Bioethics Blogs

The Ethics of Climate Change Activism: Fear vs. Reality

Image via NASA


By: Chelsea Zantay

This essay is in response to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs video clip “Global Ethics Forum: Ethics Matter: A Conversation with Bill McKibben.”  

Often when a problem is too big or too scary we throw up our hands and announce that “there is nothing we can do” to solve it.  Admittedly, climate change feels like one of those problems.  It seems like a quagmire of depressing facts and statistics.  It is now scientific fact that the polar ice caps are melting, our oceans are rising and becoming more acidic, and if we do not curb our consumption of fossil fuels, our planet will be rendered unlivable.  The plethora of disturbing information on climate change is enough to cause anyone to have a sleepless night or make them wish they had never heard the truth about our warming planet.  However, ostriches with their heads buried in the sand do not get much done, and once you know some truth, you cannot un-know it.  And so the question at hand is not “is climate change happening?” for that question has been answered in the affirmative (although climate change deniers would like to see this issue removed from our national political discourse).  The question right now is “what are we going to do about it, if anything?”

Bill McKibben, environmental scientist and founder of, has spent his career writing about climate change and mobilizing communities as an activist for the cause.  The mission of his website reads: “We believe in a safe climate and a better future – a just, prosperous, and equitable world built with the power of ordinary people.”  This statement is in no way frightening beyond the scope of comprehension.  In fact, it is probably what most people want out of the future.  Unfortunately, the direction we are headed in is not conducive to this safe and equal future.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  If we continue with our current rate of fossil fuel burning, we could be left with a planet that is ungovernable, uninhabitable and unrecognizable.  This is a terrifying thought, but should climate change activists refrain from telling the truth about our planet’s situation? 

At one point during the Carnegie Council’s featured video Global Ethics Forum: Ethics Matter: A Conversation with Bill McKibben, McKibben was asked about instilling fear in the general public so much so that the sheer magnitude of the problem may compel them not to act.  To this, McKibben replied, “reality is what it is, and we should describe it.”  In fact, it could be said that experts on ecology, such as environmentalists like McKibben and climate change scientists, have a duty to make this knowledge available to the public. 

Presently, we have seen enough “100-year” storms and floods to be convinced of the boundless power and undeniable truth of climate change.  Activists and scientists cannot be charged with attempting to use unwarranted scare tactics.  However, if they have been guilty of scaring the public into action in the past, is that such a bad thing? 

From a utilitarian perspective of ethics, the ends justify the means and thus, whatever actions are taken are ethical as long as they promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Hence, even if information was disseminated in a frightening way, if it caused a positive change in society, it was ultimately a good.  Similarly, from a deontological view of ethics, individuals have a duty to promote moral ends for the common good.  From this perspective, ecological whistleblowers, because their intentions are good, are moral beings trying to enact positive changes in society. 

Certain professions, such as teachers and social workers, are mandated reporters.  This means that when they see a violation of human rights, such as a child who is clearly malnourished or abused, they must contact the authorities.  If they fail to contact the authorities, they can be held responsible for the well-being of the child and their job and licensure can be put in jeopardy.  In a way, scientists and activists are mandated reporters whose concern is not for the good of one individual or child, but for the good of all humanity and our entire planet.  However, now that we know unequivocally what is happening to our planet in terms of its changing climate, and what that will mean for humanity in the decades to come, the question is now posed to us: what will we do about it, if anything?     

The oil and gas industry is “the most powerful industry on Earth,” says McKibben.  Indeed, this industry not only decides what energy we use, but how it will be extracted and transported, what countries it is sold to, and how expensive it will be.  Oil and gas companies have huge sway in Congress and our government at large.  President Obama has said that we have enough energy to last us one hundred years, yet the industry spends “$100,000,000 a day looking for more sources of fuel.” Thus, McKibben calls them a “rogue industry” because they are now defying the laws of chemistry and physics, and are consciously altering the chemical makeup of our planet.  Moreover, when this industry makes a mistake, the world suffers.  On April 20th, 2010, a seal on a B.P.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.