Water Ethics: A Cure for Climate Change

The subtitle of my 2013 book on Water Ethics is “A values approach to solving the water crisis.” There are lots of ways that more attention to values and ethics would improve water policies and practices. But the challenge of addressing the world’s water crisis seems almost insignificant compared to the existential threat of global climatic instability.

How can the serious application of water ethics actually help mitigate climate change? I’ve been thinking about this since attending the Under Western Skies conference in Calgary, Alberta (Canada), Sept. 27-30. The focus was water, but only a few of the speakers were card-carrying water experts, They were mostly poets, artists and philosophers, historians, and social scientists along with some broad-minded natural scientists, all with a deep commitment to the environment.

They spoke in very clear terms about the planetary disaster that is already unfolding. Photographer and film artist, Chris Jordan, talked about his new film, Midway, illustrating the Pacific Ocean’s plastic crisis with scenes of Albatrosses dying from mistaking plastic trash for food. Acclaimed water expert, Bob Sandford, painted a horrific picture of what the North American Anthropocene will probably be like. And anthropologist, Bruno Latour presented a performance by Gaia Global Circus, a dystopian drama about our pathetic response to the climate crisis.

Confronting our predicament through the articulate words of well informed observers left me wondering what the water sector can really contribute to the over-riding priority of climate change mitigation. How can work within the water sector help to change energy policy, the most direct culprit, or agricultural policy, which has steadfastly ignored the potential for sequestering carbon in farmers’ fields?

The answer is through “water ethics.” Fossil-based energy uses a lot of water, and agriculture accounts for some 3/4 of the world’s water use. The water these sectors depend on is aiding and abetting their climate crimes. A perspective of “water ethics” highlights the wrong-headedness of both conventional energy and conventional Ag and prompts a search for better ways of using that water to help rather than harm the planet.

And there are further contributions that water ethics offers in the battle to save our planet. Here are four ways that water ethics can guide climate action:

  1. Ethics evaluation of water value chains. “Follow the water” to see what activities that water is supporting, and assess the ethics of those activities. Is irrigation water supporting agriculture that builds humus (carbon) in the soils? Managing soils for carbon sequestration is one of the most promising ways to slow climate change. Is water (or water quality) being sacrificed for coal mining, oil/gas extraction, or for cooling fossil power plants? Renewables (solar and wind) have minimal water footprints and displace huge quantities of CO2 that would otherwise be produced by fossil fuels.
  2. Learn how to co-exist with Nature. Water science, if not yet water policies, have already made the turn towards working with Nature. Flood management (not control), environmental flows, and “living with rivers” are the terms being used. Now to apply those same principles to our energy policies! Let’s work with the sun and the wind, our sustainability allies!
  3. Waters are connected. Everything in our rivers eventually flows to the sea, including pesticides, fertilizers, coal residue, chemicals, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, and of course, plastic. We have an ethical obligation to clean up both our rivers and our oceans. Most people “get” that. But the atmosphere also flows to the sea where CO2 and heat are changing the ocean currents and destabilizing the ecology and climate We need to acknowledge our deep ethical responsibility to protect the oceans and the atmosphere, along with our lakes and rivers.
  4. Ethical imagination. Ethics helps us imagine what should be, and can stimulate the search for synergistic solutions: For example, allowing rivers to flow can recharge the aquifers and provide water security for cities and businesses to thrive. Applying green technologies to use less water, recycle more, and put water to best overall, carbon-sequestering uses, can help the whole planet thrive.

Water ethics, however, is still a niche topic. We are committed to building it into a global brand, because the world of water needs ethics. To get involved, or to learn more, visit the Water Ethics Network website where you can find articles and books, a monthly e-newlsetter, and links to our Facebook and Twitter sites, or contact us.

Blog Courtesy Of:
Dr David Groenfeldt
Chair, Water Ethics Working Group

Please note that the ideas, thoughts, information or views expressed within this blog are those of the author. and therefore do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Water Future.