Ethical and Political Dimensions of Climate Change

With an overwhelming scientific consensus favoring the prevalence of theories that accelerating changes in the earth’s climate exist and are due to anthropogenic causes, the problem of conveying the need for policy changes to mitigate and adapt to global warming is becoming one for social scientists as much as for natural scientists. This course explores the gap between scientific consensus and political mobilization, seeking to understand the politics of climate change in the U.S., in other countries vital to any meaningful international climate change agreement, and at the international level. We will start by addressing ethical questions about humanity’s interaction with nature and will undertake interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems, inquiry-based learning (meaning a “hands on” approach to solving concrete problems using teamwork and creativity), and more extensive and direct contact with faculty. The course frames the specific policy debates in philosophical terms by considering assumptions about relations between humanity and nature implied in climate change discussions, and also in evolving policy objectives of “mitigation” versus “adaptation.” Students will gain a fundamental understanding of climate change policy (and its obstacles) across a range of nations. We will consider the difference between how authoritarian nations and democracies frame the issue, and how vital “issue framing” is to whether public support is galvanized (or not) for solutions. After considering broad ethical questions about the relationship between humans and the environment and how those may be changing, we consider evidence of climate change and how public policy has addressed this problem (and not addressed it). We review the emergence and evolution of these challenges on the global stage, considering political science theories of public opinion and interest group pluralism and how these affect how positions are aggregated for policy consideration by politicians. Then, we take up the choices of particular nations as a few meet the challenges, and many do not. Special attention will be given to climate change policy in the United States, which has changed dramatically over the past couple of years from Obama to Trump. While the industrialized world has been historically responsible for causing the problem over the last 150 years, scientific evidence suggests we cannot avoid the adverse effects of climate change without reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from both developed and rapidly growing developing countries (e.g. India and China). These considerations of national positions vis-à-vis international climate change negotiations will come to the fore in the last section of the course, where students will apply policy and governance knowledge directly through in-class United Nations simulations.