The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions

I. Introduction: Scottish Versus The US Climate Change Debate

In March, the U.S. State Department asked me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about climate-change policies as they were debating a new climate-change law.

Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make. The topic of this speech is also curiously largely absent in US media climate change coverage. The Parliamentarian argued that Scotland should adopt this tough new legislation even though it might be expensive because the Scotts had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. In other words, those countries most responsible for causing climate change have ethical duties to reduce their emissions even if it costs are significant. That is, high-emitting developed countries like the United States must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as a matter of justice.

In late June, Scotland passed the landmark climate change law that was being debated during my March visit, a law that requires a 42% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rising to 80% by 2050. (BBC, 2009) On the day the law passed, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney told the Parliamentarians that passing the world-leading legislation was justified because the climate change affects all the people on of our planet and the Scots had a duty to make the commitments in the law. (TWFY 2009)

The US Congress is striving to pass legislation that would for the first time create binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions 12 years after most of the rest of the developed world bound themselves to reduce emissions in the Kyoto Protocol. Yet, there is not the faintest murmur in the US climate-change debate or in the media’s coverage of the unfolding US legislative fight about duties and responsibilities that the United States has to the rest of the world to reduce the threat of climate change. This is so even though the legislation that has passed the House would require 17% reductions by 2020, a commitment that is only 40% of the Scottish requirement.

It can be seen that the Scottish commitment is even more ambitious compared to the US proposed legislation given that Scotland has already reduced its climate change causing emissions by 16% compared to 1990 levels while the US performance amounts to a 17% increase in emissions during the same period. (Devine and Bristow, 2009)(USEPA, 2009). If you measure GHG emissions on a per capita basis, the Scots’ emissions are already only about a half of the US emissions. (10.69 tons CO2e per capita for Scotland, 19. 78 tons CO2e per capita for the US) (FOES 2009, UCS 2009) For these reasons, the 42% Scottish reduction target by 2020 compared to the US House’s proposed legislation of 17% reduction by 2020 must be seen as a huge commitment motivated by Scotland’s acknowledged duty to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.

The climate change debate in the US shows no sign of acknowledging that US climate change policy should be guided by duties to the rest of the world. On August 8th, the New York Times reported that climate change legislation in the United States Senate was being opposed by 10 moderate democrats because it threatens to add to the cost of goods like steel, cement, paper and aluminum. (Broder 2009)

With the exception of waning arguments against climate-change law on scientific grounds, opposition to climate-change policies in the United States is almost always based on claims that climate-change programs are not in the national, state or local economic interest.
For instance, U.S. Congressmen Tim Holden, D-Pa. (17th district), recently explained his opposition to federal cap-and-trade legislation because it would increase transportation, energy and business costs while reducing manufacturing jobs. Again and again, politicians opposing climate-change policies justify their position by pointing to some increased costs to their constituents. (Holden 2009)

II. Why Climate Change Must Be Seen As An Ethical Issue

Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. This is so because several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating ethical responsibilities that limit a nation’s ability to look at narrow economic self interest alone when developing responsive policies.

First, climate change creates duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change, for instance, directly threatens human life and health and resources to sustain life, as well as species of plants and animals and ecosystems around the world.

Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms and damage to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, social disputes caused by diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. Climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are catastrophic.

In fact, there is growing evidence that climate change is already causing great harm to many outside the United States while threatening hundreds of millions of others in the years ahead. For instance, a recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum found that human-induced climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is now affecting 300 million people around the world. (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009) This report also projects that increasingly severe heat waves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030.

The third reason why climate change is a moral problem stems from its global scope. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of climate change. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law.

For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to get governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

Despite the fact that climate change creates obligations, the U.S. continues to debate this issue as if the only legitimate consideration is how our economy might be affected.

The US press almost never challenges those who oppose climate change on the basis that policies will increase cost. This is curious because the debate at the international level has created a consensus among all countries that those developed countries most responsible for climate change should take the first steps to reduce its enormous threats. In fact the senior George Bush administration in 1992 agreed that the rich developed countries including the United States should take the lead in combating climate change when it negotiated and finally ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (UNFCCC Art. 3, 1992)

In the United States, however, even those supporting climate-change policies often follow the same implicit reasoning on cost by responding that climate-change policies will create jobs. Although this may be true, depending upon the actual policies implemented, this limited focus on job creation undermines the need to help Americans see their ethical duties while giving unspoken support for the notion that the reasonableness of climate change policies turns on whether they will create jobs.

Because the majority of climate scientists believe the world is running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change, a case can be made that there is a urgent need to turn up the volume about American duties to others to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

Economists can help us figure out how to meet our obligations at lowest cost, yet increased cost alone is not a sufficient excuse for failing to meet our responsibilities.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law,
The Pennsylvania State University


AEA Energy & Environment, (AEA), 2009, Greenhouse Gas, Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 1990 – 2005, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Facts and Figures,

BBC, 2009, Landmark legislation to help Scotland tackle the threat of climate change has been passed unanimously by MSPs, .

Broder, John, 2009, Senators Issue Warning on Climate Bill, New York Times,

Devine, Jim, MP and, Bristow Muldoon MSP, (Devine and Bristow), 2009, Livingston Constituency, How Scotland really compares with Ireland, Norway and Finland _04.cfm%20with%20Ireland%20Norway.pdf

Friends of the Earth Scotland (FOES), 2009, Facts and Figures,

Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009, Human Impact of Climate Change.

Holden, Tim, 2009, Letter to Constituent.
They Work For (TWFY), 2009, Scottish Parliament debates, 24 June 2009,

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 2009, Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions

US Environmental Protection Agency, (USEPA), 2009, Inventory Of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Sinks:1990 – 2007.

United Nations, (UN), 2009, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate,

16 thoughts on “The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions

  1. Thanks for these clear arguments supporting an ethical approach on climate policy. Policy makers must think of the dilemma in this light for real progress to be made. It is refreshing to see the example of moral leadership set by the Scottish parliament.

  2. Climate change impacts are everywhere irrespective of political, geographical or economical position. However the vulnerability vary and the people in the developing or underdevelepoed world are much more vulnerable than in the developed world. Moreover, some of the opportunities in developed countires are created from the vulbnerable status of the developing world. This can be addressed with assessing the ethical value of the developed world. The ethical issue raised by this article is very timely alert for the communities, politicians, media in the developed world, such as USA.

  3. Thank you for this nice piece which is a perfect book-end to the Sunday NYT article (Aug 9 2009) on climate change as a security risk. I’ve posted a link to this article on Linked In and JustMeans.

  4. Sir: It is clear to all that the U.S. Government will not do what is necessary to avoid the climate-change catastrophe. That leaves you and me. For the past decade I and my family have taken the personal steps required by the ethical/moral imperatives of climate change: We have moved to a city, we walk and ride bikes everywhere (we call it the ‘three-mile lifestyle’… where everything we need for a high-quality healthy lives is within an hours’ walk), we grow more than half of our food needs in community-supplied gardens, we find our recreation within the limits of daily bike rides. We are 3 generations, each with a single purpose: enjoy life here and now! And we do enjoy life, and we’re healthy, and we’re always aware that transgressions of our basic family policy harm the Lao farmer, the Tibetan herdsman, the Tongan fisherman.
    So the question is: What have you done, Dr. Brown, for the Lao farmer?

  5. It is a shame that Mr. Nevin ends his post the way he does. If only he had recognized the shared goals of his lifestyle and the article that Mr. Brown has written. Instead his final comment reminded me of one boy’s boast to another that his dad is stronger than the other’s.
    When social activism becomes ego driven it loses all purpose and meaning. His comment reminds me of how treacherous the whole process is.

  6. Ethics needs to be a larger part of the public conversation, agreed.
    In the meanwhile, we can all act more ethically by taking greater care in how we talk about all the numbers involved.
    According to Stop Climate Chaos, the Scottish goal is for 42% below 1990 levels, in 2020. The EU ETS covers ca 40% of Scottish emissions; for sectors *not* covered by the trading cap, there is a limit on how much of the reductions cut may come from abroad; this number is either about one-third or one-fifth of total emisisons; it’s not clear to me.
    The US goal is for either 20% below 2005 levels, by 2020 or 30%, if you include avoided deforestation. In the US, the #ACES trading cap covers sources making up 85% of emissions in 2005, with virtually no formal limit on international offsets *within* the trading cap. (The US goal is *not* 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, no matter how many times this is repeated in media. That’s the cut in the trading cap for the covered sectors.)
    There needs to be a multi-dimensional standard that allows for legitimate, credible, meaningful comparisons of policy proposals, accessible to non-specialists.
    What’s called for is a metric that, among other things, categorizes proposed cuts under a trading cap, non-domestic cuts, contributions to reduced rainforest deforestation, etc..
    This metric should also, as the Scottish legislation calls for, quantify the current non-domestic emissions generated by domestic consumption, and, I believe, quantify historic pollution.
    And it should, as Center for American Progress can be interpreted to have called for, quantify the policy measures in the relevant legislation that are supposed to allow a nation to reach its national (domestic plus non-domestic) emissions reduction goals.

  7. If only people in my country, the gool ol’ U.S. of A., and especially my state, Kentucky, would recognize what we’re up against! It’s frightening to me that so many of my fellow citizens are clueless, having accepted the simple-minded naysayer arguments which saturate the Internet and the airways. I’m working with a local group in the capital city of Kentucky and its county. We’re working with people who “get it” to build community and pride around lowering our personal carbon footprints–in the hope that enthusiasm will spread to those less conscious and eventually to those in denial. I will be speaking to a local civic club in a couple of weeks, and some of your arguments will be very helpful to me. Thank you for your good work.

  8. I absolutely agree that climate change might also have an ethical dimension.
    However, you misrepresent the ‘implicit reasoning on cost’ of those supporting climate-change policies.
    You are right that there are some people who’s reasoning is just about creating jobs – and even though you write ‘often people think this way’ and thus relativize this- this is mispresentation as it’s only a minority of people who think ‘only about jobs’ and most serious economic arguments for pushing climate change policies (globally and locally), argue that action against climate change will be absolutely beneficial economically, because not acting on climate change will be devastating for the the world and US economy. This means that reasonable people should support climate change policies from completely self-interested point of view.
    I think you are running danger of understating and diluting the self-interested economic argument by putting it this way: rather, you should try to combine these two strong arguments or not talk about economics at all and only talk about ethics.

  9. Your point that some use of economic data to show that the world will be better off if climate policies are approved is a good one and accepted. You, however, say that this is how most people view cost arguments is much more questionable. My students follow arguments against climate change policies and there are many, many more arguments being used against taking action on climate on a cost basis then there are in support of climate change policies. It is true that Stern and others have used Cost-Benefit Analysis for support for immediate strong climate change policies, yet Nordhaus is being used to support going slow. As you, know much depends on choice of the discount rate, which as Stern points out, must be chosen in light of ethical considerations not on the basis of what Nordhaus calls ‘revealed preferences’ only So even in the case of determining what long-term costs and benefits are, one must confront ethical questions.Stern’s new book,The Global Deal, deals with these issues well although Stern does not deal with all of the ethical issues that arise in calculating cost. So, I would argue, even in determining what costs count, ethical issues arise. Lomborg, for instance, approaches his use of CBA in a way that does not do justice to potential catastrophic impacts. To make a long story shorter, one which will be taken up in a future post of ClimateEthics, even in calculating the benefits of action one must deal with a host of ethical questions including whether to disaggregate the benefits, what discount rate to use, whether everything should be measure by “willingness to pay”. how to consider low probability but catastrophic impacts. how to display uncertainty, among other ethical issues. On the point that enlightened self interest would also support climate change policies, I agree but only probably if one looks at global costs and benefits. The United State has frequently relied upon costs and benefits to the US alone, and some of these showed losses to GDP from climate policy action. To make a very long story short, there is no ethically neutral way of counting costs and benefits, a subject of future ClimateEthics blogs.

  10. However the vulnerability vary and the people in the developing or underdevelepoed world are much more vulnerable than in the developed world. Moreover, some of the opportunities in developed countires are created from the vulbnerable status of the developing world.

  11. Your point that some use of economic data to show that the world will be better off if climate policies are approved is a good one and accepted. You, however, say that this is how most people view cost arguments is much more questionable. My students follow arguments against climate change policies and there are many, many more arguments being used against taking action on climate on a cost basis then there are in support of climate change policies. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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