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Emerging threatsAt forum, MIT community tackles tough ethical questions of climate change

By Kathryn M. O'Neill

Published 23 November 2016

An MIT panel discussed The ethical challenges presented by climate change and the question of what individuals — and academic institutions like MIT — can do to affect change. “Science has performed its role adequately,” said Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, “[but] it cannot tell us what our obligations are to future generations. Determining how to respond to climate change is a question for all of us.”

The ethical challenges presented by climate change and the question of what individuals — and academic institutions like MIT — can do to affect change drew approximately 250 people to Morss Hall at MIT on Thursday, 17 November, for an MIT-wide forum titled “Climate Change: Ethics in Action.”

Sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Radius (an initiative of the Technology and Culture Forum), the forum was part of an agreement created by the student-led group Fossil Free MIT and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber in March, to further advance the Institute’s responses to climate change. The goal for the event was to explore the ethical dimensions of climate change, as well as the ethical responsibilities of many different parties involved in the phenomenon.

A question for all of us
The three-hour forum featured a keynote address by Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University and author of Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future, followed by dinner and a panel discussion among five scholars in fields ranging from atmospheric science to philosophy.

Zuber shared a key thought in a video that launched the event: “Science has performed its role adequately,” she said “[but] it cannot tell us what our obligations are to future generations. Determining how to respond to climate change is a question for all of us.”

Introduced by Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Jamieson reinforced this idea, beginning his talk by outlining the history of climate science, from Joseph Fourier’s 1824 discovery that the atmosphere traps heat, to the present day. Among the growing body of evidence he cited was a 1979 study by the National Academy of Sciences that said, “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it’s too late” — which, Jamieson added, “is pretty much the policy that has been followed.”

Sources of inaction: Human nature and the structure of democracies
The key question at this point, Jamieson said, is: “Why, despite the steady growth of scientific knowledge, policy initiatives at every level, and an active civil society, have we failed to act effectively? What’s gone wrong here?”