THE Considerable soCIAL challenges posed by global warming and associated climate change, and the related scientific, policy, and public health issues are amenable to ethical analysis and inquiry. The role of ethical decision-making is to identify and analyze instances of ethical conflict or uncertainty, with the goal of making and implementing sound decisions, especially with attention to the rights, responsibilities, and interests of the parties involved. Several approaches for ethical analysis have been proposed for use in biomedicine and public health. Examples include principle-based approaches (such as beneficence, autonomy, and justice) and case-based methods based upon analogical reasoning (comparing like cases). Other theoretical approaches depend on rights or duties. In humanitarian approaches to ethics, people respond to human suffering by acting in a virtuous manner based on compassion or altruism. In fields such as biomedicine and public health, ethical frameworks tend to be anthropocentric: they focus on the welfare of humans and human populations and on interactions between human beings.
For environmental science, additional approaches to ethics have been proposed that consider the ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. Many current ecological problems are tied to human attitudes, values, ethics, and behaviors. Although environmental ethicists strive to avoid anthropocentric viewpoints (for example, by explicitly considering the impact of ethical decisions on animals, plants, and the ecosystem), they frequently draw upon traditional ethical theories and frameworks developed to decipher right or wrong human conduct. Environmental ethicists consider biological entities and the nonbiological world (for example, the atmosphere, land, and ocean) fundamentally interdependent and involving complex systems. Examples include coral reefs and related fisheries that are being destroyed by warmer waters and pollution. Thus, environmental ethics provides support for arguments that a sustainable environment is essential to human beings, including future generations. Some environmental ethicists have argued that the environment, with all its diversity and complexity, has intrinsic worth, even without its importance to humans.
Practical steps in ethical decision-making include: assessing the available factual information; obtaining additional factual information about issues at the center of the controversy (for example, comparing collective actions that could be taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and forecasting the potential economic consequences); identifying the relevant ethical issues or questions; identifying the stakeholders and values at stake; identifying the available options, including possible alternative courses of action; and more clearly defining the language used by the disputing parties (for example, what is meant by "environmental sustainability"). The remaining steps are selecting the best alternative supported by the analysis and evaluating the actions taken and their eventual outcomes.
Principles of justice or equity have figured prominently in public debates about such issues. It has been observed that the people least likely to be responsible for greenhouse gases (for example, people in parts of Africa, Asia, and Oceania) are also those most likely to be adversely affected by global warming. Many of the world's poorest people are among the most vulnerable to storms, flooding, or rising sea levels. Poorer nations and communities may also be at increased risk for vector borne illness, hunger, or famine due to drought, heat, and extreme weather events, raising concerns about health or survival. Environmental ethicists have argued that those who could benefit most from mitigation and adaptation measures are often those who are least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Principles of procedural justice have informed discussions about the need to assure fair representation in decision-making related to global warming and climate change. Intergenerational equity underlies concerns about the need to look out for the interests of future generations. This includes taking steps to help ensure that the world inherited by future generations is not diminished by loss of animals, plants, ecosystems, or land that is suitable for homes or growing crops.
Ethical analyses also have contributed to policy decisions made about how best to respond to climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty. Although there remains some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of future effects of global warming and climate change, ethical analyses have contributed to policy decisions by governments, corporations, and other organizations about what steps should be taken to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Ethical principles and values such as beneficence, utility, prudence, and the precautionary principle underlie the need to take appropriate action, even in the presence of some scientific uncertainty.
Examples include limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, developing new technologies, strengthening public systems needed for emergency preparedness (for example, preparing for severe storms or flooding), protecting forests, improving irrigation systems, and developing sustainable agriculture to alleviate human suffering and ecological destruction. Finally, ethical principles also highlight the need for adaptation, a process by which individuals and communities institute policies, countermeasures, and appropriate actions to mitigate the adverse effects from climate change. Examples include improving and strengthening warning and forecasting systems, educating the public at large, and heightening community preparedness.
SEE ALSO: Anthropogenic Forcing; Climate Change, Effects; Developing Countries; Social Ecology.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2003); Donald Brown, "The Ethical Dimensions of Global Environmental Issues," Daedalus (v.130, 2001); S.S. Cough-lin, "Educational Intervention Approaches to Ameliorate
Adverse Public Health and Environmental Effects from Global Warming," Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics (2006); Harold Coward and Thomas Hurka, eds., Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect (Laurier Press, 1993); Stephen Gardiner, "Ethics and Global Climate Change," Ethics (v.114, 2004).
Steven S. Coughlin Constance M. Bonds Josephine Malilay John Araujo
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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