Is Ignorance of Climate Change Culpable?

Philip Robichaud*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Sometimes ignorance is an excuse. If an agent did not know and could not have known that her action would realize some bad outcome, then it is plausible to maintain that she is not to blame for realizing that outcome, even when the act that leads to this outcome is wrong. This general thought can be brought to bear in the context of climate change insofar as we think (a) that the actions of individual agents play some role in realizing climate harms and (b) that these actions are apt targets for being considered right or wrong. Are agents who are ignorant about climate change and the way their actions contribute to it excused because of their ignorance, or is their ignorance culpable? In this paper I examine these questions from the perspective of recent developments in the theories of responsibility for ignorant action and characterize their verdicts. After developing some objections to existing attempts to explore these questions, I characterize two influential theories of moral responsibility and discuss their implications for three different types of ignorance about climate change. I conclude with some recommendations for how we should react to the face of the theories’ conflicting verdicts. The answer to the question posed in the title, then, is: “Well, it’s complicated.”.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1409-1430
Number of pages22
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


FundersFunder number
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek


    • Blame
    • Climate change
    • Culpable ignorance
    • Moral responsibility


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