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Ask an Ethicist: What can I do to address our changing planet in an ethical way?

Issues of flood, drought and a changing weather dynamic raise ethical and moral questions, including issues of justice and fairness between different populations, and between people and nature. To address such issues, constructive dialogue and community based discussions provide a way to find solutions and address the moral and ethical dilemmas raised.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: Each week I come across news about the changing global climate, but I don’t know what I can do individually, or as part of a community. Moreover, I want to make sure that what I do to help is both morally and ethically appropriate. With this in mind, what can I do as an individual, or in my community, to address our changing planet in an ethical way?

An ethicist responds: There is much that individuals and communities can do, and are doing, to address the challenges of a changing climate facing us all. Negotiation and constructive dialogue are particularly effective tools to address climate change’s moral and ethical implications such as fairness and responsibility.

The recent Paris climate talks illustrate the significant power of negotiation where people worked directly with each other and developed an agreement that addressed questions of distributive justice, of fairness, of responsibility. On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 175 world leaders signed the 21st “Council of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” (COP21) agreement. Much has been written about this agreement, but less about how the agreements were reached. Based on the initial success of the 2011 climate talks, country representatives involved in the Paris discussions agreed to use a South African tradition of discussion called “indaba.” Indabas “are aimed at establishing a ‘common mind’ or story that all participants can take with them. In successful indabas, participants come with open minds motivated by the spirit of the common good and listen to each other to find compromises that will benefit the community as a whole.” The use of indabas allowed the negotiators to reach the climate change agreement, without dissent.

Community dialogue about environmental and community challenges that address issues of fairness and opportunities for creative solutions are also possible at a more regional or local level. After Hurricane Katrina, the State of Louisiana hosted “Louisiana Speaks:” a series of discussions that involved more than 10,000 citizens to identify ways to address both economic development and recovery in ways that reflected the values and needs of the state’s citizens. In the New England Climate Adaptation Project, citizens along the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts worked together to talk about how to address rising sea levels and inland flooding; through this dialogue, they learned their power as an average citizen to effect change in their communities. After Super Storm Sandy, residents of Long Island developed a community based plan that focuses on encouraging resilience, smart growth, and equitable development to be built in low risk areas. Likewise, citizens in the Chehalis River Basin of Washington State have identified potential solutions for flooding that are also aimed at restoring fisheries, thus addressing the common good of both society and nature. Ethical and moral issues permeate all of these discussions, including issues of fairness and equity, intergenerational justice, and the balance between humans and nature.  

More locally, Penn State hosted “Pennsylvania in the Balance,” a conference in March with members of Pennsylvania’s agricultural community to talk about how to ensure viable agriculture while also addressing water quality issues, including stormwater. Because the discussions created a dynamic of inclusiveness and solidarity, one participant noted that it now felt like “we can all try to pull together to make things better for the [Chesapeake Bay] watershed.” The concepts of unity and solidarity can be expressed in other ways as well: in 2015, musicologist Mina Girgis brought The Nile Project to Penn State, discussing how music can also help bring people together to examine and seek common ground.

Managing public challenges, such as addressing the effects of a changing climate in a local area, are not easy. However, constructive dialogue offers a unique ethical opportunity for interested stakeholders to identify and explore critical issues and potential processes that match the needs of the community. All of the examples above depend on the willingness of regular people to talk with each other and really seek understanding of different values, perspectives, and impacts, on both people and the planet. Many of the processes also involved the use of neutral third parties to help facilitate the discussions. By combining different interests—environmental restoration, flood protection, infrastructure, economic development, livelihoods, fairness and responsibility, music and art— people have been able to find a way forward. When a discussion can be set up in a way that participants can really listen and seek to understand each other, much like the indabas used in the Paris climate talks, breakthroughs can happen.

Lara B. Fowler is a Senior Lecturer at Penn State Law and the Assistant Director for Outreach and Engagement, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. After doing water policy for the State of Oregon, she worked as a professional facilitator and mediator on complex natural resource issues. She recently co-authored an article entitled Human Conflicts and the Food-Energy-Water Nexus: Building Collaboration Using Facilitation and Mediation to Manage Environmental Disputes, Journal of Environmental Studies and Science (Feb. 2016).

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.