Yet even the Times’s lengthy and thoughtful approach to the IPCC report left relevant ethical considerations mostly implied. Compare that to one of the paper’s more recent articles from March in the International Herald Tribune, which took a deeper look at the developed world’s failure to help the less fortunate adapt. It included many of the same broad strokes that appeared in the earlier IPCC coverage, but reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal also included a passage that brought the global inequity closer to home:
Here in New York this week I faced my own little climate-related disruption: because of global grain shortages, created in part by the rush into biofuels, the price of a bagel has gone to $1.20 from 60 cents in the past year. New Yorkers are all aghast at the rise, but it pales next to these larger problems
Currently, the international response to climate change favors large projects to cut global emissions. There are generous incentives for converting dirty-coal power stations in China to cleaner technology, for example, but there is no encouragement for another cause: helping a farming village in Africa adjust to hotter temperatures and the degradation of its land into desert.
This brings us back to the reporter’s question at dinner last week about SUVs and Ugandan coffee crops. Should his readers feel responsible? Perhaps. A recent Gallup poll found that while the number of Americans who believe that human greenhouse-gas emissions are warming the planet has increased in the last year, the number that worries about it hasn’t. Maybe that’s a result of apathy, but it’s likely more a matter of lacking proper ethical context. It is one thing for The New York Timeses and The Washington Posts of the world to cover the broad international and national disparities that are aggravated by climate change, but the reporters at last week’s dinner wanted to know how they could “localize” those issues.
In fact, a good opportunity to do just that cropped up only twelve hours later when The Brookings Institution released a per capita greenhouse gas inventory for the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Judging by my Internet searches, it seems that almost every local and regional paper in America covered the inventory. As with the IPCC report, however, most articles presented the information in a very dry, this-is-where-we-rank fashion. Not a single reporter seems to have wrestled, at least in print, with questions such as: What is a fair share of emissions and how is that determined? If our current emissions exceed our fair share, how might we reduce them in an equitable manner relevant to other American cities? Or how might we reduce them in an equitable manner that is relevant to foreign cities? What kinds of sacrifices might we be willing to make to achieve different levels of equity?
If reporters had posed such questions, they may have come up with very interesting stories indeed. This week, British legislators “scrapped radical plans to test a carbon rationing scheme that would have forced citizens to carry a carbon card to swipe every time they bought petrol or paid an electricity bill,” according to an article in the Guardian. The paper quoted the government as saying that the plan could have led “to failure and subsequent public distrust and ridicule.” Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into details, but it hinted at an important ethical conundrum: it is morally correct to protect the environment, but it is morally suspect for government to intrusively monitor its citizens. Those competing values must be weighed against each other.
Ethical dilemmas such as that are implicit in many climate-related articles. It is rare that they are stated explicitly, however, and that is unfortunate. Whether the question is broad (such as whether or not the U.S. should limit greenhouse gases even if China and India do not) or narrow (such as whether or not people should carry carbon cards) news readers often answer them intuitively. But it is reasonable to assume that they might answer them differently (or at least from a more informed perspective) if reporters actually laid out all the ethical considerations involved. Do China and India deserve a reprieve from emissions limits because they are still developing economies? Does the right to privacy supersede the responsibility to protect the environment? How does what we know about science, economics, and politics inform such decisions?
As physicist Freeman Dyson suggested in a review of climate-related cost-benefit analyses for The New York Review of Books, people might accept that the ethical imperative to protect the environment is “fundamentally sound,” but find that “the obsession with global warming [is] distracting public attention from more serious and more immediate danger to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice.”