The Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) of UNESCO organized a program on July 5th in Bangkok that examined:
- Whether compliance with their ethical obligations by those responsible for climate change is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, and
- What can be done to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical duties and obligations?
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted a set of Ethical Principles for ClimateChange. (UNESCO, 2017, Ethical Principles for Climate Change)
These principles included :
- Prevention of harm
- Precautionary approach
- Sustainable development
- Scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making
These principles are in addition to numerous other ethical principles relevant to climate change, many of which have been expressly agreed to by governments under international law including, for instance, the duties of nations under the Paris Agreement to act to limit warming to “well below 2 degrees C” and “pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C” and that such goals should be achieved by governments in accordance with “equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, 2015, Article 2)
I and two others, Professor Rainier Ibana of the University of Manila and Professor John Hattingh of the University of Stellenbosh in South Africa, were asked to examine the importance of implementation of ethical principles as guidance to climate change policy formation around the world.
In my Bangkok presentation I discussed three issues:
- Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change harms?
- Why ethical principles have largely failed thus far to get traction in the policy responses of governments, organizations, and individuals to climate change?
- What should organizations such as UNESCO, other concerned organizations, and citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond as required by their ethical obligations?
I. Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.
Getting traction for the ethical obligations of governments, organizations, and individuals to guide their responses to climate change is indispensable to prevent climate catastrophe because:
- The world is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change and therefore it is now urgent for all entities to act to reduce the threat of climate change in accordance with their ethical obligations.
- The failure of the international community to prevent dangerous climate change is directly attributable to the failure of nations to comply not only with the ethical principles enumerated by UNESCO but, as we shall see, numerous other settled ethical principles under international law including, but not limited to, normative principles agreed to in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), and the Paris Agreement. (UN Paris Agreement, 2015).
- In addition, as we shall see, the most common arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies that have been responsible for the tragic failure of the international community to adequately respond to climate change for well over 30 years do not survive ethical scrutiny.
- Although all nations have acknowledged their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement to adopt policies and measures that would limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees C while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees C by reducing their emissions to levels required of them by “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances,” research on what 23 countries actually relied upon in setting their GHG reduction targets revealed that all 23 nations ignored these obligations and set their targets on national economic interest. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014)
- Furthermore, NGOs in these countries did not appear to know how to effectively evaluate their government’s inadequate GHG reduction targets on the basis of their noncompliance with their ethical obligations. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014) This was likely the case because for several decades governments set their GHG reduction targets by completing a GHG inventory and then determining what reduction strategies were politically possible and then deriving the reduction target on the basis of the amount of reductions that the politically acceptable strategies would achieve. Thus, the GHG emissions reduction target setting process pursued by governments for the last 30 years has often ignored the need to structure GHG reduction targets at levels consistent with the government’s ethical obligations. They thus ignored, for instance, the principle expressly agreed to by nations who agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC that nations have a duty under the “no harm” principle, a normative principle stated in the Preamble of the UNFCCC, to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their national boundaries. (for a discussion of the normative effect of the “no harm” principle, see Voigt, C (2008), State Responsibility for Climate Change Damages).
- However, now that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent extraordinarily dangerous climate change, the failure of nations to reduce GHG emissions in compliance with their ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change is now obviously indefensible given the horrific harms to life on earth that are predicted if the international community is unable to limit warming to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. These harms include, for instance, deaths and social disruption to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people from unbearable heat stress, increases in tropical diseases, starvation in parts of the world that are increasingly unable to feed populations due to droughts, loss of water supply needed for drinking and agriculture, large increases in property damages from floods and sea-level rise, increasing social conflict triggered by millions of new refugees fleeing places which are no longer habitable, loss of forests from fires and bug infestation, losses of numerous plant and animal species and important ecosystems such as coral reefs, and many other climate-caused disasters that are now foreseeable in the decades ahead.
- Although reasonable people may disagree on what “equity” specifically requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for a nation’s inadequate GHG reduction target does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment Report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors……………. These principles are equality, historical responsibility, capacity, and right to sustainable development. (IPCC, AR5, WGIII, Chap 4, 2014,p. 317-318).
Thus citizens around the world need not agree on precisely what equity requires of nations to comply with their duty to adopt GHG emissions reduction targets to conclude that nations which base their targets on economic self-interest are not complying their ethical and legal duties to set their reduction targets on the basis of equity to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. That is, it is not necessary to agree on what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. In addition, the economic reasoning that research has revealed has been the actual basis for many national responses to climate change cannot adequately deal with justice questions, as IPCC has expressly stated:
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, AR5, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 224)
- Climate change policymaking requires governments to make decisions on many issues that raise justice issues. They include:
- How much warming will be allowed by the nation’s emissions reduction target, a matter which is implicit when a nation makes a GHG emissions reduction commitment.
- Any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations.
- Any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those vulnerable nations and people who are most harmed by climate change.
- Responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations.
- How to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of potentially harmful climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including, for instance, geo-engineering.
- Who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, an issue usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice.
- The policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change.
- The responsibility not only of nations but also of subnational governments, organizations, and individuals for climate change.
- How to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation.
- Who is responsible for climate refugees and what these responsibilities are.
The above chart demonstrates that national responses to climate change are implicitly positions on several crucial ethical questions including:
A. What amount of harm the nation believes is acceptable for it to inflict on the rest of the world.
B. The nation’s fair share of a rapidly shrinking carbon budget that the entire world must be constrained by to limit warming to any warming limit goal where the carbon budget is the total amount of emissions that the entire world may emit before the current atmospheric concentration of CO2e, represented by the middle blue line in the bathtub in the above chart, reaches the atmospheric concentration of CO2e that will cause temperatures to exceed a warming limit goal, represented by the upper blue line in the bathtub in the above chart.
C. The most common arguments made against proposed climate change policies do not survive minimum ethical scrutiny including: (a) cost to an entity emitting GHG above its fair share of safe global emissions, or (b) scientific uncertainty about human causation of climate change impacts.
Many nations justify their responses to climate change on the basis of economic reasoning. Economic rationality usually focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have given their ethical obligations.
- Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is” or what action causes what change. Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
- Nations agreed when they adopted the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they would not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for complying with their obligations to prevent dangerous climate change (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3) under the above principle. Yet, one of the two most common arguments made in opposition to proposed climate policies has been scientific uncertainty, a position which is not only ethically problematic but legally indefensible since the adoption of the 1992 UNFCCC treaty.
- Another common justification for some nations’ non-compliance with their ethical obligations to reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions has been that policies necessary to do this would impose unacceptable costs on a national economy or to a domestic industry. Yet such justification also fails to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny for several reasons including the fact that nations are bound by the “no harm” principle, a provision of customary international law that was expressly agreed to by all nations when they agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC which acknowledges the applicability of this rule in the treaty’s preamble. This principle holds that nations are duty-bound to prevent harm to those outside their jurisdiction once they are on notice that activities in their nation threaten people in other countries. (Voigt, 2008)
- Basing GHG emission reduction targets on national economic interest also violates the “Polluter Pays Principle” a soft law norm of international environmental law stated in principle 16 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. (UN Rio Declaration, 1992)
- There are numerous other ethical problems with cost arguments made in opposition to policies proposed by governments to reduce the threat of climate change. These problems include cost arguments against climate change policies often ignore:
- The enormous harms to others and ecological systems that will be created if policies necessary to reduce the threat of climate change are not adopted;
- The views and interests of those who will be harmed by non-action on climate change;
- The enormous costs to others caused by existing GHG atmospheric concentration levels from killer heat waves, floods, droughts, increases in tropical diseases, destruction of valuable ecosystems including coral reefs, forest fires, and the inevitability that these adverse impacts will get much worse unless existing GHG emission levels are reduced to net zero in a few decades;
- That high-emitting developed nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower-emitting nations because they agreed to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The provision of the UNFCCC stating this duty continues: “Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1) Thus, although developed countries expressly agreed to reduce their GHG emissions faster than developing countries when they agreed to the UNFCCC and to help developing countries with mitigation and adaptation, most developed countries are not doing this.
- The above chart demonstrates that If developed countries don’t reduce their GHG emissions at a rate faster than developing countries, developing countries will have to approach zero GHG emissions much faster than developed countries if the world is going to be constrained by carbon budget necessary to limit warming to the 1.5°C to 2°C agreed to by the international community in the Paris agreement. This, of course, is the opposite of what equity requires of developing countries that have done little to cause the current crisis. Thus, developed countries have a legal duty to reduce GHG emissions at a faster rate than developing countries which duty has a profound practical significance, namely if they don’t there is no hope that the global community will live within the relevant carbon budget for any warming limit goal.
II. Why have ethical principles largely failed to get traction in climate change policy formation?
There are at least four reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy formation. They include:
- The power of a climate change disinformation campaign to undermine the public’s confidence in the mainstream climate change science consensus view on the dangers of human-induced warming
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period (represented by the colored blocks on the left, each of which identifies an important scientific study that concluded with increasing levels of confidence that climate change was a serious threat to people and ecological systems) above the rising jagged red line depicting rising atmospheric CO2 levels) and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, highlights of this campaign are identified to the right of the chart, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 404 ppm.
A recent book, Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle (Dunlap, R.,& Bruelle, 2015), describes how economically powerful interests originally working in the United States while influencing opponents of climate change policies in other nations successfully prevented government action on climate change. A chapter in this book by Dunlap and McCright, The Denial Countermovement (Dunlap. R., & McCright, 2015, Chap 10) documents a thirty-year climate science disinformation campaign, financed mostly by fossil fuel companies, their industrial organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations, which successfully worked to undermine citizens faith in the scientific consensus view on climate change.
The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a “countermovement.” A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement. The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests threatened by potential regulation of fossil fuels.
This book also explains how the denial countermovement evolved, changed, and expanded over the last quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing scientific uncertainty expanded into creating public controversy about the reliability of climate science, an effort which has lasted until the present. (Dunlap, R. & McCright, A., 2015, p.309)
The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which included portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere. (Ibid)
The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and more recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. (Dunlap R. & McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)
The book explains how the climate denial countermovement worked to undermine public faith in the “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), which was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program with a mission of synthesizing for governments the peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and socio-economic literature on climate change. The IPCC has issued comprehensive reports on the climate change science of in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2007, and 2013 which concluded with increasing levels of scientific certainty that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human-caused, and that under business-as-usual climate change may cause potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people who have not consented to be put further at risk by rising GHG atmospheric concentration
Yet, inadequate responses from high-emitting nations have continued despite the fact that many nations most vulnerable to climate change have been pleading with those most responsible for causing climate change to take action for well over twenty-five years.
Every Academy of Science in the world has issued a report or statement supporting the consensus view including four reports by the US Academy of Science.
Well over 200 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have also issued reports or statements in support of the conclusion humans are causing climate change (California, List of Scientific Organizations on Climate).
At least 97 % of all scientists who actually do research in climate science support the consensus view that humans are responsible for a dangerous warming of the planet. (NASA.,Scientfic Consensus)
The Dunlap/Bruelle book claims that organizations that worked to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty expanded over several decades to include think tanks, front groups, AstroTurf groups (that is groups pretending to be bottom-up citizen organizations), PR firm led campaigns financed by fossil fuel interests, and free-market fundamentalists organizations. Much of the funding support for all of these efforts came from some fossil fuel interests. (See Brown, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)
This website has argued that the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, despite the undeniable value of scientific skepticism if skeptics abide by the rules of science, are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science by making such obvious false claims that there is no evidence of human causation when there are numerous independent lines of evidence including fingerprint and attribution studies, isotope analyses of atmospheric carbon which have concluded that the carbon accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil carbon, and many other lines of evidence which have led every country in the world to agree that the warming the Earth is experiencing is human caused
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which claims were not been submitted to peer-review,
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science that are based on the dubious assumption that only fully proven claims are “good” science,
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends. (Brown, supra)
Although skepticism in science is a good thing if skeptics play by the rules of science including publishing skeptical claims in peer-reviewed literature, in the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these morally reprehensible tactics to undermine public faith in the mainstream scientific consensus view have been successful in undermining political support for proposed climate change policies that are required by governments’ ethical duties. (See Ethicsandclimate.org which contains 17 articles on the climate disinformation campaign which can be found under the index tab at the top of the page under “disinformation”)
Largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and what should be learned from the success of the climate disinformation campaign.
2. The dominance of “value-neutral” policy languages to frame policy issues.
Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change policies justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty or excessive costs by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or cost. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public climate change debate so as to limit the public controversy to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Thus, largely missing from this three-decade debate has been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but often deeply ethically and morally bankrupt. For instance, a claim made by opponent of a climate policy that the policy should be opposed because it would impose high costs on a domestic industry has usually been responded to in the United States by claims of proponents of climate policies that the policy will create new jobs, thus implicitly ignoring the fact that unless GHG emissions are reduced quickly, large parts of the world will suffer harshly, and in so doing implicitly validating the unstated assumption of the opponents’ of climate change claim that high costs of climate mitigation strategies are a valid justification for not taking action.
Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for several decades, the public debate about climate change policies has largely ignored the strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of policy public controversies about climate change policies. Thus, opponents of climate change policies have tricked proponents of policies to respond only with alternative economic and scientific “facts.”
Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society who oppose proposed public policies frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing the controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works, for instance, by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm, the public debate has often been exclusively focused on such factual claims as whether the cost to a fossil fuel company that will follow if a government moves to renewable energy is too high. Reasoning about the “facts” of public policies in a way that ignores the ethical issues is referred to by philosophers as “instrumental reasoning.”
Every argument against a proposed climate change policy can be understood as a syllogism with the following form.
If A, B, C, D, E. than we should do F, (The major premise which is a normative claim)
We have A, B, C, D, E (minor premise which is a factual claim).
Therefore we should do F. (conclusion)
Instrumental reasoning usually focuses on facts of the minor premise and ignores the normative basis of the major premise. In fact, frequently opponents of proposed policies often don’t clearly state the normative assumptions of their arguments and must be questioned to uncover the actual normative assumption on which their argument rests. Therefor good critical thinking sometimes must begin by questioning opponents of policies to make the normative basis of their arguments express by asking, for instance, do I understand your position to be that any policy which economically threatens the oil industry should be rejected. In other words, proponents of climate policies which are opposed by economic or scientific arguments should seek to make the normative basis of the argument opposing a proposed climate policy express so that it can be subjected to ethical analysis.
The fossil fuel industry in many developed countries has been successful in limiting the public debate about climate change policies to economic and scientific “facts.” As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change controversies nor been acknowledged by the media.
As a result, an argument can be made that a first-order problem to achieve traction for ethical principles in climate change policymaking is to open policymaking arguments to express ethical reflection and in so doing overcome “instrumental reasoning.” (See Brown, Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation) It is a first-order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, arguments against climate policies must be subjected to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed climate change policies, they can’t evaluate the ethical issues nor apply the appropriate ethical rules. Yet instrumental arguments that opponents of climate policies often deploy have dominated public policy for many decades in some countries including the United States. That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policymaking is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed almost exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics.
This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations on environmental issues can spot problematic ethical issues that should be identified in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reason is deployed to make policy recommendations.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons: First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose institutional power depended, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their technical expertise is the central tool for analyzing and therefore resolving modern problems.
Moreover, particularly in advanced Western countries, wealthy businesses are able to hire technical experts to fight proposed government action which would reduce profits. These experts frequently formulate arguments against proposed government policies that are almost always claims about scientific facts or excessive costs
3. The failure of organizations that engage in issues relevant to climate change policy formation to have employees trained in spotting ethical issues.
Compounding the problem that governments and technical organizations that engage in climate change policy formation controversies are staffed almost exclusively by technically trained personnel is the growing problem that most university departments which teach or do research on environmental and natural resource issues focus on scientific, technical, and occasionally economic issues. In the United States, at least, training in ethical analyses that one might get in liberal arts programs has become less available as more colleges and universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at a time when liberal arts programs have been diminished.
This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly those ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reasons is deployed to effect policy recommendations.
In most Western countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norms agreed to by almost all peoples and nations such as the norm that people should not harm others on the basis of the harming party’s economic self-interest. One egregious example of this problem is that in 2016 US President Trump announced he was pulling the USA out of the Paris Accord because he was putting US economic interests first, a position that violated numerous well-accepted international norms. Yet the US media has paid no attention to the violations of numerous well-accepted, non-controversial international norms such as those that were violated when US President Trump announced that the US would pull -out of the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation controversies have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against proposed climate change policies. Nor do most of those NGOs who participate in controversies about climate policy have the training to spot ethical problems made by the arguments of opponents of proposed policies. As a result, at least in this writer’s experience, even environmental NGOs usually miss serious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.
4. The failure of academic ethics literature to focus on actual policy disputes in contention.
The failures of environmental science and economics education to teach ethics could be remedied if students who were expd to ethics training relevant to the kinds of ethical issues that arise in climate change policymaking. Yet, a very large percentage of students taking environmental science and economics courses have no training in ethics of any kind, not to mention the type of ethical issues discussed in this paper that frequently arise in climate policy controversies.
Although many schools of higher education offer courses in environmental ethics usually as elective, many if not most students enrolled in environmental economics or scientific disciplines have no exposure to these courses. In addition, courses on environmental ethics frequently fail to include discussion of the ethical questions that arise when economics and science are applied to public policy. This is so because the major focus of academic environmental ethics has usually been to examine ethical questions about human and environmental relationships, not ethical questions that frequently arise in policy formation such as the ethical limits of economic arguments, or the ethical issues that arise when government officials must make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Other ethical subjects have been much more focused on specific cases or applied ethics, such as biomedical ethics. In biomedical ethics, ethical analyses often begin with a specific patient with a specific disease. In other words, training in biomedical ethics is often case-based. Hospitals often employ ethicists to help the medical staff with thorny, concrete ethical issues. Yet, most of academic environmental ethics has rarely been “applied” to policy questions as they have unfolded.
As a result, environmental ethics literature has rarely been a factor in policymaking. In fact, in 2003, Eugene Hargrove, the editor and founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, acknowledged that this failure of environmental ethics to influence public policy is widespread. (Hargrove 2003). This admission is a remarkable conclusion from someone who has been at the very center of academic environmental ethics for many decades.
From this, it can be seen that one of the reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy-making is the failure of academic environmental ethics to engage with the issues that frequently arise in policy-making.
For this reason, if environmental ethics is going to be relevant to climate public policy it must become engaged in the economic and scientific issues that arise in specific policy issues. Therefore, in addition to teaching policymakers and citizens the policy consequences that different ethical theories entail for policy outcomes, environmental ethicists must become competent communicators in scientific, economic, and legal discourses that initially frame environmental policy problems such as climate change.
III. What should organizations such as UNESCO or other concerned organizations or citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical obligations?
At the Bangkok program, I recommended that to achieve greater implementation of ethical principles in climate change policy formation UNESCO should:
- Organize an international meeting designed to educate civil society about why compliance by those responsible for climate change with their ethical duties is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.
- Design a strategy to educate the media about the crucial importance of achieving traction for ethical considerations in climate change policy responses around the world and the serious ethical failures of most governments and organizations to comply with their ethical duties.
- Organize side events on these issues at the UNFCCC COPs.
- Work with others to require that the transparency rules under the Paris Agreement requires nations to explain, as specifically as possible, how they have dealt with their express ethical duties to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, to do no harm to people and places outside their jurisdiction, and to assure that all people enjoy human rights.
- Work with others to help citizens spot ethical issues raised by government responses to climate change.
In addition to these recommendations, in light of the causes of the failure of ethics to get traction in climate change policymaking discussed above, UNESCO and all concerned organizations and individuals should:
- Pay attention to and educate others on how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful economic forces which have worked to undermine public confidence in mainstream climate change science while making ethically problematic arguments about unacceptable costs of proposed climate change policy responses.
- Seek to turn up the volume on the moral abhorrence of the climate change disinformation campaign. This can be done by encouraging serious public reflection on the difference between responsible scientific skepticism and the morally reprehensible tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign.
- Follow the actual climate change debate in governments to identify ethical issues as they arise, and seek to identify ethical problems with arguments made by those opposing a just global solution to climate change while working to increase public and media understanding of these issues.
- After spotting the ethical problems with major arguments against policy action on climate change, seek to eliminate ethically problematic positions from contention by working with governments and civil society.to increase their understanding of these issues. This could be done by requiring governments to expressly respond to questions designed to expose ethical problems with their policies as part of the transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. (For examples of questions that could be asked to expose ethical issues see Brown, Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem).
- Encourage religious leaders and others interested in ethical and moral issues to help turn up the volume not only on the fact that climate change is a globally challenging ethical issue but also on the utter ethical bankruptcy of most of the arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies.
- Educate policy-makers and citizens particularly about the ethical issues that are usually hidden in what appear to be value-neutral arguments about the science and economics of climate change policy formation controversies.
- Encourage higher-education to sponsor programs designed to educate civil society and the media about ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies in their nation.
Brown, D. & Taylor, P.. (eds). (2014), Ethics and Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, IUCN press, http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_eplp_86_advanced_copy.pdf
Brown, D., (2011) An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity? https://ethicsandclimate.org/2011/12/02/an_ethical_analysis_of_the_climate_change_disinformation_campaign_is_this_a_new_kind_of_assault_on_h/r
Brown, D., (2017) Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2017/12/28/why-overcoming-instrumental-rationality-in-climate-change-policy-controversies-is-a-first-order-problem-preventing-ethical-principles-from-getting-traction-to-guide-climate-change-policy-formation/
California, Governor’s Office. List of Scientific Organizations on Climate, http://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html
Dunlap, R. & Bruelle, R., (2015) Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, Oxford University Press, New York
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Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Adjunct Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School