The Moral Politics of Climate Change

November 27, 2014


The minimal moral litmus for any generation is, – did they leave the planetary life support system in at least as good a condition as they found it?
Climate change threatens to insure a degraded biosphere for the next 10,000 generations of human beings. This is a moral issue above all else, and it is because that moral issue is taking root in the American mind, that the pendulum has swung decisively in favor of climate action.

National Catholic Reporter:

The Vatican is considering calling a meeting of religious leaders to bring awareness to the current state of the climate and social inequalities resulting from a warming, technologizing planet, ahead of two key United Nations meetings on climate and sustainability set for 2015.

The news came toward the end of a speech by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who in London Nov. 10 gave the annual Pope Paul VI lecture for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) — the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales.

Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said in the CAFOD talk that “2015 could be a decisive year in history,” with the U.N. having a “unique opportunity” at two separate events to establish a sustainable course for the global economy: in September the Sustainable Development Goals summit, and in December the Paris climate negotiations.

“The problem of climate change has become a major social and moral problem, and mentalities can only be changed on moral and religious grounds,” he said.

From that position, the bishop said the academy gave its support to Pope Francis “to publish an encyclical or another such important document on climate and social inclusion to influence next year’s crucial decisions.

“In fact, the idea is to convene a meeting with the religious leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion starting from the biblical message that man is the steward of nature and of its environmental and human development according to its potential and not against it, as Paul IV intended,” Sorondo said.

David Ignatius in the Washington Post:

The politics of selfishness was embraced enthusiastically last week by Sen. Mitch McConnell. In dismissing President Obama’s deal with China to reduce carbon emissions, the incoming Senate majority leader said “carbon emission regulations are creating havoc in my state and other states around the country” by undermining economic interests.

For McConnell (Ky.) and other GOP critics, regulation of carbon emissions is a pocketbook issue where constituents’ short-term interests must prevail. They reject or minimize the arguments of leading scientists that such emissions are directly linked to global warming and climate change and could have catastrophic long-term consequences. The doubters question the data, to be sure. But their basic argument is political: Action to protect the environment will hurt “my state.”

But what if the climate change problem were instead treated as a moral issue — a matter like civil rights where the usual horse-trading logic of politics has been replaced by a debate about what’s right and wrong?

Joe Romm in Climate Progress:

Now, Obama is finally starting to get it right. That became clear in his second inaugural address, when the president framed climate action and inaction in moral terms, as a betrayal of future generations.

And in his big Wednesday speech, the President went full climate hawk, with an extensive discussion of climate science, extreme weather impacts, the absurdity of denial, and the moral urgency of action.

The centrality of the moral argument was underscored when Politico published team Obama’s talking points:

TALKING POINTS — STAY AWAY FROM ECONOMIC ARGUMENT: A set of talking points issued by a coalition of Obama supporters recommends downplaying some of the economic and jobs benefits of a climate action plan he rolled out yesterday and instead focus on the harm that Americans are suffering. The “message guidance” to a network of Obama advocates contained a table listing “Dos and Don’ts” that suggested campaigners should not “lead with straight economic arguments” or to “try to suggest net job increases.” Darren Goode again:

Yes, the messaging has flipped entirely:

The talking points themselves are straight out of the climate hawk playbook:

A simple 3-part message formulation should be used for maximum effect with general audiences.
1. We have a moral obligation to act.
2. Communities all over America are already being harmed.
3. The president’s climate plan is full of common sense solutions including first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
Short interview-ready formulation:
1. We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged by carbon pollution….

The talking points note that this messaging is backed by extensive polling (as CP has pointed out for years):

“We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged” – 93% agree, including 67% who strongly agree (Benenson Strategy Group for the League of Conservation Voters, 2/12/13)

“We have an obligation to future generations to do something about the issue of climate change. We need to make sure that this is not a problem that we simply pass on to future generations to deal with because it will just keep getting more expensive and painful if we put it off. – 65% say fairly important/very important reason government should act (Hart Research Associates for CAC, 1/29/13)

But the point Salon made earlier this year in an article on LGBT rights, gun control, and immigration is that progressives don’t need polling to know that the moral argument is the winning one: “Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities.”

The Guardian:

Averting the worst consequences of human-induced climate change is a “great moral issue” on a par with slavery, according to the leading Nasa climate scientist Prof Jim Hansen.

He argues that storing up expensive and destructive consequences for society in future is an “injustice of one generation to others”.

-“The situation we’re creating for young people and future generations is that we’re handing them a climate system which is potentially out of their control,” he said. “We’re in an emergency: you can see what’s on the horizon over the next few decades with the effects it will have on ecosystems, sea level and species extinction.”

28 Responses to “The Moral Politics of Climate Change”

  1. indy222 Says:

    This is exactly the direction this issue needs to take. I’ve cringed at the ‘we can have a vibrant economy and deal with climate too’ argument from the very start. Jevon’s Paradox, and Owen’s “The Conundrum” are still the over-riding paradigm problems of our species. Framing this in moral terms may get through to a critical tipping point of people (i.e. voters, potential revolutionaries, etc) to change the tide. It’s also a thumb in the eye of those right-wing whacko’s who posture so insufferably as morally superior to fuzzy-headed bleeding heart tree huggers.

  2. omnologos Says:

    On past performance it might be a good idea to steer clear from anything that finds TP very enthusiastic.

    The moral argument is weak.

    1. It involves people who don’t exist as yet. They can’t vote, can’t decide and in the future will find it hard to even think like us.

    2. It relies on a simplistic notion of what is “moral”. For example some people might state that it is far more moral for them to provide energy to children who are alive in the present than to children who haven’t been born as yet and might have wholly different needs

    The moral argument is also dangerous. For example every abortion could be framed as the killing of hundreds of future people, that is the foetus and all its descendants who won’t be born any longer, after the abortion.

    I am not surprised the Vatican endorses this new approach.

    • redskylite Says:


      I disagree that it only involves unborn generations, New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (Dr Jan Wright), has just released a statement that the sea level will rise around 30cms by 2050, children being born now will certainly be around in 2050, and the sea level rise alone will affect the city I reside in and utilities (airport etc), drastically and that is just the start.

      Many communities are being affected today. Maybe they just don’t have a loud enough voice.

      The present generation can provide energy to it’s children, it just doesn’t have to be carbon produced energy, we have to get the carbon cycle back in balance. Fortunately in a lot of countries where masses of people are without access to a grid today, they are employing wind, solar and micro grids, all of which are advancing in leaps and bounds.

      Penn State University has an excellent ethics group on climate change and they meet regularly to discuss these issues, fortunately many people still value morals and ethics.

      I cannot relate your abortion statement to the climate change issue at all.

      I think that climate change is a larger problem than slavery even, sadly slavery still exists in many countries and societies, but climate change will eventually effect all people in many ways some unimaginable.

      • redskylite Says:

        “they are employing wind, solar and micro grids, all of which are advancing in leaps and bounds.”

      • redskylite Says:

        “Many communities are being affected today. Maybe they just don’t have a loud enough voice.”

      • omnologos Says:

        I find it unethical to get climate change as THE issue that will affect each and every body and therefore trumps everything else including the access to cheap energy by current children, and slavery, and pretty much anything else. The fact that among the countless research and learning centers it’d be Penn State to worry about ethics and climate change kind of reinforces my impression.

        As for abortion once again. A child born now may have children, grandchildren, and so on and so forth. Those ARE the future generations Peter mentioned. So any child who’s aborted will mean those children, grandchildren etc etc won’t have a chance to be born at all.

        Therefore if it’s their welfare we’re concerned about, all abortions should be declared illegal. Guess what…People put the welfare of the currently existing woman first, and her free choice of an abortion is considered more important than the right to life of countless generations who haven’t been born yet.

        Likewise if we need choose between giving heat and health to a person who exists now risking potential climate problems in 40 years, or leave the person who exists now poor and vulnerable, it’s a no brainer to opt for the former.

        • jpcowdrey Says:

          “The fact that among the countless research and learning centers it’d be Penn State to worry about ethics and climate change kind of reinforces my impression.”

          Treading a bit close to Mark Steyn territory here, aren’t we? But I suppose he is one of your heroes. So there is that.

        • anotheralionel Says:

          “I find it unethical to get climate change as THE issue that will affect each and every body and therefore trumps everything else…”

          I find that a statement from simplicity. To judge that WE care about climate change and thus have no considerations for other problems humanity is causing is a big and fallacious JUDGEment.

          Most of us here are educated, and well read enough to appreciate the other problems which all lead back to overconsumption by those who can. Consumption creates waste, and methods of supplying that consumption can in themselves be wasteful – take bottom trawling for one.

          It is the consumer society, the one highlighted by this new post at Climate Progress

          ‘A Quarter Of The Energy We Use Is Just In Our Crap’: Black Friday And The Destruction Of Planet Earth

          that is responsible for that growing divide between our ecological footprint and biocapacity. Climate change will act as a catalyst, do do understand what these do omno’ I suppose?

          I shudder when TV adds aimed at children come on on this time of year tempting with the latest bits of one-day wonders made of plastic and invariably containing a battery. Those little button batteries (such as those used in singing-talking cards FFS!) are detrimental enough to the environment but absolutely lethal to any child who may be tempted to swallow this shinning little thing, after all there may be chocolate inside. But the plastic has become the scourge of the ocean and the shoreline, and in ecosystems in general.

          I grew up in post war Britain with rationing hence the valued orange at Christmas – how many children would sniff at such now – toys were scarce and often home made by parents out of scrap materials. Health and Safety magnets no doubt in today’s world. Many, often bombed out, were glad to just have a roof over their heads even if what was colloquially called a ‘Pre-fab’, supposed to be temporary but many existed until recently. May even be a few still around.

          Things really have to change but I, as a grandfather, get ‘metaphorically’ slapped around the head if I say anything but that does not stop me.

          • omnologos Says:

            Thanks for the thoughtful answer. I’ve got a different way of looking at consumption.

            I’m not sure how many see climate change as a catalyst and how many as the big issue that trumps everything else.

    • otter17 Says:

      Using your argument one can morally justify any action today, no matter how little it regards the fate of the future. Monetary debt? No problem. Who are we to say how attitudes may change? Future generations might LOVE paying for debt. Resources? Use them all without any substitution plan. They might enjoy the challenge.

      • omnologos Says:

        On past performance it’s clear nobody knows what the future will bring, beyond a 30-40 year horizon. What I’m saying is that we cannot choose certain suffering for today in exchange of a maybe potential expected future gain in a time we cannot possibly know much. Just try describing Facebook to somebody in 1981.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          “On past performance it’s clear nobody knows what the future will bring, beyond a 30-40 year horizon”.

          Lord love a duck, but no one can match Omno in obtuseness. OMNO! Please point me to that person who clearly knows what the future will bring out to that 30-40 year horizon. He and I are going to make a fortune together in the stock market and doing what Nostradamus attempted to do. I see book contracts in my future! (Remember Nostradamus? You got that wrong too.)

          In actuality, mankind’s “horizon” for really knowing the future declines exponentially as we go beyond a few days. Why doesn’t Omno know that?

          • omnologos Says:

            Why are you making my point? Bad turkey?

          • dumboldguy Says:

            “Why are you making my point?”, asks Omno?

            Obtuse was not the proper word to describe Omno. In that language we all use (except for Omno), “…BEYOND a 30-40 year horizon” says that we
            DO have the ability to forecast UP TO 30-40 years ahead but no further.

            That’s the point I was making, and, as usual, Omno has no point. He must be very puffed up with himself though. He IS getting a lot of attention from us on this thread, even though his maundering is keeping us from really discussing the “moral politics” of climate change in any meaningful way.

            I will restate “obtuseness” for Omno. It means “dumber than a brick” or in USMC parlance, “Having an IQ lower than whale shit” (and we all know how “low” whale shit is—it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, etc). JFC, Omno, STFU so that the grownups can have a conversation!!!

          • omnologos Says:

            Eheheh. I’m the one increasing traffic here, if only because if I comment you reply to me, you reply to the people who reply to me, and sometimes you reply even to yourself >:-)

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Yes, that’s one thing you are good for, Omno—increasing traffic. Even if much of that activity is akin to cleaning dog poop off one’s shoes.

            Another demonstration of the inherent insanity of humans—-just like they run to the site of plane and train crashes, car wrecks, fires, etc. (especially if there is much death and destruction involved) and take video with their smart phones to twit and faceB to those who weren’t lucky enough to be there.

            That’s you, Omno. Crocks very own train wreck and traffic builder, and we are unable to resist you. Bask in the glory, but don’t get to fat on it or you’ll never be able to fit back under your troll bridge.

          • omnologos Says:

            You think the planet is heading for a climate wreck but spend time insulting strangers. Insane maybe one of us, but not me.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            You are not a stranger, Omno. You have made yourself quite well known to me and all Crockers over time, and you remind me of others I had to deal with during my professional career. We tried not to use the word “insane” because it was “unprofessional”, but it certainly does fit one of us here.

            I will break it to you gently by modifying the “sensitive DI” joke. If you recall, he was trying to find a “nice” way to inform a recruit that his mother had died? In this instance it would be:

            “All you maggots that are not insane take one step forward. Not you Omno!”

        • jpcowdrey Says:

          Describing Facebook in 1981:

          Usenet becomes a commodity by 2004.

      • otter17 Says:

        Again, that line of reasoning can be used to morally justify any action today. It is just a different angle of the same argument from uncertainty. At first you mentioned changing attitudes and thinking. Now you fall back to changing tech.

        In the future, they will not have to worry about debt since they might have “debt death rays” that make it disappear. Climate can change to anything since they might have bubble cities or a new planet in 70 years. Never mind that our actions today forced their hand to pay for that tech, and pay no heed to the discomfort in the transition. The attitudes of people in the future will be different , and they will be grateful for previous problems being left to them to solve.

        This seems to stem from your opinion that reduced GHG emissions mitigation techniques require large economic harm. Is there any way in your view to be in line with science organization reduction targets while still maintain economic health and freedom, etc?

    • jpcowdrey Says:

      “On past performance it might be a good idea to steer clear from anything that finds TP very enthusiastic.”

      I have no idea what or who ‘TP’ might be, but it definitely a good idea to not take anything maurizio says very seriously, based on the totality of his performance.

      Making moral arguments based on what ‘some people might state’, or how something ‘could be framed’ is very weak tea indeed.

      That is how sociopaths rationalize their actions.

      • omnologos Says:

        Is that out of personal experience Jp. On past performance you guys can’t help explaining your failure away by presuming evil mental illness in the “other side”. That’s as immoral and sociopathic as it gets.

        • jpcowdrey Says:


          Nice bit of projection there.

          You flatter yourself by characterizing yourself as the ‘other side’. You are merely a sociopathic gadfly, whose MO is making unsupported assertions as if they had some actual basis in fact. E.g., the well worn trollish tactic of calling anyone you disagree with ‘losers’.

          fyi, we’re not failing. We’re winning, and not in some Charlie Sheen kind of way.

          Click to access Politics_and_Global_Warming.pdf

          Tell me; why is dismissively ignoring progressive political views a good thing?

      • omnologos Says:

        TP is Think Progress. Two new words to learn for you today.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Thank you for clearing that up, Omno. I too was wondering what TP meant.

          The President?
          The Pope?
          (both of whom were mentioned in the article)
          The People?
          The Politicians?
          The Poopheads that call themselves conservatives?

          Maurizio says we have “learned two new words” here. I have a suggestion to offer. All of us on Crock speak the same language and use the same words. I think our BFF Maurizio should be required to join us in doing that or made to go away. I am tired of asking WHAT????!!!!!!!! all the time.

          PS BFF means Befuddled Fool Forever in this context.

  3. adelady Says:

    “I’ve cringed at the ‘we can have a vibrant economy and deal with climate too’ argument from the very start. ”

    I didn’t, because it really was true. But that was 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve blown the chance to do it steadily or comfortably. We’ve also lost the chance to do it thoroughly or completely.

    Now? We can have vibrant economic activity, but we’ve already cooked in more consequences than are comfortable.

    The one I _really_ cringe at is the argument that we, whoever “we” might be, this fishing town, this forest, this ocean resort, this proud state should reduce our own emissions for the sake of our local environment. The usual arguments about litter or river pollution or maintaining natural or built heritage do NOT transfer neatly across to climate.

    We have to do what we can where we can, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can insulate ourselves from what everyone else does. This is a classic everyone’s problem.

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