Climate ethics principles

Building in Old Montreal

Last November, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convened a meeting in Nairobi. One document that resulted from that meeting was the White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (PDF). On the basis of arguments similar to those I have heard from Henry Shue and Stephen Gardiner, the document lists seven things that states intending to behave ethically on the climate change problem should do:

  1. Immediately acknowledge that they have a duty to reduce their emissions as quickly as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions;
  2. Immediately agree that an international greenhouse gas atmospheric stabilization target should be set as low as possible unless those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts have consented to be put at risk from higher levels;
  3. No longer use scientific uncertainty or cost to their economies alone as justification for refusing to reduce GHG emissions;
  4. No longer refuse to reduce GHG emissions now on the basis that new less-costly technologies will be available in the future or that not all other nations have agreed to reduce their GHG emissions;
  5. Accept national targets for assuring that atmospheric concentrations of GHG are protective of human health and the environment that are based upon ethically supportable allocation criteria;
  6. Acknowledge that nations commit human rights violations that refuse to reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of global emissions needed to protect those most vulnerable from climate change to loss of life, health, and well-being;
  7. Accept that those who are responsible for climate change have a duty to pay for costs of adaptation to and unavoidable damages from climate change.

Generally speaking, these are fine principles. If every major emitting state adopted them, it is entirely plausible that emissions could be brought down to sustainable levels within the next couple of decades and that the inevitable consequences of climate change from past emission could be equitably addressed. What the list fails to consider is the inherent Nash Equilibrium problem. States do not act as all states would act in an ideal world; rather, they generally act in a way that is rational given their inability to control the actions of other states. Given the Stern conclusion that mitigation is far less expensive than inducing and enduring climate change, it would be in the interest of all states to mitigate. Given how many states are proving reluctant to take that seriously, states that are serious about tackling the problem find themselves pushed towards a rationality of building up adaptive capacity instead of reducing emissions.

All that said, ethicists are not meant to be pragmatists. Having a well-argued idea of what ethical behaviour in the face of climate change would be provides a cognitive platform from which to evaluate current actions. It may also help to raise the overall profile of the issue in democratic states where moral and ethical argumentation can be an important element of the political process.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Climate ethics principles”

  1. I find Canada’s position particularly interesting, since it is one of the countries most at risk (give that temperature changes are greatest near the poles, the permafrost is starting to melt, warmer temperatures are encouraging pine beetle etc) yet refuses to do anything substantive. Of course, the reasons for inactivity are presumably feared economic costs and uncooperative provinces so this paper partially addresses the problem. Still, I can’t see it swaying doubters, particularly if they’re also people who reject communitarian ethics in favour of individualistic ethics.

  2. Canada doesn’t see itself as being especially at risk, largely because politicians concentrate on changes that would occur when mean global temperatures shift by less than two degrees. Hence all the talk about longer growing seasons, the opening of new agricultural lands, and less hypothermia.

    Beyond two degrees, people have much less of an idea what sort of changes will occur or how they will be distributed geographically.

  3. Why the West must protect Africa against harm from climate change

    “The world’s richest countries, which have contributed by far the most to the climatic changes linked to global warming, are already spending billions of dollars to limit their own risks from its worst consequences.

    But despite long-standing treaties to help poor countries deal with warming, these industrial powers are spending just tens of millions of dollars on ways to limit climate and coastal hazards in the world’s most vulnerable regions — most of them close to the equator and overwhelmingly poor…

    Africa accounts for less than three per cent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840 million people face some of the biggest risks from drought and disrupted water supplies, according to new scientific assessments.”

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