This entry was originally made on Orange Hues blog on 20 June 2007.
A recent talk by Donald Brown at IPCC exposes the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the developed world and poses important questions for all policy makers grappling with how to respond to climate change. Video and transcript of his talk follows
Transcript of Don Brown’s talk on Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change
I’ve tried to retain the original emphasis of the talk below, though not always successfully. Words I could not make out are left as blanks.
What are the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change?
Vice President Gore in his movie, I’d assume most of you saw the movie, says three times that climate change is a moral issue. And he makes this emphasis but he doesn’t explain. What does it mean to say that climate change is a moral and ethical issue?
What does entail by that? I’m here to convince you that there’s a lot more to the assertion that climate change is a moral and ethical issue and how important it is. How desperately important it is. That we encourage others to have this conversation about moral and ethical dimensions of climate change.
One of the reasons why this is so urgent, not only it is the steepest of the cuts we need that is so urgent but a lot of the moral and ethical issues are actually hidden in scientific and economic arguments about climate change. We need to educate others what the moral and ethical issues are.
It’s not just one moral and ethical issue. It’s many different moral and ethical issues. I work at Penn State, we’ve created a program called… a collaborative program on the ethical dimensions of climate change. We’re working with 17 ethics institutes around the world on this and if this weren’t such a very very very very scary problem, it’d actually also be an exciting problem because it’s gonna force us to think through multi levels of institutions – how we make international law. It’s going to bring every…climate change in my view is going to force us to rethink moral norms, ___ norms and international norms.
Let me dig into what we believe the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change are. There are many of them. We’ve identified eight major issues. What we’re trying to do and what we encourage others to do is to not talk about morality or ethics in the abstract but to pay really a close attention to the international debate about climate change.
We are following the debate, teasing out at the moral and ethical issues and then doing rigorous ethical critiques of those issues. There’s a paper, a White paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. Looks like I didn’t bring enough of this. This is the first start. You’ll see it’s a fairly rigorous attempt to dig deeply into the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change. Let me just identify what we think are the most pressing moral and ethical issues of our time about climate change at this moment in history. These are gonna change as this debate unfolds and we attempt to try to follow it.
The first issue is, how much warming should we tolerate. Another way of stating this issue is what is the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases that this world should identify as a target. There is no more obvious moral and ethical issue than this issue. It will literally determine who lives and who dies. Whether ___ survives, whether ___ islands survive. The issue of atmospheric targets, we must see it simply not as a scientific issue but as the most profound kind of moral and ethical issue. Issue#1.
Issue#2. The world is emitting 7 billion tons of carbon. We’re headed to 20 billion tons of carbon in this century under one of the IPCC scenarios. We’ve got to reduce the 7 to 2.5 billion tons in next thirty years. The moral issue is, how do we allocate who gets to use those two and a half billion tons of carbon. How do we allocate? Does United States get to use more per capita than China or India? There could be no more obvious moral and ethical issue than who gets the right to use the atmosphere as a sink. And it’s hardly on our lips.
Issue 3. Who’s gonna pay for damages from climate change? This is the issue the developing countries are now starting to bring to the negotiation. And it is also a moral ethical issue. Morals and ethics would have the Plato’s Phaedo principle – there’s this whole area of philosophy called retributive justice that has a lot to say about this. This is a justice issue.
Now, they’re the obvious ethical questions that climate change raises. There’s a whole host of probably more important moral and ethical issues but they are hidden inside scientific and economic arguments about what we should do.
The next issue is, how about scientific uncertainty. What are the ethical and moral dimensions of scientific uncertainly. Why is no one articulating the scientific uncertainty as a moral issue. Clearly, all across the world if you do dangerous behavior, it is criminal to do very dangerous behavior and you can’t use as a defense that you didn’t know for sure it was going to happen. It is criminal to do very dangerous behavior. Once you have enough evidence. Once science says there’s a rational risk, it is a moral issue.
In this case, there are a certain aspects of climate change which makes the excuse that United States and a couple of other countries was, for 20 years of scientific uncertainty, morally and ethically bankrupt. What are aspects of the scientific uncertainty? Well, if you wait for all uncertainty to resolve, its too late, the damage has already been caused. Those that wanna hide behind the scientific uncertainty haven’t asked the victims of climate change what bet they wanna take. There are questions of procedural justice. There are enormous questions of justice involved in an attempt to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse.
But no one is calling those that want to rely upon uncertainty as an excuse and identifying that as a moral and ethical question.
Issue#5. Cost. For 20 years United States, I used to represent the Clinton administration here. I’m the former negotiator. And for 20 years we used the excuse we don’t have to do anything because the cost to our economy alone is prohibitive. Think about that. One country states the costs of its economy alone when the harms are somewhere else?
There are various variations of the cost argument that we need to see in moral and ethical terms. One form of it is cost-benefit analysis. There’s a whole series of dueling cost-benefit analysis about Kyoto and post-Kyoto regimes. Those cost-benefit analysis raise the most profound kind of ethical questions and no one is calling the proponents of those costs-benefit analysis about the ethical issues.
Issues such as harms and benefits are disaggregated. The fact that the cost-benefit disenfranchise future generations though discounting. The fact that cost-benefit analysis think everybody and everything in the world is a commodity. The fact that cost benefit analysis makes people in poor countries lives less valuable than people’s lives in rich countries. And I could go on. The fact that people use cost-benefit analysis on this problem and people don’t identify the more obvious moral and ethical questions is very strange, is very very strange.
What are the other issues? Well, the issue of no country has to do anything until everyone else does something, okay. That’s the third excuse, unfortunately my country has been using for twenty years. We don’t have to do anything until everyone else does something. That’s a moral issue. Can a co-criminal decide that they don’t have to stop their crime because the other co-criminals haven’t stopped doing it? As a matter of moral and ethics, we believe that that excuse is also morally bankrupt.
What about the issue of well, we don’t have to do anything until there are new less costly technologies which can be invented that would get us out of this mess. What does ethics have to say about that issue?
What about the trading regimes? Are there ethical problems in trading regimes? And there in fact could be. It all depends upon what form the trading regimes take.
The long and short of it, in the White paper what we’re trying to do is to get philosophers and religious people to look at these issues rigorously and begin and deepen the ethical critique of these issues.
Now, if the world took climate change as a moral and issue, it would radically, radically change the way this is being negotiated. Countries would have to immediately admit that they have to reduce their emissions to their share of safe global emissions. Countries that have caused problems would have to admit that they have some responsibility to pay for damages and so forth.
So, the significance of seeing this as moral and ethical issue is profound, I believe, okay. And that’s why I want to thank you for organizing this conference. We all need to encourage people to see this in terms of moral and ethical issues. And not talk about it in the abstract. But in terms of concrete justifications of doing something that people are not doing.
Let me just conclude by the following. Bill McKibben, who’s a wonderful writer, about six years ago wrote an op-ed piece in New York Times and he said the following:
I’m sitting here wondering why Americans don’t see climate change as a moral and ethical issue. It makes me think of my parents, who were really good people but did not get civil rights until they saw the dogs on the bridge in Selma, Alabama.
(Police used German Shepherd dogs to quell protesters during the American civil rights movement)
He went on to say, “it’s all of our duties, it’s all of our duties to help people see the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change.” Especially those of us that understand the problem. We have a particular duty, in my view to get people to see the moral and ethical dimensions of this problem.
The challenge is, what are the dogs on the bridge for this problem that we can help get other people to see. Thank you.
References and Links
1. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth
2. White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (PDF)
3. Plato’s Phaedo Principle
4. Retributive Justice
5. Climate change is an international emergency