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Climate Change and Ethics: Reflecting on Risk and its Implications


April 25, 2022

The webinar investigated the roles of climate change-related risks in the context of decision-making, policy, and law. It reflected on the role of the prudence principle for spending on climate security measures and discussed the life-threatening implications of pollution and climate change that result from human activity. 


  • Mobilizing the Prudence Principle for Climate Security
    William French, Loyola University of Chicago
  • Anthropocide: A Crime Against Humanity?
    Gaspard Lemaire, Ecole Normale, Supérieure, Paris 

Panelist Abstracts

Mobilizing the Prudence Principle for Climate Security
William French, Loyola University of Chicago

My paper focuses on the prudence principle as a key to understanding our country's vast overspending on military budgets and negligent underspending on climate security measures. When it comes to military threats it is considered smart to prepare for the “worst-case scenario.” But when it comes to climate change too many national leaders assert that it is premature to mobilize against such an uncertain potential threat.

My presentation focuses on this double standard in the application of the prudence principle. A core problem lies in how too many fail to appreciate how mounting climate disruption is a central, if not the central, national security and global security threat and is thus deserving of a robust national response equal to, or greater than, our annual military spending. 

Emphasis on the prudence principle has been a prominent focus in ecological ethics and policy discussions. But it seems clear that discussions of national security and US military spending are grounded in the same stance of prudence though it is typically not so articulated.  When it comes to military spending the appeal to prudence is held to justify remarkably high military spending against foreseeable threats.  When it comes to ecological problems like climate disruption, however, there is a moral and policy shift in what counts as the threshold for a robust response. Where with military threats the threshold for action is "foreseeability" with climate change the threshold for many is shifted to certitude of mounting threat.  Prudence is thus flipped to ground a claim that in a context of scientific uncertainty about the scale of mounting climate change it would be imprudent to ramp up significant national spending to engage such an uncertain threat. 

My concluding section offers a case study in making prudence claims more concrete by materializing them in how America mobilized to help win World War II. Bill McKibben suggests, rightly, that this mobilization illustrates how America once was willing to mobilize to engage and mitigate an existential threat. It was done once, and can be done again.

By 1944 the US was mobilizing 43% of our GDP for the war effort and raised taxes on our richest families at a top marginal income tax bracket of 94%. (This kicked in on households whose income stood above $250,000 or in today's dollars roughly $2.5 million.) During the Cold War our defense budgets dropped to 8-10% of GDP and today they stand at roughly 3.4% of GDP.  Our military spending in absolute terms is roughly greater than that of the next ten countries combined, but our economy has grown so large that military spending now consumes a--half-century--record low level in terms of our GDP.

Prudence and history suggest that the U.S. can and should match our current annual military spending with an equally-scaled (or larger) annual climate security effort.  That would push our total security spending--military and climate defense-to roughly 6.8% of GDP, a figure well below our defense spending across the decades of the Cold War.

Anthropocide: A Crime Against Humanity?
Gaspard Lemaire, Ecole Normale, Supérieure, Paris 

As they have become the primary force of change on this planet, human beings have entered a new
geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Today, fossil fuels are alone responsible for more than one in five
premature deaths worldwide: air pollution causes 8 million deaths each year. Climatic changes are
endangering the existence of much more people in the short to medium term.

In this paper, I claim that since these life-threatening events endanger civilian populations and are resulting from human activity, they must be considered as crimes against humanity. However, the exact nature of the crime being committed needs clarification. While a genocide is a targeted action aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people, the victims of anthropic environmental changes face death regardless of their nationality, religion, or ethnicity. The term of mass murder is no less inadequate, since here killing is not a goal per se: the loss of human lives is simply dismissed as “collateral damage”. As for the notion of ecocide, it certainly captures the destruction or irreparable damage of ecosystems, but it fails to account for the destruction of countless human lives.

Consequently, I argue in favor of coining a new concept: anthropocide. This word is from the Greek anthropos, "human", and the Latin suffix cide, "to kill". Anthropocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of the largest part of humanity. It is intended rather to signify a set of different actions including not only the killing of millions of individuals through air pollution, but also all activities that contribute to climate change, and therefore to the increase of natural disasters (droughts, hurricanes, extreme precipitation, coastal flooding, etc.), to a decline in food production, to the destruction of ecosystems, and to geopolitical instability. Such actions result in the destruction of essential foundations of the life of human groups, which is eventually very likely to bring about the annihilation of the groups themselves.

These actions are accomplished knowingly and will lead, if they remain unprevented, to the disintegration of the territory, of the political and social institutions, of culture and economic existence of entire human groups, and to the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Anthropocide affects humanity as a whole and involves a denial of the right to exist of most human beings. While states are the only organizations that can pass legislation to prevent anthropocide, they fail to do so and should bear full responsibility for their inaction. However, the crime of anthropocide can be avoided if it is recognized quickly enough by international law.

The Polish jurist Rafael Lemkin invented the word “genocide” in 1944. His dedication to the acknowledgment of this crime leads to the recognition of genocide by the UN as soon as 1948. My conclusion that we still have a few years to act and that we are not doomed to be the executioners of humanity.