Climate Ethics Session Report – Part I

(Submitted by Alissa Emmel)

PowerPoint, Case Studies and other supplementary materials can be found with the AbstractSee also Part II of this report

Tahirih Naylor’s presentation began with an overview of climate ethics and some examples of ethical questions related to climate change. She noted that the amount of carbon dioxide per capita released in the United States or in the United Kingdom is higher than the per capita amount released in Papua New Guinea or India. Should there be a per capita cap on carbon dioxide? Should it be the same for all countries? What if the country can pay to offset its carbon emissions? Should developed countries be allowed to continue emitting green house gasses (GHGs) at higher levels due to the historic size of their economies? (e.g. The US could not reduce its GHG levels to that of Papua New Guinea any time soon.) What about developing countries? Should they be allowed to increase their GHG levels? How much? And is it fair to prevent them from developing the way others have in the past?

A number of scholars and ethicists, in collaboration with the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University, published the White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. The authors of the White Paper noted, “Unless the ethical dimensions are considered, the international community may choose responses that are ethically unsupportable or unjust.” Naylor explains that often ethical issues are hidden in economic and political arguments. Considering the ethical dimensions often goes right to the heart of the problem and helps governments and organizations to remain accountable. Rather than saying “We can’t afford to pay for it” and ending the discussion, considering the ethical dimensions lends importance to the voices of those who are vulnerable or negatively impacted. The question then becomes what must we do, or what is right? Rather than what is cheapest or what makes political sense?

We then considered the following passage from the Universal House of Justice (the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith) “There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is imminent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.” We discussed how our approaches to problem solving would look different if all leaders first sought to identify the principles involved and then allowed these principles to guide their decisions.

Naylor then discussed the Bahá’í contribution to the discourse on climate change. The Bahá’í International Community offered some initial considerations on climate change last December in a paper entitled “Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change”. The paper states that humanity stands on the threshold of a tremendous opportunity – that of recognizing and acting upon its oneness. The principle of the oneness of humanity is not only a call to international action. Adhering to this principle has implications for the survival of all life on the planet. Governments need to expand their understanding of who they are responsible to; they are responsible to more than just their own citizenry, but to all of humanity and to future generations. Don Brown, project coordinator for the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, recently spoke before the Scottish parliament as it considered and then passed landmark climate change legislation. He noted that “a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make…that Scotland should adopt this tough new legislation even though it might be expensive because the Scotts had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so.” Naylor noted that significance of looking at responsibility regarding climate change through the lens of justice — that we are compelled to act not just because it will help the citizens of our country, or because other countries are advancing and we will have to catch up, but because we have a responsibility to the rest of the planet and that it is an issue of justice. To date, the discussion of justice as it relates to climate change is a glaring omission in both the political discourse and coverage by the media.