Picture under CC-Licence 3.0 by Sean Mack.

The media always reports that there’s near consensus among scientists about the effect of human activity on the climate. What gets less attention is that I think there’s even greater consensus, starting from Milton Friedman and going to the most left-wing economist you can find, that the obvious practical solution is to put a price on carbon. It’s not controversial.* – Michael Greenstone, Chicago.

There is one academic discipline though in which no consensus has been arrived at: climate change ethics.
Now, deep and persistent disagreement is nothing new to ethicists, but the rest of us might wonder what it means that those people who claim to investigate questions surrounding what we, morally speaking, should do about climate change can’t give us any definitive answers.

We shouldn’t exaggerate the problem. For once, most theorists agree that climate change is a problem and that we should do something about it. The disagreement is about why it is a problem and what exactly we should do about it. Consider, for example, why it might be a problem: For some, specific human rights (e.g. life, health, subsistence) are what is at stake when temperatures rise. For others, a reduction in overall well-being, even in the absence of rights-violations, is reason enough to do something about climate change. Some argue that it is not only the direct and indirect effects on humans, but also the effects on animals and ecosystems that make climate change an evil.

The question of what to do about climate change is obviously related to the first. Depending on what one holds to be of moral worth, priorities shift. This affects the distribution of burdens and benefits, the mixture between mitigation and adaptation, and the kind of policy measures we might adopt.

But climate change also poses new problems with which ethicists have not been concerned in the past: It is a problem of intergenerational justice, where those who bear the benefits and burdens of a course of action might belong to different generations. Furthermore, solving the issue requires global cooperation and establishing new institutions. Finally, the consequences of failure will be unlike anything we encountered in the past.

This is part one of a series of blog posts aiming at giving a broad overview on some of the novel and hard problems facing climate ethicists and the solutions they propose.

*This consensus comes from Pigou’s work on how to incentivize consumers to avoid actions which have negative effects on others.