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The ethics of teaching climate ethics

I just finished teaching a new, final year undergraduate course on ‘Global Justice and Climate Change’. This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to design and teach a course based on my own area of research and in many ways it seems to have been a success. I’ve struggled a bit throughout, though, with figuring out how to think about what I’m doing and what I should perhaps be trying to achieve.

‘Climate ethics’ is a bit of a misleading way to describe the course, really (but made for a snappier blog title). We looked at climate change from the perspective of political philosophy, covering duties to future generations; human rights; collective responsibility; the emissions budget; burden sharing; historical responsibility; indigenous rights; territorial rights and displacement; and geoengineering (syllabus here if you’re interested). The topics worked well together, the students were great and most of them seemed to find the course engaging and interesting.

My worries are similar to ones that I have about my research: how much theorising is appropriate in the face of an urgent and unfolding problem like climate change – and to what end? Sure, some thinking about the normative dimensions of this problem is necessary to understand why there needs to be a global response and roughly what that response should look like. But similar to how climate science has long since reached the point at which we know broadly what needs to be done (largely, reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and fast); philosophical thinking about the ethical dimensions of climate change has long since counselled what it would take to do this fairly. Namely, the wealthy, industrialised states need to step up and bear most of the costs (Shue argued back in 1999 that a number of principles of equity converged on this result and as far as I can tell, the majority of philosophers working on this question have always been in agreement).

How much more fine-tuning of our climate models or normative theories is really necessary when we’re struggling to get action on even the basics? When a problem is this pressing, finessing the philosophical arguments begins to feel self-indulgent (perhaps these current reflections are simply taking the self-indulgence to a new level). Theory and action are not mutually exclusive, of course, but I’m not sure that my research has really helped me to figure out what I should be doing about climate change. And in a sense, the one does encroach on the other because my job as an academic is very privileged but also very demanding, leaving me less time and energy for volunteering or activism than I used to have. So perhaps worse than self-indulgence; I’m building my career on the problem of climate change whilst contributing very little to addressing it.

In the teaching case, related but also some new issues seem to come up. What is the right way to teach the philosophy of ethical problems that involve us all and require immediate action? I’ve had students struggle with environmental ethics classes before because they’ve found it hard to be confronted with the problems of human impacts on the environment (and each other) every week. I’ve been trying to think to think of ways to teach this material so that it feels more empowering, but struggling to come up with ideas that feel sincere. And actually with this new course, the students didn’t seem to have that difficulty so now I’m instead worried that I didn’t succeed in conveying how serious a problem climate change is – or could it be that studying it in this way just leaves you desensitized? Perhaps I have the framing wrong. In general, I think there are good pedagogical reasons to try to leave students in the dark concerning where I stand on the philosophical questions that we examine, to encourage them to make up their own minds. But is that appropriate when we’re discussing a problem where people are already dying and something urgently needs to be done?

On the last day of seminars, the weather in Bristol was quite dramatic. Sunny with intermittent hailstorms. I don’t know how out of character that really is for late April in Bristol and I know that it’s a mistake to confuse the climate for the weather. But it did make me think about how, if I teach this course year-on-year, the climate data is going to get ever more scary, disasters more frequent, and the death toll from climate change will continue to rise. I wonder how this literature will be looked back on if the scientific and ethical warnings continue to be unheeded by those with the power to do something about climate change.

I am a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sheffield. My major area of research is global justice and the environment; with a focus on the problem of climate change and rights over land and natural resources.


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  1. Luke Ulas

    I think you’re too hard on yourself.

    “My worries are similar to ones that I have about my research: how much theorising is appropriate in the face of an urgent and unfolding problem like climate change – and to what end?”

    What else but theorising could be appropriate to a political philosophy module? You could stop encouraging further theorising and instead start simply preaching to students about the dangers of climate change and the need for action (since, in your opinion, the philosophical questions are already largely settled?), but then it seems to me you wouldn’t be doing a course on climate ethics anymore.

    “So perhaps worse than self-indulgence; I’m building my career on the problem of climate change whilst contributing very little to addressing it.”

    I’m not sure it’s true that you’re contributing very little, but even if it were, I’m not sure the fact that you’re theorising about climate change while contributing little to its addressing is a cause for self admonishment. I’m reminded of Adam Swift’s response to the criticism that ideal theorising about justice doesn’t have any real world impact: why do ideal justice theorists deserve more stick than people who don’t think about justice at all, and instead dedicate their life to learning the piano, or whatever?

  2. Hi Luke

    Thanks – interesting. I didn’t mean to suggest that the philosophical questions are already largely settled. I think we still have a way to go in really understanding the problem that climate change presents and in thinking about human relations with the environment more broadly. There is still a lot for philosophers – and everyone – to think and talk about here. But I think we have made it far enough to know what action needs to start being taken. So maybe my worry is more about the disconnect that there seems to be between thought and action (and that if there is this disconnect even on the easier questions regarding what needs to be done, then more theory about the harder questions seems even less likely to help).

    I’m not somebody who thinks that ideal theorists deserve criticism just because they do ideal theory. But a life dedicated solely to pursuing one’s own interests seems problematic either way in a world characterised by injustice. And I continue to have some relatively inchoate worries about ideal theory when it specifically concerns a problem like climate change.

    This is another thing that came up in my class, actually. When we looked at the discussion about climate change as a problem of burden sharing (which roughly speaking sees climate change as representing some global burden, the problem then being how that burden should be shared – polluter pays, beneficiary pays, ability to pay…?) some of the students seemed to find the whole framing a bit off. As they pointed out, there are lots of things that can be done about climate change that really don’t look like burdens, but since many are resisting doing doing these things too… is the burden sharing framing really illustrative? I’m now worried it might be unhelpful because it idealizes out various important aspects of the problem that we’re actually faced with – a problem that is far more historically entrenched and involves powers and inequalities that are much harder to conceptualise on a distributive justice framework.

  3. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Megan, thanks for raising these important questions. I often have this “are we fiddling while Rome burns?”-feeling at the back of my mind. But I would have thought of teaching a class on climate ethics as one of the activities that are at least contributing to social change. You are raising awareness, you help to change the social narrative about it, etc. The bigger question behind it, I guess, is whether we should (and are morally allowed to) be going on with our “normal” life style more or less unchanged, making some adjustments in our private lives – or whether it is time to go “beyond normal” and to enter an “emergency mode” (the rise of right-wing populism is another area where I’ve been wondering about this – coincidentally, right-wing populists also tend to be climate change deniers). But I find it hard to come up with criteria that would tell me whether we have reached this tipping point (and of course it is always easier to tell myself that we aren’t there yet). I also don’t quite know what the alternatives would be – how we could bring about lasting change other than by teaching and writing about the problems, signing petitions, trying to reduce our own climate footprint, etc. Did you have in mind any concrete alternatives that you think we should engage more in, which are difficult to combine with an academic job?
    On a more concrete mode: I find it legitimate to be an “activist” teacher in areas in which there is widespread consensus on normative issues and the problems are in the details and in the implementation. Human rights are a similar issue – I would NOT try to hide the fact from students that I think all major ethical systems more or less agree on basic human rights and so do I. Students are quite good at guessing one’s own take on things anyway, so I think it’s okay to tell them openly: “This is where I stand and here are the reasons why – now let’s discuss.” But I’m aware that this may be controversial as a pedagogical strategy…

    • Hi Lisa

      Yes – I think some of this comes from similar ‘rearranging the deckchairs’ feelings that I have in the back of my mind too. I feel like we probably have reached the emergency point but the harder question is what the appropriate response is.

      I guess the alternative I have in my mind right now is direct action, which many people around the world are already engaged in (at risk of arrest, imprisonment or worse). There’s a lot going on at the moment under the ‘Break Free from Fossil Fuels‘ banner. It might be my own poor research skills, but I’ve heard surprisingly little from philosophers on the question of activism/civil disobedience with respect to climate change (if anybody knows otherwise please pass on the references).

      I agree with you that it’s fine to be upfront in class about places where ethical theories concur, and sometimes on where you stand. It can still be tricky getting the balance, though. I want to give the students a chance to consider less popular views too, so on the course we looked at Luc Bovens’ defence of grandfathering emission rights and Posner and Weisbach’s International Paretianism (roughly speaking, the view that a climate agreement must advance the interests of all states relative to the status quo – which is bad for the vulnerable and good for the wealthy). They found the latter particularly unbelievable, though, so then you end up in the weird situation of trying to present a view you yourself reject in the best light possible (good philosophical practice, of course, in order to better refute one’s opponents, but still leaves you feeling a bit like you might be giving a misleading impression of the debate in the interests of some kind of false balance).

  4. Tomer Perry

    Interesting read, Megan. I had similar thoughts teaching a course on global justice this semester, that touched on climate justice.

    These questions are also ones that I confront regularly, and I don’t have great answers so I think they’re important as they are. A few minor thoughts:

    1. Like Lisa, I lean towards being a more active participant in the discussion as a teacher. I understand your reservations and I might be a bit too involved there, but I feel like it’s better (for me) than trying to pretend I don’t hold the opinion strongly.
    2. I see the involved discussion as a form of activism. I’m not sure what it would mean for you to desert teaching and go become an ‘activist’ but I doubt you’ll have much more effect (though I don’t know you personally, you might make a great politician). In general, I think people have an exaggerated conception of what ‘activism’ does and an underappreciation for the importance of discussion. At least in the US, I have found that many students are not at all close to the positions that I find obvious and it feels important to at least force them to articulate a response to other opinions. In general, I teach topics that I think are not obvious and I don’t think climate change is such an exception. George Bush said, as a president, that he wouldn’t let the US pay for it while China and India are exempt, and I don’t think it’s such a crazy argument that it doesn’t require addressing. Likewise with human rights, future generations etc. – there are lots of difficult problems and I think the solutions are not obvious (even if I have my own opinion).

    In short, I don’t think everybody in the world should dedicate themselves to teaching ethics. But some of us should, and I’m pretty glad that you do it. It seems valuable to me – even while Rome is burning, because I don’t see any other way of quenching the flames.

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