Climate Change: Ethical Issues

This module was funded by the CGS and developed for the Midwest Institute for International/Intercultural Education’s workshop, “Human Migrations, Global Networks and Leadership.”


Name: Andy Wible, Instructor of Philosophy,

College: Muskegon Community College

Discipline: Philosophy

Course Title and Number: Environmental Ethics, Philosophy 207

Module Name: “Climate Change: Ethical Issues”

Narrative Description of the Module

This module will represent about 2.5 weeks of class time in a fifteen week three credit hour course on Environmental Ethics. It will start out descriptive and examine what climate change is and its current and likely impact on people and the planet. We are constantly updating this information and will look for the latest reports. The second part of the module will be normative or prescriptive looking at what should be done about it. It will look at the harm that has been done and the harm that is likely to occur. Who is responsible for that harm when the harm was long ago, many different entities and groups were involved, and it is over a long period of time? Should there be reparations for those harms? What changes should be made to avoid future harms? Who is responsible for these harms and what moral obligations do these parties have to lessen harm and improve the good? Should harm to non-human animals and the environment be considered? How should uncertainty over the outcomes of climate change be handled? What efforts to help are most moral or just? Who deserves the most help? Who should make the greatest sacrifices? Issues of environmental justice and a fair distribution of benefits and burdens will be addressed.

Educational Objectives

  • Define basic scientific and moral terms around climate change.
  • Gather a basic understanding of climate change and its chief causes as well as a specific example of the impact of climate change.
  • Identify moral issues that result from climate change (harms, moral responsibility, environmental justice, and moral obligations).
  • Evaluate arguments for a variety of solutions to these moral issues. What is the best way to help? Who has the biggest obligation to help? Who deserves the most help?
  • Compose a thesis paper that argues for what should be done on a particular aspect of climate change.
  • Clarify one’s own beliefs surrounding climate change and the moral issues that surround it.

Outline of Lectures/Discussions

There will be four lectures and several discussions for this module. The module is fairly self-standing, but the module will benefit from previous lectures and readings on ethical theory, logic, and other issues in environmental ethics.

  • Climate Change 101: A lecture on the basics of climate change science and its impact around the world.
  • Harms, harmers, and moral responsibility: A lecture on who has been harmed due to climate change, who will be harmed, who caused those harms, and who is responsible to rectify those harms.  
  • How should we help?: A lecture about the ways we can help and the moral issues with helping. What are our obligations as individuals and as countries? We will discuss the tragedy of the commons, prevention efforts, and geoengineering.
  • Environmental Justice: A lecture about what is the fairest way to help, who deserves the most, who is most obligated to help, and future efforts to make the effects of climate change more equitable.

Listing of Audio Visuals Used

  • Movie: Anote’s Ark is a movie about one Island’s attempt to fight the effects of rising sea waters and more powerful storms due to climate change.
  • Video: CBS report on the US Global Change Research Program’s Report on the future effects of climate change. PBS Newshour has a good report as well.
  • Video: Videos from Space show the changes to our planet from satellite imagery.

Listing Student Readings and Writings

  • Book Chapter on Climate Change from Environmental Ethics: From Theory to Practice. Chapter 6.
  • The Fourth National Climate Assessment. The executive summary from the publication by the US Global Change Research Program.
  • The IPCC’s most recent report on climate change.
  • “The Perfect Moral Storm” by Stephen Gardiner. 

Student Evaluation and Testing of the Module

  • The module will have several questions on the test about climate change both to explain it descriptively and morally the issues around it. Students will need to know various moral arguments presented, evaluate them, and develop their own arguments for what should be done.
  • There will be a class project that has each student pick a name randomly of a country. They will then research the impact of climate change on that country and what responsibility they have for other area’s problems. There will be a class discussion where each student represents their country to develop a plan. We will also look at prior international agreements. There will be a short paper required to discuss the country selected and what that country is owed morally and owes others.

Resources (Bibliography) Used

Gardiner, Stephen. “The Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational     Ethics, and the Problem of Moral Corruption. Environmental Values15(3), August, 2006. 397-413.

—, S. Caney, D Jamison, and H. Shue. Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Hardin, Garret. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science. 162, 1243-1248.

Harris, P.G.. “Climate Change and Global Citizenship.” Law and Policy. 30(4), 481-501.

Hourdequin, Marion. Environmental Ethics: From Theory to Practice. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Special Report: Climate Change 1.5 degree Celcius. Oct. 2018

Shue, H. “Climate” in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 449-459.

— “Global Environment and International Inequality” In Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. 101-111.

US Global Change Research Program. Fourth National Climate Assessment. Nov. 2018.