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The third report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began by stating:

Natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed for decisions on what constitutes ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’ At the same time, such decisions are value judgments . . ,s

There are good grounds for this statement. Climate change is a complex problem raising issues across and between a large number of disciplines, including the physical and life sciences, political science, economics, and psychology, to name just a few. Still, without wishing for a moment to marginalize their contributions, ethics plays a fundamental role.


The first reason is that we need ethical concepts to identify the relevant problem. One issue is the challenge of the perfect moral storm (to which I return shortly). However, let me begin with a more general point. In stark physical terms, climate change (like most other things) might be seen as merely a series of events in the world. If we think that something should be done about it, it is because we evaluate those events, our role in bringing them about, and the alternatives. This evaluation gives us both an account of the problem, and constraints on what would count as relevant solutions. The critical question is what “values”9 are in play when we do this.

Often, we do not notice that this question arises, since we assume that the relevant values are so widely shared that the answer is, or should be, “obvious” to everyone. Nevertheless, the values question is not trivial, since our answer shapes our whole approach. For example, when people say “murderers should be punished,” we do not normally ask why; yet it makes a difference whether our reason is deterrence or retribution.

One way to highlight the values question in the climate context is to point out some highly restrictive ways of evaluating climate change. For instance, occasionally some with large fossil fuel holdings talk as if climate change is a “problem” only because tough emissions limits would make their assets worthless. For them, a good “solution” is to fund campaigns that question the science, and politicians who oppose action. So far, this “solution” has worked reasonably well in addressing their “problem.” Nevertheless, theirs remains a poor description of what is really at stake in climate policy. One reason is that it is far too limited in what it takes into account; another is that these actors implicitly take their own narrow economic concerns as decisive over all other values.

A similar problem confronts the economic realists. Typically, they argue that the only thing that really matters to nation states as currently constructed is their shortterm economic interests, usually understood in terms of domestic economic growth over the next couple of decades. However, on this account, it is not clear why climate change is much of a problem. Given the long time lags involved, most climate impacts, including many of the most serious, are not short-term in this sense, nor narrowly economic. Moreover, those that will occur in the next few decades are likely already “in the cards,” in the sense that we are already committed to them, either by past emissions or by those that are now, practically speaking, inevitable. Consequently, a policy that tried to address climate change with an exclusively “next decade or two” focus would confront only a very small set of the relevant impacts, and probably miss the most important (e.g., the potentially catastrophic). Such a policy would probably also employ the wrong methods. For example, if all that mattered were domestic economic impacts for the next twenty years, but these were more or less “in the cards,” mitigation would likely seem pointless, or even counterproductive. From the “few decades” point of view, it seems much better to put the resources into offsetting the immediate threats (e.g., through national adaptation). Why not, if the main point of mitigation would be to reduce later effects that fall mainly elsewhere and on others?10

In my view, better explanations of the climate “problem” appeal to a much more extensive, but also widely shared, set of values. The climate problem that should concern public policy is global, intergenerational, and ecological in scope, and the most important concerns are ethical, including considerations of justice, rights, welfare, virtue, political legitimacy, community, and our relationship to nature. If public policy neglects such concerns, its account of the problem to be solved is impoverished, and the associated solutions quickly become grossly inadequate. For example, we do not “solve” the climate problem if we inflict catastrophe on future people, or devastate poor African nations, or rapidly accelerate the pace of mass extinction. We can summarize this point by saying that alleged solutions face a set of intelligibility constraints. Economic realists (and others) must explain what problems their “pragmatic” policies seek to solve, and why these are the most pressing.

Importantly, there are signs that some intelligibility constraints are already beginning to bite. For instance, some world leaders criticized the Copenhagen Accord’s proposal to interpret “dangerous climate change” as that which exceeds a two-degree limit. Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives, complained:

Anything above 1.5 degrees, the Maldives and many small islands and low-lying islands would vanish. It is for this reason that we tried very hard during the course of the last two days to have 1.5 degrees in the document. I am so sorry that this was blatantly obstructed by big-emitting countries.

More dramatically, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-aping, lead negotiator of the G-77 group of developing countries, protested:

[The draft text] asks Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries. It is a solution based on values, the very same values in our opinion that funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces.11

Whatever one thinks of the rhetoric, the ethical worry is clear. Without justice to developing nations, what (or who’s) problem does a climate treaty solve?

Elsewhere I argue that the dominance of short-term and narrowly economic concerns favored by economic realists goes a long way towards explaining the past failures of international climate policy in Kyoto and Copenhagen. Although these were disastrous in ethical terms, arguably they were great “successes” in achieving the modest ambitions of the current generation of the most powerful. Most notably, for many they perpetuated a “dangerous illusion” of progress that facilitated an ongoing strategy of distraction and delay.12 As we shall see, such “shadow solutions”— reflecting only the limited concerns of those with the power to act rather than the central ethical concerns—are persistent threats in the climate case.

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