An article by Andy Revkin on DotEarth pointed me to this post on the Climate Ethics blog where Donald A. Brown of the University of Pennsylvania argues that it is our ethical duty to take action “to reduce the threat of climate change even if one assumes there is more scientific uncertainty about the causes and impacts of climate change than those identified by the scientific consensus view as articulated most recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
That is, given the worst case risks to hundreds of millions of others (if not to ourselves, our families and our neighbors), there is no ethical excuse for not acting to mitigate climate change at the global level. As Professor Brown puts it, “…science alone cannot tell society what it should do about various threats.” But what about the argument that we should wait until all the facts are in and uncertainties have been resolved? Professor Brown writes:
In environmental controversies such as global warming where there is legitimate scientific concern, important ethical questions arise when scientific uncertainty prevents unambiguous predictions of human health and environmental consequences. This is so because decision-makers cannot duck ethical questions such as how conservative “should” scientific assumptions be in the face of uncertainty or who “should” bear the burden of proof about harm. To ignore these questions is to decide to expose human health and the environment to a legitimate risk, that is, a decision to not act on a serious environmental threat could have consequences particularly if waiting until all uncertainties are resolved could increase the harm.
Of course I agree with Professor Brown’s arguments, but I can’t think of many examples over the past 40 years where an argument based on ethics has won the day. I can always hope that things will change, of course, and maybe the threat of climate change impacts will help move decisionmaking to a more ethical base.