Is energy an ethical issue?

Today’s energy seminar was slightly different to our normal focus on science, technology and policy. We were very lucky to host Linnea Luppala of  University of Helsinki (and Energy Futures Lab) to discuss a variety of fundamental ethical issues that arise from energy production, use and policy. Her slides are available for download and here she has also written us the customary complementary blog post.


Based on the handful of scholarly articles written about the ethics of energy, it appears as though energy is not an ethical issue, or at least not an important one. Indeed, it is a very young subfield of applied ethics and it is quite surprising that such an important topic has only recently gained the attention of philosophers. A lot of philosophical work has been done on climate change, but I could not find many article with careful philosophical or ethical analysis on energy. In this blog I am taking energy in its broadest sense as “the capacity to do work, or the ability to move an object against a resisting force” (Sovacool and Dworkin, 2014).

Energy is part of our everyday lives and is often taken for granted (at least in the Western world). This is not surprising, as energy appears to be “artificially cheap and seemingly plentiful.” (Fereidoon Sioshansi, 2011) This “illusion of plenty” has likely contributed to the problem by diluting ethical issues related to our energy systems. However, climate change and the vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) produced by the energy sector have started to bring forth several ethical issues with our energy systems.

There is no shortage of discussion over the ever-growing need for more energy in the future. For instance, the International Energy Agency forecasts that Chinese emissions, which have been 60% larger compared to the emissions of the United States, will more than double by 2035 and similar growth – although more moderate – is projected to happen in India and other developing countries (International Energy Agency, 2013). Fereidoon P. Sioshansi, President of Menlo Energy Economics, emphasises “[t]he key question is not how are we going to get more energy, but rather why are we using so much of it and what for?”(Fereidoon Sioshansi, 2011) Do the ends (what we use energy for) actually justify the means (the costs of producing energy)?

energy-407710_1280The ethical issues with energy can be divided into three categories: producers, consumers and policy. Although these categories are not solid and some of the issues will overlap between two or all categories. Energy producers face ethical issues in the way energy is extracted and produced. All energy sources will involve the transformation of nature. Several energy industries (oil and gas production, mountaintop removal coalmining, uranium mining) contain significant risks such as: toxic chemicals, water contamination, irreversible environmental degradation, destruction of ecosystems, and relocation of communities. These raise important ethical issues that environmental philosophy deals with, such as:

  • Are there important values in nature?
  • Should we respect nature?
  • What is the relationship between humans and nature?
  • Are humans part of nature?
  • Can we justify extinction of a species to satisfy human desires or needs?

Another major concern is the issue of externalities in energy. The current energy market does not pass on the full cost for the energy that is produced, but some of the major costs of energy production have been externalised. Law Professor Noah Sachs conceptualises the issue of externalities by asking us to imagine externalities in the form of a second price tag attached to all products. The price of this tag varies from product to product, but the point is that “this price is never actually ‘paid’ by consumers or producers, the price becomes externalised as a social cost” (Noah Sachs, 2006). In addition, the “illusion of plenty” which is created by the “extensive supply and distribution network that connects consumers to virtually endless supplies of energy” followed by the lack of price signals at the point of consumption, disconnects consumers from the costs and the environmental impacts of energy production. (Sovacool and Dworkin, 2014)

The ethical issues that face energy consumers are questions about responsibility and complicity. Are individuals morally responsible for purchasing energy from energy sources that promote climate change? Are individuals morally required to change their energy-intensive lifestyles? I believe the most important issue related to consumers is linked to lifestyle choices, the way we use energy. Surprisingly, the way we use energy in our daily lives has not received nearly as much attention as it deserves. It is much easier to make changes on an individual level than governmental (policy) or collective levels (producers).

planet-964112_1920An important ethical issue facing energy policy – which I claim we often tend to forget – is the issue of trade-offs. Every single energy technology has its negative impacts and energy policy must make difficult decisions between the different choices available and “each choice involves a nettle: it will sting!”. (Jamieson Dale, 2011) Even if you chose the most environmentally friendly technologies available, you would still have to grasp nettles. This is important to keep in mind and it’s fundamental to be able to justify these choices.

The global energy system also raises important issues with justice. There are at least three of those: global justice, intergenerational justice, and ecological justice. Global justice emphasises the unjust distribution of impacts of our energy systems. Developed countries are responsible for the majority of the damage but the poorer countries are more likely to suffer the negative effects. Political inaction on this issue can be seen as taking advantage of the poor and their “inferior bargaining position”. In addition, energy access and energy poverty are important issues directly linked to justice. Intergenerational justice raises the issue of time lags, especially with climate change. Here the largest impact will not be dealt by us but by future generations, which “strongly implies that the current generation is taking advantage of its temporal position with respect to its successors in indulging in political inertia”. Ecological justice brings forth the impacts of the energy industry on ecosystems and nonhuman animals. Several energy technologies require destruction or alteration of the surrounding ecosystems where the costs are imposed onto other species. (Stephen Gardiner, 2012)

Next I want to briefly explore some ways ethics can help with the serious issues mentioned above. I would argue that climate change is by far the biggest challenge to our energy systems. But why has it taken us so long to do anything about it? Environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson has argued that climate change struggles to gain traction and inspire action because of its complex and asymmetrical structure as a moral problem. According to Jamieson, a paradigm moral problem would look something like this: “Jack intentionally steals Jill’s bicycle”. Here the “individual acting intentionally harms another individual; both the individuals and the harm are identifiable, and the individuals and the harm are closely linked in time and scape”.

However, climate change challenges these different dimensions (relational, temporal, and spatial) of a paradigm moral problem. Jamieson claims that when talking about climate change what is left is only the core of a moral problem: “some people have acted in such a way that harms other people”, however, all the significant information accompanying the core have vanished. Instead climate change as a moral problem looks more like this: “Jack and large number of unacquainted people set in motion a chain of events that prevents a large number of future people who will live in another part of the world from ever having bikes.”  Jamieson argues that because of this failure we need a new environmental ethic which expands our moral concepts to facilitate complex global issues such as climate change. (Jamieson Dale, 2011)


I am not convinced that we need to develop a new environmental ethic, however, what Jamieson has managed to show is that there is an issue with the way we use ethics in basic everyday reasoning. There is no doubt that these are extremely serious moral problems. In order to understand climate change in its full complexity, we desperately need careful and rigorous moral philosophy. Better understanding of these issues will help us significantly to act in the changing climate and should serve as a motivation to change our behaviour accordingly. I believe that we will need to expand some of our moral concepts to include the environment and allow for a larger context in which we evaluate our actions, a point to which I will turn next.

In order to do that and to understand energy in a global context, I will apply Paul Hirsch and Bryan Norton’s model that urges us to “think like a planet”. Facing climate change, Hirsch and Norton’s model focuses on the need for new mental models on both personal and cultural scales. In order to act virtuously in the changing world we must adjust our conceptual frameworks. Acting virtuously is not only about embracing behaviour patterns that are consistent with our morality or our sense of what is right, but adjustments must be made to our “understanding of the spatial and temporal context in which action takes place”. (Paul Hirsch and Bryan Norton, 2012)

A significant mental shift is required to understand the context of our moral actions in the context of global or even national energy systems. Hirsch and Norton suggests, a “metaphor-driven cognitive transformation” as the best way to comprehend this shift, and a well-chosen metaphor will match the scale of the system one is dealing with. When considering global energy systems the new context for our actions should be “the planet as a whole”. Therefore, we must learn how to think like a planet. (Paul Hirsch and Bryan Norton, 2012) Framing energy this way helps us to bring the full-scale of the ethical issues involved with our energy systems to the energy debate.


Energy is not just a technological issue but involves difficult ethical choices. Science and engineering are crucial in finding more ethical and environmentally friendly technologies for our energy systems, but “technology will not deliver us from the agony of choice”. (Jamieson Dale, 2011) We are faced with serious ethical decisions and choices, and ethics must be involved to ensure that important aspects of our energy systems are not overlooked. Ethics is fundamental in our search of a new, just path for our energy future.


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