climate change

From Bioethics Briefings

Climate Change

Highlights
  • No issue demands greater care in balancing benefits and risks than responding to the threat of global climate change.
  • Data indicate that global surface temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius since 1880 and that this rise is largely due to human activities that emit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
  • Unless we take drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and 2-4 degrees Celsius by 2100, and sea levels are expected to rise about 2 meters.
  • The adverse public health and environmental effects climate change are wide-ranging, from increased death, property damage, and water-borne illnesses to increased respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease.
  • Most of the moral and policy debate has focused on climate change mitigation policies.
  • There are justice concerns about mitigation strategies, since they would cause disproportionate harms to low-income nations and poor people.

Framing the Issue

No issue demands greater care in balancing benefits and risks than responding to the threat of global climate change. Data indicate that global surface temperatures have risen about 1o Celsius since 1880 and that this rise is largely due to human activities that emit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. The rise in surface temperatures has melted polar ice and glaciers, resulting in about 0.24 meters rise in sea levels since 1880. Human activities that produce carbon dioxide include the combustion of fossil fuels used in transportation, heating, electric power generation, industry, agriculture, and concrete production. Chief sources of methane emissions include livestock, industry, natural gas extraction, and waste disposal and processing. Unless humanity takes drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.5o Celsius by 2050 and 2-4o Celsius by 2100, and sea levels are expected to rise about 2 meters. The adverse public health and environmental effects of climate change include:

  • Increased flooding due to tropical storms, heavy rains, and rising sea levels.
  • Increased death, property damage, and water-borne illnesses from flooding and tropical storms.
  • Increased heat waves and heat-associated deaths.
  • Increased deaths from forest fires.
  • Disruptions to agriculture due to droughts, heat, and flooding.
  • Extinction of species, destabilization of ecosystems, and decreased biodiversity.
  • Increased insect-borne diseases in some areas.
  • Increased respiratory illnesses triggered by allergens and poor air quality caused by heat.
  • Increased cardiovascular disease from poor air quality.
  • Social, political, and economic disruption as people migrate from areas of flooding and drought.

Although there is overwhelming evidence that rising global temperatures due to the production of greenhouse gases will drastically affect the environment and public health, there has been considerable moral and political disagreement about how to deal with this threat.

Moral and Policy Debate

The two types of policy responses to climate change are mitigation policies, which seek to mitigate, reduce, or slow down climate change; and adaptation policies, which seek to help people adapt to it. Mitigation policies include measures for reducing the production of greenhouse gases or increasing the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere by plants or other means. Some frequently discussed mitigation policies include taxes on fossil fuels; carbon cap and trade schemes for larger emitters of greenhouse gases (e.g., electric power plants or factories); energy efficiency mandates for automobiles, appliances, and buildings; and measures to stop deforestation or encourage afforestation. Adaptation policies include measures for dealing with the effects of climate change, such as policies for building dams or levees to safeguard areas from flooding, securing drinking water supplies, and protecting farming operations and the food supply from climate change effects.

Most of the moral and policy debate has focused on climate change mitigation policies.

Many scientists and environmental groups argue that nations need to adopt policies that drastically and quickly reduce the use of fossil fuels and move toward a green economy that depends on alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal power. However, others are concerned that rapidly moving toward a green economy will have harmful economic and social effects that disproportionately affect poor people. Since 84% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels, and alternatives sources of energy are generally less cost-effective, rapidly phasing out fossil fuels is likely to drive up the cost of energy, which will increase the costs of transportation, food, housing, health care, consumer products, and other goods and services, and could trigger an economic recession. Since poor people spend a greater percentage of their income on items impacted by rising energy costs and are more susceptible to economic downturns, these adverse economic effects are likely to disproportionately impact low-income nations and poor people living in high-income nations. Also, phasing out fossil fuels will lead to job losses for millions of people with low-wage jobs in the fossil fuel industry. However, some of these job losses might be offset by increases in green economy jobs.

Policy analysts have argued that to avoid disproportionate harms to low-income nations and poor people, the transition to a green economy must be just and fair, but it is not obvious what a just transition would look like or how it can be achieved. Some proposals include exempting low-income nations from greenhouse gas emission targets to soften the blow to their economies; providing low-income nations with financial assistance to adapt to climate change; giving tax breaks to poor people to offset increasing energy costs; and retraining fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs to enable them to obtain other forms of employment. However, these proposals are controversial, and it is not clear that they would be adopted or implemented. For example, in 2009 high-income nations pledged to give $100 billion to low-income nations to help them adapt to climate change, but this pledge is a long way from being met. Although environmentalists are pushing for a rapid transition, the faster the transition occurs, the more disruptive and unjust it is likely to be.

Pros and Cons of a Technological Fix

One of the most controversial proposals for mitigating climate change is to modify the climate system to increase removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by plants or reflection of sunlight back into space by clouds. Two ideas that have been widely discussed included fertilizing the oceans to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to trigger cloud formation. Some environmental scientists and engineers have argued that we should consider solutions like these, often referred to as geoengineering, because efforts to encourage or force people to reduce fossil fuel use have been unsuccessful. However, many environmentalists oppose geoengineering because it can create environmental and public health risks that are difficult to predict and control and because it is a technological “fix” that will weaken political will for developing policy solutions aimed at changing human behavior.

Conclusion

Climate change is a complex and difficult global problem unlike any other humanity has ever faced. Dealing with it fairly and effectively will require thoughtful deliberation and engagement from all sectors of society, including scientists, scholars, engineers, politicians, policymakers, leaders of business and industry, clergy, and concerned citizens. Since those with a stake in this issue are likely to have different values and viewpoints, compromise solutions that respect diversity and balance competing interests are more likely to succeed than one-sided approaches that devalue opposing ideas and impose stratagems unilaterally. Solutions should be based on the best available scientific evidence and realistic assumptions about human behavior, economic and technological development, and geopolitical and sociocultural dynamics. Bioethicists can play an important role in climate change discussions by framing the issues, identifying values and assumptions, and clarifying arguments and evidence for policy options.   

David B. Resnik, JD, PhD, is a bioethicist and IRB chair at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health.

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