Multidisciplinary Workshop on Climate Ethics

Last week I was fortunate to be able to attend the Multidisciplinary Workshop on Climate Ethics at Villa del Grumello at Lake Como. Organized by Marco Grasso (Universit√† degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca) and Ezra Markowitz (Princeton University), the workshop examined the ethical dimensions of climate change policy from a range of disciplinary perspectives. It was fascinating to see how scholars from disciplines including philosophy, economics, psychology, law, political science and geography are engaging with the many complex ethical questions that climate change poses. A steady supply of espresso was certainly required to maintain focus over two full but very stimulating days, which concluded with a Skype presentation from Benjamin Hale (University of Colorado, Boulder) on how to bring the normative dimensions of climate change to a wider audience. I’d encourage everyone to check out his project, called The Shifting Frontier, which aims to introduce a general audience to some of the tricky ethical questions climate change raises through a series of 12 short video episodes.

I found the workshop really interesting - it’s great to break out of disciplinary silos to have some real conversation, even if it means some ‘robust discussions’. I found out a lot more about geoengineering, which I knew very little about prior to the workshop but which clearly requires sustained attention from an ethical perspective given that the so-called genie is out of the bottle with its mention in the summary from Working Group One (which assesses the physical science of climate change) of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (see this Guardian story for more details).

However, the workshop also reinforced my perception that climate ethics is primarily framed through a liberal, western epistemology, and the focus remains on questions of international and inter-generational distributive justice. Don’t misinterpret me, these are both complex and important questions, but I have two lingering concerns. Firstly – as Paul Harris argued in his 2010 paper in the journal Ethics, Place and Environment – scale matters when examining distributive justice, and there are many reasons to reconsider the appropriateness of the nation-state as the basic building block of ethical analysis. Secondly – as Iris Marion Young’s work on the politics of difference or Nancy Fraser’s work on justice as recognition shows – getting the distribution right is only part of the puzzle of justice. From my perspective, we need a conception of climate justice which is both ethically defensible and politically possible, and to develop this we need a much a clearer understanding of how ethical imperatives are embedded in and filtered through the actual politics of climate change at a variety of scales.