Climate change ethics

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Size corresponds to climate change vulnerability (determined by the University of Notre-Dame’s ND-Gain Index), with larger countries being more vulnerable. Color corresponds to total GHG emissions including land-use change (2011), with a darker shade indicating higher emissions.

Climate change ethics is a field of study that explores the moral aspects of climate change. Climate change is often studied and addressed by scientists, economists, and policymakers in value neutral ways. However, philosophers such as Stephen M. Gardiner[1] and the scientific authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),[2] argue that decisions related to climate change are moral issues and involve value judgment. Climate change involves difficult moral questions relating to global inequality and human development, who bears responsibility for past emissions, as well as the role of future generations, personal responsibility and many more.

The two main ethical implications of climate change are related to its effects. The causes and effects of climate change are unrelated in time and space. Anthropogenic climate change is caused mainly by humans burning fossil fuels.[3] The primary beneficiaries of fossil fuel burning are developed countries whereas the majority of climate impacts will be felt by the developing world.[4] Further, climate change occurs on timescales much greater than a single generation of the human population, causing conflict between economic and political interests which are products of society and the interests of future people—an ethical and moral concept.


Climate change has become a concern for a number of disciplines due to its potentially catastrophic impacts on environmental systems, wildlife, nature, and humans. Climate change poses a serious threat to the global economy as economic development, especially in the West, has been largely dependent on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution.[5] Burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which is the primary driver of current global anthropogenic climate change.[6] This notion has led to the study of the economics of climate change. Climate change is also a deeply political issue as there are disagreements among actors on whether and to what extent society should act on climate change.[7] Economics is insufficient to guide policymaking alone, however, as it is only capable making predictions regarding how different policy decisions will affect the economy and how to proceed along those different pathways; it cannot tell us which pathway to choose, that is determined by which values we act on as a society.[8] Because of this, some philosophers have argued that climate change is “fundamentally an ethical issue”[1] which raises questions about "how we ought to live, what kinds of societies we want, and how we should relate to nature and other forms of life.”[8]

Global justice[edit]

Climate change can be considered a global justice issue because the actors with the largest contribution to climate change are not the ones suffering from the most severe impacts. Historically, wealthy, developed nations have been emitting, and currently emit, disproportionally large amounts of greenhouse gases compared to poorer developing nations.[4] For example, Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.[9] The country's per capita emissions are 1/20th of the global average and 1/100th of the per capita emissions in the United States, but its low-lying topography makes it extremely vulnerable to sea level rise and cyclones—which are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. Thus climate change can be seen as a global justice issue because the perpetrators of climate change impacts (developed nations) and the victims of those impacts (developing nations) are distinct actors.[4]

In addition to climate change being a global justice issue due to the disparities between the roles of developed and developing nations, the global justice issue can also be framed in terms of wealth. "Half the world’s carbon is emitted by the world’s richest 500 million people"[4] meaning that regardless of where one lives, the higher their income, the higher their emissions. Although the United States has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world,[10] there are lower-income people in the U.S. with relatively lower emissions.[11] Further, poorer people, regardless of where they live, are more likely to experience the effects of climate change because they have a reduced means to adapt compared to rich people.[4]

Intergenerational ethics[edit]

The intergenerational ethics of climate change addresses the responsibility of current generations to be environmentally conscious to and ensure the sustainable use of environmental resources can continue for future generations.[12] Moral responsibility is a crucial consideration in intergenerational climate change ethics. This responsibility extends to various interests, including humans, animals, future people, and nature. The interests of the current generation must be weighed against those of future generations, balancing current needs against future aspirations.[12]

The effects of climate change are dispersed temporally and spatially. Ethical implications due to spatial dispersion are those discussed in the previous section on global justice: those causing the problem are not in the same physical space as those experiencing the worst of its effects. Temporal ethical implications mainly relate to the fact that current greenhouse gas emissions will affect future generations more than they will affect current people.[12] This notion of pushing climate change impacts on future people poses epistemic difficulties, making it hard to grasp cause and effect, which could undermine motivation to respond.[12] Institutional inadequacy further complicates the issue. Democratic political institutions have relatively short time horizons which are at odds with the timescale of global climate change. Politicians are concerned about voter support for the next election, on a scale of a few years, whereas climate change operates on much longer timescales of hundreds to thousands of years. Therefore, climate change gets put on the back burner of political agendas because it won’t help politicians win the next election cycle.[12]


Economists propose prioritizing adaptation over mitigation due to high costs associated with mitigation; however, conventional economic analyses have philosophical limitations. Such analyses discount future generations and prioritize human interests, failing to consider all relevant costs and benefits of climate change mitigation. Henry Shrue argues that the "No Harm Principle" gives us reason for acting on climate change, despite the uncertainty of future impacts.[1]

Temporal discounting[edit]

The concept of temporal discounting in economics is relevant to climate change ethics due to the temporal dispersion of its effects. Economists use discount rates to determine the value of future goods because it is assumed that the global economy will continue to grow and future people will have more goods than current people. The more goods you have, the less valuable any one good is, hence, it is discounted.[13] Using different discount rates, economists can arrive at very different conclusions regarding how much of the global budget should be dedicated to climate change mitigation, adaptation, or other things.[13] Prioritarianism offers one ethical justification for imploring a high discount rate is that because future people will be better off than we are today, benefiting people today is more valuable than benefiting future people.[13] Utilitarianism on the other hand, favors a lower discount rate (or none) under the idea that benefits to future people are equally valuable as benefits to current people.[13]

Climate denialism[edit]

Climate change denial occurs when a person or group refuses or dismisses the overall scientific acceptance that climate change is occurring. This can be in relation to climate change in reference to humans, animals, nature, and how human actions play a role in climate change itself as well. Climate denialism is often at a crossroads or at least a byproduct of either overall denialism, pseudoscience, and propaganda.[14] Politics can also play a role in climate change denialism as it is often conservative media outlets that entertain these ideas of climate skepticism.[15] Climate denialism has also been perpetuated by oil companies. Many of these companies have performed scientific research on climate change and their findings largely disagree with the public campaigns that they have run to promote business.[16]

Evolving perceptions on climate change[edit]

The conversation on climate change has been ever evolving in the U.S. as new research, information, and direct climate impacts have increased. In a 2012 study, 30% of Americans stated that “they believed that the Earth was not warming” and 50% believed that climate change was related to human activity.[17] This starkly contrasts with a study performed only 7 years later in 2019 that found that 62% of Americans who participated in the poll felt that climate change was impacting their local community and 67% of them felt that the Federal government was not doing enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change.[18]

Ideology, values, and climate denialism[edit]

It has been greatly assumed that as more climate information has been introduced into the world, more people would adjust their perceptions on climate change. However, this belief fails to acknowledge that “individuals are motivated information processors” and that prior beliefs, attitudes, and experiences impact how people process new information.[19] This indicates that prior knowledge and opinions can impact new perceptions on things such as climate change data. Values also play a role in climate denialism because different people and groups perceive these values differently. The moral foundation theory emphasizes five primary aspects of moral values which include: “Harm/Care; Fairness/Reciprocity; Authority/Respect; Ingroup/Loyalty; and Purity/Divinity.”[20] Haidt and Joseph (2004) found that political ideology can impact which of these values are emphasized.[20] For example “political liberals tend to endorse the Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations” while in contrast “political conservatives endorse all five foundations equally.”[20] This has implications for climate change as it indicates that individuals with different political ideologies and value systems will have varying opinions on how to deal with the problem. These varying belief scales indicate that people interpret the ethics regarding climate change and climate denialism differently.

Human rights[edit]

Climate change is a pressing issue that threatens the basic human rights of individuals and communities around the world. Climate change violates several human rights, including the right to life, health, food, water, and shelter.[21] Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities, indigenous peoples, and small island developing states. Adopting a rights-based approach to climate change that recognizes the link between climate change and human rights would provide significant improvements.

A moral threshold approach to climate change that identifies the minimum standards to protect human rights. This approach involves identifying a set of moral principles that establish the minimum standards of protection required to ensure that human rights are not violated by climate change.[21] The moral threshold approach also involves identifying the duties and responsibilities of different actors in addressing climate change, including states, corporations, and individuals.

States can take action to address climate change, as they are the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions. States can take measures to reduce their emissions and contribute to the global effort to limit the increase in global temperatures. Additionally, corporations have a responsibility to reduce their emissions and contribute to sustainable development.[21] Individuals can play a role by adopting sustainable lifestyles and advocating for policies that address climate change. It is also an open moral question whether or not acts of civil disobedience by individuals or groups aimed at raising awareness of the climate crisis can be justified.

Climate change is a human rights issue that requires action. There is a high need for a rights-based approach to climate change and proposes a moral threshold framework for addressing this issue. By recognizing the link between climate change and human rights, people can work towards a more just and equitable future for all. It is the responsibility of all actors, including states, corporations, and individuals, to take action to address climate change and protect human rights.


  1. ^ a b c Gardiner, Stephen M. (April 2004). "Ethics and Global Climate Change". Ethics. 114 (3): 556. doi:10.1086/382247. S2CID 722697.
  2. ^ IPCC. 2001. Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at .
  3. ^ Lynas, Mark; Houlton, Benjamin Z.; Perry, Simon (2021). "Greater than 99% consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature". Environmental Research Letters. 16 (11): 114005. Bibcode:2021ERL....16k4005L. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac2966. ISSN 1748-9326. S2CID 239032360.
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