Three times in his movie Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore asserts that climate change is a moral issue. Yet, the US response to climate change has often failed to take seriously the implications of the claim that climate change raises moral issues. Although statements of President-elect Obama indicate a new willingness to assure that US climate change policy is consistent with global obligations, a recent report raises the question of whether the failure to understand the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change policy remains a problem among members of the Obama team.
The New York Times on Saturday, January 3rd reported differences on climate change between two camps of the Obama team. (Broder, 2009). One camp, led by Carol Browner supports strong caps on emissions. The other, led by Lawrence Summers, supports an economic escape clause if caps become too expensive while requiring developing nations to agree to emissions limits apparently as a precondition to strong US greenhouse gas caps according to the Times.
The position on climate change attributed to Summers by the Times makes sense if one sees US climate change policy as strictly a matter of national interest. However, if one takes seriously the idea that policy on climate change is not just a matter of national interest but also a fulfillment of global ethical responsibilities, the Summers’ position is seriously ethically flawed.
What is ethically wrong with the view that a nation may make domestic climate change policy on the basis of national interest? Assuming one agrees with the mainstream scientific view that has concluded that the international community is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, then as a matter of ethics all nations immediately have a duty to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. In fact, as an ethical matter, even if one is not fully convinced that the mainstream scientific climate change view is entitled to strong scientific respect, a strong case can be made that given certain now undisputed facts about climate change, scientific uncertainty is not justification for failing to live up to climate change obligations. These facts include: (a) the majority of the most prestigious scientific institutions around the world including national academies of science have officially issued statements supporting the mainstream climate change scientific view articulated by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); (b) if nations wait until all uncertainties are resolved and the mainstream view is vindicated it will be too late to prevent dangerous climate change; (c) the longer the world waits to lower emissions, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to prevent catastrophic climate change; and (d) those who are most at risk from climate change including some of the world’s poorest people have not consented to be threatened by those who want to bet on uncertainty.
Therefore as an ethical matter, scientific uncertainty is not a viable excuse for non-action on climate change and those who want to make scientific arguments to support delay on climate change action now have the burden of proof of discrediting the mainstream scientific view. Yet, no one can reasonably argue that the climate change skeptics have proven their case in mainstream scientific journals.
In addition, given that the mainstream scientific view articulated by IPCC also has concluded that some parts of the world are already experiencing adverse climate change impacts and that large reductions from current levels are urgent, obligations to take climate change action are not deferrable to the future as a matter of ethics.
Given this, Summers’ view, assuming it is based upon national interest, suffers from several serious ethical problems. One, no nation has a right to look at national economic interest alone to determine its obligations for climate change. This is so because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not only national interest. Nations that are harming others by their emissions may not look to their own interest alone to determine policy about their domestic emissions.
The United States must act now because it cannot make a credible case that its greenhouse gas emissions are already below its fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because the mainstream scientific view has concluded that the world must reduce total emissions by 60 to 80 percent below existing levels and the United States is a huge emitter both in historical terms and in comparison to current national emissions levels. Yet, some low-emitting developing countries can make a credible case that their current emissions levels are still below their fair share of safe global emissions. And so although some nations can make a credible case that their existing greenhouse gas emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States is not a member of this group.
In fact, even if some nations are not willing to reduce their emissions to levels consistent with what justice requires of them, no nation, including the United States, can refuse to reduce its emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis that others won’t act. The US obligation to reduce its emissions is terminated only when it is below levels required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. All nations have a duty to keep greenhouse gas emissions below their fair share independent of whether others are doing. Although what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions, a US claim that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass ethical scrutiny on any conceivable ethically respectable theory. In any event, at minimum, if the US wants to claim that it has no duty to immediately reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to fulfill its global responsibilities, it has an obligation to explain to the world how existing US greenhouse gas emissions levels are just. And so, the Summers’ view that appears to assume that the US obligations on climate change are not triggered unless other nations are living up to their obligations is ethically problematic.
In addition, in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the US agreed as a matter of binding international law that it would reduce its emissions based upon equity to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UN,1992, Art. 2) In becoming a party to the UNFCCC the United States also agreed that it would not use scientific uncertainty as a basis for failing to take cost-effective action. (UN.1992, Art. 3) As so, not only as matter of ethics, but because the United States has already agreed to do so in becoming a party to the UNFCCC, it may not now rely on either national interest alone or scientific uncertainty as a basis for failing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions without breaking its international promises.
Economists like Lawrence Summers can help policy makers figure out how to achieve US international obligations at lowest cost but they do not have a right to conflate national economic interest with global obligations.
Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics Science and Law,
Penn State University
Broder, John, M., Jan3, 2009, In Obama’s Team. 2 Camps on Climate: Rematch Stuggle Within Clinton White House Could Be Offing. New York Times
UN, 1992, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: UN Document A:AC.237/18.2,3.