Published on Sunday, March 11, 2007 by Newsday
US Has a Moral Duty to Lead in Climate Fix
by Nancy Tuana / Donald A. Brown
In his Oscar-winning movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore insists that climate change is a moral problem. The former vice president doesn't develop the thought, but surely an adequate U.S. response cannot occur until Americans understand and take up their ethical obligations relative to the rest of the world.
At first glance, this might sound outlandish. How can we worry about ethical behavior, as if this country were a person with a soul, in a world of nations where the first rule is everyone for himself?
History shows us morality does have a role to play in affairs among nations. But there are good, practical reasons why, in this situation, ethical behavior is in America's best interest.
Now that we understand the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change worldwide, nations like the United States that historically have pumped out the most toxins must take a stance. If we do not commit to a just solution - meaning a larger reduction in emissions from this country than any other, since we have been the leading polluter - the rest of the world will not likely agree to action it needs to take.
If the United States does not act equitably, we cannot expect rapidly developing nations like China and India, whose emissions will rise dramatically if they do not adopt more sustainable development policies, to carry their weight, either.
In the short run, every nation will take an economic hit to cooperate. The United States, which should be able to adapt relatively painlessly compared to nations with much smaller and less diverse economies, has a perfect opportunity to be a moral exemplar.
The most frequently cited arguments against taking action - scientific uncertainty and the cost to the U.S. economy - are ethically flawed. There is enough scientific agreement for us to know great harm from climate change likely will be experienced before the remaining scientific uncertainties can be resolved, and the longer we wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at safe levels.
The economic-cost arguments are morally selfish, in that they fail to take into account the enormous harm to others around the world that will occur if greenhouse gases are allowed to continue to rise.
There is no guarantee that nations will limit greenhouse emissions on the basis of fairness, but there are several reasons to think they will. In 1992, the United States, along with more than 160 other nations, signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In this international treaty, nations already agreed to reduce emissions based on "equity" to prevent dangerous climate change.
Also, in a number of successful multilateral treaties, nations have agreed to divide obligations in regard to natural resources on the basis of fair allocation. These include numerous treaties establishing targets to reduce fishing to prevent collapse of threatened species and multination agreements on sharing water resources.
The question of when or whether a nation should act morally has long been debated in political theory. Those often called realists advise nations to act only in their own interest, warning that those acting on the basis of morality alone will be punished by an international system in which self-interest rules.
Yet, even they recognize nations do well to act justly when they need cooperation of others to solve a common threat. Climate change may be the best example of such a problem.
According to the authors of a "White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change" released at UN climate change talks in Nairobi, Kenya, in November - and these include ethicists, scientists, economists, legal experts, philosophers and negotiators from Asia, Europe, South America and the United States - climate change raises the most profound ethical concerns, literally issues of life and death.
Unless people see their moral obligations, they will not likely do what is needed to protect those most vulnerable, which include some of the world's poorest people in sub-Sahara Africa and Southern Asia. Some small island states in the Pacific face extinction from rising seas.
The scientific and economic facts about climate change must be considered in formulating national policy, but only express ethical reflection can lead to a just global response.
Nancy Tuana is director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University. Donald A. Brown is the institute's project coordinator for the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.
Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.