Is There an Ethics of Climate Change? Missing Conversations, New Challenges

by | 8.25.2010 at 2:42pm
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(A link to an MP3 audio recording of this event is located towards the middle of the article.)

Last spring, the Columbia Climate Center and the M.A. in Climate and Society program co-hosted a discussion panel on climate change and ethics.  Ethics is a field of philosophy that can help to resolve contradictory interests, and climate change policy is certainly characterized by contradictory interests: serving enabling developing nations to enjoy the lifestyles of developed nations appears to be in conflict with a need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. However, my coursework and research in the M.A. in Climate and Society program revealed that there was scant incorporation of ethics into the policy work of climate change.

From left to right: Dr. John Mutter, Dr. Erin Lothes, Dr. Mark Cane, and Dr. Adela Gondek

Of course, to a degree this is a consequence of pragmatism – obtaining any sort of political consensus on how to tackle climate change is already difficult enough even without incorporating a robust knowledge and discussion of the ethical grounds of addressing climate change.

In the arena of climate change, decisions have to be made on how to best mitigate and adapt to climate impacts.  Ostensibly, these decisions are made in the best interests of all the world’s peoples.  But various peoples have various interests, which may not always be readily, easily, or fairly resolved.  Ethics can help to inform these decisions and the discourses we develop, to achieve a more equitable solution.

But if ethics is conspicuously absent from these discourses, then what moral or philosophical frameworks are guiding our discussions?  Are our decision-making frameworks based upon economic, or religious, or scientific grounds, or are they, indeed, based upon ethical grounds? It occurred to me that at least within the halls of academia, environmental ethics could be better incorporated into curricula to address this question, and out of that belief came the idea of this panel.

In organizing the event, I sought to move closer to answering not only the above questions on climate change, but others that had persisted with me throughout my time at Columbia.  As such, the discussion panel was organized around three central topics: what was the state of ethics in discourse on climate change?  Are ethics necessary in discussions on climate change?  And, upon what grounds might an ethics of climate change be founded?

Accordingly, we invited scholars from multiple fields to participate, hoping to evoke debate, more than clear consensus.  (Indeed, it would be naïve to think that any sort of conclusion on the ethics of addressing climate change could be achieved in a single evening!)  The event was co-hosted by the M.A. Climate and Society program and was held in Schermerhorn Hall on the evening of April 15th.  After my opening remarks, our moderator gave a brief presentation and afterwards each panelist was allotted about 10 minutes to give theirs.  This was followed by a heated Q&A session.

The audio, which runs about two hours long (one hour of presentations, and one hour of Q&A) can be found here by clicking this linkThe audio can either be listened to on our servers, or downloaded.

Our panelists included:

Professor Adela J. Gondek, who has her Ph.D. from Harvard in political philosophy and has taught ethics at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) for over fifteen years.  Her research interests lie in this area, and she has done consulting work in ethics at the municipal level of government.  She has worked previously as a legislative analyst in the Massachusetts state government.

Professor Mark Cane, who is the G. Unger Vetlesen professor of Earth and Climate Sciences at Columbia University.  He is the director of the M.A. Program in Climate and Society, and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. He is Chief Physical Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), an organization which he helped to found. Cane and the current director of the IRI, Steve Zebiak, made the first scientific prediction of the El Niño phenomenon in the 1980s.

Dr. Erin Lothes, who is an Earth Institute Fellow with the Center for the Study of Science and Religion.  Her current project with the CSSR is a study of faith communities and ecological sustainability, documenting faith-based environmental advocacy through fieldwork and interviews with over 100 people from a number of different faiths. Erin is author of The Paradox of Christian Sacrifice: The Loss of Self, the Gift of Self.

And Professor John Mutter, who is appointed in Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the School of International and Public Affairs.  He co-teaches a SIPA course on Climate Change, Human Rights and Development.

The event was moderated by Dr. Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences, lecturer in psychiatry, adjunct professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary, adjunct professor of religion at Columbia University, and Director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR) at Columbia University. He has been a professor of biological sciences at Columbia since 1978, and was dean of Columbia College from 1982-1989.

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