The Ethics of Climate Change

American students demonstrating for climate justice and equity. Photo: © Lorie Shaull (CC-by-SA-2.0)/ Flickr

Climate ethics concerns what is morally right or wrong (fair or unfair, just or unjust) when it comes to making decisions about climate action and how to repair our climate system. It examines rights, duties and also moral dilemmas, such as how to choose between competing values (e.g. the rights of today’s generations versus those of future generations). If science is concerned with ‘what is’, ethics is interested in ‘what ought to be’.

In This Article

  • The Perfect Moral Storm

The Perfect Moral Storm

Climate change has been described as “the perfect moral storm” because it involves so many ethical problems. Some examples include:

  • How should the burden of global warming be shared between richer and poorer countries?

Climate science could hardly be clearer. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and from deforestation have destabilized the planet’s climate system in every corner of the world. Satellite data shows that the polar ice sheets are melting far more rapidly than expected, which in turn is feeding sea level rise — arguably the biggest single threat to human life as we know it.

Yet science has little to say on the ethics of climate change. For example, climatologists can tell us whether a climatic outcome is likely, but not whether it is desirable. Nor can they referee matters of climate justice and equity. The fact is, when weighing up competing values or interests, we are forced to rely on considerations of fairness, equity, and justice.

To complicate the moral argument even further, climate ethics are merely part of a wider body of ethical considerations that apply to life in general.

Take the issue of accountability, for example. Given that developed nations had no idea until the 1970s that burning coal or petroleum caused climate problems, is it fair to hold them responsible for emissions prior to that date? After all, contemporary legal and ethical theories of responsibility are firmly based on the principle of intent or implied intent (negligence). Blaming developed nations for global warming may be the pragmatic solution, but this doesn’t mean that it’s fair or just.

Furthermore, some “developing countries”, like China and India, are now in the world’s top 5 largest economies. China, for example, used more cement in the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013, than the US did during the entire 20th Century. (1) As a result, they are the world’s worst and third-worst emitters of fossil fuel greenhouse gases.

Despite these obstacles, international agreement is still achievable. The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987) remains the textbook case of international cooperation in environmental affairs. Its approach to burden sharing, technology transfer, financial supports and phased implementation set the standard for subsequent agreements. True, the phased elimination of ozone-depleting substances, such as CFCs and HCFCs, did not impede the economic progress of nations involved. Even so, the Montreal Protocol clearly showed the benefits of taking ethics into account.

Climate action is more problematic because it requires countries to reduce their dependence on coal, oil and gas, while developing alternative sources of renewable energy.

Many poorer countries lack the resources to accomplish either of these objectives, and are wholly dependent on technical and financial assistance from the Paris Climate Agreement. Unfortunately, inertia has seized many of the wealthier parties to the agreement, leaving many practical details undecided.

This inaction alone has moral implications. Global warming is already making human life on Earth difficult. It may at some point make it impossible. This alone provides a basic moral framework for the climate debate. The German philosopher Hans Jonas (1903–93) warns that human survival requires the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle which can conserve our planet and its future. He advises us to act in a way that is compatible with the permanence of human life. (2)

Right now, this sort of principled outlook is being side-lined by populist leaders trumpeting the values of nationalistic prosperity at the expense of global accord. This approach, with its focus on greater consumption is the root cause of climate change. It’s also the reason why scientists are calling for our current era to be renamed the Anthropocene epoch, due to the ecological damage we humans are causing to Planet Earth and its inhabitants.

Sadly, as we shall see, the sort of enlightened approach advocated by Jonas, which respects the ecological rights of future generations and gives equal consideration to all human beings, not just the rich ones, is still a utopian dream.

What Principles of Climate Justice Did States Agree to under the UNFCCC Treaty 1992?

Let’s start by reminding ourselves what the vast majority of nations (including the United States, China, India and Russia), have already agreed to under the UNFCCC, in 1992. The UNFCCC agreement contained four important principles to be adhered to by all the signatories.

1. Duty to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a total of 197 nations agreed that they have a duty to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change, and to stabilize the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere so as to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system (UNFCCC 1992: Article 2). The 1992 UNFCCC does not define “dangerous climate change”, but under the later Paris Climate Agreement (2015), the same nations agreed to adopt climate policies to limit the rise in Earth’s temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels).

2. Duty to Prevent Causing Environmental Harm to Others

Under the 1992 UNFCCC, nations also agreed they had a duty to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction do not cause environmental damage to the territory of other States (UNFCCC 1992: Preamble). This is known as the “no harm” principle.

3. Lack of Scientific Certainty No Excuse

Under the 1992 UNFCCC, nations also agreed to take precautionary measures to minimize the causes of global warming and mitigate its adverse effects. If there is a threat of serious damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse for postponing such measures. (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3) (3)

4. Developed nations Have a Duty to Assist Developing Nations

Under the 1992 UNFCCC, developed nations accepted that they have a duty to help finance climate change mitigation and adaptation measures adopted by developing nations, and to compensate them for their climate losses and damages. (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 4)

The No 1 Climate Ethics Issue

All nations agree that global warming is being caused by the excessive consumption of fossil fuels.

They also agree that a proper plan of climate change mitigation is needed to cut fossil fuel emissions. Finally, they also agree that those nations who suffer from the effects of global warming — either now or in the near future — need to develop a climate change adaptation plan to cushion these effects.

The combination of mitigation (prevention of emissions) and adaptation (lessening of the damage caused) is commonly referred to as ‘climate action’.

The big stumbling block — the thing that countries can’t agree on — is who should pay for the climate action that’s needed. At present, this is the No 1 climate ethics issue, that is causing the impasse in UN climate talks, such as the recent COP 25 talks in Madrid (Dec 2019).

Who Should Pay For Climate Action?

There are several ways to try and pinpoint responsibility for climate change. (See Appendix for details.)

  • We can compare current emissions. (See Appendix: Figure 1.) These figures show that the top 6 developing nations (China, India, Iran, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil) emit roughly 23 percent more carbon dioxide than the top 14 developed countries. However, this is not representative of the gulf between the two groups.

NOTE: We hear a great deal about the growing economies of certain developing countries like China and India. China has the second highest GDP in the world; India has the fifth highest. But most developing nations have much fewer resources. Indeed, an embarrassingly large number have per capita earnings of less than 2.5 percent of the GDP of the top 20 developed countries.


Developed countries consume substantially more energy per capita and more resources per capita than developing countries. They also have far greater earnings per capita. Eco-justice therefore demands that they shoulder most of the burden of climate change. It’s the only equitable option.

This conclusion reiterates the ethical principles of the Montreal Protocol, as well as Article 4 of the main UN climate agreement, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which nearly all countries have signed up to.

It is also in line with the meaning of “developed countries”, who are defined as: countries that occupy the top 25 percent of the Human Development Index (HDI) — a ranking system based on health, education and income. Developing countries, in contrast, occupy the bottom three quartiles.

Developed countries include: the United States, Canada, Luxembourg, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy, Australia, Spain, Netherlands, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Norway, UAE, Qatar, Denmark, Finland and others. These countries have a moral obligation to step up to the plate and shoulder the main burdens of climate change.

Did You Know?
Only three non-European developing countries (Russia, Turkey and Panama) feature in the Top 50 of the International Monetary Fund’s list of GDPs per capita. No developed countries feature in the bottom 100.

The No 2 Climate Ethics Issue

‘Who Pays?’ is not the only ethical quagmire in climate change. Lack of good governance in certain developing countries is another stumbling block, at least for those countries who are expected to contribute most of the finance.

For many eco-warriors, this is a non-issue. They think that richer nations (especially colonial and neo-colonial countries) have exploited developing countries for long enough. They believe that achieving climate equity and justice is the West’s last chance to make amends.

Much of this is true. Developed countries have exploited the Third World for centuries. But this moral argument only runs so far. After all, if the recent multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal in Malaysia is anything to go by, elected leaders of developing countries need no lessons in theft.

The point is, climate equity and justice are not served by paying money to UN bodies or to government authorities, if major sums are siphoned off into secret bank accounts. Good governance is critical to maintaining the ethical standards that build confidence between donors and recipients.


Governments continue to haggle over the justice or injustice of climate financing proposals. Meantime, rising temperatures continue to undermine the Antarctic ice sheet and the world edges closer to runaway ice-melt. We need all parties — developed and developing countries — to sort things out. The former need to sort out the financing; the latter need to make sure that their system of governance is fit for purpose. Those from either side who fail to deliver on these commitments must be named and shamed by all other parties, so the world can see quite clearly who is responsible.

Difficult Ethical Questions About Climate Change

The ethics of climate change would fill a library of books. We only have space for seven, as follows:

1. Is it morally acceptable to deny that climate change exists?

Some people say that supporters of the climate change denial movement are simply exercising their right to freedom of speech. They say that climate change — whatever it is — does not warrant the radical changes being demanded by eco-activists and groups like Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, and the like.

Other people say that the climate denial lobby is discredited by the fact that its major financier is the fossil fuel industry, which has spent millions (if not billions) of dollars fighting the idea of global warming. Its latest tactic, for instance, is to promote natural gas as a ‘clean fuel’. The slogan goes: “Thanks to natural gas, the US is leading the way in reducing emissions”.

Critics of the gas industry say this is seriously misleading. Although, when burned, gas has lower emissions than coal or petroleum, this is only half the story. Because leakage of methane (a very powerful greenhouse gas) from pipelines and refineries comes close to nullifying this advantage.

For natural gas-fired power plants to produce lower emissions than new coal plants, the annual methane leakage rate — from well through to delivery at a power plant — must be kept below 3.2 percent. (4) (5)

At present, leakage rates of methane from the US gas industry’s network of refineries, pipelines and other installations are roughly 2.3 percent, per annum. 6 If this leakage rate were to increase by another 0.9 percent, gas would be as dirty as coal.

Over the past few years, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has spiked. As yet, scientists don’t know why. One possibility is leakage from new fracking sites that have opened up across America during the same period.

In any case, advocating climate denial when 99 percent of active climate scientists are saying that climate change is globally dangerous, is morally indefensible. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right, as any lawyer knows.

2. How should emissions be shared between richer and poorer countries?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the world’s leading authority on climate science — stated in its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) that, in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, anthropogenic emissions need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels, by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.

Even limiting the rise to 2°C, requires emissions to fall by 25 percent by 2030, reaching net zero by 2075.

In a nutshell, over the next decade we need to cut global emissions by 25–45 percent.

The ethical issue here, is: what is the fairest method of apportioning these cutbacks? Is it fairer to say: all countries must reduce emissions by the same amount? Or is it ethically sounder to allow emergent economies to ‘catch up’ by granting them more freedom to increase their emissions? The hope of course, is that more emissions might translate into stronger economies better able to combat the effects of global warming.

India is a vocal proponent of greater shares for developing nations. Prime Minister Modi argues that increasing developing countries’ use of fossil fuels is essential in order to lift millions out of poverty. In fact, he suggests that established countries make steep cuts over the next few decades in order to allow India (and others) to complete their economic development.

Whether India’s argument is primarily designed to fulfil its climate responsibilities, or to gain new commercial markets, is not clear. But doubtless she is not alone in holding these views.

There is one major flaw in India’s case. The plight of low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Allowing India, and (presumably) China, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, Russia and all other emerging economies, to continue pumping out greenhouse gases, may seal the fate of these islands and their inhabitants.

These communities are vulnerable through no fault of their own. Is it fair that they should be bankrupted by the cost of building the sea walls, pumping stations and other infrastructure needed to stave off submergence? And if they have to evacuate their entire population, is it reasonable to expect them to bear the whole cost of such a migration?

The answer to both questions, must be No. A more equitable approach is to allow emerging economies to increase their emissions, but make this subject to certain sustainability criteria. Meantime, the principles of climate justice dictate that we afford these island states all reasonable assistance.

Provided these islanders are supported, there is no ethical reason why developing countries should not be allowed to emit higher levels of greenhouse gas than developed nations. Utilitarianism suggests that since the emissions issue largely concerns financial cost, and since developed countries are much richer on average, they are much more able to pay for the technologies needed to achieve the necessary emission reductions than anyone else. This is straightforward utilitarianism at work.

3. Is a carbon tax an ethical instrument of climate action?

This question opens a Pandora’s Box of ethical controversies and conflicting values. The carbon tax is becoming the go-to instrument for governments wishing to reduce emissions. But climate ethics suggest the tax may be unjust and unfair.

Why is a carbon tax unfair? Because it is supposed to incentivize people to switch to greener, renewable sources of energy. If this is true, it faces some difficult questions.

For example, how easily can the owner of six reasonably new buses switch to EVs? How easily can a company with a fleet of large refrigerated trucks switch to EVs? The financing costs alone could be prohibitive for many businesses, let alone the problems of long distance or international charging points.

The only feasible option is to pass as much of the costs as possible onto the customer. Ultimately, therefore, the costs of the carbon tax are borne not by the polluter but by the end user. Is this climate justice? Surely, the whole point is not to penalize the public but to encourage greener behavior. But if shoppers see that their usual brand of frozen food has risen in price due to the company’s use of expensive electrically-powered trucks, how are they likely to react? That’s right, they’ll switch to a cheaper brand that is still transported in diesel lorries.

The urban/rural divide throws up its own share of ethical climate problems. For example, is it fair to impose higher taxes (including carbon taxes) on fossil-fuel cars in rural areas, to encourage electric vehicle (EV) take-up, in the absence of reliable public transport, or where there are insufficient numbers of electrical charging points?

Most rural dwellers will tell you that EV charging points are almost non-existent in their area. Be patient, say the Greens, more charging points are coming. Yes, but not in rural areas. Meantime, carbon taxes are increasing year on year. Bottom line: rural motorists are paying more for diesel with no real option of switching to EVs. Meantime, urban car-users have more charging points, more options of public transport and are more likely to be able to cycle to work. This isn’t climate equity, its climate-nonsense.

There you have it: supporters say a carbon tax is recognized by economists as the most efficient means of pricing and reducing carbon emissions. Critics say this is irrelevant: what matters is how it affects people and whether it encourages greener habits. They say it’s not like a regular tax whose aim is simply to raise money. Instead, it’s supposed to help limit global warming. If a tax-payer has no realistic option of avoiding the tax by switching to renewable fuels, it should not be levied at all.

It’s very important for governments to observe the ethics of climate change, otherwise they run the risk of losing support for climate action as a whole. Unless they are well designed, carbon taxes can be entirely unethical. Obvious ways to make carbon taxes more equitable, include: (a) giving people several years notice, before introducing them, and (b) ensuring (in the meantime) that greener options are available to all.

4. How should the costs be shared between richer and poorer citizens of a country?

This is a relatively simple question. Global warming is a worldwide problem, just like illegal drugs, air pollution, human-trafficking or the Covid-19 pandemic. The financial costs of all these problems are met out of income tax. The financial costs of climate change need be treated no different, except for the fact that individuals and families may need to invest money in energy conservation measures. Due to the environmental importance of reducing emissions, it is morally and socially advisable for governments to assist people to the limit of its ability.

In other words, the greater your earnings, the more you pay — at least in theory. And the smaller your earnings, the more support you should receive. Yes, there will be anomalies. Billionaires rarely seem to pay much tax, for example. Millionaires pay more, but not as great a percentage as ordinary workers.

5. How should the needs of future generations be taken into account?

As far as climate action is concerned, many environmentalists and climate activists are keen for the current generations to do most of the heavy lifting.

They argue as follows: (a) To delay taking action allows the climate crisis to get even worse, and increases the risk of reaching a climate tipping point, involving (say) runaway ice-melt or ocean warming. (b) Animals can’t afford to wait. Wildlife is already suffering from huge stress, caused by loss of habitat from deforestation and land use, loss of food, the use of pesticides and herbicides, the spread of insects and disease, and other factors. (C )Delay makes it harder to re-balance the climate system, since deeper cuts in emissions will then be required, which will be even more unpalatable to consumers and politicians alike.

Opponents argue: (a) A very rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions might trigger social and economic chaos, including humanitarian disaster. We are therefore ethically justified in rejecting such radical reforms on the basis that they would violate important rights and be deeply harmful to human health and welfare. (b) In addition, new technologies are likely to solve the climate problem without society having to undergo the sort of radical changes proposed by the Greens. (C )Making radical cuts is likely to penalize poorer people and poorer nations, who will justifiably object to reducing their standard of living for the benefit of future generations, not least because future generations are likely to be better off than they are.

One would like to believe there is a genuine ethical debate going on, but in reality, those who object to radical climate action seem to have almost no positive proposals or suggestions to offer. For example, at what point might they reconsider? What would have to happen climate-wise, for them to agree to make radical cuts? They don’t say. Nor do they concur with the idea that animals are suffering unfairly because of our delay in coping with global warming. One feels that, far from engaging with the ethics of climate change, they prefer simply to let the future take care of itself.

6. Does society’s right to exist override an individual’s human rights?

The Chinese government has established a number of systems that enable it to monitor people’s location and behavior, using a series of incentives and penalties via cellphone apps. These measures have helped the authorities to minimize the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on normal life, and are almost certain to be adopted in other countries in order to enforce new “green” behaviors. But this Orwellian brand of Utilitarianism will inevitably be used by authorities to restrict freedom as well as carbon emissions.

Thus, as global warming intensifies, it’s quite likely that phone apps will be used to curtail certain rights and freedoms for the overall good of society. But is this ethical? Do we want to see the Chinese approach prevail, or do we want to preserve our rights no matter what happens to our climate?

Take the right to have children, for example. Studies show that having one less child results in a saving of roughly 58 tons of CO2 emissions, per year — see, How to reduce Your Carbon Footprint. By comparison, someone who lives car-free saves about 2.4 tons per year. In other words, one of the most effective ways of reducing emissions is to persuade people to have fewer children. After all, is it ethical to grow the population beyond Earth’s capacity to sustain it?

Or, take personal consumption. Climate ethics suggest that limits should be placed on a person’s carbon footprint for the sake of fairness, in order to allow everyone the same opportunity to use a similar amount of carbon.

A growing number of studies indicate that a rich minority are largely to blame for our unacceptably high emissions. For example, the richest 10 percent of consumers use more than half the energy. 7 This corroborates earlier research which shows, for instance, that 15 percent of UK travellers take 70 percent of all the flights, while 57 percent of the population doesn’t fly abroad at all.

Are you comfortable with the idea of being assigned a “personal emissions allowance”? After all, we can’t resolve our climate problem if we allow people to have an excessively large carbon footprint. It could be done voluntarily, but it’s doubtful whether people would accept such a restriction.

We need to protect the planet but this means reducing our consumption. And if people won’t do this voluntarily then it must be made mandatory and our personal freedom goes out the window. What to do? It’s a real moral dilemma.

7. Do animals have a moral right to exist?

It’s difficult to justify the idea that animals have moral rights (and therefore obligations) without constructing the idea of pseudo-humans. What’s more, why should humans have obligations towards animals, if animals don’t have obligations to humans or even to other animals?

Fortunately, we don’t have to believe in ‘animal rights’ in order to make a moral case for not killing wildlife.

Wild animals are critical members of the ecosystem they inhabit. For example, vultures may feed off the blood and guts of dead animals, but in doing so they act as Earth’s clean-up crew, removing pathogens and other harmful organisms from the food web.

Bees sting humans but they also serve as one of nature’s most important pollinators. Without them, many plants could not set seed and reproduce. It cannot be ethical for humans to destroy animals that contribute to the health of the biosphere and thus sustain human life.

Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches to wildlife and nature management. One focuses on using nature wisely; the other focuses on the preservation of nature. (8) See, why are pollinators so important for the planet?

Wise use (also known as “sustainable use”) appeals to our own best interests and aims to enhance and maintain nature as a valuable resource for human beings. Thus, rainforests and other valuable ecosystems (and the animal habitats therein) should be conserved for the pharmaceutical and other benefits which can be obtained from their unique biodiversity of plant and animal life.

Preservationists, on the other hand, champion the “otherness” or “naturalness” of the non-human world. They say that wild places should be left alone and allowed to develop with the minimum of human interference. Animal welfare is a major concern.

Consistent with both these approaches is the ethical proposition that we should respect the struggle of wild animals to maintain and perpetuate their species, as well as to protect their own lives.

Absolutist arguments (animals have the same rights as humans, or animals are merely objects) do not achieve very much. Not least because of the close relationship between animals and humans. Take the ocean, for example. Overfishing can cause the collapse of entire fishing industries. Hunting sharks for shark fin soup can accelerate the demise of coral reefs. Without phytoplankton algae, humans could not breathe. There are thousands of examples of co-dependence between animals and human beings.

The ethics of climate change cannot involve animals directly since they are not moral beings. However, their ecological value to the planet is inestimable, and for this reason alone their interests should form part of the ethical discussion.

8. What, if any, responsibilities do individuals have in respect of climate change?

Using traditional ethics, the only principle under which an individual may incur a moral obligation to reduce their emissions, is the no-harm principle. (One ought not cause harm to someone else.) The difficulty here, is that it’s extremely difficult to determine how (say) driving a high-emission sports car causes climate-related harm suffered by someone else.

As a result, some people argue that individuals have no moral obligation to reduce their emissions. (9) (10)

Others claim that individuals ought to take responsibility for their personal choices and develop a green code of behavior. This approach is stiffened by the finding of one study that, on average over the course of a lifetime, the emissions of a single average American contribute to the severe suffering and/or death of two future individuals. (11)

In between these extremes, a third opinion says that an individual’s ethical responsibility to act on climate change can be discharged by relatively trivial actions, like recycling or fitting energy efficient light bulbs.


Western moral philosophy may not be best placed to deal with an individual’s obligations with respect to climate change. Its focus is dominated by logic which is quite capable of generating some seriously questionable results. What’s more, it seems to have few useful concepts of national or global duties. The emphasis is nearly always on the individual.

To some extent, this has been reflected in the antics of Western protesters over mask-wearing and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidently, the protesters had no sense of any ethical obligation towards the wider community.

In order to understand climate change ethics, we need a global focus. We need to inculcate the idea that we owe a duty of care towards our fellow humans around the world. Of course, this raises issues of climate justice and equity, which in turn raises questions about affluence and poverty, the haves and have-nots, and a lot of other matters that make people nervous.

Nevertheless, individuals do have the potential to move mountains if they organize properly. And given this potential, is there not a moral imperative to contribute?

Related Articles

Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope — why our climate plan is broken.
Ocean Acidification — fish are dying as our oceans become acidic
Climate Change Essay — in 1,000 words.
Does Tree Planting Stop Global Warming? — are trees enough to save us?


  1. “US Geological Survey statistics”. Independent Newspaper.



I work in marketing by day — and pen my thoughts on climate change by night.

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Karina Collins

I work in marketing by day — and pen my thoughts on climate change by night.