The discourse around climate change is often spiced by vested interests, denial, skepticism, exaggeration and inertia. Even in rare constructive moments, the discussions are primarily limited to factual and technical analysis. This overriding focus on supposedly “objective” parameters only serves to blunt the effectiveness of our responses.
The European Science Foundation’s recently completed Responses to Environmental and Societal Challenges to our Unstable Earth (RESCUE) project recognized that the issues about human life on a changing planet are first humanistic rather than scientific. Some sections of the scientific community itself recognize the ethical imperative of climate change. James Hansen, NASA’s prominent climatologist, asserts: “the predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change…”
Besides crying out for the immediacy of action, the magnitude of the global climate-change threat raises explicit ethical questions, such as how we ought to live and how humans should value and relate to each other and to nature. Inevitably, this ethical thrust will elicit some of the most vexing questions, including how to recognize and respect other persons, especially when they are vulnerable and lack the power and capacity to make their voices heard in relevant forums and arenas. This is pertinent as climate change invariably involves distributional conflicts, magnifying already skewed vulnerabilities since it interacts in unfortunate ways with the prevailing global power structure.
It is widely recognized that the responsibility for historical and current emissions lies predominantly with the richer, more powerful nations, and the poor nations lack the capacity to hold them accountable. The people most vulnerable to the direct effects of global climate change are those living in areas prone to flooding, such as small low-lying islands, large river deltas and certain coastal areas. By 2070, urban populations in cities in river deltas, which already experience high-risk of flooding, such as Dhaka, Kolkata, Rangoon and Hai Phong, will join the group of most exposed populations. Similarly, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) countries contribute little to the climate crisis but risk suffering early and greater climate impacts, derailing development gains.
In spite of disproportionate burdens on the least developed, poorer regions, climate change fails to generate strong moral responses. This compromises our capacity to respond appropriately to the challenge posed by climate change. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes that while almost all human societies have rules about food and sex, none has a rule about atmospheric chemistry, so we “do not feel compelled to rail against it.” Hence it should come as no surprise that global warming was ranked near the bottom of Americans’ priorities (only 28 percent said it was a top priority) for President Barack Obama and Congress in a Pew Center survey in 2014.
How then should we proceed — should we care for distributional equity or should we care more for people in our close spatial and temporal proximity? Some enlightened voices have begun to illumine our ethical and moral compass to help confront disconcerting choices.
The prominent Australian earth scientist Tim Flannery closes his recent book “Here on Earth: A New Beginning” with the words “… if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further progress is possible here on Earth.” Similarly, Yi-Fu Tuan, esteemed emeritus professor of geography at the University of the Wisconsin-Madison, has argued recently, “The good shall inherit the Earth.” It seems that virtue may be our most potent response to the enduring dilemmas that climate change poses to humanity.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Pankaj Upadhyay, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.
Yi-Fu Tuan: Read his Farewell Lecture Act Now