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Ethics and the Environment

Inaugural USC Levan Institute lecture zeroes in on climate change.

By Wayne Lewis
February 1, 2008

Ethics and the Environment

Philosopher and environmental expert Dale Jamieson brought with him a serious message about global warming during his recent visit to USC.

Early in his appearance on campus, Jamieson declared that “the window for action is very small and closing rapidly. … We need to have started yesterday.”

Jamieson, professor of philosophy and director of environmental studies at New York University, delivered the first lecture presented by the USC Levan Institute for Humanity and Ethics, Jan. 29 at Doheny Memorial Library.

The Levan Institute was established in USC College last year thanks to a $6 million gift from Trojan alumnus Norman Levan. The institute’s goal is to provide ethical training through a focus on the humanities, particularly for undergraduates planning careers in medicine, law and public policy.

Much of Jamieson’s lecture surveyed a particularly difficult element of the issues surrounding climate change: how to motivate people to take appropriate action.

“Today, in virtually every country in the world, there are large majorities that believe that climate change is occurring and that it’s bad,” Jamieson said. “But yet for most people it’s not a salient issue that motivates the kind of action that’s really required to successfully address the issues. The question is, ‘Why not?’ ”

Many people are apathetic, Jamieson said, because the grave results of global warming are not yet apparent. The causes of climate change are complex, responsibility diffuse and results largely indirect.

“[A] world characterized by extreme climate change is one that will result in an enormous amount of human mortality, among other things,” he said. “People will die of infectious diseases. People will die because of nutritional compromises. People may die in more catastrophic ways as well.

“But you will never read in the obituary column of the newspaper that John Doe died yesterday, cause of death: climate change.”

Furthermore, climate change constitutes a collective action problem. Since no single group or nation can single-handedly provide a solution, it makes little rational sense for any one country to encumber the costs of reducing carbon emission solely out of self-interest.

At the opening of his talk, Jamieson pointed out that the United States and other nations have a legal responsibility to take steps to ameliorate human-created climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He further addressed the lecture’s titular question, “What’s Wrong with Climate Change?”

Jamieson presented a series of maps and graphs, based on data from sources such the World Health Organization. Worldwide, industrialized northern countries produce most of the carbon emissions, while poorer countries of the Southern Hemisphere generally reap disproportionate detriments.

Using India as an example, Jamieson displayed a chart showing that urban dwellers and those of higher social class use more energy, and therefore pollute more, than their rural countrymen.

Jamieson tempered the urgency of his message with hope, citing past successful social justice causes such as the U.S. civil rights movement.

“It’s important to recognize that what’s needed for social change is not that everyone has to come to see an issue as a moral wrong,” he said, ”but what you need is a highly motivated minority and a permissive majority.”

The motivated minority, according to Jamieson, will likely be those outraged by the negative impacts humankind’s activities have foisted upon the natural world.

“Some people do see climate change as violating our moral sensibilities …” he said. “[T]hese are the kinds of attitudes that have to be part of what’s going to provide the kind of motivation for people to act.”

Jamieson is the author of Morality's Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (Oxford, 2002). He serves on the editorial advisory board for publications such as Environmental Values, Environmental Ethics and Science and Engineering Ethics. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the USC Unruh Institute for Politics, a College center dedicated to promoting civic engagement by bringing speakers to campus and providing undergraduates with political internship opportunities.