Energy & Environment

The science and morality of climate change

Getty Images

“The absence of certainty is not an excuse to do nothing,” Christine Todd Whitman, President George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, once cautioned.

For decades, we have ignored Whitman’s advice and done just that when faced with critical, lifesaving decisions about how the U.S. should respond to climate change. Despite years of scientific consensus that climate change is caused by human activities and will have dire social and environmental consequences — some of which we are already experiencing — we’ve been stymied at the policy level by counterarguments built almost exclusively around exaggerations of “scientific uncertainty” about the causes of climate change and the exact level of problems we will face.

{mosads}Recently, however, there has been a shift in the conversation from largely scientific and technical grounds to morality and ethics. Last month, Pope Francis released an encyclical — a formal statement of the Vatican’s views on an issue — that highlights the impacts that climate change will have on humanity, especially poor and vulnerable populations. In his statement, Francis warned that human activities are changing the climate, chastised “obstructionists” for blocking action, and called for global leaders — and each one of us — to meet our “moral obligation” to fight it.

Governments are using moral frames as well. Along with a visit to the Vatican, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Kenneth Hackett noted in a blog post that the EPA’s forthcoming rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions by power plants is consistent with Francis’s moral call to action. They wrote:

Climate impacts like extreme droughts, floods, fires, heat waves, and storms threaten people in every country — and those who have the least suffer the most. No matter your beliefs or political views, we are all compelled to act on climate change to protect our health, our planet, and our fellow human beings.

The Obama administration similarly heralded its new commitments to reduce carbon emissions as a moral imperative. Internationally, a Dutch court ordered its government to do more to fight climate change because a failure to do so was a human rights violation.

This framing is likely to resonate well with the general public. A poll in February found that 66 percent of respondents said that world leaders are morally obligated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change, and 72 percent believed they as individuals shared the moral obligation to fight carbon pollution.

What does this shift signal about the role of science in decision-making? Even though the recent frame is one of morality and ethics, there is no doubt that the science brought us here. Science-based decision-making is not about science telling us what to do. Science elucidates the consequences of different actions and helps us to better understand the likely outcomes of our choices, but in the end, it cannot prescribe decisions because our values guide those as well. For example, science can tell us that we are likely to avert 69,000 premature deaths by swiftly responding to climate change, as did a recent EPA report, Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action, but it is up to us to decide if 69,000 lives are important enough to save.

Looking back, science has appropriately informed the international conversation about climate change. Science can and should help shape our beliefs by providing information and helping us to understand tradeoffs and uncertainties. But science can neither dictate nor safeguard our values; that responsibility rests with us. Let’s hope that we rise to the occasion.

Rodewald is director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Christine Todd Whitman Climate change Environmental Protection Agency EPA Ethics Gina McCarthy Global warming Kenneth Hackett Morality Pope Francis
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video