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On Discussing Climate Change as a Moral Issue

By Keith Kloor
Aug 11, 2011 11:41 PMNov 19, 2019 9:59 PM


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With political action on climate change stalled, and social science indicating that humans are not hard-wired to tackle distant and amorphous problems, climate writers might want to consider shifting the debate to the moral and ethical realm. Yes, some have tried this tack. For example, in 2010, James Hansen wrote in the Huffington Post:

The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change, comparable to Nazism faced by Churchill in the 20th century and slavery faced by Lincoln in the 19th century. Our fossil fuel addiction, if unabated, threatens our children and grandchildren, and most species on the planet.

In that same essay, Hansen correctly noted:

Religions across the spectrum -- Catholics, Jews, Mainline Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelicals -- are united in seeing climate change as a moral and ethical challenge.

More recently, in a speech earlier this year, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) declared:

Climate change is an environmental issue, it's an economic issue, but it's also fundamentally a moral issue.

And with renewed calls for a "pragmatic" approach to climate and energy politics (which would push global warming off center stage), some forceful rejoinders have invoked the "moral imperative" of climate change. As such, David Roberts of Grist asserts that climate change represents

a threat to the lives and welfare of our children and generations that will follow. That just isn't the kind of thing you keep quiet about.

And indeed he shouldn't. There is this mistaken belief floating around in some circles that a "pragmatic" strategy takes climate change off the table and buries it in a closet. As if scientists and activists will suddenly stop talking about the subject and the media will suddenly stop covering it. Rather, what this pragmatic approach suggests is a framework that offers its own

diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation.

Why some believe that this pathway can't co-exist in the public sphere with a dialogue on climate science beats me. Sure, there is the possibility that climate strategists might opt for the pragmatic route, which would then move the political debate on to new terrain, but even if this came to pass, I don't envision a future where hearty discussions of climate science are ever sidelined. The issue is sure to be aired for years to come-- in the halls of Congress, in newspaper op-ed pages, and across the blogosphere. Which is a good thing. I desire a full, inclusive debate, in which all reasonable voices get a fair hearing. The irony of some of the complaints about the climate pragmatism approach is that for too long a tyranny of thought has reigned in certain quarters of the climate debate, which has effectively marginalized voices that have dissented from majority opinion. At times, this tyranny has been enforced in the ugliest manner. That has not been healthy for the larger climate debate. So having witnessed that, I'd be the last person to suggest that climate change should be kicked off stage. It's a hugely important societal issue. It should be part of the policy equation and political debate. I just think it needn't hog the whole stage anymore. But back to the moral component of climate change, which I would welcome more discussion of. For me, there can be no honest climate debate without a true consideration of the global "energy challenge," something that Andy Revkin has cogently laid out on numerous occasions at Dot Earth, such as here and here. Lately, Revkin has been joined (in taking the full measure of current and projected global energy demand) by some notable environmental thinkers and writers. The UK's George Monbiot is one of them. Here's a recent column of his that poses this question:

[W]e should ask ourselves what our aim is. Is it to stop climate breakdown, or is it to engineer the maximum roll-out of renewable power? Sometimes it seems to me that greens are putting renewables first, climate change second. We have no obligation to support the renewables industry "“ or any other industry "“ against its competitors. Our obligation is to persuade policy makers to bring down emissions and reduce other environmental impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The moment we start saying we won't accept one technology under any circumstances, or we must use another technology whether it's appropriate or not is the moment at which we make that aim harder to achieve.

The headline of Monbiot's column:

The Moral Case for Nuclear Power

So let's have that moral debate about global warming, but I hope it also includes an honest discussion of what is required as a replacement for the prime energy source causing it.

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