Ethical Clarification of the Climate Change Debate

It is clear that neither scientists, economists, environmentalists nor politicians can agree, even with those in their chosen fields of expertise, on whether or not climate change is a real problem. Regardless of the answer to this question – whether or not climate change exists – there are ethical consequences of any course of action or inaction we choose to take. While the debate over climate change may seem to be more scientific, rather than ethical in nature, there are underlying ethical convictions which serve to further complicate the issue.

In order to understand the role that ethics play in this controversy we use a five-step method of ethical clarification as it is important in understanding the debate as a whole. Explanation of the basic arguments put forth by each side is the first step towards a better understanding of the issue. Those who believe that climate change is indeed a threat claim that human activity is to blame for the increase in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases which have intensified and will continue to this effect (Dotto, 1).

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They advocate immediate action in order to avoid further climate change and adapt to the already altered environment (Dotto, 22). Though most environmentalists seem to subscribe to this viewpoint, it is interesting that both politicians and scientists have found both their disciplines to be deeply divided. Most business people, however, would likely disagree with the aforementioned perspective.

Those who denounce the idea of climate change as non-existent emphasize that the scientific “proof” of climate change is actually quite uncertain and thus they do not promote immediate action which they contend will damage the economy in order to address a potential non-issue (Jones, 4). At first glance, each of these arguments seems equally viable, which is why it is important to clarify the factual evidence behind them. Those who support action and believe in the climate change theory cite increases in global average temperature over the past century of approximately 0. degrees Celsius (Coward & Hurka, 14) as well as predictions of further warming – for example, it was calculated that by the year 2030 the temperature change would have increased to 1. 3 degrees Celsius if we chose to adopt “business as usual” attitudes (Coward & Hurka, 161). On the other hand, those who are uncertain about the climate change theory and do not support action refer to the proven inaccuracies present in the global circulation models upon which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies heavily to generate scientific estimates (Jones, 6).

Another popular argument for this side of the debate is that the earth’s climate fluctuates naturally (Coward and Hurka, 67) and that right now we are simply rebounding from the most recent ice age. They also blame the media for over-simplifying and over-hyping climate change prophesies as they most often rely on summaries of scientific reports which lack the many “caveats about the uncertainties that surround climate change” which could be found in the actual report itself (Jones, 6).

If all of these factual arguments are also equally valid, which they are, a deeper assessment based upon the ethical arguments which support the separate claims, is needed to determine why so many people have such different opinions. Though one may or may not have faith in the theory of climate change, they still possess ethical views in the face of scientific uncertainty which affect their choice of action or inaction.

In defense of action to curb climate change, many put forth the simple argument of “better safe than sorry” (Dotto, 1) in addition to various other convictions which revolve around the concept of general respect for the environment. Those who do not believe in the theory of climate change and discourage immediate action often contend that making economies around the world suffer to save us from a problem that may not even exist and that at least we do not fully understand is faulty logic (Jones, 5).

They also raise another ethical dilemma: assuming that it is impossible to reverse or even completely halt climate change, is it wise to be pouring all of our assets into “unworkable avoidance measures” and thus leaving “us less able to cope with climate warming in the future? ” (Dotto, 5). These ethical arguments and convictions which steer a person to one side of the debate or the other are really just the tip of the iceberg.

The fourth step in the method for ethical clarification is named “post-ethical clarification” not because it is devoid of ethics or morals, but rather because it seeks to go deeper than just ethical convictions and look at their foundations in the identity of the person or group of persons which hold them. For example, Harold Coward and Thomas Hurka, editors of the book Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect which seems to advocate the path of action and avoidance of future damage, are both experts in the field of humanities – religion and society, and philosophy, respectively (Coward ; Hurka, 171-2).

Their experience and long-standing exposure to these disciplines which give weight to the ethical dimensions of problems go hand in hand with their beliefs. This is especially true for Coward’s expertise in the study of religion as most religions advocate “responsible stewardship of nature” (Coward & Hurka, 2). It is their identity, shaped by years of experience in fields of study which promote deontological thinking which prompts them to adhere to the argument which is morally most correct – protect the environment – but perhaps not as feasible in the real world.

On the other hand, the report Global Warming: The Science and the Politics discourages such action. The author, Laura Jones’s academic background is rooted firmly in economics (Jones, vii). Her experiences in this field of study will have given her an appreciation for all things fiscally viable and thus when she was presented with a wide array of scientific opinion on the existence of climate change she chose to believe in that which agreed with her economic values.

Her training and identity as an economist has embedded within her a utilitarian way of thinking – as someone who values cause-and-effect and consequences of actions, it would be harder for her to subscribe to theories which promote action if it was not absolutely certain that action needed to be taken. It seems safe to say that both camps would agree that more reliable scientific research needs to be done so that the scientific community can come to some sort of consensus or at least majority opinion on whether or not climate change actually poses a threat and also whether or not it is possible to halt climate change if it does exist.

It is this uncertainty which generates such a divisive debate – if we knew exactly what needed fixing (if anything) then proposals to remedy the problem would become less contentious. Clearly there is a wealth of underlying ethical convictions which currently add nothing but complexity to an already complicated scientific situation.

As for the most appropriate course of action – or inaction, for that matter – until further scientific evidence comes out, it seems only logical to propose that economically appropriate measures be taken to preserve the environment at this time. Also, it is important to consider a mix of philosophies. Hurka outlines such an action in his explanation of environmental stewardship, insisting “that to be ethical, policies must not only achieve the best consequences but they must not violate any rights” (Hutchinson, 11).