Witnessing Professionals and Climate Change Workshop

May 12, 2018, 9:00 am5:00 pm
Wallace Hall, Room 300


Event Description

Event registration is now closed. Email Kim Girman, [email protected] with questions.

Coponsored by the Climate Futures Initiative, Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy and Social Science Research Council.

Organizers: Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and Director, University Center for Human Values, and Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government (Emerita), Harvard University

The guiding theme is the expanding bounds of professional ethics -- from the internal norms of professional work to the public responsibilities of experts with special knowledge. Our concern is the potential moral and political impact on citizen mobilization and on decision-makers of public statements by experts about the concrete climate dangers that are impacting people’s everyday lives, property, health, and security.

This is an unexplored area at the border of ethics and democratic politics, and the conference has potential to advance our thinking about a comparatively ignored but powerful set of participants in climate politics. 

Professional ethics became a burgeoning field approximately thirty years ago, resulting in the creation of ethics centers and programs in the social sciences and in virtually every professional school. The most common ethical frameworks focus on internal professional norms and positions taken by professional associations. Congressional ethics and medical ethics aside, larger questions of the moral and political obligations of professionals to public deliberation have been comparatively neglected. Climate change is fertile ground for reviving what Robert Jay Lifton has called “witnessing professionals” whose expert knowledge brings with it a duty to educate and warn. What distinctive obligations if any do professions have with respect to climate change? Is there a ‘duty to warn’? What are the terms and limits of advocacy and warning, and in what settings? What is the impact of climate change on our understanding of professional responsibility? Scientists have debated these questions in other contexts, and they are now propelling a sea change in their public communications about climate change.

Climate change opens up a set of questions. One is whether parallels to earlier instances of witnessing professionals apply -- physicists and doctors in the anti-nuclear movement, for example. Another is:  What are the moral and political justifications for speaking out in political as well as professional forums, such as the sense of professional responsibility and impact we have begun to see with climate scientists? This question is relevant to a variety of professions: it extends to public health professionals, the insurance industry, the military, legal efforts to litigate fossil fuel emissions and secure the release of information, business groups, professors and university administrators.

The impact of climate change on professional ethics is ripe for study and for discussion and collaboration across academic and professional fields. We propose to initiate interaction between ethicists in the professional schools and leaders of professional organizations, beginning with a working group on the subject and outreach to associations that could serve along with SSRC as sponsors of this dialogue and venues for publication.


9:00 am - Welcome: Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University and director of the University Center for Human Values.

9:15 am - Introduction: Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University (emerita)

9:30-10:00 am - Witnessing Professionals: Robert Jay Lifton, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Columbia University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology at the City University of New York

10:00-11:15 am - Panel 1: Scientists:

Chair: Elke Weber, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University

  • Robert Socolow, Princeton University, Climate Futures Initiative and Carbon Mitigation Initiative
  • Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University

11:30-12:45 pm - Panel 2: Public Health

Chair: Adriana Petryna, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania

  • Patrick Kinney, Beverly A. Brown Professor for the Improvement of Urban Health, Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health
  • Lise Van Susteren, The Climate Project; Our Children’s Trust
  • Mark A. Mitchell, President, Mitchell Environmental Health Associates; Co-Chair, National Medical Association Commission on Environental Health; Founder and Senior Policy Advisor, Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice

12:45-1:30 pm - Lunch Break

1:30 – 2:30 pm - Panel 3: Law

Chair: Samuel Issacharoff, Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law, New York University School of Law

  • Justice Antonio Herman Benjamin, National High Court, Brazil; Chair of the World Commission on Environmental Law
  • Katrina F. Kuh, Haub Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

2:30-4:00 pm - Panel 4: Academia

Chair: Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University (emerita)

  • Harold T. Shapiro, President Emeritus and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University
  • Jessica F. Green, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University
  • Jacob Lipton, Program Director of the Systemic Justice Project at Harvard Law School

4:00-5:00 pm - Summary and Discussion

  • Dennis F. Thompson, Professor of Government and the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (emeritus), Harvard University
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