Recent news on global warming is not encouraging:
•Concentrations of human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the highest levels ever recorded last year, says a World Meteorological Organization report issued Nov. 3.
•Another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, also posted a record in 2005.
•Not only summer but also winter sea ice in the Arctic has retreated in a pronounced way, says a recent NASA study.
•A global recession is a probable outcome if rapid action on climate change is not pursued, says a major report released last week by the British government.
As delegates meet in Africa this week for a United Nations conference on climate change, they aim to set targets for dramatic cuts in fossil-fuel emissions beyond those set by the Kyoto protocol for 2012, and grapple with how to allocate those cuts. Yet the big economies of the United States, China, and India are not part of the Kyoto treaty.
These efforts call not only for the best scientific data and economic analyses, but also for explicit consideration of the ethical issues involved, says a multinational group of climate change, development, and ethical research organizations. To make its case to delegates and policymakers, the group released a white paper on the ethical issues in Nairobi on Nov 8.
"Climate change not only raises ethical questions, but the most profound ones – literally matters of life and death, who's going to survive, the fate of nation states, obligations of one nation to another, of the rich and the poor," and who is to be involved in the decisions, says Donald Brown, coordinator of the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC).
It is widely recognized that damage from climate change is affecting the poorer countries – those least able to manage it – the hardest. Rising sea levels, for example, may devastate large portions of Bangladesh, the Nile delta, the southeastern coast of Asia, and many Pacific islands.
According to Dr. Brown, an environmental lawyer at Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, the scientific and economic discourse often hides the ethical questions, making it difficult for the public and policymakers to see what is at stake. For instance, he says, there are strong ethical issues posed by two US positions: that action can be delayed because of perceived scientific uncertainty, and that cost to the US economy is a sufficient rationale for not accepting targets.
The white paper analyzes the ethical issues in eight areas, including atmospheric targets, allocating global emissions among nations, the cost to national economies, responsibility for damages, and potential new technologies.
"We are trying to help people see the moral and normative problems with the way climate change is being discussed," Brown adds. "If you only appeal to self-interest and not to people's sense of ethics and justice, you aren't going to get the responses necessary to make needed reductions."
Under way for two years, the collaboration involves ethicists, scientists, economists, legal experts, and negotiators from several continents. The paper's authors come principally from the US, Brazil, Britain, and Sri Lanka, but more than 100 people from around the world are engaged in the discussion.
"The launch of the white paper is a landmark event," says Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "EDCC is important because it focuses on key equity issues."
Brown offers a vivid example of how challenging these will be: The world is emitting about 7 billion tons of carbon, which is going up each year as the economies of China and India grow. To prevent serious warming, countries must cut total emissions to 3 billion tons and divide that up.
"With the world having to reduce by 60 to 80 percent, the cuts are steep," he says, "but it's the allocation that creates enormous ethical questions. The US has 25 percent of the 7 billion tons; as we cut to 3 [billion], the US share would be much greater than 60 to 80 percent if it were to take equity seriously."
But the developed world has the capacity and technologies to respond, says the British government's recent report and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which works closely with businesses that have already signed on to the challenge.
"The US is the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases, and we are also the wealthiest country in the world, so obviously the US should play a major role in addressing this challenge," says Vicki Arroyo, Pew director of policy analysis. The government is not doing what it should, but business can be developing technologies to export to the rest of the world, she adds.
Ethical issues have played a role, she continues, in deciding who acts first. The white paper, which she hasn't yet seen, "is another example of a group seeing the magnitude of this challenge and discussing what our responsibilities are.... It's an important component."
The EDCC hopes to convene an international conference on the ethical issues, and it plans to develop people-friendly resources that will help the general public engage in the debate.