Ethics missing in debate on climate change

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 September 2014 12:30 GMT

A mannequin floats in the floodwaters along a street in Srinagar on September 16, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

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How do we balance the need for countries to develop and reducing carbon emissions?

As ice sheets melt and seas rise, ways of limiting climate change are frequently discussed – but the ethical issues climate change raises get much less attention.

One of the key ones is whether policies to limit emissions may unfairly arrest progress in the developing world, where populations are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  

"Ethics do matter and they're at the heart of climate justice," said Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Climate Change and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, at a panel this week at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.

Climate justice efforts aim to ensure that policies addressing climate change treat all people equitably without placing too much of the burden on those least able to handle it – particularly people in developing nations.

But "until recently, we didn't talk about climate from a people perspective," Robinson said.

There is no question that use of fossil fuels and the resulting carbon emissions must be reduced, she said.  But it must be done equitably in a world where 1.3 billion people still have no access to electricity and 2.7 billion people cook on indoor fires that expose them to dangerous fumes from burning wood, manure and other fuels, she said.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in the poorer parts of the world, where droughts, flooding and food insecurity are displacing people, fueling conflict, destroying homes and robbing farmers and others of their livelihoods, she said.

"Climate change will kill millions of people but there will never be a death certificate (that lists it as the cause)," said Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University. "Our moral systems do not ascribe death to carbon emissions.”


But reducing carbon emissions poses an ethical quandary, according to Darrel Moellendorf, a professor of international political theory at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany.

People in developing nations are hungry for energy, the most available of which comes from fossil fuel. Without it, development may be stymied or worse, panelists acknowledged. 

"One of the most important tools for mitigating climate change is to raise the price of fossil fuels, or carbon," Moellendorf said. But “"if we do that, there's the threat that we could stop or reverse development.  That's the bind."

"It seems we have two impossible challenges," said Henry Shue, a professor of politics and international relations at Oxford University and author of the just-published "Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection."

"We must use less fossil fuel energy, but we need more energy," he said.

The transition from carbon energy to cleaner energy, such as solar power, is underway and prices of cleaner energy sources are coming down, he said.

Because many poorer countries are still in the process of developing, they might be able to adopt new kinds of transport, manufacturing and other infrastructure that is efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels, leapfrogging traditional dirtier development, he said.

"In many ways, that's where the opportunities are," Moellendorf said.

But the panelists agreed that developing nations need more and more affordable energy now, and fossil fuel will continue to play a role for some time ahead, Moellendorf said.

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