Policy Questions

The second reason that ethics plays a fundamental role in climate change is that ethical considerations are right at the heart of the main policy decisions that must be made, such as how quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time, how those emissions that are allowable at a given time should be distributed, and what should be done to address unavoided impacts.

Suppose, for instance, one were deciding where to set a global ceiling on emissions for a particular time. This decision depends in large part on how the interests of the current generation are weighed against those of future generations. At one extreme, giving absolute priority to the interests of the future probably means ceasing emissions very quickly, even if this involves severe sacrifices for the current generation; at the other extreme, continuing high levels of emissions—as we are currently doing—suggests giving the future no weight at all. Presumably, neither extreme is justified, but determining precisely where the appropriate balance lies is an ethical question (and a difficult one).

Similarly, ethical questions pervade the issue of how to distribute emissions under a ceiling. Distributive decisions depend in part on background beliefs about the appropriate role of energy consumption in people’s lives, the relevance of historical responsibility, and the current needs and future aspirations of particular societies. For instance, should those in severe poverty get greater access than the affluent, or do those who have already invested in fossil- fuel intensive infrastructure have a prior claim? Again, the ethical questions are serious and central.

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