Dale Jamieson is Director of Environmental Studies at New York University, where he is also Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy.

The Ethics of Climate Change

by Dale Jamieson

The consequences of climate change will challenge us to reshape and reform our concepts of individual and political morality.

In the United States, the idea of a confluence between natural disasters and social class burst onto the national consciousness with Hurricane Katrina. Many people around the country simply did not think of these issues as being related. But this is a very a-historical understanding of natural events and hazards. The poor and powerless have always suffered the most from extreme climactic events. This has been well documented back to the little ice age in Europe, the period roughly between 1300 and 1850.

We can look at more recent incidents as well. There was a heat wave in Chicago in July 1995 that killed 739 people, more than four times as many as the Oklahoma City bombing, which had occurred three months earlier. The victims of the heat wave were disproportionately low income, elderly, African-American males living in violence-prone parts of the city. Indeed, many of the people who were found dead as a result of heat stroke were living in apartments where the windows were nailed shut, because concerns for personal security trumped other considerations. These are the types of events that are going to occur with greater frequency and intensity in the future. It is a world where events impact the poor and the powerless more frequently than the rich and the powerful.

Bangladesh provides a good case for focusing on the human impacts of climate change in the developing world.  Bangladesh is in a region which is prone to cyclones and great floods. In 2007, three thousand people were killed by floods and 7 million were affected. Atiq Rahman, a Bangladeshi and a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warns that the severity and frequency of extreme events will increase, that 20 percent of the country will be inundated with salt water, and that some 20 million people will be displaced over time.

Among the particular aspects of climate change is the fact of delayed consequences. Suppose I stand on your foot. This is an unjust act, but when I stop standing on your foot, the pain subsides and the injustice is over. The impact of greenhouse gases, however, will go on for a millennium or more. So it is imperative that we act sooner rather than later. On this issue, justice delayed really is justice denied – for a very long time.

Mitigation and Adaptation
In the climate change discussion, there is a difference between mitigation and adaptation. The former means actions taken to stabilize and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while the latter means actions that people take in response, such as building sea walls and moving population centers away from vulnerable areas.

It is important to recognize that much of the talk about ethics and justice in climate change has been on the mitigation side. When we talk about carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, we need to look at who is going to bear the cost of shifting the global economy away from carbon. This is a mitigation discussion.

There are other important issues. Countries like Bangladesh have not significantly contributed to the problems that they will suffer. They also lack the resources to adapt to the new world that is coming. Who is going to pay for that transition? This is a question of ethics and justice as it relates to adaptation.

Re-Imagining Moral Problems
This is our paradigm of a moral problem: Jack intentionally steals Jill's bike. Jack is the agent. He has bad intent. He harms Jill. The causal nexus is there. We know how to think about these kinds of issues. We have no problem saying: “Jack did something wrong.”  

Let's complicate things a little. Suppose Jack is part of an unacquainted group of strangers, each of whom acts independently and takes one part of Jill's bike, resulting in the bike's disappearance. Example three: Jack takes one part from each of a large number of bikes, one of which belongs to Jill. Example four: Jack and Jill live on different continents and the loss of Jill's bike is the consequence of a casual change that begins with Jack ordering a used bike at a shop. In this case, Jack acts like a mindless consumer.

Now suppose Jack lives many centuries before Jill and consumes materials that are essential to bike manufacturing. As a result, it will not be possible for Jill to have a bicycle. Jack is living unsustainably.

Last example: Putting all these pieces together, Jack and a large group of unacquainted people set in motion a chain of events that causes a large number of future people who live in another part of the world to not have bikes.

In this analogy, we begin with the paradigm of a moral problem. Then we change the terms to reflect the particular aspects of the climate change issue, and we come to a place where it no longer conforms to the paradigm of a moral problem.

We are going to have to reshape and reform our notions of responsibility in our moral, political and legal systems to be able to adequately account for this harm. Our intuitions are going to have to be educated by the way causal networks work in a world in which technological reach is very great. This is a difficult challenge.

Our paradigm of morality has to do with our challenges as biological creatures. As psychologist Dan Gilbert has noted, all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, but none has a rule about atmospheric chemistry. We are outraged by every breach of protocol, except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it does not make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced.

I think our moral sentiments can be educated. They can stretch, and they can develop. I'm asking us to do that. We need to do the theoretical work to make that happen.

Tags: ethics, climate

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