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Ethics of the Climate crisis

Blogi·19.4.2021·Bernhard Bliem·

Friends of the Earth Helsinki published the Poimulehti theme magazine on spring 2021. The articles of the magazine will also be published in this blog weekly. The writings of the magazine do not represent the official views of Friends of the Earth Finland.

Ethics of the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis is not only a matter of science, economics and politics. Whenever we talk about the consequences of climate change, we not only need to make predictions, but we also need to evaluate how bad the consequences are. We must expose the ethical underpinnings of our assumptions and discuss moral questions, when we decide on our reactions to the crisis.

This article will discuss some ideas from one of the books on the matter: Climate Matters, Ethics in a Warming World by philosopher John Broome. Broome is a well-known thinker in the field of climate ethics and member of the IPCC Working Group III [2]. He puts forward a utilitarian theory of climate ethics, that is, a theory that judges the morality of an action by its consequences on the well-being of people.

Each person has moral duties. According to Broome, these duties can be divided into different kinds, the most important ones being duties of justice and duties of goodness [1, p. 49]. Whereas the first forbids us to act unjustly towards other people, the second requires us to act so that we increase the total amount of good in the world. Sometimes these can be in conflict. Regarding emissions, however, both duties are aligned. “When you cause emissions, they harm other people. This is an injustice done to those people, and it also makes the world worse. So reducing emissions is a duty of justice and also a duty of goodness.” [1, p. 53]

In fact, our emissions are unjust because they seriously harm people. Moreover, this does not happen by accident, but it results from our deliberate actions for our own benefit. Broome debunks several excuses that are common attempts to negate that the harm done by our emissions is serious.

“My emissions are but a tiny amount on the global scale.” According to WHO estimations, the emissions of a single person wipe out, on average, six months of human life. [1, p. 65] This is significant harm.

“If there is a disaster, it is impossible to prove that it was because of my particular emissions.” Over the very long period that your emissions will be in the air, they will have countless chances of causing harm, so it is unlikely that they will have no impact in any of the resulting disasters.

“Without me, the plane would go anyway.” This is most likely the case, but there is the small possibility that your flying tips the balance when the airline decides if they should send more planes in the future due to high demand. In this case you would be responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gases. Statistically, the expected emissions of a single person flying are therefore high.

“We are too far gone already. Catastrophe is unavoidable anyway.” Your emissions are still harmful since they accelerate the catastrophe.

Also governments have moral duties. By implementing regulations, they can control emissions on the large scale that is necessary. “Governments have the moral duty to respond to climate change, and you as a citizen have a duty to do what you can through political action to get your government to fulfill them.” [1, p. 63]

As we are nowhere near reaching the target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, it is safe to say that governments are failing in fulfilling their moral duty, and it is doubtful whether the current political system is able to adequately address this issue. In recent years, we have seen the rise of right-wing populism, which even goes as far as denying scientific consensus. It bases its success on stoking fears and spreading a mentality of distrust, not on careful deliberations by a well-informed civil society. Meanwhile, neoliberal policies continue to be entrenched by many governments. This will likely only increase inequality, exacerbate frustration of large parts of society and lead to increased outbursts of violence instead of fruitful public debates.

This makes it all the more important that we focus on our citizen’s duties, in particular the duty to fix the issues in the political system that prevent the necessary change from happening. If we just stand by and allow our governments to keep failing, we are acting immorally. To be clear, these citizen’s duties do not just apply to some obscure collective, but they demand action from every single one of us. It is time for us to be honest to ourselves about what our responsibilities and possibilities are. We are underestimating both.


[1] John Broome. Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. Norton, 2012.

[2] John Broome. At the IPCC. London Review of Books. Blog post. (Accessed 18 May 2020)

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