Scientists discuss the importance of ethics in creating a culture of sustainability

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich

Stephen Schneider

Stephen Schneider

Addressing climate-change impacts is often more about ethics than economics, and universities have an especially important role to play in helping humans ensure the planet's sustainability, according to biological sciences professors Stephen Schneider and Paul Ehrlich, who participated in a Feb. 19 symposium, "The Science and Ethics of a Culture of Sustainability," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

"Nations with 20 percent of the world's population—the developed countries, such as the United States and Japan—have generated 80 percent of the carbon dioxide contributing to rapid climate change," Schneider said. "Yet a ton of carbon emitted in Beijing does the same thing as a ton of carbon produced in Boston or Brussels. If we are to have a sustainable planet, everyone must be engaged in reducing emissions."

While acknowledging that economists "are essential to the debate," Schneider said that traditional cost-benefit analyses and the focus on goods and services are inadequate to address climate-change impacts.

"Cost-benefit analyses alone, which often focus only on markets, cannot address global inequities around carbon generation and mitigation," added Schneider, co-director of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. "To make reasoned and equitable decisions, policymakers need to look not just at the market impacts but at other factors such as loss of human lives and biodiversity, and quality of life."

Time for action

Ehrlich agreed, noting that policymakers need to understand "and exploit" human behavior to "close the gap between the sorts of behaviors recommended by scientists, based on extensive climate research, and the actual conduct of society. It is clearly a time for action."

President of the Center for Conservation Biology, Ehrlich recently proposed the creation of a global Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB), a follow-up to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and similar climate-change efforts but with a specific focus on human behavior.

"[MAHB] was named to emphasize that it is human behavior toward one another and toward the planetary systems that sustain us that requires assessment and modification," Ehrlich said. In 2006, he participated in a pilot MAHB project led by the Woods Institute that focused on climate change in California, with special emphasis on the ethical dimensions of climate policy discussions in the state. His AAAS talk was titled "Ethics, the Stanford Pilot MAHB and the Role of Universities in Solving the Human Predicament."

According to Ehrlich, universities must play a critical role in developing "a more coherent approach to the functioning and evolution of societies." As an example, he cited the Natural Capital Project, a "new and unprecedented partnership" involving Stanford, the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, which, he said, "aspires to provide maps of nature's services, assess their values in economic and other terms, and—for the first time on any significant scale— incorporate those values into resource decisions."

21st-century challenge

While such interdisciplinary efforts represent progress in transforming the academic landscape, Ehrlich cautioned that much more needs to be done, from increasing university outreach to recognizing contributions made by people not in tenure-line positions but who nonetheless contribute significantly to outreach, teaching and research.

"I hope that one day soon the leaders of some university will recognize the challenge and dramatically reorganize their institution into the first true 21st-century university," he said. "If members of American university faculties persist in largely ignoring the need to transform the system of higher education, they will not be in much of a position to help the human predicament."

Kathy Neal is communications manager of the Woods Institute for the Environment.