are:

    “Global warming isn’t happening, or at least man isn’t causing it.”

    “Yes it is, and here’s how we know human activity is responsible.”


    “Fighting climate change will destroy the economy.”

    “No, it won’t cost that much, and certainly will cost less than trying to cope with the consequences.”

    The ethical argument brings in the obligation of caring about the future: the welfare of our grandchildren, and the existence of other species. It has another dimension too: the realization that — as many recommended — we might have acted sooner, thus incurring far less cost and inconvenience. This is the ethical side of economics: the balancing of present and future costs. It does require us to remember Santayana’s dictum.

  18. Donald Brown says:

    Several comments on this article are in the nature of the article ignores the costs of taking action on climate changer if the mainstream science turns out to be wrong. No, any ethical analysis of climate change policies should consider the harms from taking action and not taking action. However, even if there is a calculation of harms that would be created if the science is overstating the problem, the point of the article is that we must still understand this as an ethical question, not as a “value-neutral” economic question and, as an ethical question, the person who wants to rely on such analysis must consider the duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others not to harm them if the science turns out to be correct, and not narrow, self economic interest alone in deciding to rely upon such calculations. In fact there are several additional ethical questions that arise if one were to rely on such calculations including in determining the value harms of not acting to reduce the threat of climate change, who should have the burden of proof to prove that the harms may not occur if the harms are uncertain, what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof, how do we measure the harms to those who could be harmed if the mainstream science is correct, should all potential harms be measured as dollar values that markets are willing to pay including the value of human lives that may be extinguished if no action is taken, and many other ethical questions. The point of the article is that these are all “ethical” questions which usually are hidden in debates about these issues and for that reason there a practical urgency to look at all major climate change policy issues through an ethical lens.

    The issue about what to do about scientific uncertainty is in itself a huge ethical question that rarely is looked at through an ethical lens. It is an ethical question because some people are acting in a way that puts others at potentially significant risk and therefore the victims of potential climate change harms have interests in deciding such questions as who gets to decide whether to err on the side of caution when there is a reasonable basis for concern about significant harm, should we wait until all uncertainties are resolved in cases where if we wait it may be too late to prevent catastrophic harm and in cases the longer we wait the more difficult it will be to stabilize ghg at safe levels. In other words, as the article says, the question of what to do in the case of scientific uncertainty is itself a deep ethical question, not a “value-neutral” scientific question. The point of the article is the need to examine climate change policy options through an ethical lens. Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law, Penn State University

  19. Jeff Huggins says:

    To Donald (Comment 18),

    Here again, I’m going to agree with you on your central points, and thanks again for the original post and your Comment 18.

    I completely agree with you on the “need to examine climate change policy options through an ethical lens”, including all that doing so involves. And I agree with your broader point, as I take it, that an examination and discussion of the important ethical aspects of the situation should be part of the entire climate change discourse. One can’t really understand the dilemma, in any holistic way, or decide “what should be done”, without giving heavy weight to the ethical dimensions of the matter.

    Of course, MANY MORE people need to start suggesting, and insisting on, those discussions if we are to actually get to the point where they happen, responsibly. So again, I applaud your points.

    That said, you being a philosopher, I’d like to convey what I was saying earlier in a way that utilizes some of your terminology from Comment 18. In order to make your central points, with which I agree, you use the phrase “value-neutral” with respect to science. And of course, in many senses, that’s entirely correct, and should be the case: The scientific quest shouldn’t be biased by personal values, nor can the scientific understanding of climate, for example, itself tell us what should be done. Of course. So, in all the senses necessary to the points you are making, I would agree.

    That said, there is a different aspect of the matter, a more fundamental aspect having to do with understanding morality itself, that can (often) be confused and lost by building a solid wall between “ethical matters” and “value-neutral science” as if they are two entirely separate and un-resolvable aspects of the universe or of being, i.e., as if there is the so-called “insurmountable gap” between scientific understanding and morality, as if never the two shall meet, as if scientific understanding can’t really “reach to the heart of morality” in a normative sense, … issues and phrases with which I’m sure you’re familiar.

    To be clearer, scientific understanding can shed immense light on what morality itself is, how we came to have it, what its most foundational “effective function” is, and so forth, at least from the descriptive and explanatory standpoints. Then, upon reflection, basic reasoning can affirm central aspects of all that, in the normative sense.

    In other words, even as scientific understanding of (for example) the climate is and should be value-neutral, and thus we need to “examine climate change policy options through an ethical lens”, our understanding and definition of that “lens” itself can and should be informed by scientific understanding — not of the climate, of course, but of human social-moral dynamics, their nature, their ultimate foundational “point”, and so forth. Put another way, nothing need come from “thin air” or from “let’s just assume”. Our understanding of human morality can, itself, be scientifically informed and grounded, in careful combination with reflection and reasoning.

    This point may not seem interesting or relevant to many non-philosophers, perhaps, but it’s very important. For one reason, among many, we can speak of an “ethical lens”, of course, and your general point is correct. But, as I assume you experience, when it gets to defining that lens, and understanding it, people (including philosophers) have widely divergent views of what that lens is, and what it is all about. We can say, and should say, “apply an ethical lens”, but we then must ask, which lens, or lenses, and what qualities and criteria? On this point, to a large degree, many schools of philosophy are not as well grounded, scientifically speaking, as they can be and should be. To remedy that, the scientific and philosophical communities should work much more closely together, on some shared problems, and in particular on an understanding of human morality that is, at once, scientifically sound and that avoids the fallacies that philosophers correctly point out … e.g., the naturalistic fallacy. That has been the core of my work, and I’d enjoy meeting with you at some point if you ever come out this way — to the San Francisco Bay Area, that is.

    Cheers and Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins

  20. Prokaryote says:

    Donald it’s a Win Win situation. If you sleep china will get the biggest part of the cake.

  21. Prokaryote says:

    Should read:
    If we sleep china will get the biggest part of the cake.

  22. Prokaryote says:

    Sorry i did not read correct, i meant to get the message out such slogans could transport it, can be used, because they withstand a critical viewpoint.

  23. Prokaryote says:

    On approaching a debate on ethics and howto transport the messages – to get people think about ie. clean energy in a more constructive way.

    ‘Counterfactual’ thinkers are more motivated and analytical,

    “For example, when asked to write an essay on how they met a close friend, the counterfactual group was asked to explain all of the ways they might have not met this friend. The factual group was only asked to recount the factual details of the first encounter. When reflecting on the alternative — never having become friends — the participants who were prompted to think counterfactually viewed their friendships as more meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance.”

    What happens if we not adpat in time? Or not fast enough? More significance is key.

  24. Chris Dudley says:

    Chris (#17),

    There is a moral argument to be made that putting a price on carbon to discourage its use is like putting a tax on slavery for the same purpose. Collecting the tax or arranging the trading scheme makes one complicit in the abomination because of the monetary consideration. A system of rationing leading to abolition of fossil fuels might be the purer approach. Cap-and-Trade does not seem to be a moral necessity though it does seem to be a practical one given that we dropped the ball on international leadership so that we can’t be choosers at this point. Hopefully we supplement Cap-and-Trade with internal regulation to the point where it becomes merely a way to attract foreign capital into the economy: Offsets-R-Us

  25. Mark says:

    Fantastic post. Thank you! We have proven that economic and scientific arguments do not have the power to win the debate, or more importantly to move people to take action, to change how they live their own lives, to change how we make decisions as a nation and a world.

    #3 ewh – It is an important point that you make about how primarily negative ethical arguments, people are dying, you need to stop doing x, y and z… can cause fatigue. You say that the move to the right came about as a result of this sort of responsibility fatigue. One could argue that in fact what happened was that the right started defining a positive ethical and moral vision framed around values and asked people to take a stand in a way that would bring about a better world.

    You are also right that calling people to protect the rights of our children and their children is an incredibly powerful moral argument and motivation for many. You are much more likely to win a debate when you have the moral high ground.

    However one might argue that this whole discussion about how we can use moral arguments as a way to win the debate is not where we should be focusing our energy.

    Perhaps we should be ignoring the naysayers and just start working on building the world we want to live in and leave to our children. After all, the climate change naysayers are in the minority if recent polls are to be believed.

    Nothing builds a movement more than actually moving. Show people that it is possible to make real changes in their homes, in their businesses, in their schools, and in their local communities. There is low hanging fruit everywhere you look. No need to wait for some international political consensus.

    We can build a better future. Let’s get to it.

  26. Donald Brown says:

    To Jeff Huggins: I agree completely that science and ethics are interlinked in many ways. We at ClimateEthics, for instance, say if we get the science wrong, we very well may get the ethics wrong. For this reason, climate change ethics must be a deeply interdisciplinary endeavor. For this reason, in most of our work we make our scientific assumptions expressly stated.

    The point of my article, however, is not that ethics is not dependent for some of its conclusions on factual matters described by science, but that scientific conclusions are often based upon ethical and normative assumptions which remain hidden because the general public assumes, incorrectly. that the science is “value-free.”

    Scientific investigations are often not “value-free” as many assume. For instance, scientific procedures often follow scientific norms about such matters as who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof that make sense for some issues but less sense ethically for other issues. For instance, scientific methods for some sciences, for a variety of good reasons, assume that there is no demonstration of proof unless there is an statistical association between cause and effect at a 95% confidence level. This is a norm that has been adopted by some scientific disciplines because scientists usually want fairly high levels of statistical confidence to have been satisfied before saying that event A causes result B. This insistence on high levels of proof makes sense in pure research where the researcher is engaged in the search for the “truth.” Such an approach privileges avoiding what is called a type II statistical error. This norm makes sense when society wants to avoid a “false positive,” in other words wants to be very careful before concluding that event A caused result B. However, when humans are doing something very dangerous in matters where because of complexity of the subject matter it is difficult to determine causation with high levels of confidence whether event A will cause result B, (as is the case in climate change), ethics might require that the burden of proof be shifted to those who want to continue to do something dangerous and thereby avoid what is caused a Type I statistical error, that is prematurely concluding something is safe when it is actually harmful. In such cases, insisting on high levels of proof before taking protective action may lead to great damage. To not act has consequences.

    The point of the article is to say that decision making in the face of scientific uncertainty about climate change raises ethical questions because not to act in the face of uncertainty has practical consequences. That is, to not act in the face of uncertainty may result in damage if one waits until all uncertainties are resolved. Yet as long as people say this is a “scientific” matter and assume that “scientific matters” raise no ethical questions about burdens of proof or quantity of proof, the ethical dimensions of decision-making in the face of uncertainty will remain hidden.

    The fact that decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises ethical questions should be obvious when people consider that most cultures make some types of dangerous behavior criminal such as driving dangerously or being less than very careful when one is handling very toxic substances. To protect people from these dangerous, most societies require that those engaging in potentially dangerous behavior be very, very careful. The law also requires different levels of proof depending upon the nature of the danger. In criminal cases, the prosecution must prove that the defendant did something “beyond any reasonable doubt.” In other matters, something is assumed to cause something else by the “balance of the evidence.” In other matters, the law puts the burden of proof on proponents of projects that are dangerous. This demonstrates that ethics usually requires levels of proof to shift depending upon what is at stake. Similarly in climate change science, as a matter of ethics there are questions about how much proof should be necessary before protecting people and ecosystems from adverse climate change damages. Yet if one assumes that climate change science is “value-neutral”, these ethical questions will not be spotted. This is one of the many reasons, why the failure to examine climate change debates through an ethical prism is foolish.

  27. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Donald (Comment 26),

    Thanks for your comment, Donald. I agree with all your points, and understand them. In my earlier comments, I was not disagreeing with any of those points or suggesting anything different. In fact, I think those are key points and need to be given a much higher degree of attention, as you are saying. About two years ago, I think it was, I saw Henry Shue give a great talk at an Energy and Ethics conference about the same matter … the ethics associated with making decisions in situations of uncertainty and risk, where the risks of possible harm are large. So, I understand what you are saying, and agree with it. In fact, at that conference, both Henry Shue and Dale Jameison (sorry if I’ve spelled incorrectly) gave excellent and urgent talks.

    What my point was — and I see you’ve gotten it and commented on it — was that scientific understanding itself (of what morality is, how it came about, and etc.) can shed an immense amount of light on morality itself, i.e., on “the lens” itself, as you put it. I wasn’t trying to make a point about the specific application of morality to climate change, or even about the ways in which climate change science itself might already have some ethical assumptions baked into it — I agree with your points about that. Instead, I was making a point that many people don’t get, including (in my view) a good number of philosophers. Many people still think — and it is often quoted or comes up in an article now and again — that scientific understanding can’t or doesn’t have relevance to “the heart of morality” in a normative sense; that there is an INSURMOUNTABLE GAP between “the world of ‘is’”, or “the way the world works”, and ‘ought’; that you can never “derive” any aspect of the latter from an informed understanding of the former; and that an understanding of human morality falls entirely within the realm of moral philosophy and/or religion and not at all within the scope of science. As you know, some of this goes back to the famous passage by Hume, and then others. Of course, Hume was a brilliant guy, but he wrote well before Darwin’s ideas saw the light of day, and so forth.

    So, in any case, I’m not disagreeing with you. I was merely or mainly trying to raise a different point, or an additional point, because some of your initial terminology (in the preamble) sounded like you might have been drawing a Humean-like “insurmountable line” of the sort that suggested that scientific understanding doesn’t have a vital (indeed, central) role in our understanding of morality itself.

    But back to the main matter: I agree with you wholeheartedly about the need for MUCH more focus on your ten points in discussions about the climate change problem. But how can that be brought about? I’ve attended a decent number of the main APA conferences in the past several years, and, although they are great and helpful conferences on other matters, relatively speaking, relative to the stakes, there is very little focus on climate change, at least relative to what I would hope and expect. By now, we should be marching down the streets, yes?

    Cheers for now, and thanks for your thoughtful responses,


  28. Roger says:

    Wow! Amazing thinkers on this site, and some great activists too!

    What strikes me about many of the above issues relating to climate are the critical roles of human “clock speed” and accumulated experience.

    Simply put, laws against certain behaviors have only been established after these behaviors have been repeatedly observed and judged “wrong.”

    With climate change we’re lawless, and in double trouble, because our clock speeds make the cause and effect relationships mostly invisible to most of our citizens, and we’ve not got the benefit of experience.

    We need real leadership from the top on this issue, so please consider signing a petition to President Obama, asking him to educate and lead on climate, found at http://www.change.org/global_warming_education_network.

  29. Prokaryote says:

    I think i’m going to read a little more into constitutional patriotism.

    As problems are global their solutions be as well. Therefore, only a global scale of decision-making is appropriate, and the foreign affairs of nations must all be seen as the domestic affairs of the global community. Based on his theoretical notion of societal legitimacy coming only from the active, ongoing consent of the people, Habermas shows how his notion of a political public sphere provides, by means of the deliberative agreements developed in radical liberal democracy, a way for people who formerly considered themselves strangers can come to see themselves as having a common self-interest at a larger social scale than they had previously imagined.

    The second larger consideration for Habermas is the supplanting of what he calls “constitutional patriotism” for ethnic nationalism as the substantial glue holding a diverse, pluralistic society together. In a “postmetaphysical” age, worldview pluralism means that people cannot base agreements at a political level on particular religious values. Similarly, in an age of immigration and retreating racism, it is no longer appropriate to build political consensus in the state primarily upon one culture’s values over another’s. Consequently, the only way forward is to expand the emancipatory potential already present even in culturally- or religiously-grounded democratic institutions– namely, that people come by practice to see that their own interests are best safeguarded in procedural systems of law and politics that systematically protect the interests of all equally. A dedication to such a political-legal system is what Habermas means by “constitutional patriotism,” as elaborated particularly in the essays later published as The Postnational Constellation.

    To understand the urgency and significance and large scale interconnection of systems, i found it practicaly to have media ilustrateing it. We need more images of things we going to loose and their consequences.

    Therfor if someone reads below quote, he might understand the significance better, if it is ilustrated with “counterfactual” images or videos. This could be comparsion scenarios or even news items or how the global scale influences the local level and vis versa.

    “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.”

    Water should be mentioned here as it is the most importend factor.
    There could be a grafic showing the significance, with threaten products and that depending on diffrent low/high risc scenarios are either not available anymore or later.

    Dr lovelock said for example, that because of certain human behaviour we cannot understand the magnitude of a problem when we just read about it. We might sent some goods or money, in case of a disaster happening somewhere else in the world, but we soon focus back on the local level.

    It seems abstract as long we cannot compare it to our local system. So we need to understand the global level and it’s inter connectivity. In this regards the latest pentagon report on climate change and the impacts on national security is a first step. And such body is automaticly assocciated with urgency and significance.

    “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.”

    But at the same time economic opportunities come up. The better place project is such an example. I think we have reached a critical level of urgency now worldwide, barriers should start now to shift the focus now to act, starting more local – ie. dealing with the local diversities of burocracy.
    A bigger problem will be conflicts which are not yet solved under diffrent terms and focus. But a critical mass is reached and an underlying understatement of the urgency to act as a hall is present. The climate change crisis is now the catalysator and will generate a global constitutional patriotism. For example the scene when the vice president in the end of the movie “the day after tomorrow”, agrees that the science had it right.

    ps. updated my email and sorry again for my post 20,21 and 22 (delete them if you like).

  30. Daniel Coleman says:

    Dear Leif,

    I am not disputing the ends, but the means. What is being proposed in the blog will effect the opposite of long-term sustainability.

    I am not here to debate the latter point, but rather to ask the present interlocutors to consider that their policies do not have the monopoly on ethical or justice-based considerations. And I need to add, in light of your comment, that neither do they have a monopoly on “long-term sustainability” concerns.

  31. Daniel Coleman says:


    You wrote: “The ethical questions involved are: “Is the measure necessary to achieve some social good?” and “Does its impact fall on various groups equitably?” In the case of cap and trade, it clearly is necessary to impose some price on CO2 emissions (here I assume you accept the reality of climate change) and a permits-trading scheme brings in market mechanisms, thus improving both fairness and effectiveness.”

    It is the latter half of this paragraph which I dispute. Even if I grant the good intentions of those who pursue such policies, the reality is that policies intended to “impose some price on CO2 emmissions . . . bring[ing] in market mechanisms”, etc. will not achieve their stated goals.

    (And in fact, they will have many disastrous side effects, like raising the price of food for the poorest in the world.)

    But keep in mind that I’m not here to enter the policy debate. I’m just a gadfly who would like to remind those here that theirs is not the only argument which is motivated for justice, ethics, care for the poor, etc. It is a grave injustice because it ignores a legitimate and important voice: the voice of those who do not see bureaucratic control as an effective or just response to the problem.

  32. Adam Sacks says:

    As far as I can tell, ethical considerations apply to you and me and people as individuals and villages worldwide. They don’t apply to corporate and government decision-makers, nor to consumers collectively who don’t want to give up what we like.

    Any meaningful application of ethics requires real relationships with real people, real animals, real earth. Ethics requires proximity. Otherwise it’s theoretical, it’s lip service.

    Government beyond the local level (and sometimes even at the local level) acts based on cultural imperatives. Simplistically (but accurately) put, in western and now global civilization the imperative is economics. Economics (which is decidedly not value-neutral), not ethics, is the “bottom line.” In a system that requires impossible exponential growth as its sustenance, ethics is a nicety, honored when not too inconvenient.

    When people are far away, or look different, or speak a funny language, collectively we can do anything to them and not mind enough to make a difference. Like dispatching predator drones from a video-game-like environment somewhere in Nevada, it’s nothing personal – unless you’re on the receiving end. Hence we drink coffee despite the harm it does to the people and habitats in areas of production – for “coffee” it’s easy to substitute “copper,” “oil,” “sugar,” “bananas,” etc. Those of us who have the luxury to debate ethics all use this horribly destructive stuff.

    Corporations were designed to insulate the human beings who run them from ethical questions, since their obligations are 100% economic, and any “ethical” responses are only in the context of money. In other words, “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is an oxymoron, an impossibility. As soon as CSR starts losing money, no more CSR – it’s far more important to the corporation to continue its existence than it is to be ethical. After all, no profit, no corporation. In fact, the only ethical act that many corporations – Exxon-Mobil, Altria, Coca-Cola, Nestles, Monsanto, etc. etc., a very long list – the only – ONLY – ethical course for them would be to close their doors and distribute their assets to their victims (not to their stockholders). Yeah, right . . .

    Public officials in centralized governments are similarly distant from the people they “represent,” but they are very close to lobbyists, colleagues and others whose job it is to influence them, which they do quite well. So they hardly have to face people dying for lack of health insurance, from toxic emissions, from economic neglect. Such are the “ethics” of government.

    This is clearly a long and complex discussion. I’ll just finish by saying we cannot go on living this way, technofixes absolutely will not work (because they’re still focused on the impossibility of exponential growth), and ethics, though vitally important, despite our fondest hopes, plays no role in the current system. The system is broken and is not fixable. We have to do something else – and we will, whether we want to or not. Nature is seeing to that quite handily.



  33. Mark says:


    Good comments. Interesting point to remind everyone that corporations do not have ethics…

    Also a good point that only people have ethics.

    When people tell you that company ABC is doing this or government DEF is doing that…

    Ask them to show you the corporation or the government that is taking those actions. If they look carefully, they will find only individual people making individual choices.

    I believe that corporation or an organization led by a team of highly ethical people can in fact act in highly ethical ways.

    Partners in Health (Philip Farmer’s corporation) comes to mind.

    What we need are more people who are willing to make decisions based on moral, rather than economic standards.

    The other interesting point you make is that it much easier to act unethically towards others when the people affected are a long way away or a long time away or not a member of my group…. or all of the above.

    Not one of us would sit down at a table with say 8 other people and eat 13 times more food than the others at the table. But that is what happens every day because we can’t see the other people sitting at our table.

  34. Chris Winter says:

    Daniel Coleman replied (in part): “But keep in mind that I’m not here to enter the policy debate. I’m just a gadfly who would like to remind those here that theirs is not the only argument which is motivated for justice, ethics, care for the poor, etc. It is a grave injustice because it ignores a legitimate and important voice: the voice of those who do not see bureaucratic control as an effective or just response to the problem.”


    It seems curious that, if you’re serious about your position, you insist on avoiding debate. I don’t think anyone here ignores the opposition to government actions that seek to control the effects of climate change. Rather, as I see it such measures are necessary to induce the free market to develop solutions to the problem. (Many leaders of businesses agree.)

    We’ve been through eight years when the Bush administration relied on “voluntary compliance” to solve the problem. Very little compliance from the major players in the energy industry resulted. This matches the general historical pattern of behavior by large corporations.

  35. Daniel Coleman says:

    Dear Chris,

    If you think that George Bush represented a free-market approach to any climate issues (or any other issue for that matter, although that’s another conversation), then you are gravely mistaken.

    Although I am passionate about policy debates, the reason I seek to avoid them in this thread is because I’m questioning the assumptions behind them. Most notably, the author of the blog post presupposes that introducing ethics into the debate = support for X, Y, and Z policies. I’m questioning the logical connection between the two; to sit here and debate X, Y, and Z policies would be beside my point.

    It is telling, too, that the responses directly or indirectly responding to my comment have focused on (surprise!) X, Y, and Z policies, OR have basically restated that ethics = support X, Y, and Z policies, which is precisely what is in question. Others have continued to talk about the ethics / economics dichotomy, which I have also disputed. You can see, therefore, why I might be motivated not to be drawn into any and every point someone writes in response to me.