Climate change is an ethical issue

Posted by Alastair Otter on May 9, 2007
Posted in Green News

Climate change issues are usually presented in scientific or economic terms. Don Brown, a former Clinton administration climate negotiator, says it is “desperately important” to consider the moral and ethical issues of climate change because it could radically change the way things such as targets for global greenhouse gas emissions and payment for damages are being negotiated.

He spoke at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in April about climate change as a moral and ethical issue. See his talk on YouTube.

He says there are many different moral and ethical issues, many of which are hidden in the scientific and economic arguments.


Some of the ethical issues he talks about in the video are …
• How much warming should we tolerate? In other words, what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases should be set as a target? “This will literally determine who lives and who dies,” Mr Brown says.

• Who gets the right to use the atmosphere as a sink? If we were to set targets to reduce carbon emissions to 2,5-billion tons in the next 30 years who would get the right to use the allocation? Would the US be allowed to use more than China, for example?

• Who pays for damages? This issue has been raised by developing countries because the developed nations have been largely responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Should the polluter pays principles apply?

• Scientific uncertainty. You can’t use scientific uncertainty as a defence for not changing behaviour, especially if a rational risk has been identified. If you wait until scientific uncertainties are resolved, it’ll be too late, says Brown.

• Cost to economy. For years the US has been using the argument that it doesn’t have to do anything about climate change because the cost to its economy is prohibitive, says Mr Brown. Cost benefit analyses raise profound ethical issues, he adds.

The Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, of which Mr Brown is the project co-ordinator, has documented what it considers to be the eight most pressing issues in a White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.

See also Treehugger.com

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