A philosophical approach to climate change

25 July 2011

Justice and morality are important parts of the climate change debate, writes Professor Rosemary Lyster.
Justice and morality are important parts of the climate change debate, writes Professor Rosemary Lyster.

The political divisiveness around Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of a price on carbon is unprecedented, with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's battle cry that the tax "can't be fixed, it must be fought".

Now that the extensive compensation packages to business and individuals have been announced, it's up to every voter to form a view. What else should we add to the mix, as politicians' catchy sound bites resonate in our collective consciousness? Could we gaze beyond our own borders to consider whether we're prepared to wear the cost of abating our emissions as our contribution to averting climate change disasters elsewhere? Is there any value in stepping back from the current politics to allow questions of justice and morality to re-emerge?

Two eminent philosophers' recent work can help us here: Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice and Stephen Gardiner's A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption. Sen is professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University and one of the world's leading public intellectuals. Gardiner is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Washington. Sen encourages us, when considering questions of justice, to engage in a process of public reasoning and discussion and to focus on the "actual lives" of those most likely to suffer. We need to broaden the informational basis of our evaluations, free from vested interests. He tells us that the prevalence and resilience of "unreason" must be confronted by better reasoning. Meanwhile, Gardiner says we need to think clearly and to protect ourselves against weak or deceptive arguments that permit us to "pass the climate change buck" to the next generation. Such arguments corrupt the very terms of the debate, moral and otherwise and strike at people's ability to understand what is going wrong in moral terms.

We need to first accept the consensus on climate science and understand that moral reasoning is just as open to misuse as scientific reasoning. Then we need to confront the potentially devastating future impacts of climate change on all economies and ecosystems rarely raised in the public debate. Let's focus first on the likely impacts of climate change on cities and food security. UN-HABITAT's Global Report on Human Settlements 2011: Cities and Climate Change warns us that, by 2050, climate change will displace as many as 200 million people. The World Bank's 2010 report Climate Risks and Adaptation in Asian Coastal Megacities says 13 of the world's 20 largest cities are coastal, with more than a third of the world's people living within 160km of a shoreline. The implications of sea-level rise are clear. By 2070, nine of the top 10-most population-exposed cities are expected to be in Asian developing countries.

Turning to food security, in 2010, the International Food Policy Research Institute issued the Food Security and Climate Change: Challenges to 2050 and Beyond report. To meet the expected demand for food in 2050 without significant price increases, and in light of the growing impacts, including climate change, the world needs to increase food production by 70 to 100 per cent. By 2050, climate change is likely to increase the number of malnourished children in all developing countries by between 8.5 and 10.3 per cent.

In May this year, the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction reported at its biannual conference that disaster-related losses were increasing across all regions, threatening the economies of low- and middle income nations and outpacing wealth gains across many of the world's more affluent nations. In February 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on an international strategy for disaster reduction, where it expressed "its deep concern at the number and scale of natural disasters and their increasing impact in recent years, which have resulted in massive loss of life and long-term negative social, economic and environmental consequences... in particular in developing countries".

It also expressed "its deep concern... at the increasing challenges ... as a result of the combined impacts of... the global economic and financial crisis, climate change and the food crisis". Who is going to pay for climate adaptation and disasters? In 2007, research to inform the international climate change deliberations estimated that, by 2030, the global costs of climate adaptation would be $US49 billion-$US171 billion a year ($A45 billion-$A157 billion), with $A20 billion-$A60 billion for developed countries and $A24 billion-$A60 billion for developing countries. A recent study by researchers at Imperial College finds this underestimates investment needs by a factor of between two and three for the included sectors. If ecosystems are included, a further $ US65-300 billion a year must be added. Mining and manufacturing, energy, the retail and financial sectors and tourism are not included in estimates. Already, the international climate change negotiations make developed countries bear the burden of adaptation in developing countries. Ultimately we, as taxpayers, will meet the costs of climate change both here and abroad.

Undoubtedly, a carbon price will fundamentally restructure our economy. Yet it seems that the most vulnerable in this relatively affluent society will be adequately compensated. Economists have long argued that the sooner we mitigate our emissions the less our economies will be affected, and have assured us that a carbon price is the least-costly way of reducing emissions. As the world's highest per-capita carbon polluters, Australians have a chance to join the many other developed countries demonstrating international leadership on climate change. Developing countries are beginning to follow suit.

As Sen recognises, it is hard to liberate ourselves from a desire to seclude ourselves from issues of justice. But it is a challenge that has to be met for the sake of ethical, political and legal thinking. He says there is a deep intellectual fragility in thinking of people in terms of fixed communities of neighbours. An understanding of justice must acknowledge that the neighbourhood is constructed by our relations with distant people.

Rosemary Lyster is a professor in Sydney Law School and director of the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law.

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