Climate Change: Ethics and Collective Responsibility

Thursday, 18 December 2014
M. Bryson Brown, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada, Michael E Mann, Pennsylvania State University Main Campus, University Park, PA, United States, Kent Peacock, Univ of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada and Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia
Climate change poses grave risks for societies and people all around the earth. Though details of the risks remain uncertain, they include accelerating sea level rise and ocean acidification, regional drought, floods and heat waves, crop failures and more: dangerous changes are already occurring, while GHG emissions continue to grow, ice melts, water expands, temperature rises, and weather patterns shift.

Our roles as individuals and nations in producing the emissions of GHGs responsible for this episode of climate change, and the actions that could be taken to mitigate it, raise difficult ethical questions. When we are responsible for putting others in danger, we have a duty to mitigate that danger. But our sense of responsibility is diluted here: each individual act contributes only minutely to the overall risks, and the links between individual acts and the harms they produce are complex, indirect and involve many other agents. In these circumstances, our sense of personal responsibility is diminished and uncoordinated, individual responses to the risks become ineffective.

We propose a view of the ethics of climate change that begins with the tragedy of the commons: Free use of a shared, indispensable resource can lead to catastrophe as the resource is overrun, and the destruction of the commons arises from choices that are individuallyrational, if each person’s choice is made independently of others’. Finally, individuals often fail to make ethical choices when the links between individual actions and their negative outcomes are obscure, when individual choices are made separately and privately, and when special interests stand to gain from actions that are generally harmful.

Philosophical work in ethics has emphasized the role of ethics in enabling cooperation between individuals and coordinating group responses to problems, while recent work on social rules has modeled them as generalized forbiddings, taught and enforced by ‘blocking’ behaviours which discourage forbidden action-types. We argue that a successful response to climate change will depend on adopting ethically grounded rules (laws and treaties) that acknowledge collective responsibility and take a clear stand against special interests: Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, there is such a thing as society—or so we must hope.