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Facing climate change

What does it mean to be moral and ethical people in the face of anthropogenic global warming and climate change?

I believe most of us would like to think we are ethical people. We try to treat others with respect. We try not to harm others by our actions. But what if we unintentionally cause others harm? If we don’t know we are harming them, can we still consider ourselves ethical people? What if we choose to remain ignorant when we could easily know the truth? What if we choose to deny what we are doing after it is undeniable?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 in Paris. The declaration arose directly from the experience of the World War II and represents the first global expression of rights to which all humans are entitled. These rights are expressly set out in Article Three of the UDHR which states: Humans have rights to life, liberty, and personal security that create duties in others to refrain from interference with these basic rights. With global warming and climate change, what moral and ethical duties are created in us to refrain from interference with others’ rights to life, liberty, and personal security?

The impacts of global warming and climate change affect people around the globe differently, unequally. We will experience the crop losses from this year’s drought through higher prices at the grocery store. When people who live by subsistence farming experience prolonged drought, they starve. We in developed countries, particularly in the U.S., are most responsible for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, that are causing global climate change impacts including floods, drought, wildfires, sea level rise, disease and crop failure. Yet we are the least vulnerable to these impacts.

That is not to say that people in the U.S. aren’t being impacted by climate change, they are. People are losing their homes and their lives; they are being displaced by floods and wildfires. But we are causing climate change! The poor in developing countries are not significantly contributing to climate change, they are the least responsible, yet they are the most vulnerable and the most severely impacted.

In 2004, the Buenos Aires Declaration on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change was adopted at the 10th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Some of the moral and ethical questions raised include:

Allocating Responsibility for Damages: Who is ethically responsible for the consequences of climate change? Who is liable for the damage caused?

Global Warming Targets: Who should decide how much warming is OK? Should we or small island nations set the targets for acceptable sea-level rise?

Allocating Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions: Who should decide how future GHG emissions are allocated? Should some be allowed to emit more than others?

Scientific Uncertainty: Is it OK to wait to act until there is no scientific uncertainty? Or should we act with precaution in the face of uncertainty to avoid the risk of causing more harm?

Cost to National Economies: Can inaction be justified because it will cost too much? What about the cost of inaction? Is 1 or 2 cents on the dollar too high a price to pay to avoid climate calamity?

Independent Responsibility to Act: Is delaying action by any nation, particularly the U.S., justifiable until all others agree to act? Or should we lead by example and demonstrate that change is both possible and good?

Potential New Technologies: Is it OK to wait because less-costly technologies may be invented in the future? Or should we use current technology, which will work, so that we may hope to have a future?

These are not, by far, the only moral and ethical questions one could raise. I haven’t even mentioned the moral and ethical issues related to other species, the rights of nature or the rights of future generations. Why is it that we hear so much about burdening future generations with debt, but we don’t hear much about taking their future away entirely?

I can’t answer these questions for anyone but myself, but if we don’t ask and answer these questions individually and collectively how should we think about ourselves ethically and morally in relationship to others who share this planet?

For me, the authors of “Climate Code Red” nailed it in an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this piece about the duties that are created in us to refrain from interference with others’ rights to life, liberty, and personal security. They say our duty should be to create a “safe climate,” one that will protect the welfare of “all people, all species, and all generations,” motivated by “compassion and enlightened self-interest.”

We can do this!

William Gran is an adjunct instructor at Greenfield Community College teaching a course on Global Warming and Climate Change. He lives in Heath.

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