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Environmental ethics - a world record for misplaced concern

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Thursday, 15 February 2007

How worried do you reckon that people in developing nations - that are dying from hunger and other readily causes at the rate of 30,000 per day - are about global warming?

It seems like a stupid question because the answer is so obvious. But the answer is all important. It demonstrates why the supposed “number one” ethical concern of our generation (global warming) is, in the main, misguided self-interest dressed up as a moral crusade.

Hundreds of millions of people are already living in environmental conditions that are far worse than anything that will occur as a result of greenhouse warming - even according to the grimmest projections by Green groups.


And our response? As a nation, we are now obsessed with fussing about speculative future harm, while failing to come even close to meeting the international benchmark of donating 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to the developing world.

This gross distortion in our ethical priorities is so acute that it can’t simply be explained as a judgment problem; something that will be corrected as we become more enlightened. It is deeper than that.

It highlights the overwhelmingly self-interested nature of the human species, which is exactly the reason that, if climate warning projections are right, we so managed to mess up the planet.

Scientists, social commentators and politicians are increasing engaged in the complex process of sifting through the conflicting climate data to ascertain just how much environmental degradation will occur in the foreseeable future.

The report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that increased temperatures will result in more storms, heat waves and rises in sea-levels. This might lead to geographical dislocation as millions of people move inland, and of course require a more expansive summer wardrobe.

The likes of Australian of the year Tim Flannery are talking down the supposedly conservative nature of the report by the UN. But the debate is piffle. Will sea-levels go up 18cm, 43cm or even 59cm? Is it going to get 1.1C hotter or up to 6.4C? For the perspective of net human flourishing the answer is close to immaterial.


Take the most catastrophic global warning outcome possible, and on a scale of human misery it is negligible compared to the abject destitution that hundreds of millions of, albeit distant people, are currently experiencing. Their environment is already largely incapable of supporting human life.

Flannery says that climate change is the most pressing issue confronting humanity. That might be so for affluent misguided Australians but the reaches of moral concern don’t stop at the territorial seas of the Australian coastline.

There are lots of ethical theories doing the rounds of philosophy departments. Some ethicists prefer theories based on abstract notions such as rights, others, like myself, are only concerned about maximising good consequences - even if it means trumping the occasional right. Irrespective of which theory one endorses, there is one incontestable ethical truth: the interests of each person count equally.

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A version of this article was first published in The Australian on February 5, 2007.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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