The Ethics on Sea Level Rise

Topics: Environment

Global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate as compared to the rest of the earth’s history, and a large cause of the increase is due to human behavior. Although there are many negative consequences to the rising global temperature none are ever so worrying than the inevitable rise in sea level. As the earth gets warmer polar ice sheets and glaciers melt, which in turn creates a rise in sea level. This rise though, as of right now, is occurring at a slow rate According to NOAA “about one-eighth of an inch per year” .

Because of how slow this problem is occurring, this problem is an inter-generational one and as such has many conflicting and complicated moral qualms. Although the solution to this problem may be quite simple the key questions are who’s problem really is it, and how should we deal with it.

As stated earlier the increased rate of global climate change is mainly due to human causes.

For example use of fossil fuels leaves excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas, and as such in turn contributes to the warming of the planet. Also the destruction of natural habitats such as the rainforests, and natural wetlands decrease the natural ways in which carbon dioxide can be returned to the environment, exasperating the problem. However the main issue is the rising sea level, and why it takes such a long time for it to change even with unprecedented temperature rises. Well the earth is comprised of seventy percent water and oceans are a majority of where it is held.

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So in order to raise the world’s ocean even by a foot of two would require an immense amount of water, hence why it is taking so slow. Now the real issue here is not only that sea level is rising, but that a majority of the earth’s population lives near the water. As a matter of fact according to the UN “Presently about 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast.”. Now forty percent of the world population living near the coast is a massive amount of people and as such the rising sea level will become more and more of a problem as the population begins to grow and coastal populations become denser.

Although these problems are very serious and life threatening many people disregard them as they do not pertain to them as they will happen long after they are dead. Morally, however as it may be condemnable to be negligent to the destruction of other people’s homes, is it condemnable to do that to people that do not exist yet, and as an extension of that do these same people have the right to complain if the actions that are done have led to their existence? This issue is called the non-identity problem and is an ethicist’s worst nightmare. According to Myers:

“In summary, the argument for the Non-Identity Problem runs like this. In all cases we assume that the people in Non-Identity situations have a life worth living. The people these choices cause to be badly off would not have existed if the choice had not been made. Therefore, the choices do not make them worse off then they would have been. A choice does not harm someone in the morally relevant way if it makes them no worse off…”

The problem suggests that people who exist in a world where certain actions happened would not exist if those actions were not taken, so there is no moral condemnations on those actions no matter how horrible those actions would be to future generations. For example let’s say that a person was born in a barely hospitable planet and has to live with the terrible pollution because past generations did it so they could live comfortably, one could argue that if those actions had not happened then this person would not be here today. This creates a variety of different problems when trying to resolve issues that have no immediate consequences and how justifiable certain actions may or may not be.

However there is one ethical theory that can help alleviate this problem, Virtue Ethics. Virtue Ethics an ethical theory created by Aristotle and has many points that may help resolve the non-identity problem. According to Brown “Eudaimonia usually translated as happiness, but that’s not the greatest translation…Better translations are ‘flourishing’ and ‘thriving’” . As such according to Myers “ … a virtuous person desires an environment that supports his aim to flourish and be happy. He has a wish for a world in which flourishing is possible, and indeed a world which maximizes the possibilities for flourishing.” . Also according to Myers “We develop and flourish in response to the environment; therefore we develop and flourish best when the environment is excellently suited for this that purpose.” . As such it is impossible to thrive without a clean and habitable environment. You may be asking yourself how does this help with the non-identity problem? This bypasses the non-identity problem because, although the person may not exist otherwise, they have ruined the environment in which Eudaimonia can be achieved therefore it is morally condemnable to take such actions. Well one of the best ways to slow or prevent sea level rise is to reduce the effects of climate change. And since harming the environment in such a way to render currently habitable areas to inhabitable would stunt Eudaimonia and be morally condemnable, therefore creating action to help stop or slow sea level rise.

As stated earlier sea level rise has a simple solution, however the solution needs to start now not later when it’s too late. So Virtue Ethics makes it possible for inaction to be morally condemnable and makes working to fix it now a priority. The first step to being able to stop or slow down sea level rise is to create infrastructure that will allow people to live in vulnerable areas be able to live there. The next, and most time consuming step would be to enact policy that reduced greenhouse gas emissions and help protect natural carbon sinks. Although the second part may be a long and tedious process, it will eventually lead to a more stable climate level. Although it may be too late to revert the damage that is already done it is definitely not too late to stop the bleeding.

In order to stop the rising sea level we must find it morally objectionable to destroy the environment through inaction. Virtue Theory helps in this regard because it is virtuous to reach Eudaimonia and it would be impossible to achieve this without a good environment. Then infrastructure would need to take place and policy implementations would need to take into effect as quickly as possible. If all these steps are done the sea level rise can be slowed or even halted. It is up to all of us to change the world we live in and hiding behind the non-identity problem for inaction is just as bad as polluting the earth. Without quick change it will become more and more difficult to recover and so all of us must take action.

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The Ethics on Sea Level Rise. (2022, May 24). Retrieved from

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