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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 67 - Thursday, 9 April 2009
Why Global Environmental Problems Entail Ethical Obligations
By Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law, Program on Science, Technology, and Society, Penn State University
I. Introduction

Ethics is understood to be the domain of inquiry that explores what is right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human behavior. Are there features of global environmental problems that call for classifying them as essentially ethical problems with even greater force than some local or regional environmental problems? If so, what are these features?

Why is this important? If some global environmental problems are essentially ethical problems, then some of the excuses that nations often use to justify not reducing their contributions to the global environmental problems are ethically problematic. This is so because ethical obligations entail duties and responsibilities to others with the result that national policies may not be justified on national interests alone. That is, if there are ethical obligations to others to cease causing harm, then policy options must be responsive to these obligations.      

II. Why Must Some Global and Environmental Problems Be Understood As Ethical Problems?

The features of global environmental problems that strongly call for classification as ethical problems include the following:

1. The Separation Of Causes, Impacts, Harms And Benefits.

Some global environmental problems are caused by people in one part of the world but are most harshly experienced by others who are separated from those causing the problem by great space and time. In addition, those most vulnerable to global environmental problems are often least responsible for causing them. Climate change is a strong example of this feature of global environmental problems. Those most vulnerable to climate include many of the poorest people in the world who are among those least responsible for emitting the greenhouse gases that are causing the problem.

The same separation between victim and cause is also true of other global environmental problems, including upper atmospheric ozone depletion, some ocean degradation problems including destruction of global fisheries, some biodiversity and forest problems, and exposure to toxic substances that are deposited around the world by long-range air transport.  

In the case of global fisheries depletion, for instance, fishing trawlers from some countries often go great distances to harvest fish for domestic consumption, yet the harshest consequences of depleted global fisheries are often experienced by subsistence fisherman in poor countries far away from the home port of the fishing boats.

This separation of space and time and between cause and impact of course can also happen in more local environmental problems such as water pollution, but the distances between those causing the problem and those who suffer the consequences are most problematic at the global scale because of the magnitude of the distances at this scale.. With the rise in truly global environmental problems in the last few decades, it is now abundantly clear that behavior of people in one part of the world can gravely affect the human health, economic viability and overall welfare of others far away, but their suffering is almost invisible to those who cause the problem.

Several implications for ethical reasoning follow directly from this separation of distance and time between cause and effect. First, our intuitive sense of ethical responsibility for harms that we cause others is harder to trigger when those who will be harmed by our action are people we will not ever know and are from a different culture. Yet ethics and morality require us to refrain from harming all others who may suffer because of our behavior even if they are separated from us in time and space.
Secondly, because the actual harm that we are causing to others may be in a particular part of the world that is uniquely vulnerable to global environmental change but is unknown to us, we not only don’t know the people we are harming but have no idea where the locus of the worst harm is located. For instance, particularly vulnerable villages to climate change impacts may turn on the geographical features where the village is located such as dependence on glacier water flows in the summer coupled with vulnerability to monsoon irregularities. Yet few of us know where these places are. And so in the case of global environmental problems we may be causing great harm to others who we not only do not know personally, but about whom we neither have an idea of their location nor why they are particularly vulnerable to actions we are taking. For this reason, global scale environmental problems create a huge challenge to trigger our sense of ethical responsibility, yet ethics requires us to not harm others through our actions none the less.

A related reason why the global environmental problems demand classification as ethical problems stems from the fact that some actions that cause some environmental damage are often justified on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Yet this justification is ethically problematic when those who benefit from an action that causes harm have no relation with those who are harmed. For instance, government may tolerate inevitable pollution from a land fill by identifying the benefits that citizens receive by having a place to take their garbage. But in the case of global environmental problems, those who are harmed by actions do not enjoy the benefits that come from taking the action. A harms-benefits justification for environmental degradation, if ethically justifiable at all, only works where those who will suffer the harms and those who benefit from the action that causes the harm are in the same community of interests. In the case of global environmental problems, those who are harmed are rarely made better by the benefits of the action that cause the harm.

2. The Consequences of Global Environmental Problems Are Often Catastrophic to Many.

The second reason why global environmental problems call for classification as ethical problems stems from the fact that their consequences are often catastrophic to those who are most harmed by them. Climate change, for instance, directly threatens human life and health and resources to sustain life as well as species of plants and animals and ecosystems around the world. The harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat and intense storms and damage to homes and villages from rising oceans and intense storms, adverse impacts on agriculture, social disputes caused by diminishing natural resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where one has lived to sustain life.  In addition, the very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change caused seal level rise. Clearly these impacts are catastrophic for some. 

Loss of global fisheries can be devastating to substance fishermen, global desertification and drought are likely to cause mass starvation, loss of atmospheric ozone can cause skin cancer in millions, and long-range transport of persistent organic chemicals can cause deadly diseases and birth defects. Because ethics requires people to be particularly careful to not to harm others when the harm is great, global environmental problems need to be seen as ethical issues.

3. The Governments That People Rely Upon To Protect Their Interests Don’t Match The Scale Of Global Environmental Problems.

Governments are expected to protect their citizens from life-threatening dangers. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from environmental harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of global environmental problems. And so, although existing national, regional and local governments have jurisdiction over activities within their boundaries coupled to responsibilities to their citizens, they have no responsibility to those outside their boarders in the absence of binding international law. For this reason, ethical appeals to get governments to require that their citizens not harm non-citizens in other nations are necessary to prompt action.

In fact, according to a leading foreign policy theory called “realism,” national governments should limit the scope of their international engagements to the pursuit of national interest alone. According to some “realist” proponents, governments should refrain from acting at the international level for ethical reasons that do not coincide with national interests. Yet global environmental problems require people in one part of the world to consider the interests of others outside the jurisdiction of their national governments. Because there is no duty of national governments to protect foreigners from global environmental problems unless they bind themselves voluntarily in treaties, an appeal to ethical and moral responsibility is particularly important to motivate national actions in regard to global scale environmental problems. Moreover, if global environmental problems actually create ethical obligations, they have ethical duties to mitigate global environmental problems.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Program on Science, Technology, and Society
Penn State University
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