What is the worst ethical scandal in the US Congress? Could it be climate change?
Although the US media has recently paid attention to the comparatively minor ethical stories unfolding in the US House of Representatives, there is not a peep in the US media about a much more momentous unfolding ethical failure in the US Senate. While many press stories have appeared in the past few week about potential ethical problems of Representatives Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters in the House, ethical lapses that harm society because public servants may have abused their power in ways that enrich themselves or their families, the US Senate ethical failure is more ethically reprehensible because it is depriving tens of millions of people around the world of life itself or the natural resources necessary to sustain life. The failure in the US Senate to enact legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions is a moral lapse of epic proportions. Yet it is not discussed this way.
There are several distinct features of climate change that call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.
First, climate change creates ethical 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 harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic and there is a growing scientific consensus that we are running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change.
The third reason why climate change must be seen as an ethical 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 motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.
In 1979 a report issued for the United States Academy of Sciences acknowledged that humans were changing the atmosphere and predicted that if CO2 was allowed to increase to 560 parts per million (ppm), global temperatures would increase approximately 3 0 C. (Charney et al., 1979)
In May of this year, the US Academy of Sciences issued another report that found:
A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. (US Academy of Sciences, 2010)
And so, after thirty years of first being warned that activities within its boarders may be contributing to huge suffering all around the world, despite frequent additional warnings with higher levels of confidence from many prestigious scientific bodies and organizations since then that have concluded that climate change is a grave threat, ignoring increasing scientific concern that the world is running out of time to prevent even more rapid climate change, the United States Senate refuses to take action to fulfill its ethical duties to others to prevent harm.
Both Democratic and Republican Senators who oppose action on climate change in the US Senate do so because such legislation would “create a ‘national energy tax”, warning costs would be passed to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills and fuel costs that would lead manufacturers to take their factories overseas, putting jobs at risk. (Haroon, 2010)
For twenty-five years, many American politicians have opposed climate change legislation on similar grounds that such legislation would harm US economic interests.
Yet, if climate change raises ethical questions, then strong arguments can be made that nations have not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. However, ethical arguments that could counter the national-interest based arguments are rarely heard in the climate change debate and are now virtually absent in the U.S. discussion of proposed domestic climate change legislation. We never hear, for instance in the United States that we should enact climate change legislation because our emissions are harming others. This is a catastrophic ethical failure.
Donald A. Brown
Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
Charney Jule et al, 1979, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, Report of an Ad-Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979 to the Climate Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC: National Academy Press,1979. http://www.atmos.ucla.edu/~brianpm/download/charney_report.pdf
Siddique, Haroon, 2010, US Senate Drops Bill To Cap Carbon Emissions. Guardian, July 23, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/23/us-senate-climate-change-bill
US Academy of Sciences, 2010. Strong Evidence On Climate Change Underscores Need For Actions To Reduce Emissions And Begin Adapting To Impacts