Morals and climate decision-making: insights from social and behavioral sciences

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A group of women working together to cultivate fish and vegetables in a community-based fisheries management in Bangladesh. Photo by CBFM-Fem Com Bangladesh.

WorldFish researcher Jacqueline D. Lau answers questions on her new publication exploring the role of morality in climate decision-making.  

As the global community seeks to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, morality heavily weighs on the decision-making process. The people who will bear the brunt of climate change, mostly the rural poor in low- and middle income and coastal countries, are often least responsible for emissions. Decisions about climate change are thus inherently moral judgements.

A new publication, Morals and climate decision-making: insights from social and behavioral sciences, seeks to understand and examine the role of morality in climate decision-making and adaptation. Researchers explored the ways in which moral values and worldviews manifest in different societies, noting the importance of recognizing diverse moral contexts in climate change adaptation.

The publication’s lead author, Jacqueline D. Lau, took part a Q&A with WorldFish to discuss the paper’s implications and explain how moral judgements can be leveraged for climate action.

How are morals linked to climate change and how does this impact decision-making?

Climate change always concerns issues of justice and equity. It raises big moral dilemmas, such as responsibility and fairness for future generations and non-human life. Tackling climate change requires making moral judgements about the sort of world we want to live in, and what we’re willing to give up to make that a reality.

Decisions about how we allocate resources and labor all have a bearing on climate change: from individual choices about what to buy at the supermarket or whether to take public transport, to larger decisions about how to finance green initiatives and ways to buffer the losses felt by those at the forefront of climate change. The way we make those decisions is influenced and shaped by existing moral principles and identities.

The social and behavioral sciences hold many lessons for understanding how morals shape and constrain climate change decisions.

What role do morals play in framing climate decisions and motivating behavioral change?

Studies show that people's overall moral stances and attitudes to climate change often correlate. For instance, people who perceive climate change to be a moral issue are more likely to act on it. In addition, if you identify with a group that sees climate change as a moral issue, you are more likely to act on climate change to uphold the moral reputation of that group.

Research in psychology and climate communication has shown that moral reframing—or articulating a message in different moral terms—can successfully change political groups’ environmental behaviour and climate change beliefs. These studies suggest that reframing climate decisions in ways that appeal to moral value associated with right-wing political leanings, such as loyalty, authority and sanctity, may offer an avenue for making climate change morally relevant to a broader portion of society.

If human morals are dynamic and often conflicting, how can we strike a balance when shaping climate decision-making?

Because morals are dynamic, and may be uneven or conflicting, the mode of decision-making matters. Given people’s diverse moralities, climate decision-making procedures should not aim to reach a certain moral ‘truth’ or underlying principle, but rather to encourage and facilitate democracy and incorporate multiple forms of knowledge and truth.

Other opportunities to incorporate morals into climate decision-making at different scales include participatory scenarios and exercises—which have long been used by the private sector—alongside the use of morally grounded tools to guide transformation processes.

What benefits are there for researchers, policymakers and business leaders to engage at the nexus of morals and climate change?

Engaging with morals and climate change can help ensure that climate decisions taken at all levels are connected to the real world, making climate actions more likely to succeed.

Research has shown that failure to consider the diverse moral contexts in which climate decisions play out in people’s lives can lead to perverse outcomes and conflicts. For instance, a study of REDD+ in Nigeria found that the project aimed to normalize particular moral values about forest protection, but these values conflicted with local understandings of morality centered around entitlements to forests, to put it simply, the project’s overarching moral framework did not align with local uses or understandings of who is entitled to forest benefits.

Thus, as philosopher David Storey puts it: “If we are to succeed in bending the moral arc of history toward climate justice – to remake the world as it ought to be—we need to do a better job of working with the world as it is.”

Social and behavioral scientists working on morals have the tools and methods that allow us to understand the world as it is, and thus connect climate decisions to on the ground realities and values.

Little girl aged 12 with her brother, paddling to school on the Barotse Flood Plain. Photo by Felix Clay.
Little girl aged 12 with her brother, paddling to school on the Barotse Flood Plain. Photo by Felix Clay.

Aquatic food system actors, such as coastal fishing communities, are the first to feel the impacts of climate change. How can their experiences be used to inspire behavioral change in the collective masses?

Coastal fishing communities are facing numerous impacts from climate change—including increased storms, sea-temperature warming, and more frequent extreme events—despite often being the least responsible for global carbon emissions. Recognizing this moral dilemma and acting to mitigate climate change to curb the extent of the social, cultural and economic loss and damages is critical. Equally, there is a need to recognize coastal communities’ adaptive capacity and their agency in the face of climate change. Coastal communities have innovative ways of coping with and adapting to change, and it is up to the global community to ensure that the scope of climate change is limited to a level that coastal communities can adapt to and cope with.

Putting morals at the center of climate change decisions, what are some key actions to reduce the demand for ecological resources and build climate resilience in aquatic food systems?

To center morality in climate decision-making, we need to understand human consumption and production of carbon as part of larger moral economies. We have to seek leverage points at different scales, from local to global contexts, and incorporate procedures for navigating multiple moralities in diverse contexts. Ultimately, we have to better understand the scope of moral worldviews as either barriers or enablers of climate action and resilience.

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