Climate Change and the Challenge of Moral Responsibility

Journal of Philosophical Research 32 (Supplement):85-92 (2007)


The phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change—in which weather patterns and attendant ecological disruption result from increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere through human activities—challenges several conventional assumptions regarding moral responsibility. Multifarious individual acts and choices contribute (often imperceptibly) to the causal chain that is expected to produce profound and lasting harm unless significant mitigation efforts begin soon. Attributing responsibility for such harmful consequences is complicated by what Derek Parfit terms “mistakes in moral mathematics,” or failures to correctly assess the various individual contributions to collectively produced harm. Combined with the difficulties in attributingresponsibility to agents for spatially and temporally distant harmful effects and that of holding agents culpable for effects (resulting from socially-acceptable acts) about which they may be ignorant, this paper attempts to sort out several ethical problems surrounding the identification of responsible parties contributing to climate change

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Steve Vanderheiden
University of Colorado, Boulder

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