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Climate ethics with an ethnographic sensibility

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Derek Bell, Dr Jo SwaffieldORCiD



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Springer Netherlands, 2019.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


What responsibilities does each of us have to reduce or limit our greenhouse gas emissions? Advocates of individual emissions reductions acknowledge that there are limits to what we can reasonably demand from individuals. Climate ethics has not yet systematically explored those limits. Instead, it has become popular to suggest that such judgements should be ‘context-sensitive’ but this does not tell us what role different contextual factors should play in our moral thinking. The current approach to theory development in climate ethics is not likely to be the most effective way to fill this gap. In existing work, climate ethicists use hypothetical cases to consider what can be reasonably demanded of individuals in particular situations. In contrast, ‘climate ethics with an ethnographic sensibility’ uses qualitative social science methods to collect original data in which real individuals describe their own situations. These real-life cases are more realistic, more detailed and cover a broader range of circumstances than hypothetical cases. Normative analysis of real-life cases can help us to develop a more systematic understanding of the role that different contextual factors should play in determining individual climate responsibilities. It can also help us to avoid the twin dangers of ‘idealization’ and ‘special pleading’.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bell D, Swaffield J, Peeters W

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

Year: 2019

Volume: 32

Pages: 611-632

Online publication date: 05/08/2019

Acceptance date: 16/07/2019

Date deposited: 19/07/2019

ISSN (print): 1187-7863

ISSN (electronic): 1573-322X

Publisher: Springer Netherlands


DOI: 10.1007/s10806-019-09794-z


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