CLIMATE CHANGE: THE ETHICAL DILEMMA

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Sixth Assessment Report made certain revelations and reiterated certain facts that set the alarm bells ringing for most world leaders and environmentally conscious people around the globe.

It stated that “Human influence has likely increased the chance of compound extreme events since the 1950s. This includes increases in the frequency of concurrent heatwaves and droughts on the global scale (high confidence), fire weather in some regions of all inhabited continents (medium confidence), and compound flooding in some locations (medium confidence)[1].”

 It then went on to claim that “Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.”

Thus, all of this brought alive the discussions around pollution, emissions, environmental degradation, global policy deficits and the monstrous impacts of climate change on the present and future generations. Questions were raised on the effectiveness of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement (2015) when tall promises were made to reverse the damage of global warming.

The year 2021 in the backdrop of a Leaders’ Summit in the first quarter, numerous bilateral meetings on reaching “net zero”, the above-mentioned report of the IPCC and COP 26 in the last quarter was a year that was loud in addressing climate concerns. But in the process, the menace of pollution of the environment and climate change was essentially reduced to a fact-based political question rather than an ethical one. The question of ethics was largely absent from public debates and forums.

The problem of pollution has been expressed in numbers like the target year, the desired temperature, the AQI, the adequate climate finance etc. and hence the scope of it has been reduced to economic and scientific concerns. However, ethical accountability cannot be divorced from the present state of the environment and its impacts on the world at large.

THE ETHICAL QUESTION

It has been widely argued that the concept of ethics is culture-specific and subjective to one’s estimate of what is right and what is wrong.  However, there cannot be any second thoughts while calling the menace of pollution to be an unethical practice. A recent report had suggested that a greater number of people had died due to pollution-related issues in a certain time period than the covid related deaths. And certainly, deaths cannot be approved of in any culture or at any time. The impacts of climate change have repeatedly shaken the credibility of our resilient systems, wreaking havoc in the form of forest fires, extreme weather conditions, toxic atmosphere etc. depriving innumerable people of lives and property.

Historical Perspective

Talking on a nation-to-nation basis, it is apparent that the nations that have contributed little in conjuring up the menace of climate change are the ones who are bound to experience the worst impacts of it. The effects of climate change are not equally distributed across the globe. Thus, the smaller island and the coastal nations will bear the harshest effects while the developed nations that have continuously polluted the environment for growing into the developed and rich nations that they are, will experience relatively less fierce impacts of climate change.

It was certainly not ethical on the part of the advanced and “developed” countries to have grown and been growing at the cost of the developing or the least developed nations. This brings forth the bias in our ethics which is, to be ethically sensitive only to the people in our vicinity or with whom we share a connection and who can be the direct recipients of the negative impacts of our actions. Thus, we see how the innocent people/nations will be the worst sufferers of the disaster conjured up by the few.

Not only the developing nations, but even the future generations will categorically represent those “innocent” beings who will have to suffer on account of the parochial mindset of people and institutions of the past. This seriously undermines the ethical structure of the world society.

Future Possibilities

In terms of preparedness, the developed nations have largely equipped themselves with the necessary infrastructure and technology to mitigate the impacts of climate change. They have all the technology and expertise to shield themselves in the event of a crisis. On the contrary, the poorest nations lack the climate-resilient infrastructure and adequate finance to fight the crisis. It is predicted that most poor nations will see their people die of various health-related issues owing to a polluted environment. The poorest nations are the least prepared to mitigate hotter and drier climates, more violent storms, rising sea levels, degraded agricultural resources, and increased burdens on human health organizations. Many countries cannot afford food imports, irrigation systems, large-scale public works to prevent flooding, or costly health protection strategies[2].

To sum up, the future is grim for the people who are yet to see what ‘development’ looks like.

Contemporary Efforts

Another ethical question pertains to the efforts being made by the world to undo the damage or prevent further degradation of the environment.

The developed nations have constantly denied the theory of historical emissions, as propounded by nations like India, to evade the liability for much of the damage thereby refusing to contribute to disaster prevention with the same intensity with which they polluted. This is evident in their reluctance to provide the climate fund of $ 1 bn annually for the developing nation to adopt technologically advanced means to counter climate change. Thus, it is unethical for able nations to shun responsibility solely to see other countries on the same page especially when the effects on the poorest people of the world will be disproportionate and irreversible damage will occur not after too long.

India, as a developing nation, is also faced with an ethical dilemma. India’s developmental aspirations continually come in way of resolute climate action on the ground. Despite pollution palpably damaging lives in India and catching the public’s eye as in the recurrent scenes of smog-laden surroundings in Delhi post-Diwali or the toxic froth in the Yamuna, we still are equivocal in our policies. According to the Global Climate, Risk Index India is the 7th most affected country by climate change. Not taking a firm stance would be unethical to the lakhs of people inhaling toxic air, facing extreme winters and summers, battling disruption in food security and those facing the continuous wrath of severe cyclonic storms in the coastal areas.

CONCLUSION

It’s not possible to resolve a problem with the same thinking that created it.” — Einstein

The reasoning given by the developing nations for the delay in action is that the developmental needs outweigh the need for urgent climate action. They also point to delay in aid by the developed nations. However, such reasoning is detrimental to those who feel the direct impacts of pollution and global warming. Also, a development that vitiates the very environment we live in cannot be called development. And giving importance to such development while ignoring the lives of those who cannot install air purifiers at home, cannot buy high-quality masks or cannot stay indoors because the AQI is 500 on a particular day is certainly not ethical and such development is unwarranted.

The reasoning by the developed nations that despite a large share of historical emissions, they can be justified in any delay in climate action because the other nations, although with way smaller share of emissions, refuse to agree to follow their lead with the same strength and capacity is equally flawed and unethical. Thus, all the “leaders” using petty politics to address such a grave question is a result of seeing pollution and its consequences as something which lacks the ethical dimension. The more the delay in developing a mature perspective towards the crisis the more difficult it will be to prevent one.

The question is also about the ethical responsibility of humans to protect the plants and animals of the planet. Habitat destruction caused by deforestation, urbanisation; and degradation of the environment caused by pollution leads to the destruction of the ecosystem. Thus, humans are evading the ethical responsibility of protecting biodiversity from human-induced climate change.

To overlook the ethical aspects of a problem would mean that the solutions to the same would also lack any ethical consideration. Systemic neglect by the richer nations of the poorer ones will lead to an environmental policy that would overlook the interests of those whose lives depend on the very same policy. Similar neglect of the interest of the future generations will be unfair to those who do not have a say in the current environmental policy. And every such policy is bound to fail as the problem of pollution requires coordinated and concerted efforts of all the stakeholders. And coordination efforts will only make way once everyone is treated ethically in all aspects.

Author(s) Name: Shristi Shikha (Symbiosis Law School, Noida)

References:

[1] IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[2] Donald A. Brown, The Ethical Dimensions of Global Environmental Issues, (2001) DAEDALUS https://www.amacad.org/publication/ethical-dimensions-global-environmental-issues. 2 December 2021

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