Module 5 – The Ethics of Climate Change

By | August 20, 2017


Ethics is the study of how we decide what is right and wrong, or what is morally good and what is morally bad.

Lots of attention has been devoted to the science and economics of climate change. But climate change is as much an ethical issue as a scientific or economic one.

Various parties to the debate − governments, industry representatives, environmentalists − often claim that certain proposals are ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’.

In doing so, they are making moral statements. But it is not always clear, even to those making the statements, what the moral basis is of their claims.

The following aspects of the debate on global warming have a strong ethical dimension:

  • Who should take responsibility for global warming?
  • Who will be most affected by climate change?
  • Which countries should do more to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Do rich countries have an obligation to help poor countries deal with the effects of climate change?

In this unit, we will explore the ethical principles that help us answer these questions. Ethical questions are often also questions of rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and security of person.”

If global warming leads to crop failures, loss of safe drinking water and civil strife then these rights will be jeopardised.

With rights go duties, so the current generation must protect the Earth, its life forms and its resources for future generations. This idea is expressed in the idea of intergenerational equity, or fairness between generations.

The principle of intergenerational equity states that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment are maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.

In short, each generation should leave the environment no worse off, so that the ability of future generations to provide for themselves is not damaged by depletion of resources or pollution of the land, water and atmosphere. In particular, loss of species is irreversible.

What are the main ethical issues associated with global warming?



Climate change, including global warming, sea-level rise and changes in weather patterns, is mainly due to the cumulative emissions over time leading to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Each year, more greenhouse pollution is pumped into the atmosphere. Only some of it is soaked up by vegetation and the oceans, so the concentration in the atmosphere rises.

Industrialised countries − comprising Western Europe, Japan, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand − are responsible for around 75 percent of the increase in greenhouse gases since pre-industrial times – see Figure 1.

Figure 1 Shares of cumulative CO2 emissions over 1850-2002

Burning large quantities of fossil fuels has powered their economic growth over the last 200 years, so in this sense, greenhouse pollution has been inseparable from growing rich.

The polluter pays principle is widely accepted as a guide to who should take responsibility for environmental damage.

The polluter pays principle says that the person or company responsible for causing the pollution, or environmental damage, should be responsible for cleaning it up.

So if a factory pollutes a river with toxic waste and causes health problems for people living nearby, it is only fair that those who own the factory should meet the cost of reducing or cleaning up the pollution.

This is the theme of the film Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts. The movie is based on the life of a legal clerk in California who mounted a great legal action against a big company which was contaminating the drinking water of residents.

The polluter pays principle also applies in the case of climate change.

However, the situation is changing. Some large developing countries − especially China, India and Brazil − have been overgrowing in recent years, and their greenhouse gas emissions have been growing too – see Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Seven biggest annual greenhouse gas emitters 2000

It is expected that the annual emissions from developing countries will soon exceed those of industrialised countries and China will soon leap-frog the United States as the world’s largest annual emitter.

However, it will be some decades before these developing countries are responsible for half of the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The amount of greenhouse pollution that each person is responsible for is another important figure with ethical implications. China’s total emissions are ten times bigger than Australia’s, but the average Australian is in charge of nearly ten times more greenhouse pollution than the average Chinese (and is ten times wealthier).

In fact, Australians have the highest level of greenhouse pollution per person of all industrialised countries. Each person in China is responsible for around three tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, and each person in India for around one tonne. Each Australian is responsible for around 27 tonnes.



Rich countries like Australia have been the main beneficiaries of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because they have been able to industrialise by burning fossil fuels.

However, developing countries will experience more of the damage from global warming.

For example:

  • In Africa by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change;
  • In many parts of Africa, climate change is expected to reduce agricultural production severely. This will worsen food shortages and malnutrition. According to the United Nations, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent by 2020;
  • It is projected that crop yields could increase by up to 20 percent in East and South-East Asia while they could decrease by up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia by 2050. Overall, the risk of hunger is projected to remain very high in several developing countries; and
  • Illness and deaths due to diarrhoeal disease associated with floods and droughts are expected to rise in much of Asia as a result of global warming.

In addition to the polluter pays principle, another widely accepted fairness principle is that of ability to pay.

Capacity to pay principle says that nations or organisations that are wealthier should be required to do more than those that are poorer.

The ethical principle is similar to the idea of progressive taxation under which those who earn high incomes pay a higher rate of tax than those on low incomes. This is because an extra dollar of income means a lot more to a poor person.

Who will be more affected by climate change in Australia?

Within Australia, some groups of people will be more affected by climate change than others. For example:

  • In some regions, such as central Australia, the temperature will increase by more than the average;
  • Wealthier people will be in a better position to ‘weather-proof’ their homes than poorer people, including installing double-glazing and air-conditioning; and
  • Farmers may be more affected if climate change makes farming less viable economically, in areas such as the Murray Darling Basin.

Individual action versus collective action

Some people argue that we can solve climate change if everyone ‘does the right thing’. They say that governments are too slow to act and if we all pull together, we can sharply reduce Australia’s emissions.

Others argue that only collective action, through our governments, will work. They say that ‘privatising’ responsibility for climate change shifts the blame from governments and businesses onto the shoulders of individual consumers.

Greenhouse pollution is then attributed to our failure to ‘do the right thing’. While there are some things that individuals can act on, others are beyond the capacity of individuals alone.

When it comes to the food we eat or the clothes we wear, we can think about the greenhouse impact by finding out or demanding the information from the suppliers.

For example, meat and fish have a very high greenhouse impact in Australia.

When it comes to changing large systems over which we have no control, such as Australia’s energy systems, the most effective form of action is likely to be collective action.

For example, to vote for a council, state or national government that agrees to make the necessary changes and then to hold them accountable.

Fact: After several years of promoting ‘green power’ (renewable electricity) only 7 percent of Australian households have opted to pay more for electricity generated from renewable energy.

United Nations’ Principles

In 1992 the United Nation’s Rio Declaration and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established the ethical principles for climate change.




Everything we have said so far concerns the impacts of climate change on humans. If the well-being in human beings is all we care about, then our ethical position is called anthropocentric or human-centered.

But climate change will affect animals too.

The United Nations expects that approximately 20-30 percent of plant and animal species are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5-2.5°C.

In Australia, animals such as the mountain pygmy possum and the green turtle are expected to be at greater risk of extinction. In some areas, koalas will struggle to survive as eucalypts die off. Many species that depend on the Great Barrier Reef will also not survive.

If animals and plants have value in themselves, and not just because they promote human well-being, then they deserve to be protected too. So the extinction of species is an ethical issue.

Often we are not sure about the effects of our actions. We, therefore, have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. In some cases, if we get it wrong we can change what we are doing and set things right.

For example, if a factory pollutes a river we may be able to clean up the contamination before it is too late. In other cases, if we get it wrong the effects may be irreversible.

For example, some types of contamination may kill an entire species of fish, and so the effect is that the type of fish is gone forever.

The extinction of a species is irreversible; once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. In these cases, we may apply what is known as the precautionary principle, which says that when we are uncertain about the likely outcomes, we should adopt a cautious approach and not take the risk.

It can also mean that if there is a risk that an action could lead to the extinction of a species, then those who want to take action should have to prove that it is safe.

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