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Who Are We and What Do We Want?

The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.1

I HAVE ARGUED that climate change poses a profound ethical challenge for the current generation, and especially the affluent. It is a test of who we are, including of our values, and the ability of our institutions to represent those values.

Still many in policy circles remain not merely indifferent but deeply hostile to climate ethics. This hostility is more often expressed in interdisciplinary workshops and conference hallways than in print. Moreover, it involves a number of interrelated strands of argument rarely fully developed or integrated into a consistent whole. This chapter considers the most common strands, echoes of which are found in the more elaborate position of the “Chicago lawyers.”


The first strand seeks to isolate ethics from other disciplines. It frames climate change as a “pure policy” problem, where the relevant question is “what works,” and the answers must come from science, economics, international relations, and related disciplines. Talk of ethics and justice is rejected as irrelevant, and indeed dangerous2;

philosophy is said to lack the tools for analyzing the policy problem; attempts to accommodate justice are accused of causing past policy failures. Consequently, those with ethical concerns—philosophers, political leaders, civil society groups or members of humanity at large—are told to cede the floor to experts in the favored disciplines. Put bluntly, rather than confronting us all as the great moral and political challenge of our time, climate change becomes a matter best left to the technocrats.

In my view, the “ethics vs. policy” (or “philosophy vs. what works”) framing is misleading, prejudicial, and unsustainable. It suggests two sharply differentiated camps, aligns specific disciplines with each (philosophy with one; economics, political science, international relations, natural science and engineering with the other), and cedes both the title “policy” and the label “what works” to the ‘nonethics ‘camp. Yet each of these moves should be resisted.

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