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Readings: Leopold, “The Land Ethic” see attachment
Gardiner, “The Ethics of Global Climate Change” see attachment
Discussion Topic: Do you think the development of technology increases or
decreases people’s connection to the living environment? Explain why. You should
draw on the course materials from this week when you make your argument.
Ethics and Global Climate Change
Author(s): Stephen M. Gardiner
Source: Ethics , Vol. 114, No. 3 (April 2004), pp. 555-600
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/382247
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SURVEY ARTICLE
Ethics and Global Climate Change*
Stephen M. Gardiner
Very few moral philosophers have written on climate change.1 This is
puzzling, for several reasons. First, many politicians and policy makers
claim that climate change is not only the most serious environmental
problem currently facing the world, but also one of the most important
international problems per se.2 Second, many of those working in other
disciplines describe climate change as fundamentally an ethical issue.3
* For support during an early stage of this work, I am very grateful to the University
of Melbourne Division of the ARC Special Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and
Public Ethics (CAPPE), and to the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. For helpful
discussion, I would like to thank Chrisoula Andreou, Paul Baer, Roger Crisp, David
Frame, Leslie Francis, Dale Jamieson, David Nobes, and especially the reviewers for
Ethics. I am especially grateful to Robert Goodin for both suggesting and encouraging
this project.
1. Prominent exceptions include John Broome (Broome 1992), Dale Jamieson (including Jamieson 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2001, forthcoming), Henry Shue (Shue
1992, 1993, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996, 1999a, 1999b, in press), and an early anthology
(Coward and Hurka 1993). Recently a few others have joined the fray. Gardiner (2004b),
Singer (2002), and Traxler (2002) all write specifically about climate change; and Francis
(2003), Gardiner (2001), and Green (2002) discuss issues in global ethics more generally
but take climate change as their lead example. (Moellendorf 2002 contains a short but
substantive discussion.) There are also brief overviews in two recent collections (Hood
2003; Shue 2001). There is rather more work by nonphilosophers. Grubb (1995) is something of a classic. Also worth reading are Athanasiou and Baer 2002; Baer 2002; Harris
2000a, 2001, Holden 1996, 2002; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
1995; Lomborg 2001; Paterson 1996, 2001; Pinguelli-Rosa and Munasinghe 2002; and
Victor 2001. Brown 2002 provides a very readable introduction, aimed at a general
audience.
2. Such claims are made by both liberals (such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton
and Britain’s former Environment Minister, Michael Meacher) and conservatives (U.S.
Senator Chuck Hagel and the Bush administration’s first EPA director, Christine Todd
Whitman). See Johansen 2002, pp. 2, 93; and Lomborg 2001, p. 258.
3. For example, the most authoritative report on the subject begins by saying: “Natural, technical, and social sciences can provide essential information and evidence needed
for decisions on what constitutes ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate
Ethics 114 (April 2004): 555–600
䉷 2004 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014-1704/2004/114030006$10.00
555
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Ethics
April 2004
Third, the problem is theoretically challenging, both in itself and in
virtue of the wider issues it raises.4 Indeed, some have even gone so far
as to suggest that successfully addressing climate change will require a
fundamental paradigm shift in ethics ( Jamieson 1992, p. 292).
Arguably, then, there is a strong presumption that moral philosophers should be taking climate change seriously. So, why the neglect?
In my view, the most plausible explanation is that study of climate change
is necessarily interdisciplinary, crossing boundaries between (at least)
science, economics, law, and international relations.
This fact not only creates an obstacle to philosophical work (since
amassing the relevant information is both time-consuming and intellectually demanding) but also makes it tempting to assume that climate
change is essentially an issue for others to resolve. Both factors contribute to the current malaise—and not just within philosophy, but in
the wider community too.
My aims in this survey, then, will be twofold. First, I will try to
overcome the interdisciplinary obstacle to some extent, by making the
climate change issue more accessible to both philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. Second, by drawing attention to the ethical dimensions of the climate change problem, I will make the case that
the temptation to defer to experts in other disciplines should be resisted. Climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue. As such, it
should be of serious concern to both moral philosophers and humanity
at large.
The interdisciplinary nature of the climate change problem once
prompted John Broome to imply that a truly comprehensive survey of
the relevant literature would be impossible (Broome 1992, p. viii). I
shall not attempt the impossible. Instead, I shall present an overview of
the most major and recent work relevant to philosophical discussion.
Inevitably, this overview will be to some extent selective and opinionated.
Still, I hope that it will help to reduce the interdisciplinary obstacles to
philosophical work on climate change, by giving both philosophers and
the public more generally some sense of what has been said so far and
what might be at stake. In my view, the ethics of global climate change
is still very much in its infancy. Hopefully, this small contribution will
encourage its development.
system.’ At the same time, such decisions are value judgments determined through sociopolitical processes, taking into account considerations such as development, equity, and
sustainability, as well as uncertainties and risk” (IPCC 2001c, p. 2, emphasis added). See
also Grubb 1995, p. 473.
4. For example, I argue (Gardiner 2001) that climate change is an instance of a
severe and underappreciated intergenerational problem.
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Gardiner
Ethics and Global Climate Change
557
I. TERMINOLOGY
While global warming has catastrophic communications attached
to it, climate change sounds a more controllable and less emotional
challenge. (Frank Luntz)5
Potential confusion about the climate change problem begins even with
the terms used to describe it: from ‘greenhouse effect’ to ‘global warming’ to the more recently favored ‘climate change’.6 To begin with, many
people spoke of ‘the greenhouse effect’. This refers to the basic physical
mechanism behind projected changes in the climate system.7 Some
atmospheric gases (called ‘greenhouse gases’ [GHG]) have asymmetric
interactions with radiation of different frequencies: just like glass in a
conventional greenhouse, they allow shortwave incoming solar radiation
through but reflect some of the Earth’s outgoing long-wave radiation
back to the surface. This creates “a partial blanketing effect,” which
causes the temperature at the surface to be higher than would otherwise
be the case (Houghton 1997, pp. 11–12). Humans are increasing the
atmospheric concentrations of these gases through industrialization.
This would, other things being equal, be expected to result in an overall
warming effect.
The basic greenhouse mechanism is both well understood and
uncontroversial. Still, the term ‘greenhouse effect’ remains unsatisfactory to describe the problem at hand. There are two reasons. First,
there is a purely natural greenhouse effect, without which the earth
would be much colder than it is now.8 Hence, it is not accurate to say
5. From a memo penned by strategist Frank Luntz recommending that Republicans
adopt the new terminology. Cited by Lee 2003.
6. Sometimes skeptics suggest that the terminological change is suspicious. Recently,
however, most have embraced it. See previous note.
7. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the global warming problem is distinct from
the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion. Ozone depletion is principally caused by
man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and has as its main effect the ozone “hole” in the
Southern hemisphere, which increases the intensity of radiation dangerous to human
health through incidence of skin cancer. These compounds are currently regulated by
the Montreal Protocol, apparently with some success. Since some of them are also potent
greenhouse gases, their regulation is to be welcomed from the point of view of global
warming. However, their main replacements, hydrochloro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs) and
hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are also greenhouse gases, though they are less potent and
less long-lived than CFCs. There is an agreement to phase out HCFCs by 2030, but the
concentration of such compounds remains a concern from the point of view of global
warming. (See Houghton 1997, pp. 35–38. Houghton’s book provides an excellent overview of the science. Also worth reading is Alley 2000.)
8. Houghton calculates that the average temperature at the Earth’s surface without
the natural greenhouse effect would be ⫺6⬚C. With the natural effect, it is about 15⬚C
(Houghton 1997, pp. 11–12).
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558
Ethics
April 2004
that “the greenhouse effect” as such is a problem; in fact, the reverse
is true: without some greenhouse effect, the Earth would be much less
hospitable for life as we know it. The real problem is the enhanced,
human-induced, greenhouse effect. Second, it is not the greenhouse
effect in isolation which causes the climate problem. Whether an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases does in fact cause
the warming we would otherwise expect depends on how the immediate effects of an increase in low frequency radiation play out in the
overall climate system. But that system is complex, and its details are
not very well understood.
For a while, then, the term ‘global warming’ was favored. This
term captures the point that it is the effects of increased levels of
greenhouse gases which are of concern. However, it also has its limitations. In particular, it highlights a specific effect, higher temperatures, and thus suggests a one-dimensional problem. But while it is
true that rising temperature has been a locus for concern about increasing human emissions of greenhouse gases, it is not true that
temperature as such defines either the core problem or even (arguably) its most important aspects. Consider, for example, the following.
First, a higher global temperature does not in itself constitute the most
important impact of climate change. Indeed, considered in isolation,
there might be no particular reason to prefer the world as it is now
to one several degrees warmer.9 However, second, this thought is liable
to be misleading. For presumably if one is imagining a warmer world
and thinking that it may be appealing, one is envisioning the planet
as it might be in a stable, equilibrium state at the higher level, where
humans, animals, and plants have harmoniously adapted to higher
temperatures. But the problem posed by current human behavior is
not of this kind. The primary concern of many scientists is that an
enhanced greenhouse effect puts extra energy into the earth’s climate
system and so creates an imbalance. Hence, most of the concern about
present climate change has been brought about because it seems that
change is occurring at an unprecedented rate, that any equilibrium
position is likely to be thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of
thousands, of years off, and that existing species are unlikely to be
able to adapt quickly and easily under such conditions. Third, though
it is at present unlikely, it is still possible that temperature might go
down as a result of the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas con9. Hence, skeptics sometimes correctly point out that the Earth has been much
warmer in previous periods of its history. They might also note, however, that we were
not around during those times, that the climate has been extremely stable during the rise
of civilization, and that we have never been subject to climate changes as swift, or of such
a magnitude, as those projected by the IPCC.
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Gardiner
Ethics and Global Climate Change
559
centrations. But this does not cast any doubt on the serious nature of
the problem. This is partly because a rapid and unprecedented lowering of temperature would have similar kinds of adverse effects on
human and nonhuman life and health as a rapid warming, and partly
because the effects most likely to cause cooling (such as a shutdown
of the thermohaline circulation [THC] which supports the Gulf
Stream current to Northern Europe [discussed in the next section])
may well be catastrophic even in relation to the other projected effects
of global warming.
For all these reasons, current discussion tends to be carried out
under the heading ‘climate change’. This term captures the fact that it
is interference in the climate system itself which is the crucial issue, not
what the particular effects of that interference turn out to be. The
fundamental problem is that it is now possible for humans to alter the
underlying dynamics of the planet’s climate and so the basic life-support
system both for themselves and all other forms of life on Earth. Whether
the alteration of these dynamics is most conveniently tracked in terms
of increasing, declining, or even stable temperatures is of subsidiary
interest in comparison to the actual changes in the climate itself and
their consequences for human, and nonhuman, life.10
II. CLIMATE SCIENCE
Almost no one would deny that in principle our actions and policies should be informed by our best scientific judgments, and it
is hard to deny that our best scientific judgments about climate
change are expressed in the IPCC reports. ( Jamieson 1998, p.
116)11
Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed. . . . Climate
models typically underestimate the size, speed, and extent of those
changes. . . . Climate surprises are to be expected. (U.S. National
Research Council 2002, p. 1)
What do we know about climate change? In 1988, the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was jointly established by the World
Meteorological Association and the United Nations Environment Pro10. It is perhaps worth noting that ‘climate change’ is not yet the perfect term. For
one thing, it may turn out that there are other ways in which humans can profoundly
alter global climate than through greenhouse gases; for another, much of our concern
with climate change would remain even if it turned out to have a natural source.
11. For a dissenting view, based on a Kuhnian view of public science, see Michaels
and Balling 2000, chap. 11.
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Ethics
April 2004
gram to provide member governments with state of the art assessments
of “the science, the impacts, and the economics of—and the options
for mitigating and/or adapting to—climate change” (IPCC 2001c, p.
vii).12 The IPCC has, accordingly, submitted three comprehensive reports, in 1990, 1995, and 2001.13 The results have remained fairly consistent across all three reports, though the level of confidence in those
results has increased.14 The main findings of the most recent are as
follows.
The IPCC begins with an account of patterns of climate change
observed so far. On temperature, they report: “The global average surface temperature has increased over the 20th century by about 0.6⬚C”;
“Globally, it is very likely15 that the 1990s was the warmest decade and
1998 the warmest year in the instrumental record, since 1861”; and “The
increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the
largest of any century during the past 1,000 years” (IPCC 2001c, p. 152).
For other phenomena, they say that snow cover and ice extent have
decreased, global average sea level has risen, and ocean heat content
has increased. They also cite evidence for increases in the amount of
precipitation in some regions; the frequency of heavy precipitation
12. It should be noted that IPCC processes are politicized in several ways. For one
thing, the scientific membership is decided by participant governments, who nominate
their representatives. For another, the most important part of each report (the Summary
for Policymakers [SPM]) is approved by member governments on a line-by-line, consensus
basis (though this is not true of the scientific reports themselves). The latter procedure
in particular is vigorously attacked both by skeptics (see, e.g., Lomborg 2001, p. 319, who
complains that the IPCC toughened the language of the 2001 SPM for political reasons)
and nonskeptics (many of whom believe that the consensus necessary for the SPMs substantially weakens the claims that would be justified based on the fuller scientific reports).
Since they were the subject of intense negotiation, I have repeated the precise wording
of the IPCC statements here, rather than paraphrasing.
13. The first two reports are divided into three component volumes, which address the
scientific basis for projections about climate change, adaptation, and mitigation. The 2001
report also includes a synthesis report. The reports are all available from Cambridge University
Press. The full 2001 report is also available online at the IPCC web site, http://www.ipcc.ch.
Guides to the 1990 and 1995 reports were prepared by John Houghton, the lead author,
and published in book form in 1993 and 1997 by Cambridge University Press. See Houghton
1997.
14. The U.S. National Academy of Science (2001) reviewed the issue in 2001, at the
request of the Bush administration, and found itself in general agreement with the IPCC.
See U.S. National Academy of Science 2001.
15. The IPCC’s scientific report defines likelihoods in terms of probabilities. Its definitions are as follows: virtually certain (greater than 99 percent chance that a result is
true); very likely (90–99 percent chance); likely (66–90 percent chance); medium likelihood (33–66 percent chance); unlikely (10–33 percent chance); very unlikely (1–10 percent chance); and exceptionally unlikely (less than 1 percent chance). See IPCC 2001c,
p. 152, n. 7.
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Gardiner
Ethics and Global Climate Change
561
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