Last week, I attended a dinner with twenty-eight other reporters where the evening’s speaker argued that the media have inadequately covered the ethical issues surrounding climate change, its impacts, and humanity’s response.

“Are you saying that I should tell my readers that they should feel bad because their SUVs are destroying the coffee crops in Uganda?” asked one environmental reporter after the presentation was done.

It was a valid question. Hard-news reporters, as most of the people in the room were, generally bristle at the idea of introducing moral imperative into their articles. It implies that they are breaking with journalistic norms of fact-based objectively and wandering into the realm of opinion writers and editorialists by telling people what should happen or even what is right and wrong.

Of course, that’s not entirely what the speaker, Donald Brown, who is director of the climate change program at the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, meant to suggest. He said that journalists should merely present readers with the ethical dilemma—does the average American suburbanite owe the Ugandan farmer a debt for warming-related damages—and let readers decide for themselves what the morally sound answer is.

Unfortunately, such questions are not actually that simple.

Take the cover story of the June issue of Scientific American magazine and its headline, “Ethics and Economics of Climate Change.” It is one of only a few publications that have explicitly covered the moral issues entwined in the strategies to counter warming. The article focuses on two of the leading economic analyses of limiting the worst impacts (droughts, floods, violent storms, etc.) of climate change. One posits that the costs of action are far smaller, in the long run, than the costs of inaction. The other says the opposite. Why the different conclusions? It has to do with the discount rate of cost-benefit analyses where costs borne today will produce benefits a hundred or more years down the road (as is largely the case with climate change). Economists discount the present-dollar value of future benefits such that the higher the rate, the less economically “practical” it is to act now. The cover story’s main point is that analysts set the rate based on a set of ethical decisions, not least of which being: should we discount the benefits to future generations at all?

The dimensions of discounting are very confusing indeed (and Scientific American’s article is not terribly accessible on these points), but policymakers take cost-benefit analyses very seriously and they factor into noteworthy legislation like the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which the Senate is debating this week. Still, Scientific American included this ironic sidebar next to its cover story attesting that:

Climate change raises much harder and more important ethical issues than the appropriate value of the discount rate. One is the chance of utter catastrophe.

Indeed, reporters have had a number of more intuitive ways into the subject of climate ethics. One of the most significant was the release of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report in early 2007, which found that the world’s poor are likely to suffer the worst impacts of global warming even though they have contributed least to the problem. Developed nations that have contributed most, on the other hand, are better prepared deal with the worst climate outcomes.

The IPCC report’s release provoked widespread media coverage. Yet most articles tended to present the socioeconomic divide in a this-is-the-situation sort of way, without much reference to the ethical framework for thinking about how we respond to that divide. There were, of course, the platitudinous quotes about the report being a “wake-up call” to First World governments that need to accept responsibility for their industrial actions. Pulling ahead of the pack, The New York Times’s coverage at the time was slightly more creative.

The paper published two back-to-back articles, the first of which reminded readers that, “The lack of climate aid persists even though nearly all the world’s industrialized nations, including the United States under the first President Bush, pledged to help when they signed the first global warming treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 1992.” The second article, headlined, “Reports From Four Fronts in the War on Warming,” compared two developed countries, Australia and the Netherlands, which have the resources to adapt to climate change, to two others, Malawi and India, that don’t; the article also carried a fantastic graphic depicting the “Winner and Losers” in a warmer world.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.