UW conference will address the ethics of climate change
For environmental engineer Sharon Wilson of Seattle, confronting climate change is about leaving the planet in good shape for future generations...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Registration is closed for the conference, but Thursday's keynote addresses are open to the public: http://depts.washington.edu/ponvins/ecc.html
For environmental engineer Sharon Wilson of Seattle, confronting climate change is about leaving the planet in good shape for future generations.
For activist-scholar Paul Baer, limiting global warming won't happen unless a worldwide system is established that's fair to rich and poor countries alike.
For climate modeler Gavin Schmidt, a key concern is making sure the science of climate change is communicated clearly and accurately to people.
For them, as for many others — experts and laypeople alike — the central question raised by global warming is no longer whether it's real. For some of them, a major focus now is the ethical and moral aspects of global warming — issues that raise questions for individuals, institutions and entire nations.
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Some of those issues will be explored at an Ethics of Climate Change conference Thursday and Friday at the University of Washington, where topics will range from the role of scientists to how to create a fair worldwide system for limiting greenhouse-gas pollution to why people and countries fail to act.
"A fair number of people, political leaders, have said this is one of, and perhaps the most, important international issue facing the planet right now," said conference organizer Stephen Gardiner, a UW associate professor of philosophy. "But we haven't really risen to the challenge yet of understanding how to deal with this particular global issue. ... My own view is if we're going to deal with this problem, we're going to have to deal with ethical questions."
The conference brings together philosophy professors, political scientists and scientists to discuss different dimensions of the debate. The keynote addresses are open to the public.
Registration is closed for the conference, but Thursday's keynote addresses are open to the public: Conference Web site
For Wilson, a Seattle resident who is not affiliated with the conference but plans to attend, taking care of the Earth is a moral responsibility.
"I believe all of Earth is a gift of God and a manifestation of God," said the environmental engineer. "I'm particularly concerned with species that aren't able to keep up with the changes. I'm concerned about increased storms and threats to food and water supplies. It's like: 'How dare we do this to the Earth?' "
Wilson has car pooled to work for 20 years and has installed energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs in her home. She chairs an environmental group at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in the Green Lake neighborhood. The group is planning a showing of the Al Gore documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and doing an energy audit to determine how the church can be more energy-efficient.
Increasingly, other faith groups are also seeing the issue in moral terms and participating in events such as the recent Step It Up environmental rally and an upcoming local Interfaith Creation Festival.
While Wilson knows just a few groups making changes aren't going to make a big difference, "without those little changes, you don't make any big change," she said.
Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, believes scientists have a responsibility for the work they do "and its life once it leaves your hands."
"There is an ethical responsibility to make sure your science is communicated correctly" — translated into terms regular folks understand, so it's less likely to be misunderstood or slanted to suit an agenda, said Schmidt, who is speaking at the conference on the ethics and role of climate scientists.
He and several other scientists started a blog — www.realclimate.org — to try to do just that. On the blog, the scientists offer their assessment of developments related to climate change. The intent, Schmidt said, is not to get involved in political debates but to "elevate the level at which the science is talked about."
The impetus for Schmidt was the 2004 movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," a big action film in which climate change causes a new Ice Age.
"People were asking lots of interesting things about it," Schmidt said, but with a few exceptions, "mostly scientists said, 'This is rubbish,' then ignored it. There was no forum for these issues to be discussed."
Baer, research director for EcoEquity, a nonprofit environmental think tank based in Albany, Calif., puts the moral dilemma he's most concerned with this way: Industrialized countries, in the course of their development, have already produced far more greenhouse gases per capita than poor countries likely would be allowed to produce in the future.
So these poorer countries "can't do what we did" to develop, says Baer, who is speaking at the conference. "But they can reasonably say: 'You did it. Why can we not do it?' "
EcoEquity is proposing something he calls "greenhouse development rights," a system that calculates how much each country should have to pay to help reduce greenhouse gases worldwide. The calculation is based in part on how much, per capita, each country polluted in the past and how rich it is. Essentially, richer countries and countries that have polluted more in the past would pay more.
EcoEquity is working with larger groups such as Christian Aid to push for adoption of this system.
"Fairness is an unavoidable issue. You can't force people not to pollute," Baer said. So if you don't want people to pollute, "you have to offer something that's fair enough. It doesn't have to be perfectly fair. But it has to be enough so they feel they aren't being screwed."
Information in this article, originally published April 29, 2007, was corrected May 1, 2007. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified activist-scholar Paul Baer as a University of Washington professor.
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