Beyond science and economics: conference to examine the ethical dimensions of climate change

Most of the discussion and debate about climate change centers on scientific scenarios, such as struggling eco-systems, violent storms and melting glaciers, or economic factors which range from the cost of alternative fuels to impact on gross domestic product. Largely missing, however, are explorations of the ethical implications of the actions or inactions of individuals and the world community as they consider solutions to a crisis of unparalleled proportions.

On Aug. 30 and 31, experts on many dimensions of climate change will gather at the Florida Hotel in Rio de Janeiro for one of the first international meetings to focus on those ethical implications. The Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC) collaborative program at Penn State's Rock Ethics Institute is sponsoring the event in conjunction with the International Virtual Institute on Climate Change, the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro-The Energy Planning Program.

Several times throughout his movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore asserts that climate change policy is a moral problem. But, how many and what types of moral and ethical issues does climate change policy-making raise, do policymakers have an understanding of these issues, and what practical difference would it make if ethical questions were integrated into the growing scientific and economic literature of climate change policy options?

According to organizers, EDCC was created in 2005 because:

  • Human-induced climate change raises many profound ethical questions, yet these ethical issues have not been addressed adequately in climate change policy debates or in growing scientific and economic climate change literature;
  • Given that those most responsible for climate change are not the same people as those most vulnerable to adverse climate change impacts, an equitable approach to climate change may be practically necessary to achieve a globally acceptable climate change solution;
  • Climate change policy options are often discussed exclusively in the languages of science and economics, thereby overlooking or obscuring important ethical questions.
  • The ethical dimensions of climate change must be expressly considered in climate change policy making to assure just climate change solutions and responses.

The upcoming Rio meeting of EDCC and its partners was convened specifically to gather the advice of climate change experts from developing countries as the group examines ethical issues that must be faced in developing climate change policy. Among other issues, this meeting will look at the ethical dimensions of the following climate change issues:

  • Responsibility for Damages: Who is ethically responsible for the consequences of climate change, that is, who is liable for the burdens of a) preparing for and then responding to climate change (i.e., adaptation) or b) paying for unavoided damages?
  • Atmospheric Targets: What ethical principles should guide the choice of specific climate change policy objectives, including but not limited to, maximum human-induced warming and atmospheric greenhouse gas targets?
  • Allocating GHG Emissions Reductions: What ethical principles should be followed in allocating responsibility among people, organizations, and governments at all levels to prevent ethically intolerable impacts from climate change?
  • Scientific Uncertainty: What is the ethical significance of the need to make climate change decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty?
  • Cost to National Economies: Is the commonly used justification of national cost for delaying or minimizing climate change action ethically justified?
  • Independent Responsibility to Act: Is the commonly used reason for delaying or minimizing climate change action that any nation need not act until others agree on action, ethically justifiable?
  • Potential New Technologies: Is the argument that we should or minimize climate change action until new, less-costly technologies may be invented in the future, ethically justifiable?
  • Procedural Fairness: What principles of procedural justice should be followed to assure fair representation in decision-making?

EDDC is currently collaborating with 15 institutions around the world and seeks additional collaboration from other organizations and individuals. For more information on EDCC, go to http://rockethics.psu.edu/climate/index.htm.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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