Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2011

Ethics and the Economist: What Climate Change Demands of Us

J. A. Nelson

May 2011

Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University


Climate change is changing not only our physical world, but also our intellectual, social, and moral worlds. We are realizing that our situation is profoundly unsafe, interdependent, and uncertain. What, then, does climate change demand of us, as human beings and as economists? A discipline of economics based on Enlightenment notions of mechanism and disembodied rationality is not suited to present problems. This essay suggests three major requirements: first, that we take action; second, that we work together; and third, that we focus on avoiding the worst, rather than obtaining the optimal. The essay concludes with suggestions of specific steps that economists can take as researchers, teachers, and in our other roles.