Ethics – The Missing Dimension

ECO finds it astounding that despite all the good intentions expressed at the climate change negotiations for more than a decade, the political, economic and scientific arguments have remained dominant in the proceedings so far, marginalising ethics.

This is unfortunate, as the incorporation of ethics into the discussions could lead to a shift from the divisive political posturing of who is right, which is consuming so much time and energy, to a focus on what is right and needs to be done.

An ethically based global consensus on climate change may reverse disparities between rich and poor, and reduce potential international tension that will arise from climate-caused food and water scarcities and perceived inequitable use of the global atmospheric commons – past, present and future – as a carbon sink.

In essence, ethics is a field of philosophical enquiry that examines concepts and their application about what is right and wrong, obligatory and non-obligatory, and when responsibility should be attached to human actions that cause harm.

A review of the ethics of the climate change process from a scientific perspective emerged at COP10 in Buenos Aires. At that meeting, a group of individuals and organisations adopted the Buenos Aires Declaration on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change. It concluded that reflection on the ethical dimensions of climate change was urgent because:

  • Many profound ethical questions are obscured by scientific and economic arguments about various climate change proposals;
  • Unless the ethical dimensions are considered, individual nations may choose responses that are ethically unsupportable or unjust;
  • An equitable approach to climate change policy is necessary to overcome barriers currently blocking progress in international negotiations.

A follow-up White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change* was released at a side event here last Wednesday. Eight specific ethical issues were evaluated from the perspectives of factual content, ethical analysis and procedural fairness.

Extracts of the findings on each of these issues are as follows:

Responsibility for Damages – Cost to the economy is not an ethically acceptable excuse for an individual nation to fail to take actions.

Atmospheric Targets – Annex 1 countries are ethically obligated to consider the interests of non-represented future generations and non-humans.

Allocating Global Emissions among Nations– The polluter pays principle is consistent with principles of distributive justice. (There is an ethical imperative that each developing nation makes every effort to support sustainable development practices.)

Scientific Uncertainty in Policy Making – The argument that a nation need not reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of scientific uncertainty about the consequences of timing and magnitude does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.

Cost to National Economies – If a nation refuses to take action to reduce GHG emissions on the basis of domestic cost alone, its position is ethically unsupportable.

Independent Responsibility to Act – Annex I countries should undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country Parties.

Potential New Technologies – It is ethically problematic to appeal to the possibility that less costly technologies might be available in the future as a basis for refusing to reduce emissions now.

Procedural Fairness – No nation may consider the implications of climate change policy to itself alone in developing national climate change policy.

ECO aspires that the ethical positions expressed in the White Paper act as a wake-up call to Parties, especially Annex I Parties that by and large have been using various tricks and tactics to shirk responsibilities to which they are already committed.

A lack of urgency could be considered the common thread woven through all COPs so far. This COP has been no different despite the explosive Stern Report released a week prior to this meeting highlighting the serious economic impacts of climate change. The indifferent reaction here might be considered unethical given the global community is on the verge of committing catastrophic climate change.

What would an ethical premise imply for a post-2012 regime that would actually deal with the climate problem? That the wealthy, comfortable, consuming population of the world must:

  • Reduce their GHG emissions rapidly to prevent disastrous climate change;
  • Provide the resources to enable sustainable development in poor communities along a low carbon pathway;
  • Provide compensation for climate damages that are unavoidable, and – where possible – provide resources that will allow poor communities to adapt.

Some glimmers of hope have already emerged due to the action of authorities against tremendous odds: the world’s largest coal port of Newcastle, Australia capping coal exports from its port; New Delhi shifting all public transport vehicles from diesel and petrol to compressed natural gas; and California legislating to curb GHG emissions. More ethical leadership such as this is required.

* Refer towww.rockethics.psu.edu/climatefor details.

  Closer Than You Think?
In any relationship, it is important to listen carefully – without being defensive – to what your partner is saying. In the listening, and in the response, we acknowledge and respond to the other’s concerns. It is no different in these climate negotiations. We are co-dependent, developed and developing countries: there is no saving the climate without each other.
  Equitable Distribution in the CDM
The skewed distribution of Clean Development Mechanism projects in eligible countries has been well documented. However, only three per cent of the 450 registered projects are situated in Africa. The poor distribution relates both to CDM-specific issues, as well as those correlated with macro-economics, energy infrastructure and levels of development.
The Climate Action Network thanks WWF International, Greenpeace International, FOE International, David Suzuki Foundation, RAC France, Helio International, Équiterre, Natural Resources Defense Council, NET, Practical Action, CAN-Europe, USCAN, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense, Acid Rain Secretariat 2006, World Resources Institute, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, The Nature Conservancy, CASA, WWF UK, Tearfund, Pelangi, United Nations Office Nairobi for contributing to the publication of ECO.

Download file: http://ECOCOP12En08.pdf

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