How new are the New Harms really? climate change, historical reasoning and social change

Wouter Peeters, Derek Bell, Jo Swaffield

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Climate change and other contemporary harms are often depicted as New Harms because they seem to constitute unprecedented challenges. This New Harms Dis- course rests on two important premises, both of which we criticise on empirical grounds. First, we argue that the Premise of changed conditions of human interac- tion—according to which the conditions regarding whom people affect (and how) have changed recently and which emphasises the difference with past conditions of human interaction—risks obfuscating how humanity’s current predicament is merely the transient result of long-term, gradual processes and developments. Sec- ond, we dispute the Premise that New Harms have certain features that render them new and argue that New Harms share characteristics with other (past) harms. On the basis of these premises, the New Harms Discourse concludes that climate change is a unique social challenge that requires radically new moral thinking, but we argue that this Uniqueness Myth distracts attention from the valuable lessons we can draw from humanity’s successes and failures in dealing with past harms. We will illus- trate how action to tackle climate change and other complex, systemic harms can be informed by the interdisciplinary study of historic harms. We will argue that reject- ing the New Harms Discourse is not only empirically justified, it also gives cause for optimism, because it opens up the possibility to draw upon the past to face problems in the present and future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)505-526
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Issue number4
Early online date26 Jul 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2019


  • climate change
  • historiography
  • morality
  • social change
  • abolition movement


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