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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Nine

Climate ethics

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and David DeCosse

The human-caused disruption of our global climate poses a graver threat to the human family and its environment unlike any prior problem. As an environmental issue, global climate disruption is unprecedented in its scale and seriousness. Devising a comprehensive solution to climate disruption tests our social, political and economic institutions beyond their current capacities. The impacts of climate disruption will reach deeper and deeper into human society over the coming decades. Confronting climate disruption inevitably requires challenging the way we think about energy production from fossil fuel sources, in other words, the energy basis of our modern industrial society. Few people are willing to seriously consider the scale of technological, economic, and social transformation required to reverse the trend of carbon dioxide pollution. The international dimension of carbon emissions further complicates matters. Because we have one global atmosphere, and it matters not which country or industrial source emits greenhouse gasses, tackling climate change will require unprecedented international cooperation. Over the past two centuries, the advanced industrial countries have created astounding wealth with energy, resulting in carbon dioxide pollution, yet the poorer countries of the world still seeking authentic development, in part to address the needs of the 2 billion people living in severe poverty, cannot possibly copy our model of economic development without making life on earth uninhabitable. Confronting climate disruption requires confronting the un-sustainable American lifestyle, and most Americans find that inconvenient.

Science + Economics + Politics + Ethics Needed

Strategies to arrest climate disruption require the bundling of different kinds of intellectual resources, including ethical one. If the scientific data had been unambiguous in prior decades, we might have already formulated a response. If economic incentives had already existed for emitting fewer greenhouse gasses, we would probably have begun to take action on this issue. Yet climate disruption requires new abilities to understand how we are disrupting the planet's climate (science), new ways of thinking and acting collaboratively (economics and politics), as well as developing a moral basis for making difficult decisions. For the reality is that climate disruption challenges us to revolutionize our sources of energy, which will be expensive and difficult, but will also require us to make choices against our short-term, self-interest. Cleaner and greener technology must be a part of a moral response to climate disruption, but this alone will not suffice. Persuading people to behave in new ways is relatively easy if they have economic incentives to do so. Confronting climate disruption will require sacrifices, however, and some of our modern conveniences - and wasteful practices - will have to change. To believe otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the severity of our present challenges.

The field of climate ethics has emerged to provide guidance for the difficult decisions we face. Scientific and economic data do not, on their own, indicate what we should do. They describe what is and inform human decisions, not what should be, nor how to make sound, ethical decisions. This new branch of environmental ethics addresses perennial concerns in ethics: the distribution of responsibilities, the meaning of justice, and guidance in making morally-sound decisions. We will need to understand and apply these principles to engage all sectors of society for the difficult choices and actions we will have to take. Ultimately, protecting ourselves and our planet from a disrupted climate will require creating a shared moral vision, a common understanding of our need to protect the common good which includes our common climate.

The challenge of perceiving the problems

Several inherent traits of gasses and our global climate have made it more difficult to address the problems with its disruption. Carbon dioxide is invisible yet everywhere in our biosphere. It is in our bodies, and we breathe it in and out every moment. This makes it more difficult to recognize it as a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is not the only climate changing gas, but it is the most common. Second, modern technologies have given us the power to disrupt a complex global system that most people cannot see without sophisticated instruments. Climate consists of the long-term pattern of weather, and thus, it requires a great deal of data gathered over a wide area and analyzed with statistics. We all use fossil fuel energy every day, whether we are aware of it or not. Prior pollution problems were either directly visible, or their effects were directly observable. The fact that none of us can actually "see" the climate -- or its disruption - makes it more difficult to convince people of the seriousness of this problem.

Climate science as a scientific field is relatively new. It is very complex, in part because our global climate itself is so fluid, diverse and naturally dynamic. It requires gathering of data across extensive areas and back through time. Before scientists can determine whether or not we are disrupting our climate, they first have to determine "normal" climate and its variations, using statistics. They develop highly sophisticated computer models, and into them they insert very large collections of data about temperature, precipitation and their patterns across time and space. Then they go about determining degrees of statistical difference between normal variability and human-caused change. These computer models are essential to calculating the difference between a naturally dynamic climate and the effect of humans emitting climate disrupting gasses. Recall that our Earth is a dynamic and changing planet, so mere variability is to be expected. Temperature and rainfall vary naturally. Climate change models suggest that human-caused climate change will be uneven across the globe. In some cases, the temperatures may drop, or the temperature change is insignificant relative to predictions of drastically different rainfall patterns. For these reasons, "climate disruption" is a more accurate term than "climate change" or "global warming." Teasing out natural from human-caused climate change requires enormous amount of expensive scientific work, and depends upon creating sophisticated computer modeling and analysis. Unlike laboratory experiments which have results that can be reproduced by others, the sophistication of global climate science effectively excludes non-experts, not by design, but rather because the science is so complex.

These factors have contributed to the skepticism about the reality of global climate change. Twenty years ago, when concerns first began to emerge in the scientific community, scientists did not have sufficient data or resources or models to understand how human fossil fuel burning was affecting the climate. Some large economic interests have profited immensely from the "carbon economy," or fossil fuel burning activities, and many of them resisted the idea of controlling something as harmless as carbon dioxide. They - and many elected officials - raised questions about the perceived inadequacy of our knowledge of climate science and disruption. Some of these questions were legitimate, but some of them appear to be stalling tactics. At first glance, it is difficult for most people to imagine that human actions could disrupt global climate. The idea of climate disruption implicates our carbon economy and the tremendous wealth it has created, at least for some countries. Creating a sustainable energy economy is an enormous and very expensive project, at least in the short term.

During the 1990s, large economic interests hired public relations firms to argue that the state of the science was not sufficient to argue for addressing this by reforming energy policies. Some scientists were hired to express skepticism. Disagreement is a normal part of the give-and-take of scientific inquiry. These economic interests also hired scientists to express an explicitly contrarian point of view, meaning that they set out to undermine the credibility of legitimate scientists and their work. In general, scientists welcome thoughtful criticism of their work, grounded in critical thinking about data collection, methods, and theory. Climate contrarians go far beyond critique to attack the existence of this data and its scientific interpretation. Until recently, these efforts were particularly effective in sowing doubt in the mind of American public opinion, although this appears to be changing.

For this reason, understanding one's sources of information about global climate disruption is absolutely essential. A majority of the information about this issue on a typical internet search reflects some kind of bias or political agenda. Sadly, even our Federal government has suppressed or distorted data about the seriousness of the problem.

Global climate science and the problem of trust

The issue of confidence in sources of scientific information is very important, but beyond the scope of this project. For the purposes of this lesson, scientific research findings from two government bodies are recommended, the California Energy Commission's Climate Change Portal,, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),

The IPCC is particularly noteworthy, for it is one of the most ambitious efforts to assess the results from a scientific community beset by controversies. The United Nations (UN) created the IPCC to evaluate in an open and objective manner the state of climate change science, and to provide reports thus informed to policy makers. The IPCC solicits contributions from scientists around the world and foster efforts to identify consensus agreement among climate scientists, and responsibly represent areas of agreement and uncertainty to governments. In the 1990s, the IPCC tried to assess: is the climate changing? If so, what would be its impacts? By 2000, it had documented some of impacts and was attempting to tease out which changes were being caused by humans. As of this writing, the IPCC has determined that there is unequivocal consensus in the scientific community that humans are changing the climate, and that the consequences will be serious. The IPCC received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, the first such prize for a group of scientists.

The UN has tried to broker scientific understanding and international cooperation on climate disruption since the Brundland Report in 1987. Climate was on the agenda at the "Earth Summit" at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and this resulted in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Although flawed, this has been the most important international agreement to address climate disrupting gasses. The U.S. is alone among major countries in refusing to sign it, although several other governments have resisted its mandates. U.N.-sponsored efforts continue to facilitate an international agreement that could actually result in reducing the emission of climate disrupting gasses. An international agreement without US support is essentially meaningless since we have been by far the greatest source of carbon emissions. It appears that China has surpassed US levels of climate disrupting gas emission on an annual basis, but the US still emits more on a per person basis than any other country. More US domestic political support for action on climate disruption will be necessary for any such agreement to be endorsed by our government.

Ethics and the distribution of risks

But disrupting our climate is not merely scientific, economic, and political. It also has an ethical dimension, because addressing this problem will require us to make very difficult, costly, and sacrificial decisions, with imperfect knowledge. Fossil fuels are simply too easy to burn for energy, and the impacts of climate disruption do not directly harm the people who benefit from burning them. Addressing climate change means addressing relatively cheap fossil fuel energy, and thus economic development for very poor countries. Many of the climate change issues that are at first glance scientific and economic have profound ethical questions bundled in with them.

Climate ethics confront ethical dilemmas, or problems that defy simple solutions because legitimate interests are pitted against each other. Any meaningful reduction in climate disrupting gasses will have to be based on international cooperation. This will require countries to practice more self-restraint than any prior international environmental treaty. Addressing the ethical dimension of climate disruption must necessarily address the reality of a wide and accelerating gap between the wealthy and the poor. Those already suffering from de-humanizing poverty -- and those most likely to suffer from a disrupted climate- are least likely to have benefited from prior burning of fossil fuels that have emitted the carbon in our atmosphere. Global climate disruption threatens all the hard-fought gains in sustainable development around the world. Addressing climate disruption is inescapably linked to the uneven and inequitable global economic development. Any international solution will necessarily have to address the ethical implications of that as well.


1. Do you agree that "global warming" should be called "global climate disruption? What are the pros and cons of these phrases?
2. Some people believe that this problem will be solved primarily by technological innovation. Do you agree?
3. After they learn about the scale of climate problems, some people feel overwhelmed and want to avoid the issue. What tools from environmental ethics could you use to engage them?

More resources

Brown, D. et al., 2007. White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. Rock Ethics Institute at The Pennsylvania State University
Speth, J.G., 2004. Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009