A Climate Ethicist's Perspective

Donald Brown on Climate and Ethics Moving Forward

Ethical issues and concerns for social justice lie at the heart of the climate change issue, argues an academic who has focused on climate ethics, and he says the media share responsibility for not adequately connecting the dots. 


Everyone has a role and everyone is to blame for the failure to enact policies in tune with what ethics and justice would require of them, says Donald Brown, an academic and ethicist whose work and writings have focused on climate change in recent years. Brown, a scholar in residence at Widener University School of Law, argues in his new book, Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm (2012), that ethical responsibilities to others, rather than economic interests, should guide climate change negotiations.

Currently attending international negotiations in Doha, Qatar, and leading a side-event on ethics, Brown recently spoke with Yale Forum contributing writer Lisa Palmer about his hopes for new efforts to engage ethics in forming climate change policy.

Yale Forum: The 2-degree Celsius global change target may not be realistic and is possibly slipping away. How does that affect your work addressing this moral question?

Brown: I think it is fair to say that the most respected elements of the mainstream science community are freaking out that we are running out of time to prevent nonlinear rapid climate change. No one knows for sure, but 2 degrees might be on the high side of a bigger trigger. There’s really no hope of getting larger commitments unless you start to get countries to take provisions of United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change on ethics and equity seriously. Developing countries aren’t likely to step up their commitments unless they see developed countries begin to make commitments that clearly take their responsibilities to other people seriously. There is a direct link between ethics and the 2 degrees C problem, and there is an attempt to deal with this issue expressly.

Yale Forum: We have had a few wake up-calls this year with record high temperatures, increases in wildfires, drought, extreme weather, rapidly melting sea ice, and then “Superstorm Sandy.” Do you feel these events have increased awareness of ethical questions raised by global climate change?

Brown: Ethics are still in the background. “Sandy” increased the press interest and that’s a good thing, but there are five things about climate change people need to understand to really get it. One is the overwhelming scientific consensus. Every scientific academy in the world supports the scientific consensus, but the press is still not reporting concretely enough on the scientific consensus.

The second thing the press is not reporting on is the magnitude of reductions needed to prevent rapid, nonlinear climate change. Even after “Sandy” there was very little coverage of the quantity of reductions necessary, and therefore, the urgency of the problem. Third, this is an ethic and justice issue. When you have a couple hundred thousand people die in Pakistan, the press isn’t linking it to climate change. Americans need to see that they have responsibilities to other people around the world. The press doesn’t get the justice element of this. If it’s a justice issue, it changes everything in the debate. Science and economics now control the debate; not duties, responsibilities, and obligations to the rest of the world. Ethical dimensions are huge in this problem, unlike any other problem I think the world has faced, and yet the justice and ethics part of it is not being covered by the press.

Another thing the press isn’t covering is that the U.S. has been the barrier in the international climate negotiations in the 22 years that the negotiations have been going on. The U.S. has been the large barrier in coming up with a global solution.

Finally, the amazing nature of the disinformation campaign is largely not covered by the press. Free market foundations and the fossil fuel companies have been fighting all this. What they are doing is not skepticism; skepticism is good. What they are doing is creating misinformation and disinformation.

Yale Forum: What ethical guidance could help form climate change policy?

Brown: Climate change raises a host of ethical questions. What is the stabilization goal that each nation should be trying to achieve? That’s an ethical question because it determines who lives and dies. What’s a fair allocation of that goal? How do individuals think about what they should be doing? Who should pay for adaptation? With each of these different ethical questions, even ethicists disagree about what precisely should be done. I blame philosophers and ethicists for not paying attention to what the government positions are. It’s really easy to spot the injustice of the positions, even in cases where it’s difficult to say what justice requires.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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