University of Bristol
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Climate change

Harmful effects: Ethics and climate change

(based on some personal views by Sir John Houghton).

These dramatic and potentially devastating changes do pose some important ethical questions. Sir John Houghton has addressed some of these issues in his recent book on ‘Global Warming’ and in a  key-note lecture on climate change. Some of his important ideas and opinions are outlined below.

Some important questions

  • Should we be concerned about the potentially devastating changes which lie ahead and the effect it will have on the next generation and beyond?
  • What responsibilities do we have to the planet as a whole?
  • Do we have a responsibility to future generations?
  • Does our scientific knowledge match up with other insights, for instance ethical and religious ones, regarding our relationship with the environment?

Why should we be concerned?


open quoteLet me digress now for a minute and consider just why we should be concerned about climate change. It is a problem that is well downstream; many of us will not be much affected ourselves but it is going to affect our children and our grandchildren. We are bound to ask therefore questions about the sort of relationship we should have to the earth that is our home and to the rest of creation with whom we share the earth. Let me suggest that a helpful picture of this relationship can be found in the early chapters of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. Humans were placed in a garden to care for it. We are encouraged to see ourselves as gardeners of the earth.

Gardens suggest four things. They are there to provide food, water and resources for us, for human life and industry. They are also places of beauty and diversity - we cherish and spend time in our gardens and we visit special gardens - all part of our human enjoyment. We like to think that other living creatures also enjoy gardens too. The birds that join the dawn chorus at four in the morning obviously enjoy it very much. And then gardens are places where we can be creative: we landscape them and create new varieties of plants or other creatures for beauty and for benefit. Our science and technology can help us to be better gardeners and to make the world a better place; although, just how technology should be applied is something we need to debate carefully. Finally, gardens are there for future generations. And that is something that those of us who have children and grandchildren, certainly appreciate. It is our children and our grandchildren who will experience the impacts of climate change. I remember in 1990 when the first IPCC report came out, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher showed a lot of interest. I was invited to present it to her cabinet at the time. As I walked out of that meeting, one of the cabinet ministers asked me, "When's all this going to happen?" I replied that in 20 or 30 years we can expect to see some large effects. "Oh" he said, "that's OK, it'll see me out". But it won't see his children or grandchildren out.

Christians and other religious people believe that we've been put on the earth to look after it. Creation is not just important to us, we believe also it is important to God and that the rest of creation has an importance of its own: for these reasons we should be good gardeners. But in many ways we are not being good gardeners. Let me give you just two examples, other than the one of global pollution I've been talking about. We've already lost or seriously degraded some 10% of the garden's soil - a loss that continues largely unabated because of erosion and bad practice. Then, we are destroying forests, important forests. When I say "we" I mean "we" the human race of which we are part. We are party to the destruction, we allow it to happen, in fact it helps to make us richer. We really need to take our responsibility as ‘gardeners' more seriously.close quote

A section from a lecture given by John Houghton at Oxford University in 2002:    Source


Next: Ethical considerations - part 2


Reference: Houghton, J.T. 2004 (third edition). Global Warming: the complete briefing. Cambridge University Press.


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