Asserting a Moral Argument on Climate

The constant focus on the science and economics of climate change is an inadequate response to the risks posed by a warming climate. That’s the view of the National Climate Ethics Campaign, which today in Washington, DC released a “Statement of Our Nation’s Moral Responsibility to Address Climate Change” signed by more than 1,200 national leaders. Yesterday, I spoke with Bob Doppelt, the campaign’s coordinator.

According to Doppelt, who is also the executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, the statement was written by consensus with the 27 members of the steering committee, which includes those from labor, faith, business and social justice communities as well as environmentalists. “This group felt that no matter how high the costs are, we have a moral obligation to prevent harm to others, to the climate and to the natural environment from climate change; we felt we have a moral obligation to address climate change and move beyond the two false ways (scientific certainty, economy) of framing the issue,” he says. (You can listen to the interview here.)

The statement posits three moral principles that, according to the Climate Ethics Campaign, have long guided the United States. They are the moral obligations to:

1. prevent unjustifiable suffering and death (there are national laws that make it not allowable to harm someone else)
2. honor the principles of justice and equity (the poor, women, children, infirmed, elderly, communities of color, and native Americans are among those most impacted by climate change despite having contributed least to the problem)
3. protect the natural environment that is the source of all life (in part, in order to protect ourselves).

Doppelt says that these moral principles “require us to dramatically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our homes, places of work, all levels of government as well as begin to prepare for climate change impacts.” The group’s statement asks that every American demand policies that would reduce emissions and prepare for climate changes.

Climate activists, according to Doppelt, have been “missing the boat” by not tapping into people’s deeply held values and moral beliefs:

“When you look at every major social movement of the past 200 hundred years from women’s suffrage to civil rights and onward, they all at their basis had a moral argument that drove and motivated people to act; they did not use scientific arguments, job creation arguments or political arguments to make their case because the wrongs they were trying to right were in fact moral wrongs, just as our release of greenhouse gas emissions without considering impacts on other people, on future generations, and on the natural environmental is a moral wrong.”

The National Climate Ethics Campaign is a non-partisan effort (the coalition includes the Republicans for Environmental Protection) because as Doppelt says, “climate change has become a partisan issue, but it’s no more partisan than cancer; everybody can be affected and everyone will benefit from solutions.” He adds that while the statement addresses people’s beliefs, the group was careful to make it not about religion.

Doppelt says that today’s release of the statement marks the beginning of a multi-year campaign to inspire local climate ethic campaigns and make the case across the United States that “climate change is a profoundly moral issue that requires a profoundly moral response.” For more information:

Photo used under Creative Commons from U.S. Geological Survey on flickr.