The ethics of climate change solutions

Green Paper (cropped 300x300)The Government's Green Paper outlining its response to climate change has heated debate. It has shown that to reduce carbon emissions will have costs. Groups with much to lose have defended their interests. Critics of the consensus among scientists on human contribution to global warming have gained publicity.

If we are to think out what we and the Government should do in response to climate change, we need a framework in which to set and evaluate the many arguments and considerations that have been raised. That must be a moral framework because the issue is about how we are to live humanly on our planet. To develop such a framework is challenging for four interlocking reasons.

First, we have to base our judgement about what we should do on probability, not on certain knowledge. The arguments that support the consensus view that human activity adds to global warming and so can reduce it are strong, but cannot be absolutely conclusive. So we cannot be absolutely sure that we have identified the causes of global warming or that our actions will be effective. Equally, if we decide to do nothing, we must recognise the strong possibility that our inactivity will lead to catastrophic and avoidable consequences.

Second, the calculation behind action to reduce emissions is that short term-pain will lead to long term-gain. People will forego benefits now in order to protect later generations from greater suffering. Given that our action is based on probability, we shall exchange certain short term-pain for probable long-term gain.

Third, action to reduce emissions cannot be effective unless the major polluting nations commit to it. But it is likely that many nations will commit only if others lead the way. A nation that does commit to cut emissions will suffer certain pain to achieve goals that its actions alone cannot realise.

Fourth, according to the consensus we must act decisively in the near future. We cannot delay acting until we have certain knowledge why global warming is taking place and whether we can check it.

These considerations make ethical reflection on how to respond to climate change very complex. In order to sort through the issues and arguments, our moral framework must give full weight to solidarity and responsibility.

An emphasis on solidarity puts a high value to the relationships that bind each human being to other human beings and to the world. It suggests that in all our moral decisions we need to keep in mind the flourishing of all human beings and of our world.

Solidarity demands that we measure our response by the needs of all human beings, particularly those most threatened, and of the world. Further, not only living human beings and our present environment make a claim on us, but future human beings and the world that they inherit. Solidarity runs across space and time.

In our moral framework, too, we need to give full weight to responsibility. It implies a way of seeing and responding to people and situations in our world that make a claim on us.

To be responsible often involves acting without certain knowledge. If we rush to pull someone from a burning car, we do not know for certain whether she will survive even without our intervention, whether she or we ourselves will survive at all, and whether she will live a full life after rescue.

This is a dramatic example, but in most of the ordinary moral judgements we make we also need to work on reasonable probabilities.

When we imagine people acting responsibly in the face of a threat to others, we will normally see them as leaders. Their response encourages others to respond decently.

Leadership and responsibility go together because often we can be responsible only if we act. If a drowning group's lives can be saved only if many people go to their rescue, someone may have to jump into the water in order to draw others to follow. If we wait to decide whether concerted action will be possible and effective, people will drown anyway. So responsibility often demands leadership.

An ethical framework that gives due weight to solidarity and responsibility does not dictate whether we must act urgently to address climate change, still less what kind of action we should take. But it does structure the conversation.

It puts proper weight on the judgement we make about the causes and effects of climate change. But it also suggests that criticism of opposed positions alone is not an ethical response. We must also respond to our judgement of the nature of climate change.

In our response, too, we must be committed to all human beings, including the poorest, to future generations and to the environment in which we live. In a later article I would like to explore further the implications of this framework.

Carbon Polution Reduction Scheme Green Paper

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, ethics of climate change, garnaut report, green paper



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for a clear and concise critique of the moral dilemma tackling climate change presents.

I look forward to your next article and hope that you might therein explore the Church's social justice teaching on the 'integrity of creation'.

col brown | 31 July 2008  

Andrew's description of four interlocking reasons for a moral framework is timely, given the current shallow political debate on climate change. But his argument seems to be anthropocentric. In considering significant environmental impacts we have to study the relationships of all organisms likely to be affected. And we should also consider our moral responsibility to the future of all creatures and to the Earth itself. For insight into this framework Andrew could refer to the work of the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin, who published The Future of Man (L'Avenir de l'Homme) in 1959.

Alan Stewart | 31 July 2008  

Thank you Andrew for a good article that raises the moral an ethical issues, rather than just self interest that seems to suuround this issue at a political level.

joe annetts | 31 July 2008  

Thank you Andrew for a well structured and clarifying explanation of this debate. Two key words stand out: solidarity and responsibility. Two key sentences stand out:"Solidarity runs across space and time." and "Their (leaders)response encourages others to respond decently." Both sides of our government would do well to consider these points. I look forward to your further thoughts on the subject.

Anne Doyle | 31 July 2008  

Such moral rectitude might be all well and good if we were dealing with a rational debate. Unfortunately, however, all of the current climate change brouhaha in Australia is much less about real science and sensible economics than it is about political posturing. Reminds me of the Y2K bug.
And Andrew says, his ethical point number one, that we should base our judgement as to what to do on probability, not certainty. But what probability? A one in two chance? One in ten? One in a hundred? A thousand? Hardly the "clear and concise critique of (a) moral dilemma" that Col Brown imagines it to be.

John R. Sabine | 31 July 2008  

the reason why climate change denial is attractive to many people is that it allows them to evade the hard but necessary choices that fr andrew sets out in his key words, solidarity and responsibility.

his two examples - the burning car and the mass drowning event - are telling metaphors. denialists would have to argue whether the car is really on fire, or whether the people in the water waving for help are really drowning, or just waving hello.

i'm curious about the psychology of climate change denialism. there are several Old Testament comparisons eg the doubting israelites who did not want to hear Moses' unpalatable truths from Mount Sinai, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who would not heed Lot's warnings from God, Noah's compatriots who rejected his warning from God that a great flood was coming. in all these biblical stories, the theme is the need to do something for the community, for others - to heed the word of God that Moses brought back from Sinai, to lesve the sinful cities, to build the Ark. Moses, Lot, Noah, did not want to go it alone - they wanted to lead and help save others in their communities.

the climate change equivalent is clear: to get on with transforming our energy economy to renewable energy that does not pollute and overheat the planet. ordinary people understand the truth of the science of this, and that it is about solidarity with those who come after us. many elites who are major stakeholders in the present system just don't want to see it. denialists cannot bear to hear the message that systemic change is necessary - they cling desperately to the status quo to whose comforts they are accustomed. and they get angry and defensive when presented with the moral arguments that andy hamilton sets out here.

tony kevin | 01 August 2008  

A couple of clarifications. A moral framework does not confer moral rectitude but can free conversation from posturing. It makes us name reality as we see it and face the ethical consequences that flow from owning that reality.

The probability I spoke of does not refer to the consequences of climate change but to the quality of our judgment about the reality of climate change. The content of that judgment of course will include the probability of consequences.

I think all ethical judgments are anthropocentric in the sense that they are made by human beings. Lions' judgments about whether to eat Christians would similarly be leocentric. What matters is that the judgments take into account the whole reality of which we form part.

Solidarity therefore includes the world on whose flourishing human flourishing depends.

So enlightened lions might have left the Christians alone and turned their attention to the promoters of the games that threatened their natural environment.

Andy Hamilton | 01 August 2008  

Talk about giving a dog a bad name, Tony Kevin. Just call someone these days a "climate change denier" and all hope for any further rational debate flies straight out the window.

No-one denies that the climate is changing - always has, always will. What is debated, denied if you will, is the whole shonky chain of supposed logic starting with rising CO2 levels and ending with carbon taxes.

"Denialists," he says, "cannot bear to hear the message that systemic change is necessary" ... Of course change is necessary - just let us do it sensibly and rationally, in the light of good science and sensible economics.

John R. Sabine | 01 August 2008  

The following quote is taken from an interview in the Japan Times (July 22), with Professor Kunihiko Takeda, a leading scientist.

“Fear is a very efficient weapon: It produces the desired effect without much waste. Global warming has nothing to do with how much CO2 is produced or what we do here on Earth. For millions of years, solar activity has been controlling temperatures on Earth and even now, the sun controls how high the mercury goes. CO2 emissions make absolutely no difference one way or another. Soon it will cool down anyhow, once again, regardless of what we do. Every scientist knows this, but it doesn’t pay to say so. What makes a whole lot of economic and political sense is to blame global warming on humans and create laws that keep the status quo and prevent up-and-coming nations from developing. Global warming, as a political vehicle, keeps Europeans in the driver’s seat and developing nations walking barefoot.”

Scientific consensus on CO2 driving the climate, phooey. Imminent or probable disaster, phooey. This is a matter of ethics. Developing nations must be allowed to have power, coal or nuclear generated, so that they may prosper as the first world has.

Patrick James | 01 August 2008  

Let us assume that emissions of greenhouse gases from the industrialised nations are not the sole cause of climate change.

Indeed it is almost impossible to believe that one single factor could cause such a world-wide effect as an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius in the time-span of a human life.

There is probably very little humanity can do about any purely natural factors which may be identified as contributors to climate change.

However changes in sea level, and in weather patterns with resultant changes in productivity of current agricultural regions, will significantly effect communities throughout the world.

Even to slow climate change by reducing the human contribution appears to be ethically desirable. Such an ethical impost surely weighs more heavily on rich nations whose wealth derives from industrialisation, the major cause of anthropogenic climate change.

And Australia's special place? Comparatively a very small emitter of carbon dioxide, but with a small population, we are among the highest, if not the highest, emitters on a per head of population basis. Therein lies the moral challenge for us to lead, rather than to wait for China, India and USA.

Ian Fraser | 02 August 2008  

For me, Andy, the moral framework required to structure conversation in how we are to live humanly on our planet Earth, begins with my relationship with other. If I don't honour the God seed within myself and other, I will not be able to 'live so that others may live'. Your words, as always, provide substance for more challenging conversations with my family and colleagues. Thank you.

jo dallimore | 04 August 2008  

Why is it that, whenever a well-considered essay regarding the appropriate response to what is now the certainty of human-induced damaging climate change appears, the ensuing discussion is dominated by persons who don't understand the science?

How will they justify their activism to their children, who will one day ask them what the Great Barrier Reef was like?

David Arthur | 07 August 2008  

Dear Andrew, you have listed all the issues which arise regarding climate change and which we must consider in order to fromulate an intelligent response. However, I would have thought that all these issues have already been fully debated by the interested parties. What we need now is not more reporting on the issues but a clear and effective policy for dealing with climate change which has full regard for the urgency and gravity of the situation and the dire need to substantially, even drastically, reduce carbon emissions world wide. Those who contribute most to carbon emissions must take the lead and show the rest how it can be done.

Tony santospirito | 10 August 2008  

your article spoke of ethics, morality and leadership but failed to cover integrity.
no mention was made at all of the challenges by more and more highly qualified scientists, to the opinion that manmade carbon emissions is causing global warming and climate change.
There is no unequivocal evidence at all that there is a link between carbon and climate change..
in fact global warming has not occurred in the last 10 years, which seems at odds with the theory when ever increasing amounts of carbon have been pumped into the atmosphere for a century and a half...
when Dr David Evans,who was employed by the Australian Greenhouse Office for 6 years until 2005 and until then a 'true believer' in the climate change theory comes out now saying its just not proven and facts are appearing more and more contradicting the global warming theory, we need to take heed fast. Before indeed the Govt impose a harmful tax which will without doubt effect our standard of living and really hurt the little people,without making an iota of difference.
I am all for cleaning up polution and looking after the planet but lets discuss this issue with honesty , integrity...based on facts

john peake | 20 August 2008  

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