Ethical Issues Raised by Global Warming
February 19, 2010
In 1950, the world’s population was 2.5 billion people. By the year 2050, it is expected to grow to between nine and ten billion people. During this time of population growth, the human impact on the planet is expected to increase significantly, not only because of the huge increase in our numbers, but also because of the new technical power to dig deeper, cut faster, build larger, and traverse more quickly great distances in automobiles, trucks, and planes. As a result, serious new environmental problems have emerged. These problems include global ...view middle of the document...
The technical power that humans now have to affect people they will never meet is a challenge for such ethical systems. Still, global environmental problems raise very serious ethical issues: for example, a global climate change will hurt the poorest on the planet, seriously reduce the quality of life for future generations, and threaten plants and animals around the world. For example, the greenhouse effect, which allows incoming solar radiation to pass through the earth’s atmosphere but prevents much of the outgoing infrared radiation from escaping into outer space, is a natural process. Natural greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, and other trace gases. Without the greenhouse effect, life on Earth as we know it would not exist. Emissions of some greenhouse gases are a result of human activities, and these create an enhanced greenhouse effect. These human-induced greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone-depleting substances. Human activities have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere; as a result, the earth’s climate is changing. Over the past two hundred years, emissions from cars, power plants, and other human inventions have led to a substantial increase in the natural concentration of carbon dioxide and more than a 100 percent increase in the atmospheric concentration of methane. Globally, the average temperature of the earth has warmed over 0.55°C since the mid-nineteenth century. Climate models show that the poorest people around the world are the most vulnerable to climate change. The ecological systems of many of the poorest nations are most at risk. Human-induced climate change represents an important additional stress to the many ecological and socioeconomic systems already affected by pollution, increasing resource demands, and no sustainable management practices. The vulnerability of human health and socioeconomic systems—and, to a lesser extent, ecological systems—depends upon economic circumstances and institutional infrastructure. This implies that systems typically are more vulnerable in developing countries where economic and institutional circumstances are less favorable. The poorest nations are most vulnerable to storms, flooding, and a rising sea level. These estimates put about 46 million people per year currently at risk of flooding due to storm surges. Countries with higher population densities will be more vulnerable. Storm surges and flooding could threaten entire cultures. The health of the poor worldwide is at greatest risk from global warming, since climate change is expected to cause significant loss of life in the poorest nations. Direct health effects include increases in cardio respiratory mortality and illness due to an anticipated increase in and duration of heat waves. The food supplies of the poor are especially at risk from global warming, because many of the poorest nations are in the poorest regions of Africa, Asia,...