The Importance of Philosophy in Responding to Climate Change


Photo: Jessica Blackband

When I tell people that my undergraduate majors were environmental studies and philosophy, they usually respond with a confused look and a comment like, “Hmm, those are very different topics!” Of course, science and philosophy are fundamentally different in the questions they ask and in how they answer those questions. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t related in critically important ways. To me, the relationship between the environmental sciences and philosophy has always been a natural and necessary one. Here, I’ll explain how I understand that relationship, why it is important, and how it relates to the decisions we make in response to climate change (particularly from a resource management perspective).

A quick note: I use the term “philosophy” to refer to the practice of using logic and reasoning to examine, argue for, and properly articulate one’s ideas about the world. Environmental ethics is the branch of philosophy that uses this process to examine what moral obligations humans have to the environment and to other species as well as what we should value about the environment.

Resource management decisions are fundamentally philosophical in nature. When determining which species to prioritize on a refuge, how to allocate natural resources, or what components of an ecological system should be preserved, decisions are made based on what the resource manager and his/her stakeholders value.

When humans make decisions, especially complex ones, they do so under the influence of values, biases, and assumptions. This is true regardless of how much data is gathered to support or inform a decision: even the best quality data, collected as objectively as possible, must be interpreted by a human being in order to be used in decision-making. Unfortunately, scientists and managers are often unaware of the value systems that inform their decision-making.

This fact has not gone unrecognized in the environmental community. In the past few months, I’ve attended two trainings offered by the National Conservation Training Center that emphasize this reality: An Introduction to Structured Decision-Making (SDM) and Climate Smart Conservation and Scenario Planning (CSC SP). While these trainings differ in the specific methodologies and issues they address, both give natural resource professionals tools to make the process of decision-making as transparent and thorough as possible, despite the fact that it will always be an imperfect and inherently biased process.

Both methods underscore that no management decision is made outside of a framework of human values, whether or not this framework is visible. CSC SP and SDM encourage conservation practitioners to be explicit about what they value ecologically and why. By making our values explicit, we allow them to inform and guide—rather than confuse and obscure—our resource management decisions in a transparent and defensible manner.

Photo: Jessica Blackband

However, I’d argue that good decision-making requires doing more than just articulating our values. It requires being able to defend and/or challenge those values. For me, this is where philosophy—and the study of ethics in particular—comes into play.

One of the reasons that climate change is so challenging is that it forces us to make decisions that call into question our values and to make difficult trade-offs. For example, many conservation practitioners and environmental advocates are interested in maintaining the landscapes and species assemblages that they have spent their professional and personal lives knowing and loving. While this is a noble goal, it is often not possible and even sometimes not desirable to do so (ecologically or economically) in the face of climate change.

During the CSC SP course, my small group was tasked with the hypothetical scenario of developing a Climate-Smart Conservation Plan for the Balcones Canyonlands State Park. We had to determine whether or not we wanted to invest significant resources in ensuring that the park would continue to provide habitat for listed species whose ranges would likely shrink due to climate change; or, alternatively, we could decide to allow climate change to take its course and help facilitate species migration. The latter option would have significant benefits for particular non-listed species that might find the Canyonlands more hospitable as a result of climatic change, but would have been deleterious to other, rarer species that may not be able to adapt or migrate as well. Determining what actions to take in this scenario made us think deeply about what it is that we value—and what we think we should value—about the ecosystem in question: its ability to support as much life as possible? The welfare of individual animals? The integrity of the biological community? The rarity of a particular species?

 As conservation and climate professionals, we need to be able to move beyond simply acknowledging these questions and instead dive in to the difficult philosophical and oftentimes quite personal work necessary to answer them. Planning for a resilient climate future might mean letting go of some attachments to the land as it has been during our lifetime and imagining a different, more adaptively appropriate ecological future.  This is by no means a vote for complacency or chaos. Instead, it is a call for realistically examining the costs and benefits of persistence management and considering alternatives that may be more appropriate under radically altered future climate scenarios. Conservation planning under climate change requires a mature philosophical understanding of what we should value about nature, in addition to a biological assessment of human and wildlife needs. Refining conservation goals under climate change is an ethical challenge that will require creativity, flexibility, and cross-disciplinary conversation.

How exactly this should be done is the topic of another blog post, but I think there is tremendous room to get creative. As young climate professionals, we are in a unique position to get a head start in thinking about this issue, and possibly including some philosophical inquiry in our education.

For a brief introduction to some of the major themes and questions of environmental ethics, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great place to start. 

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