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Fireside discussion of ethics and climate change

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Fireside discussion of ethics and climate change

On Wednesday, 26 October 2011, Ecologic Institute and the German Marshall Fund (GMF) co-hosted an evening fireside discussion on the topic "Do ethics have a role in the climate policy debate?" The event allowed for an informal, off-the-record conversation about the relevance of questions of ethics and morality to climate policy solutions.

Over the years, the climate change policy debate in the United States focused on a number of issues:

  • the threat of climate change to future economic growth;
  • the prospects of green jobs;
  • the implications for national security.

As the U.S. Congress considered a possible regulatory and policy framework in 2009-2010, all the attention was on the proposed cap-and-trade system, but there was little consideration given to the deep ethical problems posed by climate change and the ethical implications of the proposed responses. Among these issues are:

  • the implications of climate change on future generations,
  • the disproportionate impacts on peoples and countries not responsible for the problem, and
  • questions of equity and justice in the design of policy responses.

While the proposed legislation contained measures to address some of these concerns, the debate focused on scientific, national security, and economic justifications rather than the moral case for action.

At the event, held at GMF's Washington, DC offices, roughly 35 participants considered several major questions:

  • which key ethical questions have to be addressed when considering the climate change problem?
  • do major policy shifts in the U.S. require an ethical framing?
  • what role has ethics played in European climate change policy?

Andrew Light, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, surveyed the academic discipline of environmental ethics and suggested why the theory of ethics rarely seemed to inform public policy. Ryan Streeter, Non-Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Editor of ConservativeHome.com, compared climate change to the long-term challenge of entitlement reform in the United States, where the public is similarly reluctant to make short-term sacrifices for the welfare of future generations. Gina Wood, Director of Policy and Planning at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies emphasized the role of minority groups in this debate as they tend to be ignored, except in cases of local impacts, although they are equally concerned about the science as other groups in the United States. Eric Haxthausen, Director of U.S. Climate Policy at the Nature Conservancy, outlined some possible reasons that ethics did not play a larger role in last year's campaign to pass federal legislation on climate change in the U.S. Senate. Dominic Marcellino, Fellow at Ecologic Institute, moderated a lively discussion that followed.