Copenhagen limps to a close Friday, miles from an agreement and carpet-bombed into near incomprehensibility by a deafening torrent of voices flooding news media and the Web.
The verbal din need not be an impenetrable barrier to understanding what's happening.
An ethics toolkit is available to help hack a trail through the noise, a fanny pack of moral philosophy addressing concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, justice and virtue and what actions are defensible and why.
Where to start: The Veil of Ignorance Imagine the world being shuffled like a deck of cards and redealt. Canadians suddenly no longer know who they are, where they live, how much money they have, what their status is - they exist behind what U.S. philosopher John Rawls termed a veil of ignorance.
Thus separated from the biases of their former selves, they can consider the morality of a given issue. Would they condone the carbon emissions of the tar sands if they found themselves living in an impoverished society on the equator, struggling for a sliver of industrialization while temperatures rise and bake their land?
Then the big issue: Discounting future lives People who discount future lives are called "temporal relativists." They assign more value to a life saved in 2010, for example, than a life saved in 2020. They also apply the theory backward, valuing a life saved in 1990 as less than one saved in 2000. So what does this have to do with greenhouse emissions?
Discounting future lives reduces our estimation of the potential severity of climate transformation impact, since it diminishes the significance of changes that will happen to future generations. Therefore, ethical and policy options on climate change are going to differ depending on whether future lives are worth the same or less than present lives. In politics, that would be called a ballot-box issue.
Or maybe the subject won't come up Danish political scientist and climate-change skeptic Bjorn Lomborg - he was in Toronto recently to debate the issue - says it will be far more expensive to cut carbon emissions radically than to simply shoulder the cost of adaptation. Thus, he argues, both present and future generations will be better off if we simply accept there will be climate change and try to live with it.
Even Yale's William Nordhaus, the world's foremost climate-change economist, argues that the Kyoto controls are far too aggressive, and that only limited abatement policies should be put in place.
But someone's going to talk about the polar bears The precautionary principle - which Canada has accepted as a signatory to the Earth Summit's Rio Declaration in 1992 - says that uncertainty about the potential harm something might cause should not be used as an excuse to avoid taking measures to address it.
University of Washington philosopher Stephen Gardiner, one of the very few scholars to write on global-warming ethics, says climate change satisfies the conditions for the core precautionary principle: Many of the predicted outcomes seem severe, some are catastrophic and a number are deemed irreversible.
And the science Climate-change science is said to be uncertain. Uncertainty, however, doesn't mean we have no clue: It's simply a technical term for the probability that something will occur.
The International Panel on Climate Change - whose science has not been sullied by a leaked e-mail scandal - explicitly assigns probabilities to its main climate predictions. For example, it says it is "very likely" that in the 21st century there will be higher temperatures over nearly all land areas, by which the IPCC means a probability of 90 to 99 per cent.
Introducing the Difference Principle On the issue of responsibility for the guck already in the atmosphere, philosophical writers agree: Developed countries should take the lead role in bearing the costs of climate change, while the less-developed countries should be allowed to increase emissions for the foreseeable future.
Prof. Gardiner says all the major traditional lines of thought about justice in ethical theory point to the same conclusion under what may be called a Difference Principle inspired by John Rawls. This permits inequalities in the distribution of goods, but only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society.
Plus allocating emission rights Three main ethical formulas have been proposed for deciding who gets to spew carbon into the atmosphere - equal per-capita entitlement, right to subsistence emissions and priority to the least well off. They're all flawed.
Equal per-capita entitlement, for example, would allow every human being the same carbon footprint. The problem is, that might encourage population growth, and it wouldn't ensure emissions aren't used to produce luxury goods. Rights to subsistence emissions are too hard to define, since they would devolve into an endless debate about who needs what to survive. Similarly, priority to the least well off risks getting sunk in semantic quicksand.
God could be really mad British Anglican theologian Michael Northcott has written a much acclaimed book, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming , in which he draws parallels between today and the Hebrew prophets' warning of God's fury over despoliation of the land.