Working Group III: Mitigation

Other reports in this collection Ethics of GHG Mitigation: the Commons Dilemma

There are several important ethical dilemmas both in the public discourse and in most people’s minds regarding GHG mitigation. Essentially, they boil down to questions about human relationship with nature, about justice and equity between human beings, and about the nature of the “good life” (Michaelis, 2000b). In modern society, images of and narratives about the good life often emphasize individual independence and material well-being. These values may appear to conflict with messages about the interdependence of people around the world and the need to moderate the consumption of natural resources.

In addition to the perceived conflict with improving material wellbeing, ethical arguments for GHG mitigation face several barriers including the perceived weakness of the evidence that climate change is happening; the difficulty in understanding the risks associated with low-probability extreme weather events; the difficulty in tracing climate change impacts to particular emitters of GHGs; and the large physical and social distance between GHG emitters and victims of climate change (Pawlik, 1991). It seems that people are inclined to deny and remain passive about about those kinds of environmental nuisances and risks that they believe to be uncontrollable (Pawlik, 1990). From an institutional perspective, the “commons” dilemma charaterizes situations in which people are unable to co-operate to achieve collective benefits, because they are unable to change the rules affecting their perverse incentives; these incentives are themselves institution-dependent (Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom et al., 1993). Current climate may be seen as an infrastructure which is used jointly by many people, which is subject to many decision makers, including some in the public sector, and whose benefits and costs are perceived differently by different people because these are borne by many people who do not take the protection decisions. Lack of clear limits on using up resources such as current climate generates costs (climate change) on all participants through unsustainable exploitation because GHG concentrations and, therefore, current climate are stocks like fish and timber. Complex institutional arrangements are required to overcome perverse incentives (Ostrom et al., 1993). Commons dilemmas reflect persistent conflicts among (not between) many individuals (producers and consumers).

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