Ethics is a particularly relevant if underreported topic of conversation at the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris. While technical disputes grab the lion’s share of attention, we should not forget the moral reasons we must address global warming – because of the substantial harm it does and will do to the human and nonhuman world.
Climate justice refers to the disproportional impact of climate change on poor and marginalized populations, while climate equity refers to who should bear the burden of responsibility for addressing climate change.
These twin concerns have both intranational and international dimensions. Climate change will negatively and disproportionately impact poor and marginalized people within national borders as well as cause conflicts between nations, regions and cities that are more or less vulnerable to climate disruptions.
How should ethics inform these questions?
Fairness and costs
Any economic discussion regarding lowering greenhouse gas emissions needs to address social justice.
For example, a carbon tax is recognized by economists as the most efficient means for pricing and reducing carbon emissions. As with all taxes, the cost of such a tax would be passed on from businesses to consumers. Who then should bear this cost? Should the tax be borne equally by all, or be paid by the wealthy and corporations who benefit most from dumping carbon into the atmosphere?
Similarly, islands and coastal areas close to sea level face the prospect of catastrophic inundation and storm damage from rising seas and the increasing strength of hurricanes and typhoons. These are communities geographically vulnerable through no fault of their own.
Should they bear the cost of building the infrastructure – sea walls, raised roads, pumping stations – to improve their resilience? Indeed, some island nations must be prepared to evacuate their entire population. Should they alone bear the huge costs and social risks of climate migration?
Who shoulders the burden?
With respect to climate equity, a heated debate has arisen over who should take the most responsibility for climate action. Historically, the global north of industrialized nations (the United States and western Europe) has contributed most to global warming.
Some in the global south, including India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi, argue that increasing developing countries' use of fossil fuels is necessary to lift millions out of poverty.
Indeed, India’s latest negotiating position is to demand that the global north make steep carbon cuts so that India may continue to pollute for economic development. India would reduce the “carbon intensity” of its economic activity, but would not make cuts for decades as its total greenhouse gas pollution grows.
Moreover, the national commitments to reduce carbon emissions are essentially voluntary and self-policed. Taken together, they do not limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, a threshold we cannot exceed if we hope to maintain a planet of prosperous societies and flourishing biodiversity. Far preferable is to draw down greenhouse gas emissions for a safer 1.5C increase, a position that is not even being discussed.
Inequalities of wealth and power
There are a host of other moral issues related to climate justice and equity.
One is that conservative politicians, corporate interests and their think tank sycophants have knowingly peddled climate denial for decades. This is straight-out malfeasance and malpractice in terms of political and research ethics.
Add to that the rising inequalities of wealth at home and abroad. Global elites will suffer few consequences and have little incentive to act for the good of the public or the planet. This will further exacerbate ethical and political fractures between climate haves and have-nots.
In addition, urban sprawl and ongoing population growth will consume an area the size of Mongolia by the end of the century, with all that entails for environmental degradation and the economic needs of the urban poor.
We will also see the geographical expansion of diseases, food insecurity, social unrest, resource wars, climate refugees and billion-dollar climate disasters, all at a huge cost to human life and suffering. Moral and political fatigue will slowly reduce our capacity to properly care and respond to this growing set of crises.
Obligations to other species
Global warming is undoubtedly the product of human causes. We not only brought this problem on ourselves, but foisted it onto the natural world with nary a thought for the ethics of doing so.
The dominant rhetoric might decry what global warming will do to human societies, but it rarely speaks of what it does and will do to the creatures and ecosystems with whom we share the earth. Pope Francis' Ladauto Si is a sterling exception in this regard. The intrinsic value of people, animals and nature means that we have a direct duty to the nonhuman world to address climate change as a matter of moral urgency.
Interspecies responsibilities also put questions of climate justice and equity into a larger moral landscape, changing how we see our common and differentiated responsibilities to combat climate change.
Fights over climate justice and equity are essentially about what we owe each other as human beings. The rich, Western, industrialized countries should share the largest burden not only for historical reasons, but because they are wealthy enough to absorb the costs for the long-term well-being of themselves and the global south.
But arguing over what nation or social group should be held culpable can distract from the urgent need to act for the well-being of people and the planet now.
The rest of nature
Emergent industrialized economies like India’s also have a rapidly increasing responsibility to cut their own global emissions of greenhouse gases. Island nations have made this point eloquently in the face of bickering between the global north and south.
And India’s current negotiating position seems more focused on better positioning the economy for the global stage, than it is in meeting its common if differentiated responsibilities. India is not alone in this. Its elites are simply outspoken in their anthropocentric self-interest.
The same critique applies to how we ought to care for other animals and the rest of nature. Their fate should not be hostage to a narrowing argument about culpability. It is rather a matter of responding morally to the needs of others — human or nonhuman — in the face of climate crisis. What matters most is not apportioning blame and seeking advantage, but making things right.
Global warming threatens the well-being of people and the planet, raising crucial issues of ethics and public policy that we ignore at our peril. Left unchecked, or by doing too little too late, climate change will haunt future generations and leave a despoiled earth as our legacy.