Adding Ethics to the Climate Change Conversation

Posted: May 3, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: April 30, 2010 at 1:59 pm

By Robin Herron and Tara Laskowski

Andrew Light. Creative Services photo

From day one of his graduate work, Andrew Light has been immersed in public policy and environmental science, applying ethical insights to environmental issues such as restoration ecology, biodiversity, climate change and energy technologies.

While trained as a philosopher (he received a PhD from the University of California, Riverside), he also completed a demanding three-year postdoctoral fellowship in environmental risk assessment at the University of Alberta.

In positions at several universities, including a joint tenured appointment in philosophy and public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle, he’s never had a job as a “siloed” philosopher.

But Light’s move to Mason a year and a half ago to head the Center for Global Ethics in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences brought him right where he felt he needed to be.

“Being at Mason is a dream job for me,” he says. “I have great colleagues, and I’m close to the policy network in Washington, D.C., at the moment when we’re finally poised to do something about the issue I care the most about: global warming.”

Light quickly identified other Mason academics concerned with environmental issues and allied himself with the College of Science’s interdisciplinary Center for Climate and Society and the College of Humanities and Social Science’s Center for Climate Change Communication. He works with a range of experts, from scientists who study climate dynamics to professionals who communicate climate issues to the public.

What truly brings academia and the real world together, however, are his connections to outside organizations.

As a senior fellow at the influential Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington-based think tank, Light “has a seat at the table” in policy formulation.

CAP is headed by John Podesta, who was chief of staff for President Clinton and also has an inside track on the Obama administration’s priorities, policies and personnel through his service as co-chair of the president’s transition team.

At CAP, Light’s expertise as an international climate change and environment policy expert is amplified beyond the academy. Through this link, he is able to connect Mason to the Global Climate Network, a group of international think tanks that operates through the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research.

It also gives him ties to such institutions as the Climate Institute in Australia, where climate change is a top concern, as well as partners in South Africa, Brazil, India and China, countries essential to forging a new global agreement on climate change.

Light not only writes about global climate change policy, but also has been participating in developments on the world stage.

Last December, he attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen as part of a Mason delegation that went to the talks as a nongovernmental observer organization.

He was pleasantly surprised by the outcome of the Copenhagen talks.

“A month before the meeting, I thought there was going to be absolutely no agreement about anything, but in a very dramatic turn of events in the last 48 hours of the meeting, things turned around,” he says.

Due in most part to Obama’s personal intervention, Light says, the leaders were able to create the Copenhagen Accord, a new international agreement that could become the basis for a new treaty on climate change.

Light has been excited by the Obama administration’s willingness to re-engage the nation in serious discussions on international climate issues. In an article for Foreign Policy magazine in July 2009, Light wrote, “When the United States rejoined the global discussion on a new climate treaty in January [2009], it triggered an 11-month countdown to solve the most complicated problem humanity has ever faced.”

Since the December talks, 110 countries have made pledges under the Copenhagen Accord for how they will reduce their emissions by 2020. Included in these 110 countries are the 17 top polluters in the world — together making up more than 80 percent of the total carbon emissions on the planet.

“It’s great that we got this agreement, but it is not yet legally binding. And it’s still a controversial document in many ways,” says Light.

“However, if the global community comes together to work on it over the next couple of years it could hopefully become complete.”

In the United States, strides are being made to ensure our own pledge to the Copenhagen Accord — to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions 17 percent below the 2005 levels by 2020 — can be delivered.

Light was encouraged last year when the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate is currently drafting its own bill, and Light is looking forward to seeing what will be included in it when it is revealed. He is especially pleased to see that what is emerging is a bipartisan bill.

Light has written about the need to develop clean energy technologies that could reduce global greenhouse gases, and he contributed to a July 2009 report, “Breaking Through on Technology: Overcoming the Barriers to the Development and Wide Deployment of Low-Carbon Technology.”

He supports the financing of these technologies by developed countries to help developing countries reduce carbon emissions; however, he recognizes that Americans are wary of committing to anything that would give their trading partners an unfair economic advantage.

Light is author, co-author or editor of 17 books, including “Environmental Values” (2008), which will be the focus of a conference this summer at the University of Oslo; “Philosophy and Design” (2008); “Controlling Technology” (2005); “Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice” (2003); “Technology and the Good Life?” (2000); and “Environmental Pragmatism” (1996).

He also has received several National Science Foundation awards for research on ethics in science and technology and recently submitted a proposal to the foundation for a multimillion-dollar grant to support a five-university network on science, society and sustainability.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2010.

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