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A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming

Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd in association with Christian Aid
RRP 39.95

This book, by the Professor of Ethics at the University of Edinburgh, attempts a wide ranging analysis of both the modern moral climate and the ethical issues associated with global warming.

Northcott states the core argument of his book as follows: “the fossil-fuelled global economy is dangerous to planet earth and to human life, not just because it is warming the climate of the earth but because it is deeply destructive of the diversity and welfare of the ecosystems and human communities from which surplus value is extracted and traded across highways, oceans, and jetstreams.”

His ethical analysis is confronting and challenging. Like the prophets of old, Northcott is “an assaulter of the mind”.

His analysis and critique of the modern moral climate, which he contends is “a construct of three assumptions”, namely “that the human moral agent is an autonomous reasoning sovereign, that human economic exchange is a realm of contractual mediation between autonomous human agents, and that the social contract is relationally independent of the cause-effect mechanism of the cosmos”, is persuasive.

Northcott agrees with Karl Polanyi that “the market is a novel moral structure in human history”, and argues that “the market construct has the effect of disembedding exchange relationships from human or ecological communities.”

He considers carbon trading a “highly ambiguous development”, and is critical of the approach taken in the Kyoto Protocol. Part of Northcott’s response is to advocate for a re-embedding of exchange relationships in local human and ecological communities, consistent with a “reordering of the human economy to the biological laws and limits of the economy of the earth”.

A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming is an informative, challenging, even disturbing, ethical and theological analysis of both the modern moral climate, and the moral climate that will be needed if a well-informed, sustainable response is to be made to the challenges that are emerging as a result of anthropogenic climate change.

The signposts that Northcott offers may seem to lead in a radical redirection of human community and economy. So be it. The alternatives are locked into frameworks which are in need of substantial critique, (and dismantling?).

Northcott’s book creates some space and offers resources from within the Christian tradition to undertake such a critique.

A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming is an important book for the church at this time in world history. It deserves a wide readership and thorough engagement.

Reviewed by Rev Douglas L. Jones