The Ethics of Climate Change and the Carbon Economy

Event Summary

Photo of closed-down factory along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Closed-down factory along the Leeds/Liverpool Canal in Burscough.
CREDIT: Uli Harder (CC)

Representatives from the Carnegie Council and the Royal Society for Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) met on August 9 at the Council's headquarters in New York for a presentation and discussion on the ethical issues stemming from climate change.

RSA was founded in 1754 and boasts a diverse fellowship numbering more than 26,000. RSA's forays in the United States have included a 2005 RSA-Rhode Island School of Design symposium on urban regeneration and a 2006 discussion on innovation and intellectual property law in Washington, D.C. This November, RSA will launch CarbonLimited in the United States with a luncheon workshop on November 2 at the Carnegie Council.

Carnegie Council program director Devin Stewart introduced the topic, as well as several ethical questions that might be considered by the group. His questions focused on the burden of and the solutions to climate change: Who should shoulder the costs of climate change? Should rich countries be responsible for footing the bill? Should those with a history of polluting be held accountable? Should the costs be paid by those with the ability and technologies to address climate change? Who is most responsible for addressing the problem: States? Nations? Individuals?

Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal has been discussing these issues with RSA CEO Matthew Taylor. Their discussion is available online. Rosenthal pointed out to the group that in debates about climate change it might be helpful to look back in time. The historical traditions of preservation and conservation may offer today's policymakers tools to address current climate woes.

The group then viewed a video produced by Steve Dorst of Dorst MediaWorks, in which scientists and U.S. government officials discuss the Montreal Protocol, widely viewed as one of the most effective environmental treaties. The success of the Protocol in phasing out ozone-depleting substances illustrates, as scientist Bob Watson expressed, that there are cost-effective technologies to combat human-induced climate change and that it is much cheaper to mitigate the effects of climate change than to adapt to them. There was a clear link between the science and the public policy that forced change, and this link is more relevant than ever. The precautionary principle places the burden of proof on those who deny the harmful effects of polluting the environment.

Robin Thompson of RSA began his presentation by identifying climate change as a human rights issue. The poorest people on Earth will be most affected by climate change. They also have the least ability to deal with its impacts, which range from desertification and water scarcity to flooding of biblical proportions. Thompson argued that we have reached a tipping point on climate change. Public opinion is catching on to what scientists are telling them. Consumers are showing their concern over this issue, and some government officials have taken notice. President George Bush is moving to recognize the need to address climate change, and Chinese president Hu Jintao is planning to transform Beijing into a carbon-neutral city for the Olympics.

Thompson closed by reminding participants of the power of the multiplier, suggesting that a large number of people making small changes—driving an energy efficient car, recycling more, using canvas or recycled plastic bags, buying energy efficient home appliances—will have a great impact.

A lively discussion followed. One of the main questions concerned accountability. Personal responsibility was acknowledged as playing an essential role in combating the ill effects of climate change. Technology is now available that allows people to itemize their personal energy use. Public opinion has warmed to the idea of participating to achieve environmental change—to be green is to be cool. Retailers are becoming more and more aware of this. In the UK, supermarkets are competing for green customers, people for whom the environmental responsibility of a business is important.

A general concern emerged that a rational and sustainable approach to lightening one's carbon footprint be explored. But personal responsibility is only represented in choices made. It is not the result of mandates. It was suggested that in addition to a bottom-up, individualized approach, we should consider a top-down approach to tackle the largest and most obvious problems, including transportation issues, power generation, and energy expenditures of large office buildings.

The group also discussed the greening of American politics and the acknowledgment that the public must force the issue of climate change if they want to see public policy results. The idea of an individual carbon footprint has become popularized in the United States thanks to journalists. Politicians must be made to believe that they ignore climate change only at their own peril, because they will be ignoring the desires of their constituents. It was suggested that a "green audit" be undertaken to compare the environmental stances of the 2008 presidential candidates.

The group turned back to Thompson's definition of climate change as a human rights issue. It is necessary that governments, NGOs, and individuals make the connection between human development and climate change. It would be helpful to coordinate the work of development agencies and environmental agencies in combating climate change.

At the end, Stewart summarized some of the themes of the discussion:

  • The importance of educating the public, of having accurate information, and considering what the data mean for the future.

  • The importance of interconnectedness and the ripple effect, which can help people to change in faraway places.

  • The need to change the culture, to redefine environmental awareness as not just ethical but also cool. Al Gore is now considered a rock star—that's a good start.

  • The approach must be sane—don't panic or beat yourself up.

  • Unintended consequences abound—a taxi driver who chooses an energy-saving cab can use the money he saves to put his kids through school, presenting odd trade-offs like gas vs. education.

  • Think small, scale up, and imagine the possibilities.

  • Get involved, push for political action before it is too late.

  • Finally, people and organizations must cooperate to put human development first.

As a follow-up to the event, a luncheon dedicated to a discussion of innovations and opportunities in the green economy will take place on November 2.

Check out these links for more information on climate change and what you can do:

World Resources Institute

Environmental Protection Agency

Energy Star

One Bag at a Time

Read More: Climate ChangeEnvironment/Sustainable Development,

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