Environmental Philosophy

Volume 6, Issue 2, Fall 2009

Stefan Skrimshire
Pages 1-20

Points of No Return
Climate Change and the Ethics of Uncertainty

According to recent scientific reports, certain climatic tipping points can be understood as “points of no return,” in which, for instance, anthropogenic interference changes global temperatures irreversibly. Such an outcome presents a situation unlike any considered before by risk theorists, for it introduces an element of radical uncertainty into the very value (considered ethically, culturally, and politically) of taking action on climate change. In the following I argue that ethical bases for action that rely on traditional concepts of risk (such as the dominant precautionary principle) are vastly ill equipped to make sense of the catastrophes of the scale predicted by most climatologists today. Instead we need to understand the possibilities of political action beyond thresholds assumed by tipping-point calculations. This in turn means investigating action as a form of risktaking and as operating against the conservative connotations of environmental precaution. It also implies acting against the calculative assumption that one’s actions are meaningless “unless this happens by this time,” a sentiment propelled, perhaps, by the repetition in mainstream media of reference to the finality of points of no return.