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Making climate change debates sensitive to justice and human rights.

The ethics of climate change

Image credit: Shutterstock

Man-made climate change was first noted more than a century ago, but its significance has only recently been widely recognized. The political response to climate change, perhaps the defining challenge of the 21st century, has so far largely been concerned with economic issues and framed in terms of cost-benefit analysis. In the last few years ethical values and human rights have begun to play an important role in debates around climate change. Based in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Professor Simon Caney's research has contributed to a growing consensus that climate policies ought to be guided not just by economic considerations, but also by ethical ones.

One important question is what obligations current generations have to protect future generations from climate change and the burdens involved in addressing it
- Simon Caney

Caney's work on human rights and intergenerational justice has helped to define the ethical principles for climate change policy. His research has influenced a number of key actors in the field of climate change, including international organizations, governments and NGOs. Caney argues that climate change is unjust, in part because it jeopardizes a person's human rights to life, health, food and water, and thereby compromises core 'human rights thresholds'. As well as advocating a human rights approach to climate change, Caney has developed an account of our responsibilities that emphasises the need for climate change policy to recognise the rights of future generations.

Drawing on his account of climate justice, Caney challenges the common assumption that we should focus on distributing rights to emit greenhouse gases considered simply on their own. He proposes an alternative approach centred around respecting and sustaining people's higher order interests, arguing that it is wrong to isolate climate change from other serious moral concerns, such as human rights, poverty and health.

This approach has informed the work of a number of organisations, including the TUC, the World Bank, UNICEF, the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP), and the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This has been a critical step in establishing the importance of moral considerations in the climate policy debate. In particular, Caney’s work with the ICHRP promoted the concept of 'human rights thresholds', which embed moral concerns around climate change in the legal concept of human rights, and give human rights issues a place in the current climate change policy process.

Caney's research and the ICHRP report have fed into the thinking of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the relationship between climate change and human rights.The OHCHR cited Caney's argument that a moral concern for intergenerational justice imposes a duty on current generations to mitigate climate change in order to safeguard the rights of future generations.

Caney’s research also explores which policies should be adopted to address climate change. Biofuels are often proposed as part of the solution for addressing climate change. Caney was a co-author of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report on 'Biofuels: Ethical Issues' (2011). This report drew attention to the ethical issues surrounding biofuels.  It identified six ethical principles to guide UK biofuels policy - including respect for people's essential rights and concern for the equitable distributions of the benefits and burdens resulting from the use of biofuels. These principles have been endorsed by the UK House of Commons' Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and the UK's Technology Strategy Board.

Professor Caney is currently working on the question of how existing political institutions can be reformed in ways that induce politicians to honour principles of intergenerational justice and give due consideration to the rights of future generations. 

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Department of Politics and International Relations

Professor Simon Caney

Themes