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Ethics and Climate Change

Siebel Energy Grand Challenges Lecture Series Fall 2008

An interdisciplinary group of scholars examined the ethical dimensions of the challenge presented by climate change in this fall Siebel Energy Grand Challenges Lecture Series entitled "Ethics and Climate Change." This five-part series was sponsored by PEI and the University Center for Human Values.

Peter Singer

"The Ethical Challenge of Climate Change"

Sept. 30, 2008
Dodds Auditorium, 4:30-6 p.m.

Discussant: George H. Philander


Climate change raises old ethical issues in a new way. The old issues are essentially those of justice in distribution, as familiar as the old problem of sharing a pie between many hungry people. How should we divide up the capacity of our atmosphere to absorb our greenhouse gases? Justice between generations is also obviously relevant. But these issues arise in new ways that threaten our traditional sense of what is right and what is wrong. Hence climate change presents a new and particularly difficult moral challenge.


Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He first became well known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include: Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; How Are We to Live? Rethinking Life and Death, One World, Pushing Time Away, The President of Good and Evil, and The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason). He co-founded The Great Ape Project with Paola Cavalieri, and is currently president of Animal Rights International. In 2005, Time named him one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Richard Somerville

"Global Warming: What Do We Know and What Should We Do?"

Oct. 7, 2008
McCormick Hall 101, 4:30-6 p.m.

Discussant: Elizabeth Harman, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University


In 2007, an international group of experts completed a definitive assessment of recent research on climate change science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls warming of the climate system "unequivocal" and attributes most of the observed recent global warming to human activities, with a confidence level of 90% or more. As human activities continue to modify the climate system, what will the implications be for rising sea level, hurricanes, and water supply? This talk first summarizes key scientific findings and then examines policy options. Worldwide emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change continue to increase each year. Nations will accept constraints on their freedom to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases only when they are satisfied that they are being treated justly and equitably. Ethical concerns underlie the differing rights and obligations of both developed and developing countries. Intergenerational equity requires people today to consider the planet that their descendants will inherit. The prospect of intentional geoengineering to counter human-caused climate change also raises profound questions of equity and ethics.


Richard C. J. Somerville is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. He is a theoretical meteorologist and an expert on computer simulations of the atmosphere. He received the Ph. D. in meteorology from New York University in 1966 and has been a professor at Scripps since 1979. Richard Somerville's research is on the physics of clouds and their role in the climate system. His interests include all aspects of climate, including climate science outreach and the interface between science and public policy. He comments frequently on climate and environmental issues for the media. Somerville has received awards from the American Meteorological Society for both his research and his popular book “The Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change”, a new edition of which was recently published in 2008. Among many honors, he is a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society. He is a Coordinating Lead Author for the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize equally with Al Gore.

Robert Socolow

"Prospicience (The Art and Science of Looking Ahead) and Geoengineering: What If We Can Dial Our Future?"

Oct. 14, 2008
McCormick Hall 101, 4:30-6 p.m.

Discussant: Dr. Bennett Foddy, Postdoctoral Fellow in Bioethics, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University


As we gain understanding of the workings of our planet, we are identifying planetary-scale interventions (like injecting reflecting particles into the stratosphere) that might compensate for the unprecedented changes human actions are already creating. Suppose side effects are judged to be tolerable and ground rules for governance are developed that all nations accept. We are still left with questions about objectives: What planetary state should we seek? Should we intervene, even if we can? A textured understanding of our long-term future as a species is needed. Might this be the territory of philosophy? Presentation (PPT).


Professor Socolow's current research focuses on global carbon management and fossil-carbon sequestration. He is the co-principal investigator (with ecologist, Stephen Pacala) of Princeton University's Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI), a $20-million dollar, ten-year (2001-2010) project supported by BP and Ford. Under CMI, Princeton has launched new, coordinated research in environmental science, energy technology, geological engineering, and public policy. Additional interests include global allocation of climate mitigation responsibility, efficient use of energy, nuclear energy, and geoengineering.

Jody Freeman

"The Role of Ethics in the Legal Response to Climate Change: Perspectives from Environmental Law"

Nov. 19, 2008
Guyot Hall Room 10 , 12-1:30 p.m.

Discussant: Harold Shapiro, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and former President of Princeton University


Professor Freeman will discuss the role of ethics in contemporary environmental law and regulation. Despite the rise of environmental ethics and "deep ecology" in the 1970s, environmental law remains anthropocentric in focus -- only people have legal rights and obligations. Federal environmental statutes are primarily aimed at protecting public health and safety; they reflect a concern about balancing environmental protection with economic growth. Natural resource management statutes focus primarily on extraction and consumption, not the preservation of nature for its own sake. The most significant developments in environmental law of the last 25 years are the rise of cost benefit analysis as a decision tool, and the emergence of market mechanisms as a preferred instrument of regulation. The important ethical debates in the field concern not obligations to nature, but rather obligations to one another and future generations. Climate change, which raises important distributional questions about intergenerational equity and burden-sharing between the developed and developing worlds, presents opportunities for a resurgence of ethics in this narrower sense, but the debate will be framed within a larger economic discourse.


Professor Freeman is Professor of Law and the founding Director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Program. Her work in environmental law focuses on the design of governance institutions, regulatory tools and decision making procedures; most recently, she is working on climate related institutional design. Professor Freeman authored an amicus brief, on behalf of Madeleine Albright, in MA v. EPA, the global warming case decided by the Supreme Court in 2007. Her analysis of the implications of the case, MA v. EPA: From Politics to Expertise, appears in the most recent issue of the Supreme Court Review. In another recent article, Timing and Form of Federal Regulation: The Case of Climate Change, Professor Freeman explains how state efforts to address climate change are likely to help shape federal regulation (in Penn L. Rev. with DeShazo). Her 2006 book, Moving to Markets in Environmental Regulation (with Kolstad), is a collection of essays by leading legal scholars and economists analyzing how well market mechanisms of environmental regulation have performed compared to command and control regulation.

Sivan Kartha

"The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World: A “Greenhouse Development Rights” Approach to the Global Climate Regime"

Nov. 25, 2008
McCormick Hall 101, 4:30-6 p.m.

Discussant: Darrel Moellendorf, Director of the Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs and Professor of Philosophy, San Diego State University


The vast majority of emission reductions required to prevent an intolerable level of climate change must occur in the developing world, where most emissions now occur and where emissions are growing most rapidly. Yet, the human development aspirations of the developing world require epanded energy services, which in turn seem inexorably to imply increasing carbon emissions. This seemingly inviolable syllogism is at the very core of our climate predicament, as developing countries have unambiguously insisted that, as important as it is to deal with climate change, a solution cannot come at the expense of their development. The Greenhouse Development Rights framework is a climate regime architecture explicitly structured to safeguard a right to development. As a burden-sharing framework, it defines and transparently quantifies the obligations appropriate to the world's comparatively wealthy individuals both in the developing countries and industrialized countries in terms of the UNFCCC's touchstone principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities".


Dr. Kartha is a Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), whose research and publications focus on energy technology assessment and policy analyses relating to climate change and sustainable development. As Director of SEI Climate and Energy Programme, he focuses on equity and efficiency in the formation of an international climate regime, and has worked with policy makers, private sector actors, foundations, and NGOs throughout the world. A major area of Dr. Kartha's research regards global instruments for responding to climate change, such as emissions trading, joint implementation, and the CDM. He has provided technical input to the UNFCCC Secretariat, the World Bank Carbon Finance Unit, the GEF, and several international research collaborations. Dr. Kartha also works on the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of advanced biomass energy technologies and supply in developing countries. In this regard, he has provided expert technical input to the United Nations Development Programme, the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme of the World Bank, civil society groups and foundations.