Engineering Ethics, Global Climate Change, and the Precautionary Principle

Engineering Ethics, Global Climate Change, and the Precautionary Principle

Robin Attfield (Cardiff University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0803-8.ch013
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Besides respecting relevant codes of professional ethics, engineers should heed the principles of common morality and international law, including the Precautionary Principle, which requires action to prevent serious or irreversible harm in advance of scientific consensus, when reasons exist to credit such harm. In this chapter, this principle is shown to be applicable to many kinds of technology. An objection that seeks to assimilate it to policies of Maximin is shown to miscarry. The principle is further interpreted as concerning avoidable reductions of future quality of life. The phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change is then shown to involve challenges for engineers. In addition to principles of justice and of benevolence, the Precautionary Principle is found to be relevant once again to such decision making. Finally, considerations of humanity's limited carbon budget are adduced to indicate, in the light of these principles, the inappropriateness of extreme forms of energy extraction.
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The ethics of engineering includes abiding by professional codes of conduct and of professional proficiency. Thus, the bridges an engineer builds must not fall down, and the tunnels she constructs must not become flooded or undergo the collapse of walls or roofs; and in general obligations to clients should be satisfied. But these responsibilities are only a part of engineering ethics. Engineers should also comply with common morality, for example, treating everyone justly and without exploitation, including those aspects of common morality that are enshrined in international law.

This chapter focuses in part on one such aspect, the Precautionary Principle, which (as we shall shortly see) was unanimously endorsed by the Rio Conference on Environment and Development of 1992, also known as the Earth Summit, and thus has the status of international law, and carries the recognition and support of just under 200 countries which participated in that Summit. This Principle is elucidated, an objection is considered and rejected, and the scope of the Principle is further elicited; its importance turns out to be such that all students of engineering should be introduced to it and its implications. Later the chapter moves on to ethical principles and decision-making related to global climate change, which turn out to have a considerable bearing on decisions to which engineers are party, and on the scope of projects that they should embark upon. But let us focus to begin with on the Precautionary Principle.

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