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See Inside June 2008

The Ethics of Climate Change: Pay Now or Pay More Later?

Weighing our own prosperity against the chances that climate change will diminish the well-being of our grandchildren calls on economists to make hard ethical judgments



Chris Gould

What should we do about climate change? The question is an ethical one. Science, including the science of economics, can help discover the causes and effects of climate change. It can also help work out what we can do about climate change. But what we should do is an ethical question.

Not all “should” questions are ethical. “How should you hold a golf club?” is not, for instance. The climate question is ethical, however, because any thoughtful answer must weigh conflicting interests among different people. If the world is to do something about climate change, some people—chiefly the better-off among the current generation—will have to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to save future generations from the possibility of a bleak existence in a hotter world. When interests conflict, “should” questions are always ethical.

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