, Volume 114, Issue 3-4, pp 479-495

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

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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.