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Betraying the Future

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.1


In his second inaugural, President Barack Obama boldly asserted that climate change is an ethical issue, that our obligations to future generations are central to it, and that failure to meet those obligations would be a very serious moral matter (a “betrayal”).2 He is far from alone. Such pronouncements cross the political spectrum and other cultural divides, both nationally and internationally.

Ethical concerns are also central to the governing treaty for climate action, the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), ratified in 1994 by all major countries, including the United States, China, the European Union, Russia, India, and Brazil. The UNFCCC states as its motivation the “protection of current and future generations of mankind,” declares as its major objective the prevention of “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system, and requires that this be achieved while protecting ecological, subsistence, and economic values.3 It also announces principles to guide the process that make heavy use of value-laden concepts, such as

“equity,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” the “special needs” of developing countries, and the “right” to development.

The thought that climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue is thus in many ways mainstream. Explicitly or implicitly, ethical concerns are widely held both to explain why we should be interested in the climate problem, and to structure acceptable responses. Nevertheless, such concerns have had very little influence over the making of more substantive international climate policy over the last twenty-five years. Instead, this has been dominated by short-term economic and strategic thinking.

This neglect arises in part because, in some circles, “ethics” is a “dirty” word, not to be mentioned in polite company unless to be ridiculed as obviously irrelevant, counterproductive, or even downright dangerous. Indeed, many in international relations and economics urge that ethics is best eliminated in global affairs quite generally, in favor of narrower considerations of national self-interest. Although (revealingly) this approach is applied only selectively to international issues, it has a strong influence on climate policy, especially in the United States. In particular, some (call them “the economic realists”) insist that “pragmatically” harnessing national self-interest offers the only chance of success in combating the climate problem given the actual motivations of governments, since ethical concepts, and especially the key notion of justice, are hopelessly unfit for the purpose. This position fuels stark policy messages, such as Eric Posner’s claim “you can have either climate justice or a climate treaty, not both,”4 and perhaps the declaration of the US climate envoy, Todd Stern, to other negotiators, “If equity’s in, we’re out.”5

My task in this volume is to defend ethics against such marginalization. For reasons that will become clear, I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive climate ethics. Instead my approach will be to explain why climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue, and why ethics is not easily eliminated from climate policy. My first chapter sketches the grounds for an ethical approach; the second argues against various versions of the anti-ethics position, including the politically influential version pressed by David Weisbach, and his colleagues Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein (the “Chicago lawyers”6); the third defends justice. Although the focus is climate, much of what I say applies to the role of ethics in international policy more generally.

My key claims will be as follows. First, ethics gets the problem right. Climate change is one instance of a distinctive challenge to ethical action: it is a perfect moral storm.7 Moreover, ethical concerns (such as with justice, rights, political legitimacy, community, and humanity’s relationship to nature) are at the heart of many of the decisions that need to be made. Consequently, climate policy that ignores ethics is at risk of “solving” the wrong problem.

Second, the economic realists get the problem wrong, and dangerously so. For one thing, they typically misdiagnose the climate problem as a traditional tragedy of the commons or prisoner’s dilemma. Consequently, they miss central issues, and especially the critical intergenerational threat of what I call “a tyranny of the contemporary.” Economic realism thus encourages “shadow solutions” that primarily serve the interests of affluent members of the current generation, including by creating illusions of real progress (e.g., Kyoto, Copenhagen).

Economic realists are also at risk of encouraging morally indecent policies, such as climate extortion. For instance, a key implication of the Chicago lawyers’ “feasibility” approach is that the relatively poor, low-polluting nations who are the most vulnerable to climate impacts (e.g., Bangladesh) should “pay off” the (allegedly) less vulnerable large emitters (e.g., the United States, China) to stop polluting so heavily. Similarly, some “pragmatists” advocate passing the burdens of climate mitigation on to future generations through new forms of intergenerational debt.

Third, the official rejection of ethics prevents us from raising central questions that need to be discussed. In particular, although economic realists usually begin by insisting on the hegemony of narrow self-interest, they often end up appealing to wider ethical values, such as global welfare or limited intergenerational responsibility (“our children and grandchildren”). This vacillation not only renders such views unstable, but also undermines public deliberation. Though officially dismissed, ethics reemerges within a highly selective, morally loaded conception of self-interest left to be operationalized behind closed doors by policy professionals. Consequently, economic realism threatens a Trojan Horse. We, the people, are encouraged to quietly depart the scene, ceding power over the central ethical and geopolitical issue of our time to the “technocrats.”

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