There is a growing area of research and discussion based around the ethics of climate change, and climate policy. The article on Wikipedia gives a decent summary of the most prominent product of recent work, the ‘Buenos Aires’ declaration, which was first presented in 2004, by the EDCC at the UNFCCC conference there.

Much of the work is coordinated at hubs such as the Rock Institute at Penn State University, whose own website contains a copy of the white paper which was produced at that time. Go elsewhere on the site to find links to other useful material.

Though discussions have moved on a little from this earlier paper, the basic principles underlying ethical policy decisions are clearly laid out and conclusions made. Given their involvement in the project, it is unsurprisingly reminiscent of the principles laid out at EcoEquity, the respected and expanding pressure group (if that’s the right term) run by Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer.

Prior to any discussions of the direct ethical questions relating to climate policy, the paper lays out the three underlying principles of the Declaration of Human Rights as the guidance fro what follows. These are: Life, Liberty, and Personal security.Note that this does not attempt to address the other important ethical issue of non-human, or biological rights, as might be cited in an environmental or ecological argument about the ethics of certain policies or actions. Here, though there is room for discussion, I am going to do an ‘Asimov’ and make the contentious statement that any ecological or environmental ethical principle must ultimately be subordinate to a human or humanitarian one. Where a genuine conflict of interest exists (though I sense that such occasions are truly rare), the latter must take precedence over the former.

Before going on at another time to look at some of the important principles outlined in the white paper, which attempts admirably to deal with the practical ethical questions of who should be allowed to do what, who should pay, and who is liable, for example, I want to ask about the bottom-line principles. The problem I have is understanding how certain policy decisions might follow or fail to follow even the most simple principles of human rights. It seems that this might be useful, as the G8 is about to make a statement, and such a statement can be measured against these ethical principles.

To make it as simple as possible:

  • Does the statement demonstrate respect for the fundamental human rights of all people, everywhere, to enjoy life, liberty and personal security? In other words, does it, or the policy it encapsulates, protect, support and sustain the current and likely near future victims of climate change?
  • Does the statement explicitly specify actions which will achieve the above?
  • If not, does the statement implicitly specify actions which will achieve the above?
  • On the other hand, does the statement achieve none of the above objectives and, if not, to what extent can it be claimed to be either a ‘good’ statement or an ethically supportable one?

Following on from this, we could also consider the principle of moral responsibility for a failure to prevent present or future harm to others by a refusal or failure to act: If the statement or any policy it sets out does not achieve any of the above, to what extent are the signatories morally culpable, and are there some who are more culpable than others?

It is easy to understand and agree that murder is wrong. Drowning a person deliberately is a punishable crime. But what about failing to save a person from drowning, when the power exists for you so to do(at little or no risk to yourself)? And if that failure is not just a failure but a refusal? And what if the salvation of another is dependent on a larger degree of risk to yourself? And what if you expect that the slavation of another’s life might require a degree of sacrifice on your part (though not your own life)?

There seems to be sufficient agreement, that action to reduce future emissions of Carbon Dioxide will at least help prevent an acceleration of Global warming in the coming years, regardless of other possible impacts or scenarios, and that such a warming will be harmful to at least some people, insofar as it will deny them one or more of these human rights, to argue that we have reached a point already when failure is a morally culpable act.

I welcome feedback and comments on these thoughts and the product of the G8 this week.

Be loved.