Perhaps the real problem here isn’t that ethicists aren’t attending to the climate emergency but that academia in general is disconnected from the political decisions that make a real difference in the world. This is a problem even for ethicists specialized in climate justice.
The main difficulty for ethicists is that much of the ethics is already settled. We know that climate change will cause a huge amount of harm, and that justice requires the historical beneficiaries of burning fossil fuels to do more to help the world reduce emissions and adapt to changing conditions.
Given that academic ethics is about ‘ethical fine tuning’ and that the academy remains disconnected from the government, the potential for ethicists to respond to the climate emergency within the limits of their job description is somewhat limited. The typical ethicist can probably do just as much, if not more, to address the climate emergency in their role as a citizen. That’s to say, ethicists could join relevant protests, lobby their employer and pension fund to divest from fossil fuels, cut down on flying and meat eating, vote for politicians/parties that support strong climate action, and support activist organizations by volunteering their analytical and communicative skills to support environmental activist groups. Fortunately these responses to the climate emergency are not mutually exclusive, ethicists can engage qua citizen and qua ethicist.
Most ethicists would agree that the climate emergency is one of the most serious ethical problems society has ever faced, yet the focus of most of our work is elsewhere. In his piece, “Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns”, Charles Foster suggests that business as usual for ethicists – “fine ethical tuning” and making “subtle distinctions” – amounts to shuffling the deck chairs when we know the ship is heading for an iceberg. Here I argue that, frustratingly, most ethicists qua ethicists have a limited role in responding to the climate emergency. However, this doesn’t mean we should despair but, rather, that we should also contribute to addressing the climate emergency outside the ivory tower qua citizens.
But, practically, we are so far from achieving justice that the fine tuning is barely relevant. What is the point of working out exactly how big each person’s slice of cake should be when some aren’t prepared to share the cake at all? That isn’t to say this ethical fine tuning is a waste of time. Hopefully in the future we will overcome some of the political, technological, and psychological barrier to achieving climate justice and, at that point, it will be helpful to have the ethical fine tuning to hand. Foster’s concern remains, however; our most pressing problem is not to get the ethical fine tuning right, but to get to a position where fine tuning will be relevant.
It’s even less clear what ethicists not specialized in climate justice should contribute. They might switch their focus from, say, organ transplant ethics or reproductive ethics to focus on the climate crisis, or look for intersections between their prior work and the climate crisis. But there are already many ethicists that specialise in environmental ethics, so I doubt that more ethical fine tuners will make much of a difference.
The other job of many academic ethicists is to teach and this can be a powerful way to influence the world. Again, however, most people going to university these days already have a reasonably good idea of the magnitude of the climate crisis, so there might not be much to gain by labouring the point that the climate crisis is a crisis. Moreover, in academic ethics we tend to see it as our responsibility to teach the skills we use – ethical fine tuning, critical thinking, careful argumentation. Assuming these skills are valuable, we shouldn’t give up on teaching them. We also have to stay true to our course descriptions, and not every course can be about environmental ethics. Perhaps universities should make a course on environmental ethics compulsory for all degrees the way that medical schools make medical ethics compulsory. However a better approach might be for education from primary school to be reorganized around ecology since that would enable us all to better understand how interconnected with and reliant on the environment we really are.
The problems we need to solve are not ethical but political, technological, and psychological. How, for example, should we redress the imbalance of power between democratically elected bodies and corporations, overcome conflicts of interest between nation states without war, develop more efficient solar panels, and effect large-scale behavioral change?
COP26 was billed as the last chance to keep global heating well below 2C and prevent climate catastrophe. It is ‘code red for humanity’ but despite the extreme urgency of the problem, CO26 was a failure. The US Democrats pushed for ambitious targets but appear unable to pass the necessary legislation at home, China isn’t prepared to decarbonise fast enough, and several significant polluters, such as Australia and Russia, are barely offering lip service. What can ethicists do to help?
Ethicists present arguments to further democratic decision-making but, generally, the arguments are left to speak for themselves and it is up to others to lobby for political change in light of them. Politicians are often unaware of the ethical arguments and, in any case, they often feel more limited by ‘political realities’ than the demands of reason. While there is some scope for motivated ethicists to influence policy through submissions to government, it tends to take a lot of time and effort and is rarely influential. One strategy here would be to lobby for better communication between the academy and politicians assuming this could be done without anti-democratically prioritizing academic’s views.
Written by Doug McConnell
There remains some role for academic ethicists particularly those already specialized in the relevant areas. There is still ethical fine tuning to be done to work out exactly how each nation should contribute towards achieving climate justice. To take just one example, see Dr Megan Blomfield’s book Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change (OUP 2019)

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