Practical consequences

Environmental ethicist Donald Brown insists there are practical consequences to ignoring the ethical dimensions of climate change:

Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences…In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously.

Read the whole thing.  While I think his writing could have been clearer, I think his post connects nicely with my last one.  Perhaps a general reluctance to engage with the ethics of climate change has consequences beyond the corrosion of public discourse.


  1. Very interesting article Praj.

    I don’t agree with the premise of the piece.

    Ethical arguments are not stronger than self-interest arguments, in my opinion.

    If the uncertainty is strong enough to overwhelm the self-interest of some individuals, it will certainly swamp the ethical person who is uncertain of what will happen to the climate.

    In my opinion, it is unethical to take action, which may actually hurt poor people, which may turn out to be unnecessary.

    For example, the biofuel actions of the USA raised the price of corn in Mexico.

    It seems now that there is scientific agreement that using corn as a source of biofuel is actually not a good idea.

    If ethical arguments to take action now caused a poor reallocation of resources which raised the cost of food in Mexico – that hurt poor people and could therefore be argued to be unethical.

    In my opinion, unless we can make alternative power cheaper than conventional power, we are going to end up hurting poor people around the world.

    Even if we use regulation to force a switchover – the increased costs will end up hurting poor people in the end.

    Whether it is increased taxes to the rich – which will increase unemployment or depress the economy, or through increased costs for power, food and fuel – in the end, this will only increase poverty.

    So I think the ethical thing to do is to actually make very sure we are correct in our projections of future climate.

    I don’t think we have reduced the uncertainty enough to spend trillions of dollars – that would be unethical.

    I do think it is ethical to spend billions on research to create alternative power which is actually economically cheaper than conventional power.

    This would actually benefit poor people (through cheaper power, fuel and food), and decrease the carbon footprint of civilization.

  2. Here is a recent article from Nature which shows that nitrous oxide levels increase with altitude – which is a surprise:

    Here is a quote:

    Among the surprises to come out of HIPPO data are nitrous oxide concentrations that consistently seem to increase with altitude. “Yet the models all show concentrations decreasing with altitude,” says Wofsy. The implication, he adds, is that models are either not properly accounting for the transport of nitrous oxide or they are missing a source of the greenhouse gas.

    We are constantly finding out that our climate models are wrong and/or incomplete.

    Again, this sort of information goes to the ethics of spending trillions of dollars to solve a problem which may not exist, or may be smaller than projected using our current inaccurate climate models.

    1. Hey Rick. Good to hear from you, and thanks for your comments. Hope all is well. I don’t think either Donald Brown or myself would say that ethical arguments are necessarily stronger than self-interest ones. We’re just arguing that they definitely are part of the picture. Although I may somewhat disagree with some of yours specific points, they are valid and need to be accounted for.

      Thanks again.

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