Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.

We begin, however, with the claim that the ethical arguments are very important for non-practical reason, that is they should guide policy strictly for ethical reasons and therefore their use doesn’t depend exclusively on practical consequences. That is, governments and individuals should follow ethical principles because they are the best articulation of what is right or wrong. In other words, ethics should be considered because of duties and obligations to others, not only because of practical consequences.

In fact, history if full of big changes made eventually in public policy because some people argued that existing practices were morally wrong. Civil and human rights regimes, woman’s’ rights, even rules against smoking in public have come into being because some people argued that the status quo was wrong. We therefore don’t agree that people don’t respond to ethical arguments although we agree it may take time to get a response.

Although, not all people will necessarily respond to ethical arguments, qua ethics, some will and that may be what is necessary to create cultural changes that eventually lead to public policy changes.
Yet, here we will argue that the failure to make ethical arguments has practical consequences.

II. The Strength of Ethical Arguments In Support of Climate Change Policies.

We have explained many times in ClimateEthics why climate change not only creates issues of self-interest but also duties, responsibilities to others. In summary fashion, this is so because: (a) climate change is a problem caused by some people that most harshly harms others, (b) the harms to others are likely to be catastrophic under business-as-usual, (c) because of the global scope of the problem and the inability of victims of climate change to petition their own governments to protect them, only with successful appeals to the ethics of foreigners can the victims of climate change hope to get protective action, and, (d) obligations to future generations are part of the prescriptive calculus. Given that climate change raises not only self-interest questions but matters about which there are duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others ethical arguments are stronger than self-interest arguments in the following ways:

(a) Scientific Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.

Once one sees the ethical obligations to others one easily sees the duty to think about scientific uncertainty of climate change impacts through the lens of the victims. This is particularly important because it is those who will most harshly be harmed by climate change impacts that have the most to loose if the mainstream climate change view turns out to be correct. In fact, the victims of climate change have the strongest interest in seriously considering the possibility of potential but unproven catastrophic harms actually happening and have the most to loose by waiting until all uncertainties are resolved. On the other hand, in countries like the United States where many people believe that they can protect themselves from the harshest impacts of climate change by air-conditioning and paying higher food prices, the harshest impacts are less threatening. Only an appeal to duties to others appropriately frames the scientific uncertainty arguments. In fact procedural fairness would require that those who want to take a bet that the harsh impacts that could happen wont happen consult with the victims of climate change before placing this bet in the face of uncertainty. The decision to do nothing in the face of uncertainty could have consequences and those consequences will most harshly be experienced by those most vulnerable, that is the poorest people in parts of the world most vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts.

(b) Economic and Cost Arguments

Particularly in response to cost arguments made in opposition to climate change policies ethical arguments have an important resonance and for some arguments are the only way of showing deficiencies with cost-based arguments in opposition to climate change policies. Examples of this are the following:

(1) Once one sees ethical duties to others it is easier to understand what is wrong with many cost arguments made against climate change policies. For instance, during the debate about the Kyoto Protocol, the United States governess only considered two cost-benefit analyses that looked only at costs and benefits to the United States alone. In other words, the United States acted as if only costs and benefits to the United States counted. The obvious injustice of this position was widely seen by the most vulnerable countries around the world because they saw climate change as a justice issue. Yet in the United States, since the problem of climate change was being framed almost exclusively as a matter of self-interest, almost no one commented on what was deeply ethically problematic with how the United States was looking only at costs and benefits to itself alone.

(2) When one sees that those causing climate change have duties to those who will be harmed, one can easily see that those causing climate change can not ethically rely on total costs and benefits in a disaggregated way, an assumption of most-cost benefit analyses based arguments made in opposition to climate change policies. This is so because distributive justice demands that harms and benefits must be disaggregated in the case of climate change because the costs of taking action will be most pronounced on those taking corrective action while the harms avoided will be experienced by others. In other words, only an appeal to distributive justice can lead to an understanding of what is wrong with many common uses of cost-benefit analyses. In fact, only an appeal to justice can demonstrate what is wrong with most justifications for the use of cost-benefit or cost alone arguments that usually seek to maximize efficiency but ignore distributive justice issues.

(3) Only an ethical appeal to duties of future generations can correct the usual approach followed in cost-benefit analyses to discount the value of benefits that are experienced in future in such away that the future benefits are virtually worthless in the present. Fort this reason, only an appeal to duties to future generations can demonstrate problems with disenfranchising future generations’ interests in discounting methods commonly followed in cost-benefit analysis based arguments made in opposition to climate change policies.

(4) Once one sees that those causing climate change have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others, one can easily say that the benefits of taking action and the value placed upon them must consider not only likely harms avoided by climate policies but potential worst case impacts. Many cost arguments do not consider potential worst case harms, yet justice would require consideration of all plausible harms be considered in calculating the value of harms avoided by climate change policies.

(5) Because climate change impacts can interfere with the basic human rights of the victims of climate change, only an appeal to the ethical duty to avoid human rights violations can effectively deal with some of the arguments against climate change action based upon cost. It is well established in international law that increased cost to those who are responsible for human rights violations may not be used as a justification for continuing human rights violations.

(6) Only an appeal to ethics and justice can correct the tendency of many cost arguments to reduce the value of everything harmed to their market value and in this way make, , for instance, the value of sacred cows simply the price per pound that the cows will sell for. Cost arguments against climate change policies often determine the value of climate change harms avoided on the basis of market values alone, that is on the basis of “willingness-to-pay” alone. For instance, some cost-benefit analyses relied upon by some opponents of climate change action have assumed that the value of lives lost by foreigners to be the earning power in the remaining lives of the people who will be killed thus making the value of the lives of poor people less valuable that people in rich countries. Only an appeal to ethics can demonstrate why this may be unjust.

(c) The Need for a Fair Global Solution

No national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is implicitly a position on what are safe levels of global concentrations of greenhouse gases. Yet in developing a national greenhouse gas strategy, most countries act as if they can set national targets for greenhouse gas reduction based upon national interest alone. This is exactly what has happened in the United States. The recent Markey-Waxmen legislation and proposed Kerry-Lieberman legislation debates were written as if the United States could set targets with insufficient regard to the amount of reductions that were needed globally to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. (There is a growing scientific consensus that the world needs to reduce currrent global emissions by 25 to 40% by 2020 to have any confidence that the world will limit additional warming to 2 degrees C, a level that is widely viewed as dangerous particularly to the most vulnerable around the world, yet the bills pending in the US Congress fall far short of these goals.) Now most Americans who are support climate change action would support any of the bills in Congress because they represent the United States getting the car out of the parking lot, something that has not happened in thirty years. Yet, ethics would have all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. But only appeal to ethics can determine what is fair and safe in light of duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. If the reduction targets of national policy are based upon self-interest and ignore international obligations, then national policies are likely to be too weak to prevent harm to the most vulnerable.

This realty has additional practical implications. Because the world needs a global solution to climate change, and many nations will not agree to a global solution that is viewed to be fair, there is not likely to be a global solution to climate change unless most of the world sees it as just. For practical reasons, therefore, to get the United States citizens to agree to a just solution, the United States must encourage a public discussion of what justice requires of the United States. Because the world is waiting for the United States to step up to its ethical obligations, a global solution to climate change most likely practically depends on countries supporting just solutions and much is practically turning on what the United States does in this regard.

(c) Unilateral Action of Nations On Climate Change.

Many arguments against climate change are premised upon the fact that some countries have not acted. Yet justice would require all nations immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do. We at ClimateEthics have explained this in some detail before. See, for example, Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions To Their Fair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do

To assume that nations have no duty to reduce their harmful activities until all others act leads to the absurd conclusion that no country needs to act until all others act. This may be correct as a matter of self interest but is deeply flawed as a matter of justice. No court would allow a polluting company to defend itself on the basis they should be allowed to continue to emit polluting substances in excess of their fair share of emissions that are causing harm because other polluters are exceeding their fair share.

(d) Responsibility for Damages

Many principles of international law make polluting nations responsible for damages caused by harm they cause others in proportion to their contribution to the problem. For instance, in international law the “no-harm” and “polluter-pays” principles have been agreed to by the the United States in a variety of soft-law documents and in the case of the “no harm” principle in binding law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty ratified by the United States under the George Bush the First in 1993,. Now there are open questions about whether courts will deemed to have the jurisdiction to enforce these principles. Yet, these principles have normative force even if they don’t have legal force. And if the United States is forced to contribute to damages from climate change either because a court takes jurisdiction and orders it to pay damages (there are several lawsuits pending) or to get what it wants in international negotiations, the United States might have to agree to pay a fair share of damages where proportionality is determined in conformance with theories of distributive and retributive justice which would like lead to a search for a formula about what is the U.S. “fair” share of causal responsibility. The only way a nation can avoid the potential implications of these normative rules is for nations to make sure their emissions are below their “fair” share of safe global emissions.
If the Untied States is worried about economic impacts of climate change it should be worried particularly about the implications of ethical rules that would allocate responsibility for damages. This is a matter of retributive justice, not self-interest. Now if a court gets jurisdiction over this issue, it is also clearly in the U.S. self interest to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, yet their is no escaping even in this case about thinking about fairness. Also because poor countries are now making justice claims about this as a condition for reducing their emissions, the US understanding of what retributive justice would require of it should has practical significance. In other words, when thinking about the question of climate damages, there is no escaping questions of justice. This may or may not turn out to be a practically important development, but it very well may be.

III. Conclusion

Because the ethical arguments discussed above are the strongest arguments for climate change policy, it is both a practical mistake as well as an ethical failure to not frame climate change policy options through an ethical lens.


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

7 thoughts on “Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

  1. This is just my personal story. I studied math & physics as an undergraduate in the 1980’s. People with my type of talent can make a lot money especially in the ‘defense’ industry. I knew I did not want to do this, but I could not explain to myself why I didn’t just cash in. It finally occurred to me that to follow my self interest the first thing I had to do was be true to myself. The truth is I am connected to other people. The truth is I need to use all my intellect to feel whole. The truth is when I am old and dying I am not going to care about how big the house I am dying in is, I am going to look back on my life and ask, what have I done to make a difference?
    It takes intellectuals a long time to see the most basic truths. Many people know these things at a gut level. But it needs to be packaged in the right way. Ethics is just caring for each other. Consumer society, the narcissistic media and the politics of fear try to stamp these truths out. This is one reason why I do not think alarmist fear is the best way to motivate people to action on climate change. Informed concern yes, but courage and pride in who we are will motivate positive action more than fear. There is a psychology of ethics that is perhaps more important than the philosophy of ethics.

  2. Thanks Donald.
    IIb1 is in my view particularly crucial. This is a ‘reframing’ point (see lakoff, Westen): if the deep ‘frame’ around manmade climate change is always self-interest, then we just won’t ask the right questions when the time comes when questions beyond self-interest ought to be unavoidable.

  3. “…if the United States is forced to contribute to damages from climate change either because a court takes jurisdiction and orders it to pay damages (there are several lawsuits pending)…”
    Could you by specific about the pending lawsuits so those interested could dig a little deeper?

  4. There is a growing literature on climate change pending litigation. There is a committee that follows this at the American Bar Association. i have heard several presentations on this but dont have an up-to-date list.

  5. This paper does not demonstrate that ethics are “stronger” than self-interest: it just shows how the ethical choice of considering others (and not to be so individually “Nation-centered”) influences our conclusions and, subsequently, our actions.
    The United States as a whole may well make the ethical choice of not considering the rest of the world. In that we can disapprove, challenge, judge or hate them, but it’s their choice. Unfortunately, the whole world will have to deal with it.
    In the end, however, the “force” of one or the other ethical position will only be determined in practice, by which one “wins” the battle, and not from a theoretical point of view.
    And thanks to Mike for simply telling the most basic truths…

  6. The debate about climate change action should vary depending on georgraphical location. Let the big polluters start adhering to important actions espoused by the Koyoto Protocol. Without their cooperation, any talk of climate change ethics will be null and avoid. Remember that those who pollute this planet more has bigger responsibility and must act fast, otherwise, the rest of the small nations will also adopt stonewalling as a strategy.

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