The ethics of climate change

Constance Lever-Tracy, Flinders University

Jeremy Moss (ed) Climate Change and Social Justice, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, Social Justice Series, 2009 (264 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-666-8 (paperback) RRP $39.99.

If we continue to accumulate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, through production and consumption ‘business as usual’, the climate system will almost certainly reach ‘tipping points’ some time in the future. Unpredictable, unstoppable and irreversible changes are then likely to wreak destruction on generations yet unborn and on other species, for centuries and millennia. The long-term impact of such changes poses the primary challenge of the current crisis, and calls for ethical criteria rather than short-term economic cost-benefit analysis to become the central consideration.

In the introduction to Climate Change and Social Justice, economist Ross Garnaut, who presented the Garnaut Climate Change Review to the government in 2008, writes that climate change is ‘at heart an ethical problem … related to historical responsibility’. He continues: it is ‘first of all an intergenerational … question’ whose ‘main impacts are longer term ones’ (p. 1). It is also, however, a complex issue of current global and domestic equity, raising questions of justice in allocating responsibility and distributing the costs of mitigation and adaptation—and this is how most ethicists have approached it. Garnaut calls climate change a ‘wicked problem’ full of uncertainties and unintended consequences, where there is ‘a need for unprecedented international co-operation’, but also ‘powerful incentives for each country to free ride on others’ (p. 4). In my view, the long-term ethical imperative should guide action and, if necessary, take precedence over resolution of short-term conflicts and complexities.


Ethicists have attempted to disentangle the issues of historical and current responsibility for climate change, and the rights and obligations arising from them. Derek Bell (2010, pp. 423–441) argues for justice rather than cost-benefit based calculations in deciding who should pay for mitigation and adaptation. He starts from the proposal contained in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that ‘the Parties should protect the climate system … on the basis of and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (United Nations 1992, p. 4). He summarises a considerable debate amongst ethicists about the relative weight to be given to the responsibility of ignorant and aware emitters, past and present, and of those still benefiting from these emissions, as well as to any sharing of costs according to the ability to pay. Bell concludes that a modified version of Simon Caney’s ‘hybrid’ principle would be most just. Accordingly, the largest share of costs of preventing and compensating for climate change should be paid by those still living who have had high historic emissions in the relatively recent past (that is, post ‘excusable ignorance’), while any shortfall (due to death or non-compliance) should be paid by those who have benefited most from unjust emissions, including the inheritors of the consequent prosperity, and finally by those who are wealthiest.

Nature knows neither malice nor justice.

Further complications arise if distinctions in the responsibility of the rich and the poor within countries or a liability for uncontrolled population growth are also included in the calculations. Also relevant, it can be argued, are emissions allowances for different needs, such as heating in cold climates or transport in cities with dispersed suburbs. Yet even this debate fails to come to grips with all the complexities of this truly ‘wicked’ problem, where unpredictability reigns and no direct link can be proven between a specific emitting nation and a particular impact or extreme event. The recent wild fires in Russia or the devastation from flooding monsoon rains in Pakistan, for example, cannot be blamed directly on any specific emitter nor were they predicted by anyone.

Insofar as nature knows neither malice nor justice, the claim that the poor are least responsible but most vulnerable can also be simplistic. It may even distract from the real need for globally united action. China, for example, has little historic responsibility for accumulated emissions but is currently a larger emitter than the United States, and has the world’s fastest rate of emissions growth. One or the other of these facts has been emphasised to justify foot dragging by both countries.

Both rich and poor are threatened by global warming: impoverished Bangladesh and Nepal are known to be particularly vulnerable to rising seas or melting ice, but so too are London and New York. If the Gulf Stream fails, rich north European countries will suffer. Nor is it obvious that rich countries are best placed to respond. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 has become a paradigm for unpreparedness and failed response in a rich country, while Chatterjee’s (2010) account of recovery from monsoonal floods in Mumbai in the same year, documents the value of poor people’s networks for survival and recovery.

Globalisation also makes it is hard to disentangle responsibilities and impacts. Australia emits more CO2 per capita than most countries but the total impact is often described as ‘negligible’ by opponents of action in this country. Few, however, discuss our huge responsibility, as the origin and beneficiary of one of the largest volumes of coal exports in the world, nor how much we therefore share the blame for China’s rising emissions. Some research suggests that the European Union may ‘import’ as much as a third of their carbon emissions in products from developing countries. If, as predicted, one effect of global warming will be water shortages in many parts of the world, this will affect the price and availability of agricultural products, with their ‘embedded water’, on which Britain, among other nations, depends.

In his contribution to Climate Change and Social Justice, Peter Singer suggests that the Gordian knot of all these complexities can be cut through with a right of all people alive now to an equal (and sustainable) amount of (tradable) emissions. However, Derek Bell (2008) has argued that this idea is patently unjust to those in recently industrialising countries.


The elephant in the room is the ethical imperative posed by the long-term future impacts of our current emissions on other species and on future human generations. Garnaut does not mention the questions of the rights of other species, or of any duty to protect biodiversity or eco-systems, and these questions are also ignored by all but two of the sixteen contributors to Climate Change and Social Justice (John Quiggin and Benjamin Preston). Our actions are already causing harm to humans and the biosphere, and if we go on as we are we will most probably cause long-term damage. There is also a real possibility of catastrophic tipping points and cascading and irreversible effects such as acidic oceans and melting ice, with massive and unpredictable consequences.

The last half century has seen ever more rapid changes.

These effects would multiply and accumulate rather than moderate with the passage of time. James Hansen (2010, p. 141) points out that the last time the Earth was two or three degrees warmer than today was about three million years ago, when sea levels were 25 metres higher than today, covering land where currently about a billion people live. Florida, for example, was under water. When we consider our responsibility for these dangers to the earth and to the future of humanity, for many centuries to come, the complexities of justly allocating blame and costs among people today shrink into relative insignificance.

The difficulty in facing the long-term future comes from the dominance of (even enlightened) economists in the discussions. The bedrock of economics is cost-benefit analysis with the benefits defined by the freely chosen, subjective preferences of living individuals, integrated through markets. The preferences themselves are generally taken as given, rooted in some unchanging psychology. These choices are said to progressively discount the future, which becomes less valuable to us the further away it is. On this logic, resources are less valuable to us twenty years hence than they are today (so savings must be rewarded), wealth we pass on to our children or grandchildren is worth less than that we consume ourselves, and the welfare of our unborn descendants drops off the map. If we did not discount in this way, the rights of multiple future generations, for centuries or millennia, must surely outweigh any current rights, and have first priority. By contrast, even though concerned economists argue about the appropriate rate, even the smallest discounting of the future progressively attenuates the interests and rights of posterity and eventually reduces them to zero.

Sociologists and historians have had little to say so far about these issues. Yet surely they can challenge the supposed human universality of future discounting. It is often claimed that people naturally have limited ability to focus on a distant future. However, such short sightedness is likely to be no more than a new and mutable cultural fashion. The last half century has seen a cultural shift with a foreshortening of time horizons for economic and political calculations and ever more rapid changes of careers, fashion and technology (Best 1990; Beynon & Nichols 2006; Capelli 1995; Uchitelle 2006). The preference for capital gains and bonuses rather than for long term profits and security is recent. The short-term economic focus on the immediate satisfactions of individuals and the discounting of the future, far from being attributes of human nature, are in fact historically specific and not irreversible.

When safe investment and pensions or superannuation schemes are not available, people have always saved for their old age in cash hordes and jewellery, and savings rates today are higher in poor than in rich societies. Many immigrants, even today, risk their lives in rickety boats and sacrifice status and security, to move to countries where their language and qualifications will never be recognised, to secure the education and future of their children.

We have little difficulty recognising our continuities with the past.

Looking yet further ahead, a possibly apocryphal American Indian proverb enjoins us to consider the consequences of our actions ‘unto the seventh generation’. Fear of eternal damnation after death, or of the long-term sullying of a family’s future reputation, have been powerful motivators throughout history. The cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like the pyramids of Egypt, were projects that took centuries to complete, aiming at eternal life in the hereafter. The construction of political and economic dynasties takes more than one lifetime.

Consider the scandal that arose in January 2010 over the printing error in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that Himalayan glaciers could all melt by 2035 rather than (an optimistic prediction) by 2350 (Hall 2010; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2010). Critics of the IPCC implied that such a supposedly distant future was of little interest. Yet if we think about it a little, even such a long period should not be irrelevant. We generally have little difficulty recognising our continuities with the past. Three and a half centuries ago the Royal Society had already begun to institutionalise modern science and Shakespeare’s by then classic plays were being performed to Restoration audiences; the Pilgrim Fathers were well established in America and Abel Tasman had claimed Tasmania for the Dutch East India Company. Melting of the Himalayan glaciers has already started, and if it passes a tipping point and becomes irreversible, consequences will be catastrophic for billions within what is still quite a short time on the scale of human history.


It is worth considering some of the implications of giving first priority to future generations, even if in the end we decide to compromise on it. If we do so, we can see that giving the future priority over the present can lead to the convergence of several ethical ends. The offer of aid for adaptation to poor developing countries, in return for them mitigating their emissions by reducing deforestation and using cleaner technology for their new industries, can bring benefits to both sides of the bargain. The development of solar energy in the Sahara or central Australia can provide electricity and jobs for desert communities. However, giving priority to the future over the present can also lead to clashes of ethical ends. Projects for massive new hydroelectric projects on the Mekong or in central Africa or New Guinea displace many poor peasants and flood wild habitats, but can be justified by long-term climate priorities.

In the case of fission-based nuclear power, different long-term dangers need to be compared, but the promise of safe, cheap and unlimited fusion power must surely be explored (and demonstrated or disproved), even if such research and development now seems costly, and if an unsure outcome is likely to be delayed beyond the middle of the century. By contrast, focus and expenditure on carbon sequestration and ‘clean coal’ is counter-indicated by what will be the long-term exhaustion of global coal stocks, and distracts from the development of longer term alternative energy solutions. Geo-engineering sunshades may temporarily cool the earth, but would allow CO2 to continue rising. Sunshades would become a permanent requirement; meanwhile ocean acidification would continue.


Climate Change and Social Justice, edited by Jeremy Moss, contains twelve chapters in sections dealing with ‘Science, fairness and responsibility’ (covering issues of responsibility, ethics and justice, intergenerational equity and distributional questions in greenhouse and carbon trading policy design); ‘Climate change and vulnerable groups’ (including discussions of justice and adaptation, primary health care and climate refugees), and ‘policy implications’ (covering key debates on climate justice, the importance of equity in international adaptation strategies and the relation of climate justice to other equity goals). It is a much needed and valuable contribution to this neglected dimension of the climate change discussion.

Ethical criteria should be central in debates on climate change.

However, the collection falls short of the imperatives Ross Garnaut articulates in the introduction. First, it does not really serve as a comprehensive introduction to what writers on the ethics of climate change have said. Only two of the contributors (including the editor, Jeremy Moss, and Peter Singer) are ethicists, while four are economists and five are from political or natural science disciplines. Many chapters read as an interesting continuation of discussions within these disciplines, but there is no mention of recent work on climate change by ethicists such as Derek Bell (2008), Simon Caney (2009), Margaret Moore (2008) or Kate Raworth (2007). The second disappointment is the absence from most chapters (with the exception of one page by Cam Walker and of the chapter by economist John Quiggin) of any concern with the questions of long-term impact on future humanity or on the intergenerational justice that Garnaut stresses. John Quiggin’s contribution seeks to resolve the dilemma of intergenerational equity by noting that generations overlap and arguing that all people alive today, including the youngest babies, must have equal rights. This position perhaps extends some current responsibility (although in an attenuated form) to those few alive today who may survive to the end of the century, and is ultimately unconvincing.


There is a strong case for the centrality of ethical rather than economic cost-benefit and future discounting criteria, in debates on climate change. There is no immutable reason why our own longer term future or the future of our children and grandchildren (born or as yet unborn) or of even much later generations should not concern us more than the immediate costs of action on climate change.

The overriding ethical imperative is to find practical and permanent alternatives to greenhouse emissions as quickly as possible. This requires global co-operation. Ethical criteria for the current distribution of the costs of mitigation and adaptation should not become enmeshed in the contradictions and doubts of ‘wicked problems’. Each additional complexity opens the door for arguments for special consideration by would-be free riders, giving rise to mutual suspicion. This was one of the rocks on which the Copenhagen Conference foundered. This does not, however, mean that the justice claims of poor or developing countries can be discounted. The need for global solutions implies taking seriously their new bargaining power and recognising that perceptions of injustice can undermine the whole enterprise.


Bell, D. 2008, ‘Carbon justice? The case against a universal right to equal carbon emissions’, in Seeking Environmental Justice, ed. S. Wilkes, Rodolfi, Amsterdam.

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Dr Constance Lever-Tracy is a sociologist at Flinders University, Adelaide. She edited the Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society (2010) and contributed the entry ‘Global warming’ in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (2008). She initiated a symposium on global warming and sociology, published in Current Sociology (2008).