Bioethics Has a Role to Play in Addressing Climate Change Challenges

Interview with Mildred Solomon, president of the Hastings Center, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The Hastings Center, in the Hudson Valley town of Garrison, New York, was founded in 1969 and is considered by many to have laid the foundation for the discipline of bioethics in the U.S. Bioethics is a field of study concerned with the ethics and philosophical implications of certain biological and medical procedures, technologies, and treatments, such as organ transplants, genetic engineering, and care of the terminally ill.

Bioethicists can play an important role in the climate change debate by helping the public to better understand the values at stake and the tradeoffs that must be made in individual and social choices. Bioethicists can also contribute to the debate by framing the issues in terms of the public health impacts of climate change.

In a panel discussion at the Hastings Center in early June, a small group of experts came together to discuss the topic of climate change and bioethics. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Hastings Center President Mildred Solomon about expanding the meaning of “bio” in bioethics in addressing the challenges of climate change.

MILDRED SOLOMON: The Hastings Center is always interested in identifying new cutting edge issues in bioethics, and it’s been our view that too often our field identifies the “bio” in bioethics too narrowly. We tend to look at ethical issues in patient care as they arise inside of clinics and hospitals. The field tends to look at how best to protect human research participants in clinical research. There are also public health concerns about how to encourage vaccination. All of these are very, very important and they are within the traditional boundaries of the field of bioethics. But too often bioethics has not really taken a deep look at the moral issues related to climate change. And we decided, with the leadership of the founder of the Hastings Center, Dan Callahan, to hold small, intimate meeting with leaders in climate change and environmental studies, along with bioethicists, to say how could we join forces to try to address what really is the ethics issue of our time.

There was a very interesting discussion between two of the newest people, people who are on the environmental side of things, that really gave me a lot to think about. Dale Jamison said we have to stop thinking about this as a problem to be solved because it’s so endemic now that’s it really is just a condition of life on earth to be managed. And that felt very sad; I didn’t want to believe him, but I thought more about it and thought maybe it’s more realistic and something that can help us be realistic to solve the problem.

The other comment was almost the exact opposite implication: seeing the problem we’re in as a problem of democracy. We’re in this fix that we can’t solve anything because we can’t talk with one another. We have lost the important norms that should guide a democracy, which are rationality, seeking truth, listening to each other and compromising in order to meet real world challenges. You can’t have a democracy if you can’t have that kind of rational and respectful exchange. And so that participant was really emphasizing that we’re in this pickle because we have major undermining of the infrastructure of democracy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I always think about, not even that long ago – I think it was 10 years ago at the most – there was a series of TV ads, with pairings of people who had different points of view, different politics, and the main one I remember was Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi sitting on a couch saying, “We don’t agree on much, but we agree that we need to take action on climate change.” And that was before – and Newt Gingrich contributed to it himself later on – to removing the Republican Party completely from any rational discussion of climate change, the climate crisis, what to do about it. We’ve gone from that to where we are now…

MILDRED SOLOMON: … to total denial. It’s shocking, because Republicans were leaders in this area. There’s nothing more conservative than conserving the Earth. Wasn’t it under Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was created?

BETWEEN THE LINES: It was under Nixon, but I maintain that it wasn’t so much that he cared about it as that he was forced to do it because of the unbelievable rising up of people – you know, the first Earth Day was 1970 – and then he did it. He didn’t necessarily stand in the way, but I don’t think it was his idea.

MILDRED SOLOMON: Well, I’m not giving Nixon credit. But I do think that it was possible to get something done, even with a Republican president, even when he didn’t believe in this, at that time and now we’ve become so dysfunctional we don’t even have that.

Another takeaway for me was an image that one of the speakers presented, which was a photograph from the Copenhagen (Climate) conference in 2009 that fell apart. He said that he used to think the dire predictions wouldn’t be so bad because the adults in the room would come up with a solution. And then when he saw this image in 2009 of the adults in the room – President Obama, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and a variety of other leaders, sitting in a room, scratching their heads, writing on yellow notepads what they were going to say to the world when the Copenhagen talks broke down. He said, “When I saw this image and I knew these adults with all the power those people had, didn’t have anything to offer the world, that’s when I knew we were really in trouble.”

BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s the focus of the discussion tomorrow?

MILDRED SOLOMON: I’m going to talk a little about what is the scope of bioethics itself? What has bioethics tended to focus on? My hope for this meeting is that we will break down silos, that bio-ethicists who are trained to think about really hard problems, like what do we owe future generations? I mean that’s a moral question, right? That bio-ethicists with the kinds of training they have will be able to dialogue with ecologists and environmental scientists and also people who have already been in the field of environmental ethics, which has kind of been in a separate corner, and that we will all talk together about how we could join forces. What assets, from our bully pulpit identifying moral issues, can we bring to the struggle to reframe and encourage public commitments to sustainability?

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