Ask an Ethicist: Why should the U.S. reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

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In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Last December, President Barack Obama committed the United States to the Paris Agreement, a global accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough in the coming decades to avert catastrophic climate change. Part of the strategy, the Clean Power Plan, works to limit U.S. power plant emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.. Why should the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and what are some of the ethical dilemmas behind this commitment?

An ethicist responds: At the 2015 Paris climate talks, global society agreed to pursue a rapid decarbonization of the global economy. That means quickly adopting renewable energy, carbon capture technology, ending fossil fuel use, reforesting our planet, and changing farming practices. It’s a monumental task. If we do it, the United States and other nations could cap total global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. We could also fail and end up with 5 degrees C of warming. These starkly different worlds demand we think about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change as ethical issues of reciprocity and community.

For over 150 years, we’ve known that adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. Over that time we have uncovered how rising temperatures would impact the oceans, atmosphere, ice caps and glaciers, nonhuman creatures from walruses to parasites, our economies, cultures, and national and international security. The situation is frightening.

Industrialized nations have thickened the atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases and warmed the planet 1 degree C. We see warming already destabilizing ice sheets, raising sea levels, intensifying cyclones, disrupting food chains, and more. The future impacts are likely worse. For example, a few weeks ago Penn State scientist David Pollard published a study predicting that the melting West Antarctic ice sheet could raise sea levels by as much as three feet by 2100. That’s in addition to three feet from other sources. That much sea level rise coupled to hurricanes like Sandy would make New York City uninhabitable, according to Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann.

Sadly, Americans are the most to blame. Consider a few facts: The U.S. has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other nation. While China now emits more carbon annually than we do in the United States, China has emitted less carbon than we have historically. Finally, the people of poor nations and states have contributed incredibly little to climate change—in some cases less than 1 percent of typical Americans.

While Americans and other wealthy and technologically advanced nations may adapt, most of the world’s poor lack the infrastructure for adaptation. They have and will suffer the most from climate disruption. Africans across Africa’s Saheil region are suffering from increased desertification and drought, driving people into conflicts for food, water and energy. People of the Maldives and other low-lying islands are already migrating as sea levels rise. In Bangladesh, rising seas push people inland while turning the water table undrinkably salty. In Nunavut in northern Canada, people whose ancestors have hunted seals, bears, and narwhals from the Arctic sea ice now travel farther than ever. Like polar bears, they face food stress. Huge numbers of nonhuman species and ecosystems are being threatened or extinguished.

Most cultures and religions across the globe share some version of a moral concept we often call the Golden Rule.  In Matthew 7:12, Jesus Christ said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Confucius wrote, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” At its heart, the Golden Rule is built on the ethical value of reciprocity and recognition of another’s well-being.

Additionally, we can morally consider the more-than-human world. In “The Land Ethic” from Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold recognized that “soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land” are part of a greater community. We depend on the land to feed us, filter our water, and provide us with beauty. It depends on us to be good stewards or neighbors, people who grant moral status to the environment. We should not only grant rights or legal standing to people, but also grant rights to animals and plants, rivers and forests. As we would like done unto us, we should do unto the land. When we disrupt the climate, we disrupt the land. When we disrupt the land and climate, we disrupt our lives. 

Some people might object that it can be difficult if not impossible to know what human or nonhuman others might want, especially in the future. How can I know what a Filipino child in 2072 might want? Harder yet, how can I understand the interests of hemlock trees in 2072? Fair enough. But the climate situation provides stark choices. If the United States contributes massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, that Filipino child will suffer more intense storms than Super Typhoon Haiyan while hemlocks—Pennsylvania’s state tree—may well go extinct.

Why should the United States reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? The United States has contributed the most climate-altering greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, we suffer little—so far—while the world’s poor and the natural world pay the heaviest price. Today and tomorrow, and no matter how far away on the earth, we should do unto our others including the land, as we wish done unto us. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is the moral thing to do.

Peter Buckland is the academic programs fellow at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute where he coordinates sustainability education programs, teaches, and writes. He has communicated widely on sustainability, environmental issues, education, and music including the blog of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, The International Journal of Ethics Education, Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories That Shaped Our Culture, and others. His first book of poetry, Heartwood, was published in 2015.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

Peter Buckland is the Academic Programs Fellow at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute where he coordinates sustainability education programs, teaches, and writes. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 19, 2016