Economic troubles will not ease climate pain


Maldives - flickr image by lujaz

In Australia economic troubles have made climate change a low priority. In the Maldives it has become a top priority. The low-lying nation will dedicate much of its tourism revenue to buy land elsewhere to resettle its people. Hard financial times will not make the ethical challenge of climate change go away

In a previous article I sketched a moral framework for thinking about climate change. I emphasised our solidarity with human beings of the present and the future and with the world. I also gave weight to responsibility. We must often act and lead when we have no certainty about the situation or the outcome of our action.

Our response must be based on the modelling that we see to be most probable. Although based on data that is certain, modelling cannot be more than probable. For that reason different responses to climate change can be offered in good faith, each appealing to its own assessment of the evidence.

Interpretations of the evidence, however, are not of equal weight. A strong majority, almost consensus, among scientists argues that climate change is real and is caused at least partially by human activity.

The strong majority view arguing that we face a serious threat to human welfare and to the natural environment makes it morally difficult for governments to ignore it in favour of a more comfortable view. If parents learned of a very persuasive threat to their children's welfare, responsibility would demand that they acted on it. Similarly with governments facing climate change. It is proper, though, to review the evidence.

Broadly speaking there are three possible approaches to climate change, each with its own moral consequences. The first approach argues that the evidence so far is explained better by normal climatic variation than by global warming. There is therefore no ethical imperative to reduce emissions.

The second approach argues that climate change is real, but that it cannot be mitigated by human intervention. Steps like reducing carbon emissions will be ineffective.

For the third approach climate change is substantially caused by human activity and can also be mitigated by human intervention. Most who adopt this approach argue that delay in reducing emissions will exacerbate climate change and the pain it brings with it.

To deny the reality of climate change is the most comfortable position because it does not demand costly change. For that reason its adherents need to scrutinise carefully their own motivation and their arguments. If this position amounts to nothing more than criticism of the opposed arguments it is not an ethical position. And given the nature of the issue, it could be ethically irresponsible.

If it is to be maintained with integrity, its proponents must address its exigent ethical corollaries. If normal climatic variations are responsible for the drought that affects so many in the world, our solidarity with all human beings makes us ask what steps affluent societies must take to help them now and ensure that they can pass to our descendants a world fit to live in. The plight of the Maldives concerns us.

If we believe that climate change is real but that nothing can be done to mitigate its effects, we have the same duty to ask how we should respond to those most badly affected by it. Responsibility would commit us to respond in solidarity, and to exercise leadership in pooling the resources of affluent societies to assist those whose lives are put at risk and to protect the world as a human environment. To confine our efforts to our own society would be ethically indefensible, regardless of changed economic conditions.

Most people, including the Australian Government, have accepted that global warming has been caused by human activity, and that it can and should be mitigated by prompt intervention. Given the damage to future generations caused by delay, it would be irresponsible to do nothing until the economy improves.

Those who share this view also need to be critical of their position, given that their position is based on the most probable interpretation of scientific data. But once they have made this judgement they may not postpone action until they have certainty. This needs emphasising, because it is so tempting to give intellectual assent but to find reasons to do nothing. In the case of climate change that would be as irresponsible as it would be to accept that someone was drowning and then ignore them.

If we are responsible, we shall also exercise what leadership we can give. As individuals our leadership will be through symbolic actions: communicating to others the seriousness of the predicament, encouraging action by governments, and taking small concrete steps to reduce our own emissions. Governments, particularly of developed nations, can show leadership by committing their nations to targets without waiting for every nation to agree. This is to accept the privileged position of being a heavy polluter and of a developed economy.

Solidarity demands that these actions be calibrated so that, both in societies and in the international community, burdens fall most heavily on those most able to bear them. This calculus may change in changed economic circumstances. It will certainly change as conditions deteriorate in nations like the Maldives.

This ethical framework allows conversation between people who disagree about the modelling of climate change. It measures their contribution by the extent to which they commit themselves to solidarity and responsibility. It also exposes the incoherence and cravenness of those who accept the scientific consensus on climate change but who declare that Australia should not act until all nations are signed up or until our economy has fully recovered.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



Topic tags: climate change, financial crisis, ethics, morality.



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Existing comments

When the house is on fire, something should be done. Let us hope that all the good and bad people of Australia will act up to our responsibilities.

Ray O'Donoghue | 17 November 2008  

Eyewitnesses to history will always capture our attention..and that's probably more because of the strking discrepancies in their accounts.

The Gospel writers are probably among the better examples...especially in terms of the vital events one wrote up and others ignored.

Andrew says "We must often act and lead when we have no certainty about the situation or the outcone of iour action"..and.. "Our response must be based on the modelling that we see to be most probable"

And that's the key to it all, the vital essence.(or as Pilate might have put it "what is truth?")

About the same time..give or take 24 hours..that Andrew wrote his opinion piece, the British daily newspaper, the Telegraph ran a very prominent report on climate warning titled "The world has never seen such freezing heat".

It went to the heart of 'modelling"..and carried a clear warning about taking things at face value even when that modelling might appear to be "the most probable".

Let me reveal the opening paragraph of the article:

"A surreal scientific blunder last week raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming. On Monday, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore's chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month (October) was the hottest October on record"

That was in the face of plummeting temperatures from the American Great Plains to China,and from the Alps to New Zealand.Essentially, Al Gore's scientific ally had got it wrong.

To read further, visit "More on NASA's Temperature Blunder" at

Brian Haill | 19 November 2008  

It is exceeding strange when scientific debate, which above all should be grounded in logic, actually eschews all logic.
No-one doubts 'climate change', i.e. that the world's climate is changing, has been changing probably since time began and will undoubtedly continue to change.
What is up for doubt and debate, by scientists and non-scients alike, is a whole raft of consequential questions - what direction is current change taking? what is responsible? to what extent is human activity influencing it? can changing human behaviour change it? and many similar questions. Mostly good scientific questions.
Yet now Andrew Hamilton seems to be telling us that the answers to these questions can be determined not by the logic of scientific enquiry but rather by trying to decide which possible answer occupies the morally higher ground.
As I said - exceeding strange.

John R. Sabine | 19 November 2008  

Excellent article

therese power | 01 December 2008  


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