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.
[Other perspectives: When it comes to climate change, payback isn’t enough]
Suppose, for example, one were deciding where to set a global ceiling on emissions.
At one extreme, we might give absolute priority to the future. It is technically feasible for us all to reduce our emissions by 50 to 80 percent tomorrow, or even eliminate them. We could, after all, just turn off our electricity, refuse to drive, and so on. The problem is not that this cannot be done; it is that the implications are bleak. Given our current infrastructure, a very rapid reduction would probably cause social and economic chaos, including humanitarian disaster and severe dislocation for the current generation. If this is correct, we are justified in dismissing such drastic measures. However, that justification is ethical: A policy that demanded those measures would be profoundly unjust, violate important rights and be deeply harmful to human welfare.
Still, the acknowledgement of those limits has its own implications. Even if any emissions cuts would be disruptive to some extent, presumably at some point the risks imposed on future generations are severe enough to outweigh them. Where is this point? That is an ethical question. So far, we do not seem very interested in answering it.
Perhaps this is because up until now we have been acting as if our answer is closer to the other extreme — giving absolute priority to our own short-term interests. Over the past 25 years — since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — we have continued to allow high levels of emissions, suggesting that we are giving the future no weight at all. Given the threat of a tyranny of the contemporary, this bias is highly predictable. Yet it also appears grossly unethical.
Of course, acknowledging this bias is deeply uncomfortable. Consequently, there is a temptation to prefer framings of the climate problem that obscure the ethical questions. Consider, for instance, those who reject any moral lens, arguing that climate policy should be driven solely by national self-interest, usually understood in terms of domestic economic growth over the next couple of decades.
Their accounts face deep problems. Given the time lags that climate change involves, most climate impacts, including many of the most serious, will take many decades to arise. Moreover, those that may occur in the near term are likely already in the cards, due to either past emissions or those that are by now inevitable. Amoral approaches constructed with a focus exclusively on the next decade or two would confront only a very small set of the relevant impacts of climate change, and would likely miss the most important — and the potentially catastrophic. Therefore, they risk encouraging a situation where climate policy could become yet another venue where narrow interests crowd out longer-term and broader concerns.
The real climate challenge is ethical, and ethical considerations of justice, rights, welfare, virtue, political legitimacy, community and humanity’s relationship to nature are at the heart of the policy decisions to be made. We do not “solve” the climate problem if we inflict catastrophe on future generations, or facilitate genocide against poor nations, or rapidly accelerate the pace of mass extinction. If public policy neglects such concerns, its account of the challenge we face is impoverished, and the associated solutions quickly become grossly inadequate. Ongoing political inertia surrounding climate action suggests that so far, we are failing the ethical test.
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