How New are New Harms Really? Climate Change, Historical Reasoning and Social Change

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 32 (4):505-526 (2019)
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Climate change and other contemporary harms are often depicted as New Harms because they seem to constitute unprecedented challenges. This New Harms Discourse rests on two important premises, both of which we criticise on empirical grounds. First, we argue that the Premise of changed conditions of human interaction—according to which the conditions regarding whom people affect have changed recently and which emphasises the difference with past conditions of human interaction—risks obfuscating how humanity’s current predicament is merely the transient result of long-term, gradual processes and developments. Second, we dispute the Premise that New Harms have certain features that render them new and argue that New Harms share characteristics with other harms. On the basis of these premises, the New Harms Discourse concludes that climate change is a unique social challenge that requires radically new moral thinking, but we argue that this Uniqueness Myth distracts attention from the valuable lessons we can draw from humanity’s successes and failures in dealing with past harms. We will illustrate how action to tackle climate change and other complex, systemic harms can be informed by the interdisciplinary study of historic harms. We will argue that rejecting the New Harms Discourse is not only empirically justified, it also gives cause for optimism, because it opens up the possibility to draw upon the past to face problems in the present and future.



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Wouter Peeters
University of Birmingham

Citations of this work

Individual Compensatory Duties for Historical Emissions and the Dead-Polluters Objection.Laura García-Portela - 2019 - Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 32 (4):591-609.

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References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Reasons and Persons.Joseph Margolis - 1986 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 47 (2):311-327.
Death and the Afterlife.Samuel Scheffler - 2013 - New York, NY: Oup Usa. Edited by Niko Kolodny.

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