The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change

December 3, 2009

Keith Kloor points me in the direction of a post on DotEarth by John Lemons, Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science. It’s a nice post, so I’d like to repost it in full, apologies to professor Lemons. I’ll add a few of my own comments to confuse everyone…

Following is comments (some related, some not) about this current blog as well as many related blogs/comments on “DotEarth” climate change (CC).

Fortunately, after many decades, ethicists are finally taking increased interest in climate change. The environmental ethics community has been somewhat slow to come around to climate questions, but we’re getting better. For a long time, we were working working primarily on wilderness and animals issues. Some people, certainly, have been working on CC… but not many. If I can ever pull myself out from under  this damned CRU hack, I’ll probably get back to spelling out a few ethicsy things in this blog.

I do not recall any significant discussion on your or the part of commentators about the moral dimensions of CC. A lot of the “back and forth” banter is between non-scientists arguing about CC science. What fails to receive sufficient attention is that the methods and tools of science are not capable of yielding information about which we are one-hundred percent certain.

This is absolutely correct. It pleases me to hear my colleagues in the sciences acknowledge this. Now if I could only get my colleagues in philosophy to participate a bit more in the climate discussion…

Consequently, the moral question arises because actions of developed nations, and the US in particular, are/is disproportionately responsible for the historical emissions of greenhouse gases, despite the fact that such nations have about twenty percent of the world’s population. More specifically, the moral question is that, to my knowledge, there is no secular or religious ethics that condones the propriety of inflicting the risk of harm on those who have not given consent to be harmed. And this is exactly what the US and other nations that are unwilling to take significant steps to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions are doing.

Here’s where I might take my departure from Prof. Lemons. I agree that there are moral questions related to developed and undeveloped nations, as well as the disproportionate responsibility of some for bringing about states of the world that will disproportionately affect others, but I disagree that this is the moral question, or that these are the only moral questions. It’s just the most obvious question.

Moreover, I agree that he’s on the right track by suggesting that some of the moral question relate to trespass on another, but it’s not consent that does the work. There are certainly cases in which it is permissible for me to be harmed by others without my consent. Also, the fact that no secular or religious ethic condones or promotes such a thing ought not to be counted as evidence in favor of or against the view.

Now, if science can never be “certain,” how do we assess the likelihood that anthropogenic CC is, indeed, happening? This is of course a difficult question and there is precise answer.

However, our former vice-president Dick Cheney once offered his views about solving threats to this country, which he called the “one percent solution.” Mr. Cheney argued that even if a one-percent chance existed that there was a threat to our nation’s security, that we should take action to combat it.

Nice way of putting this. Moral considerations play an important role in our determination of what to do. Matter of fact, ethics is concerned expressly with the question of what to do. Simply having knowledge about what will happen when we pull a lever doesn’t give us any guidance with regard to whether we should pull that lever.

And that’s the real reason ethics must be taken into account. We have a bunch of information about climate change at this point, but we don’t have a lot of discussion about what to do. Just as Prof. Lemons mentions, we mostly have arguments along economic lines. But those aren’t the only methods for determining what to do.

It is easy to think that once we know the science, or if we can just tabulate costs and benefits, then we’ll have a range of clear pathways that will guide us in our choosing. But that’s not true.

Phrased differently, imagine that one’s child might have a terrible but potentially curable disease. What percent probability would one require to seek medical attention? Ninety-five percent certainty? Seventy-percent certainty? Fifty-percent certainty? Ten-percent certainty? One-percent certainty?

It is difficult for me to believe that prior to acting to mitigate CC that we should demand one hundred percent certainty of the science (which as already stated is not possible). Likewise, it is difficult for me to accept that, say, there is not at least a ten percent or more probability that, by and large, the science of CC is correct. If this is the case, then one should feel compelled to take action as one might do if his/her child had a ten percent probability of having a serious but curable disease and, further, there would be an ethical obligation do so because we in the US and other developed nations do not have a right to impose the risk of harm on people in developing nations who have not given consent to be harmed.

Lastly, I might add that with knowledge comes responsibility. As far back as 1979 the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that a “wait and see policy on global climate change may mean waiting until it is too late to take meaningful action. In 1980, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality concluded that the “responsibility of the carbon dioxide problem is ours and we should accept it and act in a way that recognizes our role as trustee for future generations.” Since, then, as readers of your blog know, have been subsequent IPCC reports, NAS reports, reports from other nations’ national academies of sciences, and over 100 reports in the scientific literature since 2008 that speak to an urgent need to mitigate CC.

Related to my comments above is that many commentators to your blogs raise the issue of economic costs to the country should we take meaningful action to combat CC. Using economic costs to justify inaction regarding mitigating CC is wrong-headed thinking. Would we say it was justified to use economic costs as an argument to continue with slavery or segregation policies and laws? Or to justify inequality for women? I think not. The same goes for the imposition of risks from our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Dr. John Lemons
Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
Department of Environmental Studies
University of New England
Biddeford, ME 04005

At any rate, applause for this comment. My only suggestion is that the ethics discussion has to be incredibly wide. It’s not limited to a few justice considerations and concerns. It relates to the decisions that individuals make, that companies make, that towns make, that states and nation-states make.


  1. “My only suggestion is that the ethics discussion has to be incredibly wide. It’s not limited to a few justice considerations and concerns. It relates to the decisions that individuals make, that companies make, that towns make, that states and nation-states make.”

    Apparently in your view that doesn’t include climate scientists and the decisions they make.


  2. That’s part of the ethics discussion, but it usually falls under the subheading of “Research Ethics,” which I think is different.

    And, FWIW, it’s not like I’m ignoring that discussion, even though you disagree with me (and are clearly dead wrong). 😮

  3. Lemons: ‘Phrased differently, imagine that one’s child might have a terrible but potentially curable disease. What percent probability would one require to seek medical attention?’

    Surely a more apt analogy is, ‘What percent probability would one require to authorize a medical intervention that will certainly cripple the child but might not cure the disease?’?

  4. Well, at issue here is neither the percent probability nor the outcome, but the extent to which the question appropriately captures the complexity of the problem.

  5. It’s not that this discussion did not exist, it is that most have not paid attention to it. The Stern report was instrumental in bringing it to the fore but you can find lots of papers if you go looking, esp in relation to the IPCC which is an international body that perforce must concern itself with such issues (see WGII and WGIII reports.)

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