Pope Francis speaks to a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol in September, where he discussed climate change and other issues. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about the ethics of global warming. Need a primer? Catch up here.

John Nagle is the John N. Matthews professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, where he teaches and writes about climate change and other environmental issues. He is writing books on the role of humility in environmental law and on the scenic value of our national parks.

Climate will have such a profound effect on the earth that we will need to reconsider our relationship with the natural environment. That’s why many environmental activists are now being drawn to an evolving philosophical stance on the topic, shifting away from an approach that is simply political, scientific or economic.

“There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology,” Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, the papal encyclical released last summer. Francis rejected both an anthropocentric view that accepts all human desires and a misanthropic view that wishes people would disappear. To find solutions for climate change and other environmental challenges, we need to focus on the morality of our actions, including questions of fairness and obligation.

[Other perspectives: America has been duped on climate change]

That understanding was on display during the debates at last month’s climate change negotiations in Paris. After failing to come to an accord in previous meetings, diplomats succeeded in Paris because they crafted an agreement that allowed each nation to decide its own response to climate change rather than dictating a prescribed set of regulations.

But the ongoing efforts after the talks face a number of moral challenges, especially the effects of our actions on the poor. Nearly 80 percent of the people living in the world’s least developed countries do not have access to electricity, yet energy production is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and other types of pollution. We have a moral obligation both to alleviate such energy poverty and to avoid harming people by our energy production.

Previous international agreements failed to address energy poverty in the least developed parts of the world. The Paris agreement acknowledges “the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy.” Renewable energy holds much promise as its non-polluting sources displace reliance on fossil fuels, though even renewable energy presents harms of its own.

Although renewable energy is spreading, it is still difficult — and expensive — to rely on as the only source of energy for large areas. That is why international lending organizations still fund projects that burn coal or oil in the least developed parts of the world, where such fuels offer the only alternative to having no electricity at all. Much of the debate in the United States labels coal in particular as intrinsically immoral, but a better understanding of the environmental trade-offs associated with all means of energy production calls for a more nuanced appreciation of the competing values.

There is also a moral question of who is responsible for climate change. Francis, the first pope from the developing world, insists that the developed world is culpable not just for climate change, but also for a range of environmental ills suffered by developing nations. He described “a true ‘ecological debt’ ” existing between the global north and the global south, one connected to the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time, as well as commercial imbalances that have environmental effects. In his encyclical, he states that the developed countries have a debt to pay. They should limit their energy consumption and help poorer countries support sustainable development.  

In Paris, developing countries sought to include a requirement that developed countries accept legal responsibility to compensate the victims of climate change in the developing world, but the United States and other developed nations refused to agree. Instead, the Paris agreement explicitly states that it does not “provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

[Inaction on global warming is as reckless as drunken driving]

The culpability debate is complicated. It is questionable that 21st-century Americans should be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors, who had little reason to think that their activities were endangering future generations. And many of the actions that resulted in climate change today also spread economic, social and cultural benefits throughout the developing world.

Perhaps the better way to envision the problem is to focus on generosity, not blame. Culpability is typically determined by adjudication, and two decades of climate change litigation have failed to make much progress in identifying who is legally obligated to pay for the harm caused. Generosity, on the other hand, needs no court order.

The appeal to love our neighbors who suffer from environmental devastation is already animating the work of faith-based organizations around the world. Such moral claims may not appear in legal documents such as the Paris agreement, but they play an essential role in any understanding of how to respond to climate change where it is most needed.

Explore these other perspectives:

Daniel Farber: Inaction on global warming is as reckless as drunken driving

Robert Brulle: America has been duped on climate change

Thomas Kostigen: If we’re going to fix climate change, we’ll have to get creative