Richard Somerville: Include climate change ethics and equity issues in science research agenda

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“I am convinced that a scientific community that aspires to be helpful to society must include ethics and equity as an integral part of its research agenda,” writes Richard Somerville, a coordinating lead author of the IPCC 2007 climate change scientific assesment. “We should place greater emphasis on providing quantitative information relevant to the ethical consequences of different policy options.”

In “The Ethics of Climate Change,” an article posted June 3 in Yale Environment 360 (a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies), atmospheric scientist Richard C. J. Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, writes (excerpt): 

Science may be able to inform policy by forecasting how severe climate change will be, given different greenhouse gas levels. However, experience teaches that science alone is never enough. When confronting environmental challenges, considerations of fairness, equity, and justice must also inform any successful international agreement.

This is certainly true of three major ethical dilemmas now complicating the climate change debate: how to balance the rights and responsibilities of the developed and developing world; how to evaluate geo-engineering schemes designed to reverse or slow climate change; and how to assess our responsibility to future generations who must live with a climate we are shaping today….

It is now increasingly clear that meaningful international action to limit climate change not only requires compelling scientific evidence and recognition of legitimate national interests, but also must focus on considerations of equity and ethics.

In his discussion of these key issues, Somerville includes this conclusion on geoengineering options:

The sobering prospect of using geo-engineering to counter human-caused climate change also raises profound ethical issues. Many geo-engineering approaches are conceivable….

I believe this temptation should be resisted….I feel about geo-engineering exactly as I do about nuclear war: Study it, by all means, but never try it. It would be highly irresponsible to conduct a massive international intervention on our planet without being virtually certain there would be no side effects making the cure worse than the disease. Such certainty is highly unlikely. Even relatively simple, small-scale plans can go wrong. If geo-engineering is the last resort in a worst-case scenario, let us do all we can to avoid that scenario. Who has the moral — and legal — right, on behalf of all nations, to tinker with the entire global environment?

In his conclusion, Somerville points to an agenda focused on climate change impacts and adaptation options as a path to linking scientific research and assessment to understanding the ethical implications of policy choices:

I am convinced that a scientific community that aspires to be helpful to society must include ethics and equity as an integral part of its research agenda. We should place greater emphasis on providing quantitative information relevant to the ethical consequences of different policy options. For example, policymakers urgently need to know how climate change will affect different regions of the world and different economic sectors. The coming temperature change labeled “global warming” is simply a symptom of climate disruption. Research is required to generate specific forecasts of effects on water supply, on hurricanes and other storms, and on droughts, floods, and many other phenomena. Consequences for ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide are among the unknowns. Options and costs of adaptation to climate change will vary greatly around the globe and among developed and developing nations, and science has much to contribute to understanding these factors.

Incorporating such considerations into international negotiations on climate change is not fanciful or unrealistic. Indeed, experience in other domains teaches us that an ethical basis is essential in order to reach effective solutions.

copyright 2008 Yale Environment 360

It is time for climate change impacts and response strategy researchers to step up to the challenge of playing a strong leadership role in the next period of research and assessment, to match the leadership that has been provided in the past by scientists who have been focused primarily on understanding change in the physical climate system.

 

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