Friday, January 29, 2010

Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change

As reported here a few days ago, three Penn State professors gave a talk about the few successes and many failures that emerged from COP 15. Dr. Don Brown, Dr. Nancy Tuana, and Dr. Petra Tschakert went as observers for Penn State. They provided a rundown of the ethical issues involved, generally referring to it as “climate justice,” “climate ethics,” or “the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change.”

386.7 parts per million: the Earth’s current atmospheric concentration of CO2. Based various data sources, that CO2 concentration is ~100 ppm higher than pre-industrial levels of ~280 ppm. Combined with other greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane, water vapor, and refrigerants, CO2 causes climate change by warming the atmosphere on average. These effects disrupt longstanding climatic forces which in turn disrupt ecosystems – from rainforests to high tundra – which disrupt non-human and human communities which in turn harm an uncountable number of organisms. Climate scientists practically universally agree that industrial humanity has caused this problem and must act responsibly for the biosphere’s welfare, primarily for human welfare (watch this video made by the Rock Ethics Institute).

Politically and economically powerful people must positively answer the moral and ethical call to understand the many problems that we have caused and must work to curb damages, support the poor people who are and will be affected, must develop mitigation and adaptation behavioral and technological strategies, and must conserve much of the natural world. Many hoped that some meaningful action in this direction could come from COP 15, the 19th international climate summit held in Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of last year.

Issues include: How much money has been put in and should be put into adaptation funding and who should control that money? How should we deal with climate exiles such as people who will be displaced by rising sea levels such as people who live in the Maldives, Florida, Louisiana, India, and Bangledesh? How do notions of human rights play into this? What land should be set aside and who should control that land? How much risk should we put on future people? Are we worth more than them? What should their quality of life be?

Most contentiously in the United States, who should be responsible and who should pay? I note that the final question is most contentious in the U.S. because the U.S. is responsible for the emission of 27% of GHGs through history and by most standards of justice, the U.S. would pay for the humanitarian and ecological costs others are forced to take because of our economic "progress." Not that some of those costs are unquantified by current economics and maybe should remain that way. These would call for qualitative changes in life as well such as dietary and consumer habit shifts.

All of those "shoulds" or "oughts" show that these are moral and ethical questions. What is right and wrong and what beliefs and actions ought to follow?

Don Brown, Nancy Tuana, and Petra Tschakert all agreed at the end of the panel on a few things. First, we are responsible and should be acting in ways that are more sustainable. In daily life, we can consume less by just walking or cycling more and driving less. To extend this rather obvious idea, the simple act of slight reduction in the United States can have the effect of drastic change in a "less-developed" country. About 20% of our carbon footprint comes from diet much of which comes from food transportation, effectively equaling the footprint of an entire Pakistani family or Cameroon village. Efficient local food eating can greatly reduce that portion of our footprint as can simply eating less meat.

Second, we should "turn up the volume on the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change." Powerful people will not change policies and practices without pressure. That pressure can be through letters to politicians, phone calls, visits to offices, discussion with our friends and family, changes in buying habits, or activism which could well include civil disobedience. But if this is a justice issue that calls us to be responsible and responsive to the rights of others then we must act responsibly and loudly and clearly call on others. Pump up the volume.

Third, we must educate well. It is my (and I suspect the three panelists') firm belief that as teachers in the Deweyan sense that we need to guide students toward their understanding of their own moral duties and responsibilities by teaching morality instead of teaching about morality. What we do and how we do it in our formal schooling matters. The creation of more sustainable schools will shape behavior and moral sense. This is our place to be what we believe as ecologically-minded educators.

Our road is in front of us and this semester we will be going this way. We will join one another to consider Wendell Berry's work from "solving for pattern" (.pdf) and consider how to use the Center for Ecoliteracy's curricular companion for Food, Inc. We will keep pressing the water bottle issue and open people's minds to greater good through less use and waste in the place where we live.

Join us every first and third Thursday this semester in 134 Cedar Building at 7:30 pm. Be the good we need in this world. Help us raise the volume.

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