The ethics of climate change

The ethics of climate change raises the most difficult questions.
I am not writing an environment blog, but to get a sense of the difficulty of the philosophical issues, here are some of the big questions:

  1. Intergenerational transfers
    The costs are borne by people alive today for the benefit of people who are not yet born. How do we balance the interests of those two groups?
  1. Democratic Mandates
    Is a country run a by a government with a mandate to look after the current population? Or for the long-term future of “the country”?
  1. Historical Emissions
    Should historic carbon emission be allocated to countries?
    Is the nation state the bearer of historic liabilities from the activity of its deceased former inhabitants? Do new immigrants take on this liability?
  1. Developed versus Developing economies
    How do we balance the desire for developing economies to grow into developed ones and the West’s desire to stay wealthy with a decline in carbon usage?
  2. Is Carbon a right or a consumption good?

Is carbon usage a consumption good like any other i.e. the rich get more of it
or is it a human right in which every person on earth has an equal right?

It’s interesting how infrequently these issues get discussed in the public debate, which focuses primarily on the technical models or measurement issues. It is also striking that an issue like Climate Change can so accurately be characterised as partisan issue of political left vs right. That Trump wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement or that Bernie Sanders supports environmental action is not surprising. This predictable difference cannot be explained away by describing your opponents as crazy, it is more likely to come from a deeper difference of view on the underlying ethical issues.

Whenever I hear a climate scientist claiming authority and opining that the science indicates a particular policy path, I feel that they have just not understood how difficult this problem is. They generally have no expertise or authority in anything other than a narrow field and like all of us bring our personal ethical values to the debate. When scientists unknowingly embed their ethical views into their scientific views it makes it far easier for their opponents to criticise the science.

Science is important but philosophy matters too.

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