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Is climate change an ethical issue? Examining young adults’ beliefs about climate and morality

Abstract

Moral philosophers argue that climate change poses an ‘ethical problem’ for humanity and thus that humans have moral obligations to respond. Little empirical research has explored whether non-philosophers agree with these conclusions. This is unfortunate, because non-experts’ moral intuitions (or lack thereof) about climate change likely hold important implications for willingness to engage cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally with the issue. After reviewing the moral philosophical position on climate change, I present results of two studies conducted with a total of 922 U.S. undergraduate students that explored beliefs about the ‘ethics of climate change.’ Forty-five percent of the students sampled stated unequivocally that climate change represents a moral or ethical issue; a full quarter of students said it was not an ethical issue and roughly 30% were unsure. Participants’ beliefs regarding the causes of climate change were predictive of intentions to perform pro-environmental actions, and this relationship was fully mediated by ascriptions of personal moral obligation to respond. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. I use the term ‘understand’ to broadly include not only highly reasoned, cognitive mental representations but affective reactions as well.

  2. Of course, there are certainly other grounds besides moral ones for justifying climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, including self-preservation/national defense, economic opportunity and generating positive affect (e.g., ‘warm glow’).

  3. Different coding schemes were necessary for the three groups given the nearly non-overlapping nature and content of the responses provided by respondents.

  4. Secondary analyses confirmed that the substantive results of the open-ended coding were unaffected by the author’s involvement in resolution of inter-coder disagreements.

  5. This is considered a small-to-moderate effect size in the psychological literature.

  6. This correlation is attenuated by the exclusion of the rest of the sample; when all participants are included, which is reasonable given that one does not need to believe climate change is happening or anthropogenic to meaningfully respond to either of the two items in question, the correlation is even stronger, r(312) = .50, p < .001

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Acknowledgement

This research is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation GRFP under grant #DGE-0829517. I want to thank Bethany Lassetter and Alyssa Butruce for coding help and Azim Shariff, Brian Clark, Sara Hodges and Dale Jamieson for their very helpful input along the way. All views expressed in the paper are, of course, solely those of the author.

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Correspondence to Ezra M. Markowitz.

Appendix

Appendix

Development of coding schemes

As described in the paper, three distinct coding schemes were deemed necessary for ‘ethicists,’ ‘non-ethicists,’ and ‘unsures’ given the essentially non-overlapping nature of the content produced across the three groups. The coding scheme(s) were entirely data-driven: working with a collaborator (not one of the two coders), I examined participants’ open-ended responses and generated an initial coding scheme for each of the three groups. For ‘ethicists,’ the codes were as follows: ‘stewardship/responsibility towards others/”should” do something’; ‘anthropogenic/human caused/human problem’; ‘harm caused’; ‘efficacy’; ‘restated’; ‘other/uncodeable.’ For ‘non-ethicists,’ the codes were: ‘not happening’; ‘naturally occurring’; ‘environmental/technical/scientific issue’; ‘lack of control/inefficacy’; ‘restated’; ‘other/uncodeable.’ For ‘unsures,’ the codes were: ‘lack of knowledge’; ‘unclear causation’; ‘restated’; ‘other/uncodeable.’ Given the data-based nature of the coding schemes that were used, future research using similar open-ended response methods will necessarily have to develop study-specific coding schemes.

Instructions to coders and coding procedure

Once the initial coding schemes were developed, I introduced the two coders (both of whom were blind to the hypotheses and aims of the present research) to the dataset and the coding schemes; we then went through a small number of open-ended responses (<5%) together as a group. Coders were then given approximately 20% of the data (proportionally split across the three participant groups/types) and instructed to code only the first codeable statement provided by respondents; in the vast majority of cases, only one codeable statement was provided. I then met with the coders again to discuss any disagreements. After establishing conventions for common responses, I gave coders another 25% of the data. Coding was again completed independently. I met one more time with the coders to discuss any remaining disagreements on a case-by-case basis. At that point, I provided coders with the remaining 50% of the open-ended data. I resolved all remaining disagreements between the coders.

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Markowitz, E.M. Is climate change an ethical issue? Examining young adults’ beliefs about climate and morality. Climatic Change 114, 479–495 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0422-8

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Keywords

  • Climate Change
  • Moral Judgment
  • Moral Obligation
  • Climate Ethic
  • Moral Intuition