The Ethical Implications of Climate Change and Future Inequality We Can’t Ignore


The impacts of climate change will disproportionately impact disadvantaged groups on regional, national, and international scales. The skewed vulnerabilities that arise from exposure to natural disasters, susceptibility to damage, and community ability to recover fuel the need to examine the ethical implications of producing greenhouse gas emissions in bulk for luxury purposes. As engineers are the creators of industrial processes, the responsibility an engineer holds towards themselves, the community they serve, and the future must be displayed through accountability for the cumulative impacts of each action.


The fact that Earth’s atmosphere is warming can be seen as the most formidable economic and political challenge the world has ever faced. There is good reason for this, as it is not simply a matter of reducing emissions; it’s a matter of sharing the economic growth so closely associated with carbon dioxide emissions between countries and their populations. Gross inequities have been apparent for decades between those contributing the most towards greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and those who are most vulnerable to the effects of rising global temperatures. The skewed vulnerability creates a large ethical challenge for the engineers who design emissions-producing processes and policy makers who determine the aggressiveness of environmental regulations, as it is their duty to bring justice to climate action. Moreover, choices that affect climate justice need to be made consciously. We must be mindful of how they align with our own ethics, and how they affect our clients, the environment, and the future.

The Industrial Revolution began in the early nineteenth century, fueled by new sources of energy. Driven by engineering innovation, the industrial revolution brought steam engines, electricity, and later the discovery of oil and internal combustion engines. These innovations have shaped our current way of life and largely benefited society. However, they also mark the start of significant anthropogenic causes of climate change. The exponential growth in production of GHG emissions has left the world unequipped to deal with what this means for the future. 

In 2015, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals set ambitious targets for environmental, economic, and social progress. However, due to the lack of enforcement of these targets on national scales, almost every country has failed to meet the development goals [1]. Westernized lifestyles were built on energy-intensive processes resulting from the Industrial Revolution, causing energy to become synonymous with quality of life. As such, reducing GHG emissions means either a reduction in energy usage, which has become deeply ingrained into our daily lives, or the conversion of our energy to renewable sources, which comes at a cost.

By 2100, scientists predict global warming will cause the displacement of millions of people, the extinction of thousands of species, and a significant increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters [2]. However, many of the countries and populations most vulnerable to this devastation are those who have historically emitted the least and continue similarly today. According to a 2015 study, a significant part of the population in developing countries currently lives in rural “low elevation coastal zones”: 84% of Africans, 80% of Asians, and 93% of the inhabitants of the least developed countries. Coastal and near-shore habitats’ ecosystems are more exposed to the effects of climate change, and generally, it is disadvantaged groups in developing countries who find themselves living in these areas because they can’t afford to live elsewhere [2]. This issue becomes more complex when examining the gross inequities in GHG contribution; the top three greenhouse gas emitters – China, the European Union, and the United States – contribute more than half of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5% [3]. Thus, developing countries, who have historically contributed minimally to rising GHGs in the atmosphere, will be impacted the most severely.

Moreover, climate change inequity is present within each individual nation. For example, rural populations, which generally consist of large concentrations of people under the poverty line, are the most likely to experience the most severe flooding, erosion, water scarcity, and salinity intrusion [2]. Evidence suggests that disadvantaged groups like these experience increased exposure to climate hazards and increased susceptibility to damage caused by them, as well as a decreased ability to cope with and recover from the damage. Furthermore, while disadvantaged groups find themselves the most susceptible to these impacts, they are the least responsible for the GHG emissions causing these impacts. Based on the 2013 American Housing survey, low-income households use at least 50% less energy on average than high-income households [4]. Thus, climate becomes another conduit for reinforcing existing inequalities.

Climate Justice

This asymmetry gives rise to the following question of moral responsibility: do considerations of justice provide guidance for determining levels of present and future global emissions, the distribution of emissions among populations currently, and the role of historical emissions in assigning global obligations? Ethical considerations have long been removed from policy surrounding climate change; however, it is the moral duty of an engineer to evaluate these questions and determine how their unique role may help promote justice.  

For this paper, distributive justice requires that the benefits and burdens of an outcome be distributed fairly among all groups. Three viewpoints within distributive justice are applicable in providing guidance about the distribution of global emissions and responsibility. Firstly, following a standard of complete equality, this would require that each country contribute equally to mitigating the effects of climate change, regardless of causation. A complete equality approach holds that equality has value in itself; thus, every stakeholder should contribute equally to reducing global emissions and implementing climate mitigation policy [5]. However, this does not account for factors of development which vary significantly between regions. Furthermore, complete equality provides guidance when considering future distribution, but fails to consider historical causation and responsibility.

Conversely, in a need-based approach to distributive justice, equality would be met by providing the most disadvantaged groups the resources they need [6]. To achieve justice in the distribution and reduction of global emissions, developed countries should not only reduce their own GHG output, but support the most under-developed countries in adopting renewable energy technology and sustainable practices as they develop. While this provides a broader evaluation of global justice in relation to the resources each group has available, it is less feasible in terms of global cooperation and effective delivery of aid.

Thirdly, distributive justice can be evaluated through a responsibility-based approach, such that those most responsible for causing injustice bear the most responsibility for achieving justice [6]. Analysis of the historical trends of global emissions reveals that developed countries bear more causal responsibility, and are thus responsible for a greater contribution towards their reduction. A responsibility-based approach gives more context to determining ethicality by evaluating the past as well as the present and can therefore be seen as the most applicable for an engineer considering climate justice [5]. This is particularly pertinent for engineers in developed countries, which historically hold greater causal responsibility for climate change. Developed countries also have the resources available to achieve justice, by transitioning to renewable energy, increasing the efficiency of industrial processes to reduce their emissions, and regulating emission levels more aggressively. To justify these measures, developed countries should pursue a common good ethical framework.

Considering a Common Good

The common good ethics framework considers all individuals as part of a larger community, in which the good of an individual is inextricably linked to the good of the community. For society at large to thrive, the sustainability of the community must be safeguarded for the good of all, including the weakest and most vulnerable members [7]. For an engineer, a common good approach would involve prioritizing system designs which reduce GHG emissions over those that increase profit and improving unsustainable practices. However, when engineers design GHG-intensive processes, they only suffer a small part of the harm it causes. Therefore, it is rarely in the interests of a single individual to reduce their own emissions, even though a reduction would benefit everyone. This is often said to result in a tragedy of the commons: although collectively all countries would prefer to limit global emissions to reduce the risk of catastrophic impacts, when acting individually, each still prefers to continue emitting unimpeded [5]. This is largely because reducing emissions results in significantly greater capital costs, as design specifications must be more complex to achieve such a goal. Furthermore, although each company acts knowing the risk that rising global temperature poses, their own contribution may be imperceptible on the global scale. Still, the cumulative impact of these individually imperceptible contributions has been building for decades.

Derek Parfit, a British philosopher of the 20th century, provides us with some relevant thought-experiments. According to Parfit, one of the “mistakes in moral mathematics” consists of ignoring the effects of sets of actions, and assuming that if an act is right or wrong because of its effects, the only relevant effects are those of the act [7]. For example, if it is determined that it is right to continue allowing inefficient gas-consuming vehicles on the road due to the cost to people’s wellbeing to remove them, the only effects which follow from the decision would be those in support of their continued use, as a form of conformational bias. However, Parfit’s ideology follows: “Even if an act harms no one, this act may be wrong because it is one of a set of acts that together harm other people. Similarly, even if some act benefits no one, it can be what someone ought to do, because it is one of a set of acts that together benefit other people” [8]. In examining an engineer’s duty to be just, though considerations surrounding the unsustainability of a process may seem small, such a narrow evaluation ignores the cumulative impact of the action. Therefore, engineers should consider the common good approach to ethics as one way to keep themselves accountable for their designs and the impact they have on the larger community.

The Rights of the Future

This raises the question: As an engineer, what obligations does one have to their clients, to greater society, and to their profession? Engineers are trusted with some of the world’s most challenging problems, and as stated in the Engineering Code of Ethics, it is an engineer’s responsibility to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public [7]. While climate change most certainly will have detrimental effects on the public, the worst impacts have yet to be seen. Therefore, is it an engineer’s moral duty to not only protect the rights of the public, but also the rights of future populations? 

Intergenerational justice is useful in examining the rights of current people against those of future generations, as it encompasses the moral duties the present owes the future [5]. If future people’s basic rights are considered in an engineer’s code of ethics, these basic rights and thus the code are likely to be violated when global temperatures rise above a certain level. Since we currently can minimize the impacts of climate change by reducing emissions, even though it may come at a cost to ourselves, we should do so to fulfill duties of justice to future generations. However, how do we determine to what extent emissions must be reduced to make our actions just? We must first analyze how standard of living corresponds with people’s basic rights, and what level of harm caused to future people is considered morally objectionable.

In a traditional ethical viewpoint, future people cannot hold their rights against present people because they cannot exercise them today. In traditional theories of ethics, future consequences could not be predicted and were treated as serendipitous, but in re-conceptualizing ethics in the 21st century, this does not result in a sustainable ethical outlook [5]. Furthermore, a more ethical evaluation would deem that current populations wrongfully harm future generations if they cause them to have a lower standard of living than their own. Thus, engineers should prioritize practices which ensure the rights of people in the present are maintained for those in the future. In application, this duty is complicated by uncertainty; failing to reduce emissions does not necessarily violate future people’s rights, but simply creates the risk that a violation will occur. However, the weight of this risk should be treated with the same severity of importance as if the future were certain, as the gross inequalities it could cause cannot be ignored.

Environmental Ethics

Climate change will have detrimental effects on human populations around the globe. However, most of the consequences are only by-products of the harm caused to the environment. This raises the question of what rights the environment has in the context of climate change policy. Environmental rights are commonly defined with two different categories: conservation ethics and deep ecology [6]. Conservation ethics is a type of utilitarianism, which focuses only on the worth of the environment in terms of its utility to humans [9]. Thus, the correct ethical action is determined by choosing one that will produce the greatest ratio of positive to negative consequences for humans. For example, reasons to protect the environment would include allowing populations to access clean water, inhabit safe and healthy spaces, and breathe fresh air. Conservation ethics is therefore a means to an end and purely concerned with humankind. One limitation of a conservation framework is its consequential focus. As most climate change impacts have yet to occur, the consequences it considers are only predictions and may not be entirely accurate. 

Moreover, due to the margin of uncertainty, the formation of preventive and proactive measures may not be considered in the depth it warrants. For example, conservation ethics is often the framework applied for natural-disaster policy making. As preventative measures for natural hazards would come at a high economic cost for humans without certainty of the consequences, they are often not taken. Consequently, when a natural disaster occurs, it is more destructive than if preventative action were taken, and recovery efforts often only focus on human communities and neglect damage done to the environment.

Conversely, deep ecology endorses “biospheric egalitarianism,” the view that all living things have value, independent of their usefulness to others [6]. Deep ecology prioritizes the intrinsic value of living creatures and recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all biological entities. This category of environmental ethics maintains that the environment should be protected by individuals because of its intrinsic value, the value it has regardless of benefits to humans. However, some critics from developing countries have accused deep ecology of being elitist, fueled by developed countries preserving wilderness experiences for only a select group of wealthy people [6]. As environmental resources are the main source of economic revenue for developing countries, while the environment may hold intrinsic rights, not making use of its resources limits the economic growth and social development of these countries, further increasing global inequality. 

In taking a macroscopic view of environmental ethics instead of focusing on the intrinsic or extrinsic values the environment has, it is clear in either case that the role of an engineer includes proactive steps towards its protection. Since the dangers the environment faces are heavily tied to the human-centric consequences of climate change, engineers should prioritize actions which are proactive to follow sustainable development and protect the rights of the future.


Climate change has been described as a “perfect moral storm” as it brings together major challenges to ethical action in mutually reinforcing ways [5]. While it has traditionally fallen to governments to determine climate change policy, if the responsibility is to be upheld by engineers, this would result in a shift from policy-driven to innovation-driven responsibility. For engineers, this may take the form of prioritizing sustainable design specifications and following an engineer’s code of ethics. As governmental policy has historically failed to sufficiently reduce emissions, it is within a company’s and an engineer’s capacity to exceed federal regulations by innovating more designs that more aggressively reduce GHG emissions. This would not only benefit current populations by improving the efficiencies of modern processes, but would protect future populations, work for the common good, and drive innovation within engineering towards a better future. While this is no small feat, engineers are drivers of change, and there is no doubt that conscious awareness of the ethical implications of their actions would positively impact the current climate change crisis and help ensure a more sustainable future.

By Amber Chow, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Amber was a junior studying Chemical Engineering with a focus in Sustainable Energy. She is passionate about clean energy and has worked with Engineers Without Borders and the USC Solar Car Design Team on related projects.


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Links for Further Reading