Climate change is a triage crisis on a global scale. It is caused by the overuse of a severely limited natural resource - the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases - and millions of lives depend on our choices about how to allocate this resource among nations.
This article is the first to explore solutions for climate change mitigation through the lens of triage ethics, drawing on philosophy, economics, biomedical ethics, and moral theory. The literature on triage ethics - developed in contexts such as battlefield trauma, organ donation, emergency medicine, and distribution of food and shelter - has direct implications for climate policy, yet it has been overlooked by climate change scholars. The triage lens rules out climate policies (including the current emissions path) that will lead to catastrophic warming, and it puts options on the table that are marginalized in the current UN negotiations on a climate change treaty.
Traditional triage practice is grounded in both utilitarian and egalitarian principles, and I argue that climate change is analogous to triage practice in which egalitarian principles predominate. I discuss the implications of viewing climate change through the lens of triage as well as the limitations of the triage framework. Finally, I conclude with four principles of climate change justice that emerge from the triage framework.