Making the moral case on climate change ahead of Paris summit

Poor people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather and sea level rise, yet have contributed little to the causes. asiandevelopmentbank/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Much of the general public is well aware of scientists’ recommendations on climate change. In particular, climate scientists and other academics say society needs to keep global temperatures to no more than two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.

But now more academics are weighing in on climate change: philosophers, ethicists, and social scientists among others.

More than 2,100 academics, and counting, from over 80 nations and a diversity of disciplines have endorsed a moral and political statement addressed to global leaders ahead of December’s UN climate conference in Paris.

A few of the more widely recognizable signatories include philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky (MIT); cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol); climate scientist Michael E Mann (PSU); writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben (Middlebury College); historian of science Naomi Oreskes (Harvard); and moral philosopher Peter Singer (Princeton).

As one of the philosophers responsible for this open letter, along with my colleague Keith Horton (University of Wollongong, Australia), I wish to explain why we felt compelled to organize it and why the endorsement of many influential philosophers is important.

In addition to Chomsky and Singer, the list of prominent philosophers who have converged from various philosophical backgrounds and points of disagreement to endorse this letter include many of the most influential figures in contemporary moral and political philosophy.

Thinking about the real world

While it may be popular among certain politicians to malign academics as removed from the “real world,” the fact remains that academics by virtue of training and professional necessity are driven to distinguish valid argument and sound evidence from fallacy.

We are bound to reference current research, and to examine our data before making claims if we hope to be taken seriously by our peers. We have a pedagogical obligation to instill these same practices in our students. We also have a moral obligation to prepare them for responsible citizenship and careers.

Global warming is the most important moral issue of our time, and arguably the greatest existential threat that human beings, as a whole, have faced. So the response to climate change from philosophers should be no surprise.

Pope Francis, here visiting the US, has framed the world’s response to climate change and other environmental problems as a moral and ethical issue. Reuters

Those most responsible for climate change are relatively few compared to the vast numbers of people who will be harmfully affected. Indeed, climate change will, in one way or another, impact all life on Earth.

If we fail to decisively address the problem now, warming may escalate in a relatively short time beyond the point which human beings can reasonably be expected to cope, given the nature of reinforcing feedback effects.

The moral implications are enormous, and this letter represents the closest we have to a consensus statement from the world’s preeminent professional ethicists on some of the moral obligations industrial nations, and their leaders, have to global communities, future generations, and fellow species. The letter begins:

Some issues are of such ethical magnitude that being on the correct side of history becomes a signifier of moral character for generations to come. Global warming is such an issue. Indigenous peoples and the developing world are least responsible for climate change, least able to adapt to it, and most vulnerable to its impacts. As the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris approaches, the leaders of the industrialized world shoulder a grave responsibility for the consequences of our current and past carbon emissions.

Importantly, the letter points out that even if current nonbinding pledges being offered by world leaders ahead of the conference are achieved, we remain on course to reach potentially catastrophic levels of warming by the end of this century. The letter continues:

This is profoundly shocking, given that any sacrifice involved in making those reductions is far overshadowed by the catastrophes we are likely to face if we do not: more extinctions of species and loss of ecosystems; increasing vulnerability to storm surges; more heatwaves; more intense precipitation; more climate related deaths and disease; more climate refugees; slower poverty reduction; less food security; and more conflicts worsened by these factors. Given such high stakes, our leaders ought to be mustering planet-wide mobilization, at all societal levels, to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degree Celsius.

It is increasingly obvious as we head to Paris that both industrialized and developing nations must make serious efforts to limit their greenhouse gas emissions beyond their current pledges. This is a requirement of physics.

It is unrealistic to expect most developing nations to meaningfully limit greenhouse gas emissions without binding pledges from industrialized nations to do so, as well as significant commitments to provide financial and technological assistance to poorer nations facing developmental challenges. This is a practical necessity and a requirement of ethics.

Ethical thinking

At its most fundamental level, thinking ethically means taking the interests of others seriously enough to recognize when our actions and omissions must be justified to them.

As individuals, our instincts too often drive us toward self-interest. Consequently, acting ethically beyond the circle of our immediate relations – that is, those we perceive most capable of reciprocating both harms and benefits – is difficult.

Still, the history of our species teaches that humanity as a whole benefits most when we are able to put narrow self-interest aside, and make an ethical turn in our thinking and behavior.

Now, faced with climate change the next great ethical turn in our thinking and behavior can’t come soon enough. We will make progress in addressing climate change when, and if, we begin taking the lessons of morality seriously.

This article has been updated to correct language on climate scientists’ recommendations for global average temperature increase.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.