Climate change is a moral and ethical issue

What price do you put on the loss of wildlife? Climate change threatens people and animals.
07 Sep 2016     |       5 minute read

It’s a common insult: someone knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

And this is at the heart of the battle for how to respond to the threat of climate change – arguably the greatest challenge currently facing the planet.

The scientists have been clear. Through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) they have reported that climate change is happening, humans are largely responsible, and if carbon pollution isn’t drastically cut quickly, the impact on people and nature will be severe.

The cost of climate change

Some – predominately people dismissive of climate science, or linked to fossil-fuel interests – will say it’s too expensive to significantly cut emissions now and we should simply accept higher levels of warming and try to adapt.

This argument is likely to rest on analysis by cherry-picked economists who will say it will cost more to cut emissions than the economic benefit from doing so. The economists will state this even though we don’t fully know the costs of the impacts from 2, 3 or 4°C of warming.

But this focus on costs and benefits distracts from the real issue: what do we value? What do we most want to protect from the threat of climate change?

In 2014, the IPCC published a report setting out the impacts of climate change [PDF]. They produce comprehensive reports every 5 years.

Their report showed that a 2°C temperature rise would be devastating for our natural world, with around 25–30% of wildlife at risks of extinction. It would also reduce food production, and lead to water shortages that would have very significant impacts for the world’s poorest, particularly those in Africa.

With 4°C of warming – roughly the current trajectory – wildlife and people around the world face devastation.

What price do you put on the loss of wildlife?

Economists find it difficult to put a price on wildlife. They either ignore it altogether or try to estimate the financial value of some of the services they provide us with – such as pollination of crops.

But most of us know you can’t put a price on the joy of hearing birdsong or even just the knowledge that forests faraway are teaming with weird and wonderful creatures.

How much do you value an African child?

It is clear from the IPCC’s work that African children are at much greater risk from climate change than children in wealthy countries. Reducing this risk requires a rapid shift to green energy across the globe, including in the UK.

The fact that we spend considerable money on protecting and raising western children – the health service, education, playgrounds – suggests we give high value to the wellbeing of children.

But a number of vociferous right-wing commentators are furious about investing in green energy. Knowingly or not they are implying that the lives and future of African children are lower than our own.

Do our great-great-grandchildren matter?

The IPCC’s report on climate science [PDF] in September 2013 made it clear that the more we allow global temperatures to increase, the higher the likelihood of large-scale and irreversible impacts that will emerge in the 22nd century and beyond. These include the melting of the Greenland ice sheet or large releases of methane from permafrost. Many economists exclude these from their calculations because they value future generations as worthless – or they simply ignore the impacts.

It isn't too late to stop dangerous climate change

It is technically possible to substantially cut fossil fuel use, and keep temperatures below 2°C of global warming.

So when you hear people arguing about the economic costs of doing so, remind them that what they are really arguing about is how much we value wildlife, the lives of African children and the lives of our own descendants.

Those who argue we can’t afford to stop dangerous climate change are, in short, whether they know it or not, arguing that these things are worthless or of low value.

Frankly you can’t put a price on everything. Even economists know that. And nor should you try.

The work of economists is useful in the world we live but their estimates have significant gaps. Their work is not the be all and end all. The campaign against climate change is an ethical and moral issue. It’s more than just bean counting.


This is an updated version of a blog originally published on 7 April 2014.