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Commentary: Climate Change Raises Tough Ethical Questions

Jul 9, 2014

Andrew Fiala

Governor Jerry Brown recently said, “humanity is on a collision course with nature.”  He was referring to climate change and the early advent of the fire season here in California.  In related remarks, Brown said we have to “live with nature.”

But how should we live with nature?  We fundamentally disagree about the value of nature and what it means to “live with nature.”  Some people think that nature has value in itself apart from our interests.  Others think that nature exists for us to use and exploit.  In addition to this dispute, we also disagree about how we ought to distribute and manage the harms associated with environmental problems.

One version of environmental ethics—often called “deep ecology”—maintains that natural things have intrinsic value.  Thus if a glacier melts or a forest burns, something of inherent value is destroyed.  To live with nature, from this “eco-centric” perspective, means to respect the dignity and integrity of the natural world.

A different version of environmental ethics holds that the value of natural things depends upon their value for us—they are tools with so-called “instrumental value.”  From this “anthropocentric” perspective, living with nature means that we should find a way to manage and control nature for our benefit.

The differences between eco-centric ecologists and anthropocentric environmentalists are not easy to resolve.  A further debate concerns the question of how we should distribute the harms caused by our collision with nature.  The standpoint of what is called “environmental justice” asks us to apply ideas about social justice in the environmental context. 

Disagreements about social justice also run deep.  Some think that the poor should be left to fend for themselves.  Others think that the rich ought to be taxed and their wealth redistributed to the poor.  Should rich people who consume the most fossil fuels, water, land, and other resources be taxed so that the poor might be helped to survive the collision with nature?  Or are the rich entitled to use whatever they can afford to use?

Rich people will do OK in a hot, dry world.  The wealthy can move and adapt.  And rich people often have the luxury of enjoying natural beauty of the sort celebrated by deep ecologists.  Poor people encounter nature more directly and with less control.  The poor will suffer most from environmental problems such as climate change.

I’m glad that Governor Brown is directing our attention to environmental issues.  Our society needs to have a serious conversation about the value of nature.  We must figure out what we value and why we value it.  And we need to decide what sorts of obligations we have to the natural world and to our fellow human beings.  

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno. The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.