Ethical Prospects: Economy, Society, and Environment

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At the same time, the Handbook is by no means a synthesis, nor does it provide a unified diagnosis of what is wrong and right with contemporary human systems, an integrated and coherent program for research, or a singular blueprint for collective action.

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While we have views of our own on such questions, some of which will come through in this introductory chapter, there is no unified line followed by our authors as they address the complex relationship between people, societies, and the natural world. Most not all agree on the magnitude and p. But there are substantial differences when it comes to identifying what matters, what is wrong, what is right, how it got to be that way, who is responsible, and, not least, what should be done.

Climate change is, as Steffen explains in his opening chapter, a truly diabolical problem. It is additionally devilish in the mismatch between human capacities to act and the scale, scope, and immediacy of collective action seemingly demanded. Nevertheless we have to start somewhere, and we have aspired in this Handbook to commission and compile the best available set of intellectual resources for the multiple tasks ahead.

Given the complexity of what we face, no single volume can offer commentary on absolutely everything that is needed. Yet we have aspired to a measure of comprehensiveness in addressing the range of ways climate change plays out in the social realm. Our main task is, then, to lay out the various ways that climate change affects society, and what society might do in response.

The authors represent a variety of disciplinary understandings and intellectual frameworks that can be brought to bear. In this chapter we introduce the key topics, themes, layers, and issues, before concluding with a discussion of our chosen structure. We begin with the science that first identified climate change as a problem, and how it is received by and in society and government.

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While the effects of climate change—floods, drought, heat stress, species loss, and ecological change—can be experienced very directly, their conceptualization as connected phenomena with common causes is due to climate science, which therefore plays a very basic part when it comes to climate change and society. Natural scientists such as Steffen in his chapter tell us that there is now consensus in the climate science community about the reality of climate change, and near consensus on its severity and the broad range of attendant harms and risks.

But that consensus does not of course mean the science is then accepted as the basis for policy. Climate science does not provide certain future projections of risks and damages. The projections are entangled in assumptions about how human systems respond over time—as well as natural ones. Climate change, furthermore, is only one of a range of interacting phenomena of global environmental change caused or affected by human activity.

Thus while the broad sweep of history shows climate change being taken ever more seriously as an issue within the scientific community and eventually far beyond see Weart's chapter , we are dealing with complex processes with uncertain outcomes rather than simple facts, and the public and politicians have difficulty seeing the drivers to collective action in any simple way. The agendas of climate science are now affected by larger social and political processes see the p. Thus scientific findings and their action implications must seek validation not just within the scientific community itself, but also within the larger society, and different political systems have different means for validation see Jasanoff's chapter.

But even getting to the point of taking science seriously can be difficult. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC famously uses language seeped in uncertainty to qualify its predictions likely, very likely, virtually certain, etc. As Dunlap and McCright discuss in their chapter, a thoroughly organized campaign has successfully used such scientific uncertainty to create political uncertainty, with those who fund the case against the reality of climate change having a massive stake in the fossil fuel economy. More insidiously, skepticism may also give the impression that it is empowering ordinary people to be able to question the assertions of a scientific elite.

Science moves to the center of political controversy, and scientists respond in varied ways Schneider Unsurprisingly, scientists feel harassed by the attacks of organized skeptics and denialists. To the extent scientists respond with further insistence on the consensus within the scientific community about the veracity of their claims, the more they play into their critics' hands.

The net result is that science enters a spiral of politicization. Scientists themselves in many cases cannot avoid becoming political actors, as they fight for the credibility of what they do in the larger public arena.

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Not surprisingly, they can and do make many false steps in this arena, and much can be done to improve the communication of science to the public see Moser and Dilling in this volume. They are also faced with the quandary over whether to admit to uncertainties in the range of their own findings—and so leave themselves open to critics who discredit the scientists' lack of confidence—or to claim certainty greater than that actually warranted by these findings.

Admission of a degree of uncertainty is the norm among colleagues, but fodder for skeptics. One thing we do know is that simply insisting on the rightful authority of science as the guide to action has failed. But the natural sciences are not the only politicized disciplines. What do scientific findings mean in human terms? An answer is given by economics, which can attach cost estimates to the current impacts and projections of future impacts of climate change.

One such set of estimates is provided in the chapter by Mendelsohn, who comes up p. Economists such as Nicholas Stern in his famous report to the government of the United Kingdom come up with much higher estimates. A lot turns on seemingly technical factors such as the rate of discount used to calculate a present value for future costs. Depending on the discount rate chosen, we can end up with massive differences in the size of the present value of future costs, and so radically different implications for climate policy.

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The choice of discount rate turns out to be a major ethical issue, not just a technical economic matter see the chapters by Howarth and R. Further contestation arises once we move beyond the confines of standard economic analysis to contemplate other ethical issues Dietz's chapter , pertaining for example to basic human needs, and the distribution of burdens and benefits of action and inaction across rich and poor, within and across national boundaries, as well as between generations.

Sagoff argues in his chapter that the asymmetry of burdens and benefits across generations means that economic thinking should not be at the core of climate policy analysis. Once we get past controversies over cost estimates and distributions, economics also provides a powerful set of analytics for thinking about the choice of policy instruments to achieve the desired level of mitigation expressed in terms of targets and timetables for total greenhouse gas emissions.

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Emissions trading requires that some authority sets a cap on total emissions, then issues permits for quantities that add up to that cap. These permits can then be traded, such that companies for which reducing pollution is expensive can buy permits from those for which reductions are cheaper.

The economic theory is very clear, but the politics and policy making is much murkier. It informs many discussions of national policy instruments, and extends to global policy and emissions trading across national boundaries. The discourse affects the content of global governance arrangements, which can even be privatized as carbon traders seek to escape international governmental authority see Paterson's chapter. Market logic extends too to offsets, whereby polluters can compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by paying somebody else, for example, to plant trees that will absorb an equal quantity of emissions.

What actually happens at ground level in countries where there is weak monitoring capacity is another matter entirely.

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Unlike conventional markets where one party of the transaction can complain, or at least never transact with the other party again, both parties in offset transactions have every incentive to give misleading information to the public on the real number of trees planted and their actual effectiveness in p. Again, complexity rules. But whatever their consequences for mitigation, new kinds of climate markets present many opportunities for traders to become wealthy, becoming a constituency pushing for further marketization see Spash's chapter.

National governments are embedded in market economies that constrain what they can do, and the social realm is often limited by economistic frames and discourse. However, markets are not necessarily just a source of constraint. Markets are made up of producers and consumers who might themselves change their behavior in ways that reduce emissions. The most important producers here are large corporations. Why might they change their ways? Corporate responses to the challenge of climate change have been highly variable see Pulver's chapter , and there is little reason to suppose a significant number of corporations will play a leadership role if governments do not.

The only corporations that do have a clear financial incentive to take the risks of climate change very seriously are insurance companies. This is especially true of the big reinsurance companies with potentially high exposure to damages caused by extreme weather events.

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The high hopes once vested in insurance companies by some analysts Tucker on this score seem so far to have produced little in the way of comprehensive action. A decarbonizing economy would of course have to involve changes in patterns of consumption, whether induced by government policy and price increases, or chosen by consumers through changing mores. Such basic individual and broad cultural changes that affect consumption have been promoted by a variety of social movements, religious actors, and celebrities.

Many environmental organizations focus on consumer behavior—from the individual level up to the decarbonization and transition of towns and regions—both as a source of direct change and as a clear economic and political statement. Luke also insists we understand the dangers of such forms of such behavioral control, even if it does look green. At any rate, changing consumer habits are no substitute for coordinated collective action. In a world where the legitimacy of public policies and other collective actions rests in large measure on the democratic credentials of the processes of their production, it matters a great deal what publics think, and what actions they consequently support, or are willing to p.

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  5. Initially, many climate scientists, policy makers, and activists thought that the key here was simply getting publics to understand the facts by providing information the point behind Al Gore's documentary film An Inconvenient Truth , for example. Yet as Moser and Dilling point out in their chapter, just providing information normally has little impact on behavior.

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    Most people get their information via the media, but as already noted there are structural features of mainstream media the reporting only of controversy, which requires two opposing sides that are problematic when it comes to communicating climate change.

    Thus there remain many failures in public cognition of the complex phenomena attending climate change see Jamieson's chapter. Public opinion polls often show that people do care, and do want something to be done see Nisbet's chapter ; but there is no necessary urgency. In practice, many issues of more immediate concern and which impose far fewer burdens of cognition trump climate change when it comes to for example voting behavior. Information, scientific or otherwise, is often processed through the lens of existing beliefs formulated in areas of life remote from climate science.

    Those beliefs can be very powerful, for better or for worse. Religious beliefs are particularly important in this respect see Kearns's chapter. Publics should not however be understood as simply mass publics, which are problematic when it comes to mastering complex issues simply by virtue of their mass nature. Publics of this sort can be found at many levels: local, national, transnational, and global. They are organized in many different ways, ranging from community groups to the translocal solidarity identified by Routledge in his chapter to global networks of activists depicted by Lipschutz and McKendry in their chapter.

    Concerned publics almost by definition are geared for action in the way mass publics most of the time are not. But the extent of their influence in the face of structural political forces and powerful recalcitrant actors remains highly uncertain. Increasingly, concerned publics advance a discourse of climate justice. The political philosopher John Rawls once famously proclaimed that justice should be the first virtue of social institutions. Itself disputable, that ideal remains a distant aspiration when it comes to climate change. Considerations of justice have often been marginalized in favor of economic efficiency and aggregate welfare in public policies and intergovernmental negotiations. Yet climate justice does inform policy debates and positions taken in negotiations, as well as political activism. The debate around climate justice has revived an argument within justice theory about the adequacy of proposing principles for ideal situations of the kind Rawls himself proposed. The alternative task for theory involves addressing major pressing and concrete social and political problems, concerning human rights, poverty, and now the changing climate.

    Increasingly, justice frameworks are being used in the development of climate policy strategies. The fact is that existing vulnerabilities will be exacerbated by climate change.

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