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The climate crisis gives science a new role. Here’s how research ethics must change too

Published: 15th Nov, 2021


One of the most daunting problems facing the world today is climate change. As we move forward in finding ways to adapt and mitigate climate change, recognising the ethical problems associated with it is crucial.

Necessity to consider the ethical dimensions of Climate Change:

  • Climate change has significant implications for international equality, as both the causes and effects of climate change are unequally distributed around (and within) nations. In general , countries that are least responsible for climate change have the lowest socio-economic capacity to cope with the adverse consequences of climate change, which is a significant ethical problem for them.
  • Climate change, mobilised by the search for scarce resources, has the ability to cause conflict.
  • The need for an ethical solution is therefore convincing.
  • Other ethical concerns include: how present and future generations, developed and developing countries, etc., can identify and distinguish obligations.

What is the major issue for the protests happening?

  • Young people across the world have taken to the streets again, demanding decision-makers at COP26 listen to the science.
  • Also, the ongoing planetary crises create new ethical dilemmas for researchers.
  • There are protest against inaction towards climate change and called for concrete government action.

What are the principles of research ethics?

  • The three main principles of research ethicsare–
    • Do no harm
    • Integrity
    • Responsibility

What are new ethics proposed by environmentalists?

Environmentalists are proposing a move from a negative ethics focused on avoiding harm to a positive research ethics. These new ethics are needed to guide the global scientific community in relation to civil society and politics during the climate and ecological crises.

What is the meaning of these three pillars?

1. Do no harm

  • According to the “do no harm” imperative, researchers have a responsibility to avoid hurting humans or animals directly involved in their research.A growing group of scientists question the carbon footprint of academic activities, ranging from flying to conferencesto developing artificial intelligence. The long-term and unpredictable consequences of research have also come back into focus. An example is the debate about the high risks of geoengineering.

The “do no harm” principle should thus be broadened in two ways:

  1. It should include humans, animals and ecosystems that are traditionally not considered part of the research process, but can be negatively affected by it
  2. It should better account for the long-term, indirect or unintended consequences of research projects or new technologies.

2. Act with integrity

The principle of integrity asks researchers to follow rigorous protocols, disclose conflicts of interest, refrain from manipulating data, and abstain from plagiarism.For example, by focusing heavily on GDP growth, mainstream economics portrays our planetary habitat mostly as a resource to use or exploit. The idea of geoengineering also largely rests on an understanding of our life-support systems as a set of disconnected pieces that can be engineered.

Ultimately, “integrity means wholeness”. It implies acknowledging that we are parts of a fragile and interconnected web of life, which we need to preserve.

3. Take responsibility

According to the “responsibility” principle, research should be relevant to society and communicated to the public. But in a climate crisis, findings can be so dramatic, their implications for society so huge and controversial, that the word “responsibility” takes a new, heavier meaning.

The “responsibility” principle should therefore be enriched in three ways:

  • Scientists should take their own findings seriously and stand up for their societal implications, even when it is uncomfortable to do so
  • Researchers must defend the scientific process itselffrom the influence of political and economic interests
  • Scientists can remain humble as to what science can achieve. This means acknowledging the limits to our knowledge of an infinitely complex world, as well as the slow pace and unpredictable consequences of technological development.

Concerns about future generations in an Ethics of climate change:

With regard to every distant future generation, the alarming state of the present generation is that it still finds itself in a unilateral role: it is still in a role to behave with impunity, as there is no reason for reciprocity from those generations to come.

As such, an important aspect of the ethical response to climate change is the concern of future generations.

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