Michael Reiss - Council Member and Professor of Science Education at UCL Institute of Education - shares insight into our new Nuffield Council on Bioethics scoping paper on health, climate change and ethics.

For almost all of my life, human health was improving around the globe. Infant mortality was falling, people were living longer, and malnutrition and infectious diseases were becoming less of a problem.

Recently, many of these improvements have slowed down – or even started to reverse. There are a number of reasons for this but one of them is to do with climate change. As is increasingly acknowledged, so-called ‘anthropogenic climate change’ – in other words, climate change for which humans, collectively, and many of us as individuals, are responsible – is becoming more and more of a problem. Most of us are aware that anthropogenic climate change is not only causing the Earth to warm up, it is also why sea levels are rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.

All of these changes cause problems for humans and for countless other species. And while more and more countries are developing greener ways of living, as yet the benefits of these are still outweighed by our reliance, world-wide, on fossil fuels – the main driver of climate change.

The ethics of climate change and health

But what are the ethical implications of all this? The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) has just completed a scoping exercise, to look at the ethical issues in this area, with a particular focus on what humanity can do both to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to it. There are ethical issues to do with anthropogenic climate change itself. There are ethical issues to do with we respond to such climate change. And there are ethical issues relating to research into those responses.

Ethical issues to do with anthropogenic climate change itself fall into three main areas. First, there are issues to do with justice – for instance, to what extent are different countries and companies responsible for climate change? Then there is the question of our duties to non-humans. Often, what is best for non-humans is also best for humans, but this isn’t always the case. And then there is the question of our duties to future generations – to those as yet unborn. Can we, as economists tend to, ‘discount’ such future interests, or should we consider them as important as our own?

There are also major ethical issues to do with how we respond to anthropogenic climate change. For example, do countries that have contributed more than their ‘fair share’ (per head of population) to climate change have a duty to do proportionally more to help slow down or even reverse climate change? Do we need international agreements about how compensation should be paid to poorer countries, many of which are already suffering disproportionately from climate change? What ethical challenges are raised by as yet unproven technologies that might tackle climate change – such as geoengineering?

Finally, there are ethical issues relating to research into how we respond to climate change. Experience shows that unless these are carefully thought through at the beginning, problems arise later. It is all too easy for even well-meaning research to end up disadvantaging those with less history of undertaking research.

How much time do we have?

The NCOB scoping paper highlights some of the most pressing ethical questions in relation to climate and health. A scoping exercise does not provide answers to these questions. But they need addressing with some urgency. There are many examples where thinking through the ethics of science at an early stage proved beneficial in terms of avoiding mistakes and getting widespread buy in. Climate change is with us now and is damaging health. We need to act fast and ethically.

Comments (2)

  • Catherine Max   

    Keen to keep in touch on this. Good luck!

  • Catherine Max   

    Good to see this. Looked at this, with Gary Cox, Michael Parker and Jo Wolff and others a while back, in relation to health and social care intervention decisions/prioritisation and health inequalities. An important consideration from which people shy away.



    • Michael Reiss   

      That's really helpful. Thanks.

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