Human-induced climate change raises many profound ethical questions, yet many[who?] believe that these ethical issues have not been addressed adequately in climate change policy debates or in the scientific and economic literature on climate change; and that, consequently, ethical questions are being overlooked or obscured in climate negotiations, policies and discussions. It has been pointed out that those most responsible for climate change are not the same people as those most vulnerable to its effects.
Terms such as climate justice and ecological justice ('eco justice') are used worldwide, and have been adopted by various organizations.
The idea of climate ethics stems from ethics itself, mostly being a philosophical view at how to deal with global warming. This has been discussed over time by many countries and influential leaders. Because this is a large scale issue, climate ethicists have theorized about approaches that would have benefits globally. The idea of climate ethics is important due to its impact on every level of life, from the economy and ecosystems, all the way down to the scale of a single persons' life. . This has made it a question of who is responsible for changes that need to be made, or if there is even a point of trying to make changes due to the polarity of climate change mitigation. The topic of climate ethics has only become more complex moving into the 2020s as the topic of climate change has gained more traction. This results in having to take into consideration the opinions and views from different fields. It is also argued that this goes further than just being an issue to be solved, but that it is a humanitarian issue that needs to be faced ethically and have benefits that reach further than just those who can make the change, such as those in underdeveloped countries and the animal kingdom.
An article in the scientific journal Nature (Patz, 2005) concluded that the human-induced warming that the world is now experiencing is already causing 150,000 deaths and 5 million incidents of disease each year from additional malaria and diarrhea, mostly in the poorest nations. Death and disease incidents are likely to soar as warming increases. Facts such as this demonstrate that climate change is compromising rights to life, liberty and personal security. Hence, ethical analysis of climate change policy must examine how that policy impacts on those basic rights.
Climate change raises a number of particularly challenging ethical issues about distributive justice, in particular concerning how to fairly share the benefits and burdens of climate change policy options. Many of the policy tools often employed to solve environmental problems such as cost-benefit analysis usually do not adequately deal with these issues because they often ignore questions of just distribution.
The principles of environmental ethics from utilitarianism, deontology, and care have direct applications to understanding the responsibilities of current people for future generations who will be affected by our actions on climate disruption today. Of particular relevance are the concepts of "discounting" from environmental economics, individual rights and expectations as framed by Immanuel Kant's deontology, and the ethics of care as described by DesJardins. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism is based on maximizing the good for the most people over the longest time, and he further stated that we all tend to value near-term, future benefits more than those in the more distant future. This is an especially germane concept, since incurring economic costs and taking actions today to mitigate climate change will only benefit future generations over decades to centuries. Kant emphasized the importance of respecting individual rights as more important that considering consequences of our actions, calculating cost-benefits for our choices, and trying to maximize the "good." Utilitarianism and deontology therefore seemingly create contradictions between the rights of living people and the needs and rights of future generations. In his essay entitled "Zuckerman's Dilemma", Mark Sagoff moves beyond this conflict by focusing on an ethics of care that invokes intrinsic value, love, and caring for other people and non-human life. In an encyclical entreaty, Pope Francis, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, invokes caring for God's creation and other people as a responsibility of extant humans for the sake of future generations, and in so doing, "it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn". Similarly, traditional ecological knowledge and respect for life and nature, especially that from spiritual perspectives and ancestral beliefs, has been used to develop plans for adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change.
In December 2004 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change was launched at the 10th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The major outcome of this meeting was the Buenos Aires Declaration on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.
The program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change seeks to:
Given the severity of impact to be expected and given the likelihood that some level of important disruptions in living conditions will occur for great numbers of people due to climate change events, this group contends that there is sufficient convergence among ethical principles to make a number of concrete recommendations on how governments should act, or identify ethical problems with positions taken by certain governments, organizations, or individuals.
Facts about climate change and fundamental human rights provide the starting point for climate ethics.