Fall 2014 (28.3) Essay

The Changing Ethics of Climate Change

Many in the environmental movement have argued in recent years that in order to speed up climate actions we should take the ethics out of the climate change debate. Focusing on the moral obligation to act or on the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable was often judged to render the discourse too “heavy,” “negative,” or “difficult.” Many also deemed it unnecessary. After all, renewable energies, better designed cities that allow for reduced car use, and power plant regulations that lead to cleaner local air—to take just three examples—all have real and substantial benefits unrelated to the fact that they are “the right thing to do” in the face of climate change. They create jobs, reduce health problems and costs, and make society fitter.

Interestingly, though, there has recently been a revival in arguing for climate action on an ethical basis. This has mainly been driven by the fact that the impacts of climate change are already being felt. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and Super Typhoon Haiyan (to name just two extreme weather events) it is no longer an abstract notion that the world could really become uncontrollable. These disasters have started to give contemporary society a feel—and fear—of what may lie ahead.

Most prominently, President Barack Obama—after a first term ruefully lacking in climate action and one in which he never mentioned the word “climate”—has recently begun framing climate change in moral terms. When in June 2014 he announced new, more stringent rules for U.S. power plants, for example—expending political capital on the issue in his second term—he framed the decision as one needed to ensure that he will not leave his children (and ours) a planet that is “beyond fixing.”

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