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date: 23 September 2017

Ethics of Climate Change Communication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Over the last decade, scholars have devoted significant attention to making climate change communication more effective, but less attention to ensuring that it is ethical. This neglect risks blurring the distinction between persuasion and manipulation and obscuring the conceptual resources needed to guide acts of climate communication, cultivate relevant virtues of character, and develop relationships of trust between climate communicators and their audiences.

Three prevailing approaches in moral philosophy can help to illuminate important aspects of the ethics of climate change communication. Consequentialism, which evaluates actions as morally right or wrong according to their consequences for the greatest number, is the implicit moral framework shared by many social scientists and policymakers interested in climate change. While consequentialism rightly emphasizes the effects of communication, its focus on consequences tends to obscure other moral considerations, such as what communicators owe to audiences as a matter of duty or respect. Deontology better captures these duties and provides grounds for communicating in ways that respect the rights of citizens to deliberate and decide how to act, which is particularly important in a democratic context. However, because deontology tends to cast ethics as an abstract set of universal principles, rules, and norms, it often fails to supply concrete guidance on how communicators should act in particular circumstances and downplays the virtues of character needed to reliably apply and instantiate moral principles across a variety of contexts. Virtue ethics seeks to overcome the limits of both consequentialism and deontology by focusing on the virtues that individuals and communities need to flourish. While virtue ethics is often criticized for failing to provide a concrete blueprint for action, its developmental conception of practical wisdom and thick vocabulary of virtues and vices offer a more robust set of resources for evaluating the actions, attitudes, and relationships that characterize climate change communication. Ultimately, no matter which comprehensive ethical theory communicators accept, all three approaches highlight moral considerations that can help to ensure climate change communication is both ethical and effective.