Climate Change: An Ethical Perspective on Mitigating its Impact

Climate change, the shifting temperature of the earth due to amplified levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) from fossil fuels and deforestation, is currently a topic of heated discussions worldwide. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations organization, stated that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” [1].

GHGs persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years [2]. Climate change is thus a very unique issue as its effects transcend time and space: GHGs emitted now in any location will affect the whole planet for many generations to come. Therefore, the generation that knowingly creates negative climate change should make every effort to reduce that impact; this represents a moral choice.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1998 was organized to develop limits that would stabilize levels of GHGs [3]. However, the United States decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The main debate focused on concerns for the economy over climate change. This consideration is still the focus of climate change policy. For example, in response to a proposal to reduce GHGs by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, this statement reflects the sentiment of a large majority of climate change policy opponents:

“The estimated costs [of the proposal] are staggering. So is the sweep of regulations that could severely affect nearly every major energy-using product from cars to lawnmowers, and a million or more businesses [which will be forced to curb emissions] and buildings of all types. And all of this sacrifice is in order to make, at best, a minuscule contribution to an overstated environmental threat” [4].

Two issues are brought up in this statement: first, that the proposed policy was considered on an economic level only, and second, that the consequences of the human role in climate change are overestimated. An ethical perspective renders both of these claims irrelevant.

Climate change has tremendous impact because it is the result of a vast network of interconnected environmental structures: “The whole earth is an interactive system,” states Professor Bill McGuire of University College London [5].  While the effects on a yearly timescale might be small, the effort and time required to change the trends will be enormous. While most of the public attention for climate change has focused on rising average global temperatures, other effects are equally hazardous.  These include ocean acidification; ice sheets melting; more frequent and severe weather events like fires, flooding, and storms; drastic changes in rainfall and drought patterns; and highly altered life cycles of species [2, 6].

The largest share of GHG emissions are those of developed nations: since 1850 the United States and Western Europe together have contributed to more than fifty six percent of GHG emissions [7]. However, the developing nations bear the staggering consequences as they are highly populous and therefore suffer a disproportionate impact of the adverse effects. Higher temperatures can lead to an increase in parasites which are especially devastating in areas with large populations highly susceptible to disease. Extreme weather can affect poor countries like Malawi in southeastern Africa that rely disproportionately on agricultural productivity – 40% of economic activity [8].

However, while the consequences that developing nations suffer are indeed harsh, data collected from numerous expeditions illustrates that the most serious victims of climate change are also the most ignored: all the other species of the earth [9]. While humans are highly developed organisms and can adapt to changes in environment relatively easily, this is not true for all other species which have evolved over millions of years in order to precisely adapt to their specific environments [6]. Many species have long life-spans and a change in their reproductive rates can have impacts well beyond the timescales that are familiar to humans. Climate change affects both ecosystems of these organisms as well as the organisms themselves; a delay in implementation of policy only worsens these effects. These result in changes in the environment of an ecosystem and can lead to species extinction, or, more gravely, the extinction of a keystone species which would trigger a chain of extinction [10]. Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation, emphasizes that even small changes in environment can lead to disastrous consequences [11]. Consequently, it is estimated that between two thousand and ten thousand species will go extinct each year due to the adverse effects of climate change [12]. The uncertainty in this figure results from the sheer magnitude of the species which go undiscovered.

Ironically, the most serious victims of climate change are also the ones who do not have a voice in the mitigation of the problem. Therefore, the implementation of policy becomes deeply ethical. Human activity has already resulted in the loss of many thousands of species and the trend will only continue [12]. Going back to the economic arguments, placing an economic value on the existence of a species or an ecosystem is not viable and as such economic arguments fail to be effective. Trying to fix an ethical problem with an economic solution is simply deficient.

On the other hand, the ethical obligations that society should take into consideration can be defined: humans, developed nations especially, are risking the well-being of life on earth, as well as the future generations who will have to deal with the costs of the actions that society takes and puts off. If ethical obligations become a philosophical driving force for the legislation, policymakers will be forced to accept these obligations and deal with them in a just manner.

Throughout the history of the United States, society has benefited by enacting laws that started out as moral movements: the United States Constitution, civil rights movements, child labor laws, and EPA acts such as the Clean Air Act. Therefore, as there is a strong precedent for law with an ethical basis, a list of defined ethical obligations can be used as a standard for climate change action on a federal or global level. Such a documented plan can create debate and lead to a shift in societal thinking that, in turn, can result in better laws for the future. A moral and ethical platform will also allow participants from across the entire planet to see the value of implementing the changes that will be needed. Thus, significant progress in climate change policy can be made.

Climate change is a universal issue, one that affects all life on the planet, and therefore settling the adverse effects is an ethical decision. As a country with strong relations with much of the world, the United States can take the lead in bringing nations together in a collaborative effort to fix the global problem with a global solution.


  1. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC; 2007. 104 p. Report No: 4.
  2. Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC; 2000. Report No: 1.
  3. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kyoto Protocol [Internet]. 1997. Available from:
  4. Lieberman B. The True Costs of EPA Global Warming Regulation. Michigan Science. 2009 Feb 12. Available from:
  5. Mears R. Global Warming May Bring Tsunami and Quakes. The Guardian 2009 Sept. 16.
  6. United Nations Environment Programme. Climate Change and Biodiversity: Ecosystems [Internet]. Available from:
  7. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. GHG Data from UNFCC [Internet].  Available from:
  8. International Food Policy Research Institute. Agriculture’s Critical Role in Africa’s Development [Internet]. 2009. Available from:
  9. World Wildlife Fund. The impacts of climate change on nature [Internet]. Available from:
  10. Alois P. Keystone Species Extinction Overview. The Arlington Institute. Available from:
  11. Preparing for Climate Change: Adaptation Polities and Programs: 2009: Subcommittee on Energy and Environment; U.S. Congress, House. 111th Cong. Available from:
  12. Thomas C. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature [Internet]. 2004; 427 (6970).
  13. Blue Marble. 2002. Available from:

Suchita Nety is a sophomore at the Harker School in California