Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reports from the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.

I. Introduction.

There is something new in the air here in the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.These new developments have profound implications for the international community but particularly for developed nations such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union countries.

I have been participating in international climate change negotiating sessions since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 including seven conference of the parties (COPs) under the United States Framework Convention on Climate Change. I also negotiated climate change and other environmental issues for the United States EPA at the United Nations from 1995 to 1998. This experience leads me to conclude that there are two new big stories here in the Copenhagen that have implications far beyond those generated by the perennial climate change debates about whether nations should make meaningful commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the world is still watching which nations will make significant greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Yet other climate change issues are pushing to be the central focus in  Copenhagen.

II. Ethics and Climate Change.

The first is the frequency and centrality in which the claim that climate change is an ethical problem, that is responses to climate change must be guided by ethical, justice, and human rights considerations. Unlike previous years, the agenda in Copenhagen has included dozens of meetings and side-events expressly devoted to the ethical dimensions of climate change. In addition claims that climate change raises ethical issues have also been frequently heard in other Copenhagen meetings and events devoted to other topics. Clearly, developing countries and NGOs have been successful in turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Of course, one occasionally heard that climate change triggers ethical issues at prior climate change COPs, yet here in Copenhagen it is as if the ethical, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change has become the central organizing principle for resolving climate change disputes. As we shall see, this development has important practical consequences.

However, despite the apparent growing recognition that climate change is an ethical, justice, and human rights issue, many nations continue to negotiate as if national economic interest alone is a sufficient justification for domestic climate change policies on the slate of Copenhagen issues under consideration including greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, and funding adaptation, technological transfer, and programs that will prevent deforestation. Yet, if climate change is an ethical issue, several practical consequences follow.

The Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC), a program comprised of 17 ethics institutes around the world whose Secretariat is the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University, convened several events in Copenhagen that focused on how the negotiations must practically change if nations take seriously the idea that climate change triggers ethical, justice, or human rights issues.

The practical consequences of this new acknowledgment that climate change triggers ethics, justice, and human rights issues, is that nations have duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others and therefore may not justify their national climate change policies on narrow economic self-interest. And so, EDCC in Copenhagen has urged citizens and the press to demand that nations that base their negotiating positions upon narrow economic self-interest explain whether they deny that they have duties and responsibilities to poor people most vulnerable to climate change or if they do not deny such obligations to explain how their positions protect those most at risk.
This new recognition that climate change is an ethical issue has huge consequences for those who have been causing the problem, mostly the developed nations. For once the ethical, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change are acknowledged, nations may no longer justify their positions on climate change issues on national interest alone, but must make national policies conform to what ethics, justice, and human rights demand of them. That is, for instance, each nation would be required to make domestic climate change policy conform to what is its fair share of safe global emissions and adaptation, deforestation, and technology transfer funding responsibilities.

Although, different theories of distributive justice might come to different conclusions about what is fair, a framing of climate change as an ethical, justice, and human rights issue would remove from consideration positions often taken by some governments such as that climate change policies would impose new costs on them or put certain domestic industries at financial risk. In the United States, for instance, we often hear opposition to climate change legislation on the basis that a proposed bill will hurt the coal industry in a coal state, a position that seems to ignore the responsibility of people in coal states to protect poor people in Africa from climate change. Although domestic economic impacts of climate change policies are still arguably relevant to how domestic policy is formed, no nation can ignore the need to fulfill their obligations to others around the world in developing domestic climate change policies if climate change is an ethical responsibility.

On specific climate change issues in contention in Copenhagen, the practical consequences of nations having responsibilities to others leads to eliminating many options now on the table. For instance, one of the issues under consideration is an atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilization target. On the table are 350, 450, and 550 parts per million CO2. Only a stabilization level toward the 350 ppm level is protective of the most vulnerable. And so on this issue, if nations have obligations to the most vulnerable they must explain how higher atmospheric concentrations will protect those most at risk, something that the current most scientists would not agree with.

Here in Copenhagen because millions of people in poor countries are now already experiencing harsh effects of climate change and because developing countries have been continuing to learn about and organize around the justice implications of climate change, ethics has broken through as the central metaphor for arguing about climate change responses. The world appears to be waking up to the fact that millions of people are very vulnerable to climate change, a problem which the vulnerable have had little to do with causing and about which they can do almost nothing fix. In turn the vulnerable have turned up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

The profound historical significance of an acknowledgment that climate change is an ethical issue is particularly significant in regard to the second Copenhagen development, the new importance of the adaptation agenda.

III. Adaptation

The second major development in Copenhagen is that there has been a huge blossoming of interest in adaptation to climate change and the linking of the adaptation agenda to everything else. All of a sudden the world has woken up to specific adaptation questions such as who is going to pay for climate change damages, how should these monies by administered, to whom should they go, how to set priorities among adaptation needs, and how much money will be made available for growing adaptation needs? From the standpoint of the poorest developing countries, questions of adaptation to climate change have been a high priority for some time but now they are high in the negotiating agenda for all.

Over the last several years, developing countries have pushed the adaptation agenda to center stage in international climate change negotiations. In Bali, Indonesia in 2007, a decision was made to create a new adaptation fund as part of the UNFCCC climate change architecture and to put adaptation on an equal footing with mitigation. For the last few years, adaptation has been growing in importance in international climate change negotiations. And so like ethics, adaptation is not new idea in climate change negotiations.

However the energy, force, manner, and specificity with which the adaptation agenda is being negotiated is new.

For instance, for the first time developing countries have succeeded in getting the words “ecological debt” into the negotiating text. One proposed paragraph provides:

The guiding principles of the Convention should support subparagraphs (b) and (c) above, in terms of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, historical responsibilities in greenhouse gas emissions and the related historical ecological debt generated by the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 and the most recent scientific information. (UNFCCC, doc 14, page 17)

Proposed adaptation text calls adaptation “urgent” and provides that the “polluters shall pay” through “mandatory” contributions for “new, predictable, and additional sources of funding” for:
• vulnerability assessments,
• adaptation planning,
• adaptation implementation,
• short-term shocks and long-term climate shifts,
• special funding amounts for particularly vulnerable countries including small island states and Africa affected by desertification, droughts and floods,
• disaster readiness and relief,
• creation of a new international body under the UNFCCC to monitor and determine adaptation needs, assess capacity building needs of developing countries, oversee the creation of adaptation funds, and creation of national adaptation funding,
• creation of regional adaptation centers, and
• creation of new international adaptation committees that collect, analyze, and disseminate information on adaptation,

Yet, it is the amount of the adaptation funding agenda that has profound historical significance for developed countries. According to one provision in the proposed negotiation text, funding for adaptation should be in the range of 70 to 140 billion per year until 2020 and then updated after. Another proposal calls for mandatory adaptation in the amount of 0.5 % of GDP for developed countries.

The proposed text also provides that funding for these adaptation costs could come from
(a) assessed funding amount
(b) emissions allowances,
(c) levies on carbon emissions,
(d) taxes on carbon intensive products,
(e) taxes on international aviation,
(f) fines for non-compliance with emissions commitments, and
(g) taxes on capital transfers between developed and developing countries

The proposed text also states t hat contributions for adaptation should be based on the following principles:
(a) total emissions – polluter pays;
(b) per capita emissions – Equity;
(c) emissions per unit of GDP,
(d) size of economy, or
(e) capacity to pay

All of these formula put the developed nations on the hook for adaptation funding. In addition, ethics would make those responsible for the climate change problem pay for the damages from climate change, although there are some interesting ethical questions about when this responsibility should start. In any event, the costs to developed nations for adaptation could far exceed costs of reducing emissions. In addition, since future emissions reduction amounts will likely determine how much adaptation is necessary, the failure to assume costs now of reducing emissions will most likely increase costs of adapting later. Not to mention that some adaptation costs may be so great that no amount of funding will likely compensate those who have been damaged.

As of now, the developed nations have not yet made adaptation commitments.

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


15 thoughts on “Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation

  1. No deal is better than a bad deal. With the expulsion of NGO’s and the Developing nations voices is being trampled upon at COP 15, how can you expect that the US will step up to the plate when all indications are that President Obama has not shown the leadership required to make the change that is so urgently needed?
    Massive non violent sit-ins would only be a start it is obvious that the biggest national polluters of the world have no intention of ethical abidance. How do you plan to change those attitudes ind policies? It is obvious that the US is impotent and it will take millions of deaths from climate shocks that are far to expensive to be served.


  2. Dear Donald, thanks for this article. If I may, would it be possible for my office SEARCA (a non-profit oriented development organization to publish this, including your other reports about Copenhagen discussions both in hard and soft copies? This information will be shared with the 11 country members in Southeast Asia which are our country networks. Thank you very much. Lorna Calumpang, Coordinator, Knowledge Center on Climate Change (KC3), SEARCA, PHILIPPINES
    About SEARCA
    The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture seeks to strengthen institutional capacity in agriculture and rural development through graduate education, research, training, and knowledge exchange. It was established in 1966 by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), chartered international organization whose purspose is to promote cooperation in education, science, and culture in the Southeast Asian region.


  3. I congratulate Professor Brown for publishing this clear explanation of ethical issues. Rich countries like Australia have obscured the ethical issues with euphemisms like “emissions reductions” to hide the fact that they plan for their citizens to continue to exceed the world’s average emissions level until 2050 or beyond.


  4. As an Australian, I am ashamed that my Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has said on his arrival in Copenhagen that he will not sign any deal that is not in Australia’s interest. He ignores the moral dimension entirely.


  5. Don:
    As you know, over the years I have greatly admired and applauded your work on climate ethics.
    When you finally recover from participating in COP-15 and get around to updating this post or writing a new post on COP-15, I hope you will address from both policy and ethical standpoints what, if any, new approaches should be taken to adopt urgent and ethical actions to keep anthropogenic global warming (AGW) below serious and irreversible levels (if it is not already too late to do so) given (in my view) the failure of COP-15.
    I no longer believe “business as usual” by the scientific, ethical, or other interested parties to mitigating global climate change is sufficient and I think the results of COP-15 confirm this belief. Whatever such parties have been doing plainly is not working. However, like many others I am at a loss of what actions those concerned about AGW might now take that will help to urgently address the failure of COP-15.
    Dr. John Lemons
    Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Studies
    Department of Environmental Studies
    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME 04005


  6. what humans require most is a good environment for their life. Fresh air and water is the right of every one .All need to try hard to keep the environment unpolluted


  7. The ethics issue wades into 2000 year old arguments that have not yet reached a consensus(Am I my brothers keeper??) Many on the libertarian side say emphatically no no no! (See their posts on US health care for some example of their point of view) They say the world is every man or woman for themselves and for the others following Scrooge better to die and decrease the surplus population. Appealing to ethics will be a total failure, since many of the fundamental arguments of humanity revolve around the same basic questions. Marx was right in the sense that economics drives everything, and the basic question of most people is “Whats in it for me?” Ethical questions did not concern Scrooge pre spirit, and did not concern Mr. Potter in Its a wonderful life, or put more correctly there ethics were more for me and damn the rest!


  8. We are Bangladeshi . Most Vulnerable Environment Pollution Country.


  9. Interesting developments within the last 10 days. It seems as if one of the scientists was basing his information on a questionable source. mentioned, we all need to do our share to keep the environment clean.


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