How Morality Can Win the War on Climate Change

Finding a moral imperative to fight climate changeThe climate movement must go beyond preaching economics and explaining science, we must create a moral imperative that compels us to act. To get people involved in the war on climate change we must weave environmental awareness into our codes of conduct.

The reasons why more people are not demanding action on the environment is a glaring moral failing. If we are to see a critical mass of support for efforts to combat climate change, we must understand that in addition to an economic and ecological crisis, we are also facing a moral crisis. To bridge the gulf between morality and climate change we need to go to the places where morality still has value.

Religions are a primary source of ethical conduct, and as such they are an ideal platform for communicating a moral argument. Although governments and businesses have a central role, churches, temples, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship may be the best venues for disseminating the moral dimension of the climate change issue.  We need to tap into the deeply embedded preexisting morality of the vast majority of people who consider themselves followers of religion. (Even those who do not subscribe to religion also respond to moral arguments about the need for action on climate change).

Religious leaders from all the major traditions see action on climate change as a moral imperative. As reviewed in an extensive list of Climate Change Statements, all of the world’s major religious traditions espouse a harmonious relationship between people and the planet.

One group called Interfaith Moral Action on Climate  is a collaborative initiative of religious leaders and groups that are promoting a moral call to action on climate change. This group feels compelled by their “traditions and collective conscience to take action on this deeply moral challenge. [They] believe that a moral voice is essential in inspiring action on climate change, since scientific and economic arguments alone have not moved the United States to adequately address this deepening crisis.”

Interfaith is calling for policies that dramatically reduce wasted energy, support renewable energy and phase-out all fossil fuel subsidies. Despite the radical change they advocate, their message is positive. They seek a “brighter vision” to unite the world around “a set of clear widely held moral principles.”

Their third guiding moral principle is to protect the Earth, they reiterate the aboriginal beliefs that we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth and all of its creatures and processes.  Interfaith’s vision advocates a moral response to climate change while acknowledging scientific research.

They have circulated their Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change, and an Interfaith Statement on Climate Change was submitted by representatives of the world’s religions at the COP17 in Durban, South Africa.

“We recognize that climate change is not merely an economic or technical problem, but rather at its core is a moral, spiritual and cultural one. We therefore pledge to join together to teach and guide the people who follow the call of our faiths.”

In an article titled “Rekindling the Moral Call to Action,” climate change is construed as a “fundamental moral and humanitarian issue.”  The article urges action from leaders and works towards a unified effort to combat climate change.

On July 23rd,  2012, there was a phone conference briefing on “How to Communicate about Climate Action as a Moral Imperative.” The event was co-hosted by Climate Access, US Climate Action Network, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate Change, and the National Climate Ethics. The speakers indicated that we need to create a moral movement that urges people to take personal responsibility and choose sides on the issue of climate change.

Even American Evangelical Christian Leaders have clearly articulated a moral argument for supporting action on anthropogenic climate change. They state that their Christian moral convictions demand their response to climate change. They go on to advocate national legislation in the U.S., requiring emissions reductions through market based mechanisms like cap-and-trade.

As reviewed in a Guardian article, NASA scientist Jim Hansen calls climate change a moral issue on a par with slavery. He is calling for a global carbon tax and sees inaction on climate change as an “injustice of one generation to others”.

Morality is also the key issue in an article titled Why Few Americans View Climate Change as a Moral Problem by Ezra Markowitz. He is a doctoral candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of Oregon and a research fellow with the Climate Shift Project at American. In a 2012 publication Markowitz points to an absence of strong moral intuitions on climate change.

Markowitz and his colleague Azim Shariff have published research on the moral psychology of the public (dis)engagement with climate change. Their new paper in Nature Climate Change is called Climate change and moral judgment.” In the paper, Markowitz and Shariff explore six reasons why climate change is not a more common moral issue and six strategies that may help to compel us to act.

According to these researchers, the human moral judgment system fails to acknowledge climate change because: Climate change is complex, distant and abstract; it represents an untraditional type of moral transgression where it is sometimes hard to attribute blame; people have an aversion to guilt; they see the future as uncertain and they fail to identify with victims of climate change. Finally, concerns about climate change are not at present core moral values.

To help people engage efforts to combat climate change, the authors recommend that we use existing moral values. They go on to suggest that we should focus on communicating the problems that climate change will wreak upon future generations, rather than on the potential benefits. The idea here is that it is counterproductive to focus on “extrinsic motivators” for action on climate change (i.e. economic growth and jobs). According to the researchers, it weakens moral engagement by deemphasizing intrinsic values and non-materialist motives.

The research indicates that it is more productive to use messaging that generates positive emotions (eg: hope, pride and gratitude), rather than negative emotions (eg: guilt, shame and anxiety). The study reports that we need to expand our group identity, incorporate shared goals, and finally, we need to highlight positive social norms where pro-environmental action is lauded.

“The point I want to drive home is this: truly engaging with climate change as a moral issue—really feeling its moral significance viscerally—is no easy feat” Markowitz said, “regardless of how often we hear about the people and animals that will be harmed or the injustice of richer individuals and nations misappropriating a life-sustaining, common resource.”

We will need to be creative and develop evidence-based approaches that help people to understand climate change as a moral imperative. Despite the subtle psychological nuances needed to effectively communicate the point, the moral argument is capable of unleashing unprecedented activity.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Mal B, courtesy Flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. In the last few years, it feels as though the overall level of concern about climate change has dropped. I believe, preoccupation with the downturn in the economy is to blame. When people are struggling to pay rent and keep food on the table, it leave little time (and money) for thoughts of the environment.

  2. When you introduce ‘morality’ in the issue of climate change you will lose a large portion of the audience that need to be more cognizant of the challenges ahead. After a decade and half of working in sustainable community development I can say unequivocally that the one thing we know is the ‘moral imperative’ is a non-starter for moving consumers to embrace sustainability. Even long term financial benefits are a hard sell over short term lower first cost. The one opening appears to be health and wellness of an aging population increasingly concerned with their longevity (and protecting their grandchildren’s future) bookended by a more aware and concerned generation just entering the workforce. Mixing morality and climate change is a bad idea if the goal is to get more people to make better decisions about their (and our) long term future. Those that see it this way will get there themselves…those that are on the fence or sitting on the sidelines will more often than not be turned off by the ‘evangelism of a morality’ argument.

  3. In my view we need a multifaceted approach that includes morality. Different people require different approaches. My read of the data suggests that people tune out when offered a purely rational and scientific take on climate change. People need a hopeful message and many faith communites offer that. If we are to succeed in inducing the change we need we will have to embed sustainability into our culture. Independent of our personal views we must acknowledge that there are large numbers of people that respond to faith based calls to action.


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