The climate problem, or the fact that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 reinforce the natural greenhouse effect, has been described as the greatest challenge of our times. It is of little use to solve other challenges such as poverty, lack of access to clean water, poverty-related diseases etc. if the basic ecosystem services on which our societies are built are undermined by harmful climate change. We are faced by challenges in terms of ethics, in part because research cannot ascertain with absolute certainty that anthropogenic climate change naturally dominates climate variations; because the harmful behaviour of wealthy countries vis-à-vis climate change in all likelihood inflicts the worst damage on poor countries; and because today’s emissions will have consequences for future generations.

Rich and poor, present and future

The unique feature of the climate problem is that it is largely caused by "the lifestyle of the wealthy" (whether they live in "wealthy" or developing countries), while the greatest climate hazards are inflicted on poor people, wherever they live. This is mainly attributable to the fact that poor societies are more vulnerable to extreme weather and rapid changes in normal climatic conditions. As we know, it is of little importance where the greenhouse gas emissions occur ‒ the consequences are in any case global. Not only are the victims geographically removed from those who are the main cause of the problem; the victims and the effects are also far removed from each other in time. Climate inertia means that today's emissions have consequences for future generations, and will often be most serious in other parts of the globe (IPCC, 2007a-c).

Complexity and uncertainty

The complexity of the climate system, with a high degree of natural variations, reinforces non-linear feedback mechanisms whereby small disturbances may have significant effects and critical states or threshold values ("tipping points") that will lead to irreversible changes if they are exceeded. This makes it difficult to conduct cost-benefit analyses with any degree of credibility. These analyses are otherwise often used to ensure that the resources used to avoid harm should not exceed the expected costs imposed on us if we do not implement measures. When it comes to climate change we have problems in quantifying the values that may be destroyed by excessive changes (biodiversity and ecosystem services are just two of many keywords in this regard). Our ethical attitude to the level of uncertainty which is acceptable therefore determines the magnitude of the threat. In this situation, many will point to the ethical precautionary principle, which states that where there are threats of irreparable harm, the absence of absolute scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone interventions to prevent environmental degradation (cf. the 1992 Rio Convention; the most thorough review of the precautionary principle in an international forum to date is COMEST 2005).

The climate problem as an insurance problem

If climate change is to be held in check, great transformations of our societies are also demanded. There are those who say that we need a new industrial revolution. Nobody can quantify the costs of such a transformation with any reasonable degree of precision. At its core, the climate problem is therefore an insurance problem; how much are we willing to pay today to avoid a possibly unfortunate (some would say catastrophic) outcome tomorrow. It is this that determines how much the greenhouse gases should be reduced. Without sound knowledge of potential harm and the costs of avoiding that harm, it is difficult to establish on an objective basis how great an insurance premium we should pay. The ethical attitudes to the aspect of uncertainty become decisive for the recommended interventions.

Regard for others

Our relationship to other people, situated in other parts of the world from where we ourselves live, and other generations from that to which we belong, together with attitude to risk, are therefore some of the key characteristics that will determine our approach to the climate problem. How much must I pay so that others may experience a world without the threat of material harm due to anthropogenic climate change?

Personal responsibility

Persons who are primarily concerned with themselves and their next of kin will inevitably be less worried about greenhouse gas emissions than persons who believe we are responsible for the consequences of our actions – even if these do not necessarily impact upon us today. In the same way "gamblers" will be willing to accept greater risks to avoid reducing their own emissions than a person who places more emphasis on securing the future.

Our fundamental ethical attitudes will therefore determine how seriously each one of us perceives the climate problem. It is not the task of research to dictate which ethical attitudes are correct or acceptable. However, it is the researcher's task to point out the choices facing us and the consequences of these choices, and perhaps the researcher can also to some extent require that the ethical standpoint chosen is used consistently across different problem areas. A large degree of willingness to take risks should, for example, also be reflected in how one regulates traffic, willingness to invest in the health services, education of future generations, and so on.

Supra-individual responsibility

I have so far outlined how the personal ethical standpoint affects one's own attitude to the climate problem. Does the same apply at a societal, institutional and business level? Is it the case that a society, an institution or a business is free to choose its ethical standpoint? In a democracy such as ours, many people can claim that the ethics of society, the institutions or businesses should reflect the standpoint of the majority at any one time. But this raises the age-old question of "minority rights." A way out of this dilemma is to adhere to the moral advice of the philosopher John Locke (1632‒1704): Enterprises should always leave sufficient "material" for others to utilise (Ariansen, 1992). Enterprises should be understood here as all types of organisations, also nations. By leaving "enough" behind, those that are in a minority today will have the opportunity to become a majority tomorrow. The climate problem may be seen as a violation of this maxim.

A global perspective

We in the wealthy part of the world have consumed so much of nature's ability to absorb greenhouse gases that next to nothing remains for poor countries who wish to follow us in the process of modernisation. This points to a fundamental ethical dilemma which lies at the root of the climate problem, but not only there. It is also fundamental to the challenge of conserving biodiversity and, more specifically, the ecosystem's ability to serve us and – more generally – all environmental problems where nature's self-correcting ability is challenged by human beings' excessive exploitation of ecosystem services. At the heart of all this lies the population question: How many people is there space for on Earth? And who will yield space given that there are not sufficient resources and space for everyone? This is the fundamental ethical dilemma with which the climate problem confronts us.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jane Thompson, Akasie språktjenester AS