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How New are New Harms Really? Climate Change, Historical Reasoning and Social Change

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



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Climate change and other contemporary harms are often depicted as New Harms because they seem to constitute unprecedented challenges. This New Harms Discourse rests on two important premises, both of which we criticise on empirical grounds. First, we argue that the Premise of changed conditions of human interaction – according to which the conditions regarding whom people affect (and how) have changed recently and which emphasises the difference with past conditions of human interaction – risks obfuscating how humanity’s current predicament is merely the transient result of long-term, gradual processes and developments. Second, we dispute the Premise that New Harmshave certain features that render them newand argue that New Harms share characteristics with other (past) harms. On the basis of these premises, the New Harms Discourse concludes that climate change is a unique social challenge that requires radically new moral thinking, but we argue that this Uniqueness Myth distracts attention from the valuable lessons we can draw from humanity’s successes and failures in dealing with past harms. We will illustrate how action to tackle climate change and other complex, systemic harms can be informed by the interdisciplinary study of historic harms. We will argue that rejecting the New Harms Discourse is not only empirically justified, it also gives cause for optimism, because it opens up the possibility to draw upon the past to face problems in the present and future.

Publication metadata

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

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

Year: 2019

Volume: 32

Pages: 505-526

Print publication date: 01/08/2019

Online publication date: 26/07/2019

Acceptance date: 16/07/2019

Date deposited: 19/07/2019

ISSN (print): 1187-7863

ISSN (electronic): 1573-322X

Publisher: Springer


DOI: 10.1007/s10806-019-09795-y


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