As a leader in higher education, you can inspire your campus to chart a new course on climate.

SUBSCRIBE

The Ethics of Climate Change

By Sharon Chen
(resize font)

The issue of climate change is usually seen as a scientific one: carbon emissions, rising oceans, and increasing temperatures, and our progress in containing these catastrophes, are measured and analyzed using science. What if we shifted our thinking about climate change, and viewed this challenge and its solutions through the lens of justice and ethics?

A University of Washington professor, Stephen M. Gardiner, urges us to approach climate change with morality and ethics are our guiding compass. As Dr. Gardiner puts it, climate change is the perfect moral storm, and at its center is the “threat of a tyranny of the contemporary, a collective action problem in which earlier generations exploit the future by taking modest benefits for themselves now while passing on potentially catastrophic costs later.” Thus far, we have given priority to our short-term interests (continuing to allow high carbon emissions, for example).

Viewing climate change as an ethical problem may help inspire climate action. Climate change is so much more than science: its impacts encompass issues of justice, political legitimacy, community, national security, poverty, and so much more. Higher ed, with its breadth of knowledge and resources, is ideal for introducing climate change in this more ethical context. Introducing climate change into non-science curricula, and encouraging non-science based student groups to address this issue, are important steps we can take to show students that climate change is not just science – it’s our lives.


Why climate change is an ethical problem

Stephen Gardiner | Washington Post | January 9, 2016

Climate change presents a severe ethical challenge, forcing us to confront difficult questions as individual moral agents, and even more so as members of larger political systems. It is genuinely global and seriously intergenerational, and crosses species boundaries. It also takes place in a setting where existing institutions and theories are weak, proving little ethical guidance.

A central component of this perfect moral storm is the threat of a tyranny of the contemporary, a collective action problem in which earlier generations exploit the future by taking modest benefits for themselves now while passing on potentially catastrophic costs later.

The critical question as we seek to meet such a tyranny and address climate change will be which moral framework is in play when we make decisions. In many settings, we do not even notice when this question arises, because we assume that the relevant values are so widely shared and similarly interpreted that the answer should be obvious to everyone. Nevertheless, the values question is not trivial, since our answer will shape our whole approach.

If we think something should be done about climate change, it is only because we use our moral frameworks to evaluate climate change events, our role in bringing them about, and the alternatives to our action. This evaluation gives us both an account of the problem and constraints on what would count as relevant solutions.

Read more