Previous Fora / 2005 / Programme

The Ethical Consequences of Global Environmental Change

If I am speaking first, I could set out for the audience the broad scope of human forced global change that we are experiencing, drawing upon the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and IPCC analyses. A key message for people to understand is that global change is natural and occurs in the absence of human forcing. However, we are now facing rates of change that exceed natural envelopes and that degrade essential life support systems causing harm to humans. We are forcing the Earth system such that it may .flip. into a new .system state. that may not be to our liking. There will no doubt be a future for humanity on Earth, but will it be a future worth having?

I would then like to consider the ethical consequences for scientists of this emerging understanding of the Earth system and human forced rapid global environmental change. Scientist often confuse (a) the need to undertake their research with objectivity (i.e., scientific positivism with respect to approaches) with (b) their moral responsibility to consider the social consequences of their research. Undoubtedly, it is critical for researchers to maximise objective in their methods. However, if scientists have special knowledge about the state of the Earth system and the negative impact of human activities, then, as responsible citizens, they have a duty to ensure that society is made aware of the consequences.

Finally, I would like to consider the ethical consequences for society at large of the emerging understanding we have of the state of Earth.s environment and the impact of human activities. To do this, I will make reference to the Earth Charter, which articulates four pillars of the necessary world ethic needed to meet the challenges of a sustainable and just future, including the need to maintain the ecological integrity of the Earth system.

Of course, the extent to which I can address all three points will depend on the time allocated for my presentation.

Dr Brendan Mackey, Reader
School of Resources, Environment and Society/Faculty of Science
The Australian National University