Is ethics the only way?

by | 1 Nov 2022

Guest writer Andrew Watterson asks whether professional ethics can protect us from climate change if politics isn't doing the job

Fossil fuel’s existential threats to our climate, the environment and public health are now indisputable. The science is clear. Hence the many urgent calls for governmental, producer and consumer action to stop new fossil fuel projects and move away from existing ones. The International Energy Agency has documented why these actions are vital and what alternatives there are.

Yet the UK Government is still committed to expanding onshore and offshore oil and gas, albeit no longer including fracking, in spite of overwhelming evidence about their catastrophic global effects and the fact that the policy will bring no immediate benefit whatsoever to our energy needs. Alok Sharma, now an outlier, has called this week for the UK Government “to explain and demonstrate” how new oil and gas drilling fits with net zero stressing the need to prioritise clean energy investment and home insulation.

In Norway, there has been some recognition of the ethical dilemmas the country faces. These were addressed, according to John Hunnes in 2019, by a twin track approach with Norway using its Oil Fund to promote international sustainability and trying to present itself as ‘an environmentally conscious energy nation’.

This is ‘having your cake and eating it territory’ or more accurately ‘having your gas and oil and burning it’. There seems little chance the UK government recognises – never mind being likely to adopt – an ethical approach to its offshore oil and gas industry any time soon so what can be done in Scotland?

The limited climate change policies of the Scottish Government do go further than those of the current UK Government and there’s no dilemma over juggling a non-existent oil fund. However, Scottish policies will have no impact in Westminster. Alternative strategies are therefore required and these do not preclude accelerated ‘just transition,’ safe green jobs and insulation programmes.

More action is now needed by key groups. Engineers, lawyers, environmental consultants, bankers, accountants, auditors and researchers should finally take an ethical position and urgently stop supporting new oil and gas developments in Scotland and beyond. Powerful arguments exist too for these professional groups to cease supporting existing oil and gas activities when they inhibit or prevent renewable energy developments.

Yet professional groups who enable new oil and gas developments seemingly escape such calls and any effective ethical constraints on their actions. The geographer Marco Grasso observed “a lack of moral guidance could beget a paralysis of policy and governance and worsen moral corruption in engaging sustainably with the climate crisis”.

Powerful arguments exist for professional groups to cease supporting existing oil and gas activities when they inhibit or prevent renewable energy developments

So it has come to pass. Scotland’s oil and gas industry relies on external advisors, consultants and even officials. Bankers, financiers, accountants (including auditors), lawyers, engineers, scientists, environmental impacts assessors and planners continue to help the industry’s new projects.

Professionals know about adverse oil and gas impacts on the global climate as well as the related air pollution morbidity and mortality effects of the industry despite the attempts by some to deny the scientific evidence and to hide behind wilful ignorance. They should now adopt an ethical position withdrawing from helping the industry’s new developments and help to re-orientate existing activity in the sector towards sustainable goals.

Clear codes of professional conduct could help achieve this although there is nothing preventing professionals from adopting an ethical position now without a code. Professional journals and web pages do discuss climate change. For example, in 2020 an Edinburgh-based ‘Chartered Banker’ blog unequivocally stated banks should stop new fossil fuel funding and rapidly withdraw from existing projects because of climate impacts. However, this may not translate into any action.

Professional bodies all too often can duck the ethical, climate, and public health dilemmas their members face working with the oil and gas industry. The defences frequently used by these professionals to support their position range from ‘it’s legal to do this work’ through to ‘it’s necessary,’ and ‘someone has to do it,’ to the last resort of ‘we were just obeying orders’: all weak arguments used in a ‘wilful ignorance’ defence.

They no longer convince or justify ignoring the science on climate change and its public health and environmental consequences. In 2021, Carbon tracker for example found 80 per cent of auditors of one hundred carbon-intensive companies provided no clear indication of whether, or how, they had considered ‘material climate-related matters’. This may result in legal challenges to those auditors and companies where ‘wilful ignorance’ should be no justification for inaction but it raises major ethical issues too.

A number of existing codes simply touch on ethical issues but usually ‘suggest,’ sometimes ‘advise,’ sometimes ‘recommend’ actions by members and rarely ‘require’ members to act sustainably and protect the public, the environment, and future generations.

Different codes exist within the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK Institution of Chemical Engineers, the UK Geological Society, the UK Society for the Environment, the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Several mention opaque ‘public good’ and ‘environment’ issues but not public health. Few seem to require these issues inform members’ work choices or practice. None appear to actively monitor and regulate unethical environmental behaviour. Internal auditors do not address climate change issues but the ICAEW in its 2020 code does state that accountants are expected to take into account the ‘public interest’.

Professional codes for those advising and potentially funding the oil industry should be explicit on the need to avoid work that contributes to major climate changes

UK lawyers look the most backward of all professional bodies. The UK Solicitors’ professional codes of conduct effectively ignore climate change and environmental issues, as do codes of conduct for UK barristers. In contrast, at least on paper, the American Bar Association called for all lawyers “to do what was in their power to reduce harm from climate change.”

The Law Society of Scotland provides information to its members and the public about ethics and codes of conduct. It does refer to ‘public interest’ as well as climate change partly triggered by a 2020 survey prior to COP26. However, little specific guidance on how exactly members should protect the public and public health from climate change developments that clients propose appears to be in the public domain at the moment.

The International Association for Impact Assessment Code has a vision of “a just and sustainable world for people and the environment’ with due regard given to the rights and interests of future generations. To what extent professionals in Scotland will adopt such a vision remains a moot point.

Recently, in a small step in the right direction, 170 lawyers mainly based in the UK publicly called for both in-house and government lawyers to be ‘ethically obliged’ to advise clients about any projects, transactions or even investments that might lead to breaching the 1.5 degree centigrade temperature increase limit. But they need to go much further.

New oil and gas developments will inevitably damage our climate and public health. So professional codes for those advising and potentially funding the industry should therefore be explicit on the need to avoid work that contributes to major climate changes. They must also ensure practice reflects the ethical principles that are then adopted.

The Scottish Government should actively and quickly support and facilitate the development of these professional ethical principles on climate change in whatever ways it can.



The following are links to articles, codes of conduct and ethics or professional recommendations to stop oil & gas funding


Grasso M (2020) Towards a broader climate ethics: Confronting the oil industry with morally relevant facts. Energy Research & Social Science. Vol 62, 101383, ISSN 2214-6296 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2019.101383.

Hunnes J (2019) More planet and less profit? The ethical dilemma of an oil producing nation, Cogent Business & Management, 6:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311975.2019.1648363. https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080%2F23311975.2019.1648363










https://www.aiche.org/about/governance/policies/code-ethics (2015)


https://www.rtpi.org.uk/news/2020/january/code-of-professional-conduct/ (2016)







THE Scottish bank NatWest issued loans worth nearly £3 billion to the biggest firms operating in the North Sea oil industry in the five years after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 (Ferret 2022)



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