Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

I. Introduction

Most Blue Dog Democratic and Republican senators have declared their opposition to cap and trade climate change legislation that has passed the US House of Representatives and is likely to be pending in the US Senate for two reasons.

First, they oppose the legislation because it will impose unacceptable costs on their constituents. In a recent post, we examined the duty of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions even if costs are high. See, The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions,

Secondly, some US senators have indicated that they will oppose US federal legislation that does not make the US reductions commitments contingent on the action of other nations. (See. US Senators, 2009) More specifically, ten Democratic US Senators have said in a letter to President Obama that they will oppose legislation that does not require other countries to make emissions reductions in their manufacturing sector commensurate with US reductions. (US Senators, 2009) The authors of this letter want steep tariffs on goods from countries that do not agree to an international regime of carbon dioxide reductions. It is not clear from the letter whether these senators will refuse to support any legislation that does not require sanctions of any government that refuses to reduce its GHG emissions to levels agreed to by the US or only those governments that are already exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. Moreover it is not clear from the letter, although it would appear to be the case, whether the senators would oppose any legislation that did not sanction any government that did not make reductions quantitatively consistent with reduction levels committed to by the US. Despite several ambiguities the senators’ letter, this post examines as a matter of ethics whether nations can make domestic GHG reductions’ commitments contingent upon other nations also reducing their emissions to levels acceptable to a nation making a commitment.

II. The Ethics Of One Nation Making Domestic GHG Reductions’ Commitments Contingent Upon Other Nations Doing the Same

As we have explained in several prior posts, all nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of emissions without regard to what other nations do. (See, e.g. Ethical Problems with Some of Obama Teams Approach to Climate Change, ) This is so because, as we shall see, climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not only national interest, and justice requires all nations to reduce their GHG emissions to levels that are distributively just.

The duty to cease activities that harm others is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are contributing to the damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. For example, it would be absurd for one of two factories that are poisoning people downstream by their discharges of toxic substances to argue that it has no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agrees to reduce its toxic discharges. This would be particularly true if both factories where discharging toxic substances way above any fair share of safe toxic emissions levels. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop the beating as long as the other person continued to assault the victim.

Yet climate change is an analogous problem because some very high-emitting countries are largely causing great harm to very low-emitting poor countries who can do little by themselves to protect themselves from the great harm. Those poor nations who are the most vulnerable victims of climate change are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.

And so, 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 its 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 although even in this case an argument can be made that any nation that could reduce emissions further should do so to avoid catastrophic harm to others. Without doubt as a matter of ethics, all nations, at a minimum, have a duty to keep GHG emissions below their fair share of safe global emissions independent of what other nations are doing.

Although what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions and a matter beyond the cope of this post, a US claim that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass scrutiny on the basis of any conceivable ethically theory.

That is, the United States, along with other very high-emitting nations, must act now because it cannot make a credible case that US GHG emissions are already below the US’s fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because most mainstream scientists have concluded that the world must reduce total global emissions by at the very least 60 to 80 percent below existing levels to stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at minimally safe atmospheric GHG concentrations and the United States is a huge emitter both in historical terms and in comparison to current emissions levels of other high emitting nations.

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 poor nations can make a credible case that their existing GHG emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States is not a member of this group. For this reason, the US had a duty to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.

In addition, it is ethically problematic for the US to assert that nations that are not exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions, must reduce their emissions to levels commensurate with US reductions. In fact, for the United States to make any claim on any other nation that it must reduce its emissions in the same amount as the US emissions reductions, it would have to make the case that the nation was already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions coupled with the claim that to achieve fair emissions levels the nation would have to reduce emissions to the same level committed to by the United States. It is not enough for the United States to argue that continuing emissions trends in low-emitting countries will contribute to climate change harms without considering what distributive justice would require of low-emitting countries in regard to future emissions.

It also ethically dubious for the US to insist that it can demand that other nations must agree to make reductions in their manufacturing sectors consistent with US reductions in the US manufacturing sector given that almost all nations in the world have lower total and per capita GHG emissions than the United States.

If one nation desires to keep its total emissions below its fair share of safe global emissions by keeping their transportation sector low while having slightly larger emissions from their manufacturing sector, most theories of international responsibility would give that nation some choice on how it would achieve its international GHG obligations.

In fact, the international climate change regime created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a convention that the US agreed to be bound by in 1992, made nations responsible for reducing their domestic emissions at levels necessary to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. In so doing it gave nations the choice on how their emissions reductions’ obligations would be achieved. And so under this existing binding international law, nations have the ability to make choices that make sense for them on how they will keep their GHG emissions at levels that in combination with the GHG emissions of other countries will prevent dangerous climate change.

And so because the position of the ten senators as stated in their letter to Obama appears to assume that the US obligations to the rest of the world on climate change are not triggered unless other nations are living up to US expectations of them, this opposition to US climate change legislation is ethically problematic.

Although there is nothing ethically wrong with imposing trade sanctions on nations that refuse to comply with fair national GHG allocations, such an approach would invite other nations to impose trade sanctions on the United States until US GHG emissions were below US’ fair emissions. This is a battle that the United States most likely dose not want to start because the US emissions reductions on the basis of equity are likely to be very steep compared to most other nations. Does the United States really want to agree that other nations can place tariffs on US goods for as long as US GHG emissions levels are greater than the US fair share of safe global emissions?

III. Conclusion

In conclusion, nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce emissions that harm others for as long as they are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty exists regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations. For this reason, the position of those Blue Dog Democrats and Republican senators opposing US climate change legislation on the basis that our duty to act is dependent on what other nations do is ethically dubious.

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


Brown, Sherwood, D. Stebenow, R. Feingold, C. Levin, E. Bayh, R. Casey, R. Byrd, A. Spector, J. Rockefeller, A. Franken, US Senate Letter to President Obama, (US Senators) August 6, 1009.

4 thoughts on “Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

  1. Dennis Baker
    penticton bc canada V2A6Z3
    RE : The solution to climate change.
    ( human excrement + nuclear waste = hydrogen )
    The USA discharges Trillions of tons of sewage annually, sufficient quantity to sustain electrical generation requirements of the USA.
    Redirecting existing sewage systems to containment facilities would be a considerable infrastructure modification project.
    It is the intense radiation that causes the conversion of organic material into hydrogen, therefore what some would consider the most dangerous waste because of its radiation would be the best for this utilization.
    I believe the combination of clean water and clean air, will increase the life expectance of humans.
    yours sincerely
    Dennis Baker

  2. Bravo. Well supported and well written. How unfortunate, that it is forced to reference the ethically bankrupt, climate change half-measure called cap and trade.

  3. Donald – Do you know of any research studies that have allocated a monetary (ethical) responsibility for ghg emissions to source emitters?

  4. To Sarah Lachenman: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has made nations responsible to reduce emissions from their country. Nations in turn have agreed that each country should limit their emissions in regard to other nations based upon “equity.” What equity requires is a classic example of distributive justice. In this capacity, nations could make choices about how to allocate emissions within their country so that total emissions within the country do not exceed their fair share of safe global emissions. As far as businesses and individuals, an upcoming post on climateethics will go into this issue.
    Donald A Brown, climatethics.

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