Ethics and Climate Change

Lauren Hartzell Nichols,
Program on Values in Society and Program on Environment, University of Washington - Seattle


This course addresses ethical issues related to climate change such as: Why is climate change an ethical issue? What would constitute a just allocation of the burdens of climate change? In what ways does uncertainty challenge our ability to understand what we should do about climate change? What are we individually required to do about climate change?

Course Size:

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs.

Course Context:

This is an advanced undergraduate course, which is cross-listed by the Program on Environment (environmental studies major) and the Philosophy department. It also attracts graduate students from a variety of programs (e.g. School of Education, Marine & Environmental Affairs, Philosophy). It does not have a firm pre-requisite, but it is highly recommended students have taken at least one philosophy course prior to enrollment. It satisfies an elective in both the environmental studies and philosophy majors. This course has optional writing credit and service-learning components.

Course Content:

Ethics and Climate Change focuses on the ethical challenges climate change raises. It is interdisciplinary insofar as it provides a foundation for understanding the scientific, social, and economic implications of climate change (10-15% of required readings). The primary focus of the course, however, is philosophical. It is designed to help students understand the way in which climate change is inherently an ethical issue and to then provide tools for answering key questions about how, why and to what extent climate change ought to be addressed (e.g.. to protect future generations) and who should bear responsibility for addressing climate change (e.g. individuals vs. governments).

Course Goals:

The three stated learning goals of this course are: to cultivate philosophical skills (e.g., reading, verbal and written presentation of arguments); to work towards a deeper awareness of the main ethical questions raised by climate change; and to critically reflect on the views presented and on students' own views. By the end of the course students will be able to articulate verbally and in writing why and in what ways climate change is an ethical issue. They will also be able to assess and make arguments about issues such as whether individuals are morally obligated to minimize their climate-affecting activities, what responsibilities nations have with respect to mitigation efforts, and why the possibility of geoengineering raises particularly challenging ethical issues.

Course Features:

All aspects of course assessment are aimed at helping students achieve these learning goals. The following is a summary of the course assessment:

In-Class Participation 10%
In-Class Reading Quizzes 20%
Personal Action Project (2 assignments) 10%
Reading Responses (3 assignments) 15%
Paper: Topic Statement 5%
Paper: First Draft 20%
Paper: Final Paper 20%

In-class participation and quizzes are designed to ensure that students complete and digest all required reading assignments. In-class activities are designed to push students to engage with key ideas verbally. All of the written assignments are aimed at pushing students to develop their philosophical critical thinking and writing skills.

The personal action project further pushes students to apply the philosophical ideas learned about responsibility in the course to their own lives. Students are asked to either make one change in their life that will affect climate change or they can choose not to make any changes. In either case, students are required to write a reflection paper at the start and end of the quarter explaining why they chose to do what they did (or why they chose to do nothing).

The structure of the term paper assignment provides students with feedback at several key stages in the project such that they develop writing revision skills and develop their ideas to the full extent possible in a 10-week quarter. I provide extensive comments on the first version of their paper so that they have the opportunity to revise and improve upon their work. Students are allowed to choose their own topic for this assignment, though they are encouraged to write on the question of whether or not individuals are morally responsible for their climate-affecting activities. We spend a significant amount of time in class and in reading assignments explicitly addressing this issue. I have found that writing on this topic helps students understand the relevance of this course and philosophy more generally to their lives. It enables them to recognize that they've developed skills that they can apply to questions that are relevant to their everyday choices.

There is an optional service-learning component to this course, which allows students to engage in a service-learning project coordinated by the Carlson Center (at UW). This option coordinates with and counts towards the personal action project assignment. For example, one of my students this quarter is working as a forest steward for the Nature Consortium while another is a bike donations specialist for Bike Works (a non-profit that promotes bicycling). I am working with my students to help them see the connection between their service-learning work and climate change such that they can see their work as fulfilling their personal action project. These students then have the opportunity to reflect on whether or not such work is morally required of them, is morally supererogatory (good, but not required), or morally neutral with respect to individual obligations in the face of climate change. Students who choose this option do not have to complete the reading responses assignment, though they are asked to write a longer personal action project reflection paper at the end of the quarter.

Course Philosophy:

Designing this course was and continues to be challenging for me because it serves such a diverse group of students. At heart, it is a philosophy course. But only 30-50% of my students in this course are philosophy majors. My goal for these students is to show them that philosophy can be and is very relevant to a pressing, real-world issue like climate change and even to their own lives in a way that they may not have experienced before. By the time a philosophy major takes this course, they have developed solid philosophical reasoning and writing skills and are ready to be pushed to produce a high-quality term paper. At the same time at least half of the students who take this course are not philosophy majors. I highly recommend that students take at least one philosophy course prior to this course, but I do not make this a hard requirement because I want to draw in students who might otherwise shy away from this course. Most of the environmental studies majors in my course, about 40-50% of the students, have taken my introduction to environmental ethics course, so I can count on their having had some philosophical training. But it is often the student who enrolls in my class out of interest or on a whim who has no philosophical training who adds an important and interesting perspective to the course. I have had several masters students from the school of education, for example, as well as music and computer science majors take my course because they want to learn more about climate change and the ethical issues it brings up. The diversity of students who are attracted to and enroll in this course provides a diversity of perspectives, which is helpful in achieving the learning environment and goals I set out for this class, but this diversity also represents the biggest challenge to designing the course in a way that will serve all of the students who take it.

As an advanced philosophy course I believe I have to set high standards for written work. Yet philosophical writing is a unique genre that requires a distinct approach and skill set. I have to find ways to make sure all of my students have the chance to succeed, while also making sure that I push all of my students farther than they've gone before. Each time I teach the course - it is now in its fourth iteration - I have been more successful in "leveling the playing field" for all of my students while also pushing those who came in with strong philosophical skills to take their work to the next level. I have found that including a formal revision process for the term paper and having a running theme of whether or not individuals are morally responsible for their climate-affecting activities weave through many of my assignments helps to accomplish this goal. This theme, which is manifested in my personal action project and term paper assignments, helps ground the course for all of my students. For the philosophy majors, this theme brings philosophy into their lives in a few of them have experienced before. It pushes them to engage with the course material on a personal level while also pushing them to engage with a pressing real-world problem that involves integrating knowledge from many disciplines - from atmospheric science to economics. For the environmental studies students, this theme pushes them to reflect on their own values in a deeply philosophical way that they likely haven't done before. I have found that this makes the philosophy seem less daunting and theoretical to them and that it helps them see the connection between what they've learned about climate change in other courses and philosophy/ethics. For all of the other students, this theme provides a less-daunting gateway into philosophy that builds from their own experiences.

The University of Washington's Carlson Center has made it easy for me to incorporate an optional service-learning component into this course. I feel it would be too demanding to ask all students to engage in such a project, but those students who do engage in service-learning have the opportunity to put into practice some of what they learn in the course. By working with organizations that address climate change in some way or other, students can really understand these organizations from the inside as they question and reflect on who bears what moral obligations to address climate change. Asking questions about moral responsibility can be very abstract in a classroom setting. Service-learning allows students to ask these questions in a context in which the individuals they are working with have made a commitment to working to adress climate change. Their work can serve as a unifying example through the course as we address topics as seemly disparate as why or to what extent we ought to mitigate climate change in the face of uncertainties about climate impacts under different scenarios to whether it is morally appropriate to consider geoengineering (the intentional manipulation of the global climate) as a viable response to climate change.


I assess each assignment according to established norms in my field. For written assignments, I use a rubric to communicate how I am grading to my students. For their in-class participation grade, I ask students to complete a self-assessment of their participation twice during the quarter, which I use to guide my assessment.

In terms of assessing whether or not students have reached the goals I set for this course, their performance over the course of the quarter illustrates whether or not this has happened. I build into my assessment structure a system that rewards improvement and philosophical development throughout the quarter. Since this course is limited to 30 students, I also know the students well enough by the end of the quarter to assess how well they've achieved the goals I set out for them.


Syllabus: Ethics and Climate Change (Acrobat (PDF) 238kB Oct21 12)

Paper Assignment Description (Acrobat (PDF) 106kB Oct21 12)

References and Notes:

Required text: Gardiner, S. M., S. Caney, D. Jamieson, and H. Shue, eds. 2010. Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Additional readings are provided on our course Canvas site (limited access).