Economics, ethics and climate change

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Pope Francis has issued an encyclical entitled “Laudato Si,” (Praise Be) on
climate change. Within the Catholic Church a papal encyclical is one of the most important documents a pope can promulgate; it indicates the issue addressed in the encyclical has high

Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Pope Francis has issued an encyclical entitled “Laudato Si,” (Praise Be) on
climate change. Within the Catholic Church a papal encyclical is one of the most important documents a pope can promulgate; it indicates the issue addressed in the encyclical has high
priority within the church.  Climate change is certainly a significant issue and of concern to many who express an interest in our planet and its future. However, for many, the problems of
climate change are matters of science and government policy, not of spiritual or moral concerns. So why should the pope issue an encyclical? Perhaps, because Laudato Si is more concerned with human values and morals than with forests, lakes, oceans, and polar bears.  For this reason some of the implications of the document are worth exploring.
To fully appreciate the pope’s
message, an understanding of the
relation between economics and ethics is necessary. Economics has been defined as the study of what constitutes rational human behaviour in the endeavour to fulfill material needs and wants. The study begins with several assumptions. First, all humans will always want more material goods and there will be a scarcity of the desired goods. Second, there are natural inequalities in that some humans will have more control over the desired goods and others will work to obtain the goods. Finally, externalities, such as the environment and future generations, are not part of the economic equation.
Ethics studies moral values and virtues. A moral value is an intrinsic good to be achieved or a standard of right conduct to be followed. A virtue is a character trait that enables one to achieve the morally good or right
conduct. Here is where the problem of the interaction between economics and ethics relates to climate change. Economics treats climate change as an amoral issue. The dangers of climate change can be traded off against
economic gain. Economics has the sole concern of material wants of humans. Ethical issues such as our duty to others and responsibility for the well-being of future generations are not considered in economic decisions. The result is that when a major problem arises, the
economic approach will be based on cost-benefit analysis, not on ethical or moral requirements.
This is the issue addressed in Laudato Si. The failure to consider the moral dimensions of climate change could result in an inadequate response to the problem. A solution to climate change that includes moral considerations would be based on an examination of the ethics of our consumer society, the just distribution of wealth, and a placement of moral values above economic
interests.  Such an approach would
recognize the importance of the environment, the rights of future generations and the moral dimension of our
decisions. Within this broader approach to climate change, the pope is justified in, and indeed required to raise concern on a global issue – a concern that should be for all of humanity regardless of religion or political persuasion.