Where are Ethics in the Not-So-Great US Climate Policy Debate?


Flooding in Bangladesh. Photo via Leroo

Why don't US politicians ever really talk about the ethical imperative of stopping climate change? Are we too selfish to care whether or not our greenhouse gas pollution will cause intense suffering in some of the poorest parts of the world? Don't senators and representatives have an ethical obligation to prevent global warming from taking its toll in the states they represent? A column written by Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor for environmental ethics, science, and law at Penn State, raises a fascinating, though in hindsight relatively obvious, point: that the matter of ethics plays almost no role at all in our nations' debate on climate change.He writes:

there is almost a complete absence of ethical arguments for climate change policies in the US debate about proposed approaches to climate change. This failure to expressly examine the ethical issues entailed by arguments made by opponents of climate change action has important practical consequences.
Which is true. How often do you hear Obama saying 'we need to quell climate change because it's the right thing to do'? Or any other federal level politician for that matter? Close to never.

And yet, the issue of climate change is fraught with ethical implications. Here are a few: that climate change, which has been caused by the emissions of wealthy, now-industrialized nations, will impact the poorest parts of the world. It will cause those who have the least resources to combat it the greatest suffering. If you were to ask any stranger on the street whether they felt the US had an obligation to do what it could to prevent droughts, famine, or floods in the poorest nations, you would certainly get a lot of 'yes's. If you added that the US was partly responsible for the intensity of those droughts, famines, and floods, your replies would be near-equivocal.

This is precisely the case with climate change--whether or not you want to face it or not, the science is there. Our out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions (and China's and Europe's, etc) are going to cause a lot of suffering for people in places like Bangladesh and Kenya.


And yet, all of the policy debates centered around climate change in the US focus on whether or not energy reform would create jobs, or cost us money, or help us out-innovate China. And perhaps most importantly, by not focusing on ethics, we're letting those who oppose climate legislation off the hook from a very big moral question. We--residents, the media, etc--don't hold, say, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu accountable for opposing a climate bill, even though she's responsible for looking after the wellbeing of Louisiana, which will be one of the states worst hit by climate change. Or Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, who actively opposes climate action, even though her state is arguably the most vulnerable to climate change.

And that's saying nothing of our responsibilities abroad.

Of course, the coal and oil industry lobbies and the wingnut noise machine led by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have ensured that it's still a politically tenable position in this nation to simply question the science behind climate change (which happens to be the line of the entire Republican party), while just about every other industrialized country's leaders are far beyond that.

Brown's piece on climate ethics is generally correct--though it will be difficult to convince anyone one of their moral failures while their heads are stuck in the sand and ignoring science anyways.

More on Climate Policy
Designing a Climate Policy that's Easy on the Federal Budget
Americans Support Strong Climate & Energy Policy : Yale Poll

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