Reward vs. Responsibility: Canada’s ethical challenge in addressing climate change

September 26, 2016
Marc McArthur
Crosstaff Solutions
Advisory Board Member
World Intellectual Property Organisation’s WIPO GREEN Program


With contributions from Mahmoud Masaeli, Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa

We are living in an increasingly globalising world characterised by a high degree of interconnectedness with and among the world’s societies. This interconnectedness (let’s call it ‘the condition of globality’) manifests itself in several ways from the instantaneous communication of human triumph and despair from and to every corner of the globe to the impacts of an increasingly mobile population including cultural exchange and the spread of terrorism. As a result, Canadian society has become increasingly aware of the plight of communities and nations far beyond our borders as well as the impact of our foreign policy on these populations and how this is representative (or not) of Canadian values.

In the natural world the phenomenon of ecological globality has existed for eons before the emergence of mankind. Natural systems have always been physically connected at a global scale and mankind’s activities have had an increasingly greater impact on these natural systems at a global scale, particularly in the area of climate change. We have now reached the point where our societal infrastructure, including laws, codes of practice, concepts of morality, ethics and rights as well as our cultural values and beliefs have fallen behind in scale and sophistication compared with the impacts of our physical infrastructure.

The convergence of these two interpretations of globality was evident at the recently concluded 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) meetings in Paris where for the first time 195 countries representing virtually all of the world’s population acknowledged mankind’s impact on the global climate and the role of our technology as both the cause and potential cure of that impact. More specifically it was recognised that developed countries have achieved their high level of economic development and related societal benefits through exploiting technologies that, in their use, have contributed to a global climate crisis. The resulting sentiment is that developed countries (both states and corporations who are the main agent of economic development) must do more, out of a sense of duty, to make equally effective but more environmentally sound technologies available to developing countries through both financial and technical mechanisms that facilitate this transfer of capabilities.

This imperative creates an interesting challenge for Canada. How do Canadian institutions reconcile Canada’s real and perceived ethical obligations in this new physical and societal globality to effectively balance our obligations to our global community as well as our obligations to our own society? What ethical frameworks should guide decision-making as it relates to the transfer of Canadian technology (and its embedded value) to developing countries? To put it in real terms where should the needle fall on the scale between aid and trade when it comes to Canadian technologies that mitigate the effects of climate change?

Take for example the following statement by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1963 - “Canada is one of the richest, most stable and most fortunate countries of the world. The liberal policies are policies we must follow to sustain and prolong economic expansion without boom or bust.” Over fifty years since that statement was made and under another liberal, Trudeau government is the focus on sustained and prolonged economic expansion still in sync with Canadian values?

There are various ethical paradigms that can be applied to addressing these questions including the realist, economic liberalism (which is not necessarily equated with neoliberalism) and cosmopolitanism. Whichever framework is used it will be important for Canadian policymakers to reflect on where Canada’s moral compass is oriented as we venture into the murky waters of economic reward vs. environmental responsibility when considering Canadian science and technology in this era of globality.