A call for research ethics in the face of the climate crisis

A call to action

Our world is increasingly rocked by environmental disasters and climate events, from scorching heat waves to devastating storms, floods, and wildfires. In 2023 alone, a staggering 240 global climate-related events were recorded, claiming the lives of at least 12,000 people. These events, largely attributed to climate change, are only anticipated to continue, with March 2024 marking the tenth consecutive month as the hottest on record.

Amidst these crises, hope persists. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the climate crisis is “a race [humanity is] losing, but it is a race [it] can win.” The key lies in scalable solutions – solutions that science is well-equipped to provide. But could these solutions come with added costs to individuals, society, and the environment?

A balancing act

The urgency of research in times of crisis cannot be overstated. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic, where researchers developed a vaccine at record speed. Similarly, in the face of the climate crisis, there’s a pressing need to expedite the development of new technologies, climate mitigation strategies, disaster preparedness measures, and societal resilience initiatives. However, this work carries both benefits and risks – and navigating the ethical challenges associated with climate-related research and innovation is no easy feat.

Weighing the risks and benefits of climate-related research and innovation can be daunting. For instance, while solar radiation technologies offer the potential to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight, they may also have unintended consequencessuch as shifting extreme weather patterns or disrupting ecosystems. The collection of data on disasters, while supporting the detection of and adaptation to the climate crisis, may bring about questions of data privacy and consent. Research on floods and wildfires may pinpoint high-risk areas but lead to the displacement of communities.

Bridging the divide

The adverse effects of the climate crisis – as well as the impacts of related research – are unevenly distributed. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, where poorer nations shouldered a heavier research burden but encountered higher vaccine costs, climate crisis research and innovation may disproportionately affect those in lower-resource settings. For example, the deployment of carbon capture technologies often occurs in low- and middle-income countries and does not take local needs, risks, or resources into account. Solar power technologies that require significant water usage may deplete local water reserves used for drinking and agriculture

Ethics in crisis response 

Ethical challenges also extend beyond proactive climate research to crisis response following environmental disasters. When communities face the aftermath of events such as tsunamis or hurricanes, ethical considerations come to the fore when providing aid, ensuring equitable distribution of resources, and prioritising vulnerable populations. The need for research ethics remains paramount in these critical moments: when quick decisions can have long-lasting consequences for affected communities and ecosystems.

Towards a sustainable future

The advancement of research is necessary for humanity to win the race against the climate crisis. However, we must take a comprehensive view of climate and environmental research, upholding ethical values and standards. As the climate crisis knows no borders, neither should research aimed at combating it. However, this calls for inclusive decision-making, cooperation, and local engagement to ensure equal and just solutions. Additionally, in the face of uncertainty, the impact of research – on individuals, society, and the environment alike – should be continuously assessed. Only through collective action and responsible research practices can we move towards a sustainable future.

Carly Seedall is a researcher in both PREPARED and RE4GREEN, an EU-funded project developing a framework for research and innovation that holistically addresses environmental and climate ethics issues.