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Climate ethics is an area of research that focuses on the ethical dimensions of climate change (also known as global warming), and concepts such as climate justice.

Human-induced climate change raises many profound ethical questions about who is responsible, who should be held accountable and what should and should not be allowed? Ethical issues have not been addressed in climate change policy debates or in the scientific and economic literature on climate change; and that, consequently, ethical questions are being overlooked or obscured in climate negotiations, policies and discussions. It has been pointed out that those most responsible for climate change are not the same people as those most vulnerable to its effects.

Terms such as climate justice and ecological justice ('eco justice') are used worldwide, and have been adopted by various organizations.


The idea of climate ethics stems from ethics itself, mostly being a philosophical view of how to deal with global warming. The ethics of climate change has been discussed by many countries and influential leaders. Because this is a large-scale issue, climate ethicists have theorized about approaches that would have global benefits. Climate change is having a significant impact on ecosystems that rely on frigid temperatures as glaciers continue to melt, sea surface temperatures increase, and sea levels keep rising. Climate ethics addresses the responsibilities individuals owe to our earth systems while also considering mitigations already in place. The effects become more drastic as time moves on, sparking serious concerns as the world inches closer to irreversible damage. Ethicists are looking into ways that third world countries can reduce their carbon emissions that are causing pollution. Ethicists have also faced issues with distributive justice as they find a way to fairly share the benefits and burdens of climate change policies.

Ethical Theories on Climate Change

The principles of environmental ethics from utilitarianism, deontology, and care have direct applications to understanding the responsibilities of current people for future generations who will be affected by our actions on climate disruption today.[1] Of particular relevance are the concepts of "discounting" from environmental economics, individual rights and expectations as framed by Immanuel Kant's deontology, and the ethics of care as described by DesJardins. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism is based on maximizing the good for the most people over the longest time, and he further stated that we all tend to value near-term, future benefits more than those in the more distant future.[2] This is an especially germane concept, since incurring economic costs and taking actions today to mitigate climate change will only benefit future generations over decades to centuries. Kant emphasized the importance of respecting individual rights as more important that considering consequences of our actions, calculating cost-benefits for our choices, and trying to maximize the "good." Utilitarianism and deontology therefore seemingly create contradictions between the rights of living people and the needs and rights of future generations. In his essay entitled "Zuckerman's Dilemma", Mark Sagoff[3] moves beyond this conflict by focusing on an ethics of care that invokes intrinsic value, love, and caring for other people and non-human life. In an encyclical entreaty, Pope Francis, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, invokes caring for God's creation and other people as a responsibility of extant humans for the sake of future generations, and in so doing, "it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn".[4] Similarly, traditional ecological knowledge and respect for life and nature, especially that from spiritual perspectives and ancestral beliefs, has been used to develop plans for adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change.[5]

Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change

In December 2004 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change was launched at the 10th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The major outcome of this meeting was the Buenos Aires Declaration on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.


The program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change seeks to:

Given the severity of impact to be expected and given the likelihood that some level of important disruptions in living conditions will occur for great numbers of people due to climate change events, this group contends that there is sufficient convergence among ethical principles to make a number of concrete recommendations on how governments should act, or identify ethical problems with positions taken by certain governments, organizations, or individuals.

Facts about climate change and fundamental human rights provide the starting point for climate ethics.

See also


  1. ^ DesJardins, Joseph R. (2013). Environmental Ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy. Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. pp. 3–6. ISBN 978-1-133-04997-5.
  2. ^ "The history of utilitarianism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2021. Retrieved 18 March 2021.
  3. ^ Sagoff, Mark. (1991). Zuckerman's Dilemma: A plea for environmental ethics. Hastings Report 21 (5):32-40.
  4. ^ Pope Francis (2017). "On Care for Our Common Home". In Hawken, Paul (ed.). Drawdown. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 190–191. ISBN 9780143130444.
  5. ^ Morrison, Jim (24 November 2020). "An ancient people with a modern climate plan". Washington Post. Retrieved 18 March 2020.

Further reading

Gardiner's paper
MacCracken's paper