Ethical Principles for Climate Change Policy

Research by Professor Caney has helped to make climate change debates sensitive to justice, human rights, and other ethical considerations.

Although climate change was first discovered more than a century ago, its significance has only recently been widely recognized. The political response to climate change, perhaps the defining challenge of the 21st Century, has thus far been largely concerned with economic issues and framed in terms of cost-benefit analysis. In the last few years, however, ethical values including human rights have begun to play an important role in debates around climate change. Professor Simon Caney's research has contributed to a growing consensus that climate policies ought to be guided not just by economic considerations, but also by ethical ones.

Caney's work on human rights and intergenerational justice help to define the ethical principles for guiding climate change policy, principles which have influenced a number of key actors in the field of climate change, including international organizations, governments and NGOs. Since joining the University of Oxford in 2007, Caney has argued that anthropogenic climate change is unjust, in part, because it jeopardizes persons' human rights to life, health, food and water, and thereby compromises core 'human rights thresholds'. In addition to advocating a human rights approach to climate change, Caney has developed an account of our responsibilities to future generations that has emphasized that policy responses to climate change should not discount the rights of future generations.

Drawing on his account of climate justice, Caney has proposed a framework for evaluating emissions trading schemes. In addition to this, he has challenged the common assumption that we should treat the emission of greenhouse gases on their own. He proposes an alternative approach centred around respecting and sustaining people's higher-order interests, arguing that it is wrong to isolate climate change from other serious moral concerns (such as human rights, poverty and health). His work, thus, advances an integrated approach that treats emission rights in conjunction with these broader normative concerns.

Professor Caney has also advised a number of organizations. In 2009 he wrote a commissioned background paper on 'Ethics and Climate Change' for the World Bank's World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change. In addition to this, he advised the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP) on the inclusion of human rights concerns in their 2008 report Climate Change and Human Rights. That report represented a critical step in establishing the centrality of moral considerations in the climate policy debate. In particular, the ICHRP report gave prominence to the concept of 'human rights thresholds', which better connect the moral concerns raised by climate change to the legal apparatus of human rights, and provide an important means of articulating human rights issues within the existing climate change policy process.

Caney's research and the ICHRP report in turn shaped the thinking of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the relationship between climate change and human rights. In its 2009 report on climate change, the OHCHR cited Caney's argument that a moral concern for intergenerational justice imposes a duty on current generations to mitigate climate change in order to safeguard the rights of future generations. Furthermore, Caney's research on climate change and human rights has influenced other major organizations, including UNICEF and the International Trade Union Congress.

These ideas also informed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Working under the auspices of the UN, the IPCC is an authoritative source of information on climate change. Professor Caney's work is cited in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report and he was also a member of the working group that drafted 'Chapter Three: Social, Economic and Ethical Concepts and Methods'.

Professor Caney was invited in 2009 to join the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' working group on biofuels. The subsequent report, issued in 2011, identified six ethical principles to guide UK biofuels policy, including respect for people's essential rights and concern for the equitable distributions of benefits and burdens from the growth of the biofuels industry. These principles have been endorsed by the UK House of Commons' Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, and the UK's Technology Strategy Board.

More recently, Professor Caney has also worked on the question of how existing political institutions can be reformed in ways that induce politicians to honour principles of intergenerational justice and give due consideration to the rights of future generations. As part of this, in 2014 he produced a commissioned report for the Mary Robinson Foundation Climate Justice on 'Applying the Principle of Intergenerational Equity to the 2015 Multilateral Processes'.

Further Reading:

International Council on Human Rights Policy, Climate Change and Human Rights: A Rough Guide (Geneva: ICHRP, 2008).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) (Geneva: IPCC, 2013–14).

Biofuels: ethical issues (Nuffield Council on Bioethics. April 2011)

This Impact Case Study was submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014)


Simon Caney