New report cites ethics and justice as critical in world's approach to climate change

Ethics, human rights, and distributive and procedural justice must be an integral component of international negotiations seeking any comprehensive solution to climate change, according to a new report released here today at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The report asserts that many nations are taking positions that are ethically problematic.

The "White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change" draws strong ethical conclusions about positions taken by some governments in climate change negotiations on several issues. For instance, the paper concludes that those nations that use scientific uncertainty, cost to their national economy alone, lack of action by other nations, or waiting for new, less costly technologies to be invented as justifications for not reducing their emissions to a level that represents its fair share of safe total global emissions, are acting unethically.

In particular, the report disparages the notion that a country may contribute to global warming without consideration of any other nation's well-being, noting, "climate change policies developed by nations that result in harm to life, liberty, and securities of people in other nations violate basic human rights." The paper adds, "The world community must refuse giving credence to these arguments as a matter of justice and ethics."

The report contends that there is a consensus among ethicists for many of its preliminary conclusions while also identifying other issues about which additional ethical reflection is needed.

The White Paper is the work of the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC), whose secretariat is the Rock Ethics Institute at the Pennsylvania State University in State College, Pa. A complete list of the program's collaborating organizations and individuals that included ethicists, scientists, economists, legal experts, philosophers, and negotiators, can be found in the White Paper at http://rockethics.psu.edu/climate.

The report, its authors say, was created for policy makers and environmental professionals who routinely participate in policy making with the goal of getting them to begin looking only at those options that can be justified ethically. It defines ethics as "the field of philosophical inquiry that examines concepts and their employment about what is right and wrong, obligatory and non-obligatory, and when responsibility should attach to human actions that cause harm."

The White Paper contends that ethics and justice require a different approach to international negotiations on climate change than that which has been taken by many nations thus far. More specifically, the paper asserts that ethical principles require that all nations must:

  • Immediately acknowledge that they have an ethical duty to reduce their emissions as quickly as possible to their fair share of safe total global emissions;

  • Immediately agree that an international greenhouse gas (GHG) atmospheric stabilization target should be as low as now possible unless those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts have consented to be put at risk from higher atmospheric concentrations of GHGs;

  • No longer use scientific uncertainty as a justification for refusing to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions;

  • No longer use cost to their national economy alone as justification for their willingness to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions;

  • No longer act as if they are just in refusing to act to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emission on the basis that all other nations have yet to reduce their emissions;

  • No longer refuse to reduce emissions on the basis that new less costly technologies will be invented in the future;

  • Agree that all nations need to come up with positions on allocating greenhouse gas targets among nations that are based upon ethically relevant criteria;

  • Consider and consult with other nations and peoples who will be most adversely affected by climate change in setting national climate change policies;

  • Acknowledge that climate change policies that do not consider the ethical dimensions of climate change could lead to violations of human rights and unjust distribution of harms and benefits of climate change;

  • Admit that those nations who are most responsible for human-induced climate change have responsibility to pay for human-induced caused harms from climate change;

  • Support a post-Kyoto round of negotiations that will lead to both adequate reductions to minimize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and be ethically and equitably supportable.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.
~ Abraham Lincoln