Why Climate Change Is A Moral Problem

The ethical questions that underpin the problem of climate change

Photo credit: Jon Tyson / Unsplash
“The time to think seriously about the future of humanity is upon us.” — Stephen M. Gardiner

This quotation is from the end of Stephen M. Gardiner’s book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. The book argues that climate change is already an ethical failure, as we have not yet succeeded in putting measures in place to deal with climate change.

This view is on the more extreme end of the scale in terms of viewing climate change as a moral problem, but it neatly demonstrates why it’s worth considering the issue in ethical terms as well as scientific. Essentially, how we respond to climate change now will determine how much impact it has on our planet and on future generations.

How much value do you place on the lives of people in the future?

In my eyes, the key moral question underpinning the problem of climate change is how much value we place on the far future of humanity, and on the lives of people who will exist in that future.

It’s often hard to include future people within our ethical considerations and moral circle, and we tend to instinctively prioritize people who live and exist now. From a logical, impartial point of view, though, the only difference between future people and current people is the time that they live in. Intense suffering, for instance, will feel equally bad to those living now and those living in the future. If we care about improving the well-being of others, then, we should try to include people of the future within this.

With global warming continuing as predicted, most of us will start to see the impact in our lifetime. We’re already seeing an increase in the amount of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, and floods. Low-lying island nations like The Maldives could be completely underwater by the end of this century, with most parts of The Maldives only 2 metres or 7 feet above sea level.

However, the majority of the negative impact of global warming will come in the much longer term future. Weather-related disasters are expected to continue increasing in severity and frequency with time. We’ll also likely see increasing poverty as several areas become inhabitable, and industries become unprofitable. Consider farming, for instance. As warming continues some areas that can currently be used as arable land will no longer be suitable due to prolonged heat or flooding.

With this said, it makes sense to consider solutions to climate change in terms of future generations. What responsibilities do we have to people of the future? What sacrifices should we make for future generations? Is there an intrinsic moral value in working to increase the likelihood of a thriving human population in the future?

That means that we need to take actions now that will benefit future people, who don’t yet exist. But when we think of those who are working towards potential solutions, it becomes clear why this is not as simple as it sounds. Most of our politicians, for instance, have short-term positions. In the UK we hold a general election to vote in our Prime Minister every 5 years. That means that the plans and policies that a candidate focuses on will be within a time-frame of 5 years. They’re focused on solving problems now and proving that they can make a positive impact, rather than looking at larger problems at the scale of the future of humanity.

Josh Barwick / Unsplash

Social inequity in the impacts of climate change

The impacts of climate change will be felt more keenly in certain locations across the world. Islands and coastal areas which are close to sea level face a huge increase in flooding, as well as the loss of and due to rising sea level. They’ll also battle an increase in frequency and strength of hurricanes.

These locations and communities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change simply due to where they are and where they were born. They are no more at fault than any other nation, but they are likely to be worse impacted. The question then, is should they be responsible financially for building the infrastructure (sea walls, raised roads, pumping stations) to protect their land and people from the effects of climate change? Should the people and communities in these areas be forced to evacuate, leave their homes and migrate to other areas?

It becomes even more of an ethical issue when we consider that these islands and low-lying communities are often in less developed areas, and poor communities. These communities may not be able to buy themselves out of the problem, and invest in infrastructure. Furthermore, if we look to the history of global warming, then the global north of industrialised nations i.e. the United States of America and Western Europe have contributed the most to global warming. We expect less developed areas and vulnerable communities to bear the cost of a problem which was caused by the rich, industrialised countries of the western world.

As the problem of climate change has become more visible, and what we should do about it has become more widely debated, there has also been increasing pressure on nations which are currently developing to avoid using fossil fuels and industrialising. We ask the nations of the global South to halt their economic growth and progress in a way that western nations did not during their own industrialisation. India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, has also argued that it is necessary for India to increase its use of fossil fuels in order to life millions of citizens out of poverty. Should these vulnerable people be left in poverty in order to avoid further warming?

Jailam Rashad / Unsplash

The impact of climate change on animals and the planet

Along with considering our moral obligations to future generations, we should also consider our moral duties to other animals and to the planet.

Climate change has been caused by human activity, but will impact the species that we share the planet with. They face huge changes to the habitats that they live in and their sources of food, and it’s likely that a lot of species will be unable to survive these changes and adapt to living on a warmer planet.

There’s also the question of the impact that humanity is having on the planet itself. Climate change won’t mark the end of Earth; it will continue to exist long after the human species has died out. Yet, human activity is changing the environment more quickly and profoundly than ever before. If we think there is intrinsic value in maintaining a stable and sustainable environment, then this needs to be part of our considerations when thinking about potential solutions to climate change.

Dikaseva / Unsplash

Are we playing God with technological solutions?

Recently much discussion around the potential solutions to climate change has centred around technological solutions. As of yet, we have failed to put in place effective policies to reduce warming. It’s also highly unlikely that individual action (reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat, cycling instead of driving etc) will do enough to prevent us reaching an uncomfortable threshold. Therefore, there’s an increasing view of geoengineering as a viable solution, such as the suspension of sulphur particles in the Earth’s atmosphere to partially block the sun.

Most of these geoengineering solutions mean interfering with the earth’s atmosphere in order to fix climate change. This brings around the issue of humans ‘playing God’. Is it right for humanity to fiddle with the way that our planet functions? And if we do look at technological solutions, how can we be sure of the outcomes? Are there risks that we aren’t considering? If there are, we’ll be in a similar pickle, expecting future generations to solve the problems caused by geoengineering solutions, because our generation has failed to address climate change.

Nasa / Unsplash

At the end of this article I want to bring us back to the quotation that we started with:

“The time to think seriously about the future of humanity is upon us.” — Stephen M. Gardiner

Climate change won’t mean the end of the planet or of humanity, but it will mean a very different planet which is likely to reduce the well-being of future generations of people. The actions that we decide to take now to mitigate global warming will have a far-reaching impact. Therefore, it’s important that we consider these ethical questions and implications when considering potential solutions, and take into account the long-term risks as well as the short-term gains.