Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations

I. Introduction

As we have seen in prior ClimateEthics’ posts, with the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate change legislation can’t be afforded by the public. This post is one of a series that identifies ethical problems with these cost arguments made against the adoption of climate change policies and legislation.
In the entry entitled Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens, ClimateEthics explained how cost arguments were usually deeply ethically problematic because they ignored duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an entry entitled Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, ClimateEthics explained that cost arguments were ethically flawed because they:

(a) ignore the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world, and

(b) implicitly rely on “preference utilitarianism,” a justification for non-action on climate change that is deeply ethically problematic.

This post now identifies another ethical problem with the use of cost arguments made against proposed climate change policies and legislation:They ignore the duty to prevent human rights violations.

II-Cost Arguments and Human Rights Violations

A recent report by Sir Nicolas Stern, the chief economist for the United Kingdom, acknowledged that if climate change violates human rights there could be a moral, if not legal, obligation that those nations or groups most responsible for climate change to reduce their emissions not withstanding what cost-benefit analysis conclude. (Stern, 2006, 42). Therefore, according to Stern, if climate change policies are viewed to create human rights violations, it could be argued that all have the right only to emit some very small amount of greenhouse gases, equal for all, and that no one has the right to emit beyond that level without incurring the duty to compensate. (Stern, 2006: 42).

According to Henry Shue, a human right provides: (1) a rational basis for justification: (2) that actual enjoyment of the substance of the right may be enjoyed by the right holder, and (3) that the right be socially guaranteed. (Shue, 1980: 13). In other words, to have a right is to be in a position to make demands on others about one’s entitlement to enjoy the right. As Shue asserts, if a person has a right, the right can be insisted on without embarrassment. (Shue, 1980:15). To have a right also entitles the right holder to expect that those who can do so guarantee that the right can be enjoyed by the right holder. For this reason, if a person has a right to be protected from climate change caused by others, then they may expect that those who can act to prevent climate change caused harm will take protective action. This obligation is not modified by the fact that reducing pollution will impose costs on the polluter. In other words, if climate change violates human rights, high-emitters can’t use cost arguments to minimize their responsibility to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emission levels that don’t cause human rights violations.

A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for tens of millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations, but directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. That is, inadequate climate change policies qualify as human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right to enjoy the places where people live.

According to the scientific consensus view articulate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these harms:

(1) are already being experienced by tens of thousands in the world,

(2) will be experienced in the future by millions of people from GHG emissions that have already been emitted but not yet felt due to lags in the climate system, and

(3) will increase dramatically in the future unless GHG emissions are dramatically reduced from existing global emissions levels.

The harms include deaths from disease, droughts, and floods, heat, storm related damages, and damage from rising oceans, heat impacts on agriculture, loss of animals that are dependent upon for substance purposes, and social disputes caused by diminishing resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the inability to use property that people depend upon to conduct their life including houses or sleds in cold places, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where has lived to sustain life. The very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change.

Deaths from climate change are not only a future problem but are identifiable at the present. A recent article in the respected scientific journal Nature concluded that the human-induced warming that the world is now experiencing is already causing 150,000 deaths and 5 million incidents of disease each year from additional malaria and diarrhea, mostly in the poorest nations. Death and disease incidents are likely to soar as warming increases. (Patz, 2005)

Facts such as this demonstrate that climate change is already compromising rights to life, liberty, and personal security and inadequate government climate change policies will assure that these harms will multiply.

Human-induced climate change is now discernible and is already adversely affecting some humans, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world. However, as some parts of the world are warming faster than others, in some other parts of the climate change damages are more discernible. (IPCC, 2007). That is, for instance, destruction of homes from melting permafrost in polar regions is now visible and increases in vector borne disease are most discernible in tropical and semi-tropical areas.

The developed nations are mostly responsible for the build up of GHGs in the atmosphere to present levels although total emissions and per capita emissions levels vary greatly among nations and the percentage of GHGs from developing nations is increasing. (Argawal and Nairin 1991) In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change damages are often the least responsible for GHG emissions. (IPCC, 2007; Estada-Oyala, 1992)

In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of numerous communities around the world through no fault of their own. For instance, climate change is likely to cause agricultural decline around the world in places dependent upon local agricultural production with resultant displacement of people from their native region. In many parts of the world it will no longer possible to depend upon water availability that societies have used for centuries or temperatures that sustain agricultural activity.

The type of damages to life and security from human-induced climate change are much more destructive to fundamental human interests than many things that are already recognized to be entitled to human rights protection. In fact, climate change damages are likely to exceed in sheer destructive power human behaviors which are viewed to be most heinous including crimes against humanity and war crimes, matters about which there is little contention in international law that basic rights are violated
IPCC has found that:

The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events; increased burden of diarrheal diseases; increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and the altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.( IPCC, 2007, sec 3.3.1)

Cost arguments usually do not recognize the rights individuals or nations may have to be protected from greenhouse gas damage nor the corresponding duties that high emitters have to prevent human rights violations.

For these reasons, cost arguments made in opposition to climate change policies and legislation are ethically troublesome: Cost arguments against climate change policies and legislation ignore obligations to prevent human rights violations.

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

Agarwal, Anil, and Narain, Sunita,. 1991, Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism, New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

Estrada-Oyuela, Raul A.,2002. Equity and Climate Change. Ethics, Equity and International Negotiations on Climate Change, eds. Luiz Pinguelli-Rosa and Mohan Munasinghe. pp. 36-46. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) 2007, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report,

Patz, Jonathan, 2005, Impact of Regional Climate Change on Human Health, Nature, 384, pp 310-317.

Shue, Henry (1980), Basic Rights, Subsistence, Affluence, U.S Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J.

Stern, Sir Nicolas, 2006. Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury,, (viewed, May 31, 2008)United States, 1998, The Kyoto Protocol and the President’s Policies to Address Climate Change; An Economic Analysis,$File/wh_c&b.pdf


7 thoughts on “Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations

  1. Once again, a well executed and indubitably articulated position Donald.
    As a deeply concerned resident of Alaska, environmental board representative and commercial fisherman, I occupy multiple “frontlines” of known causes, felt effects, and tragic, (if not stunning), denialism and rationalizations– even among equivocating environmental nonprofit board members.
    It seems our collective fates will be contingent upon our capacity to care first, then carefully reason, and then courageously act, if we are to begin to restore our humanity and hope.
    Thank you for providing the framework and leadership around how these steps can be accomplished.


  2. Donald,
    As usual, a great post. Thanks!
    That said, isn’t it time (and wouldn’t it be a good idea) for a credible and influential group of ethicists to write, sign, and issue a crystal clear and compelling statement listing the central ethical arguments why society should face and act to address climate change and, along the lines of the present post and earlier ones, why the main arguments used against action are deeply ethically flawed from various key standpoints?
    For example, you and Nancy T, Henry Shue, Peter Singer, Dale Jameison (spelling?), and others.
    Such things need to be put into compelling and crystal clear summary statements, together, and signed and distributed. The coming together of the key collective statements of leading scientific organizations, with a key summary statement from key ethicists, can help move the needle on societal change in a number of ways, including the important task of giving climate organizations and responsible activists more “moral support”, moral grounding, moral confidence, and moral force in their activities. The information — the science AND the moral case — has not been “brought together” and conveyed clearly and loudly enough, as far as I can tell. The harms that we are in the process of imposing upon ourselves and the rest of the world are (most likely) immense and growing, yet society seems to be yawning as if all is well, aside from the economy. But, Donald, messages such as yours need to “get out there” in clear form and help activists come to life. I’m increasingly concerned that our “moral intelligence” is being compartmentalized into academic boxes while society happily or indifferently causes harm to itself and others, en masse. The moral/ethical arguments need to get out of the text books and move beyond the blogs — into the world of broad public understanding and ACTION.
    The clock is ticking and I don’t see much change on the horizon. What to do, that’s the question.
    Cheers and thanks,


  3. You know, in science, there was once this thing we called the Theory of Multiple Working Hypotheses. Anathema (a formal ecclesiastical curse accompanied by excommunication) in modern climate science. So, in juxtaposition to the hypothesis of future global climate disruption from CO2, a scientist might well consider an antithesis or two in order to maintain ones objectivity.
    One such antithesis, which happens to be a long running debate in climate science, concerns the end Holocene. Or just how long the present interglacial will last.
    Looking at orbital mechanics and model results, Loutre and Berger (2003) in a landmark paper (meaning a widely quoted and discussed paper) for the time predicted that the current interglacial, the Holocene, might very well last another 50,000 years, particularly if CO2 were factored in. This would make the Holocene the longest lived interglacial since the onset of the Northern Hemisphere Glaciations some 2.8 million years ago. Five of the last 6 interglacials have each lasted about half of a precession cycle. The precession cycle varies from 19-23k years, and we are at the 23kyr part now, making 11,500 years half, which is also the present age of the Holocene. Which is why this discussion has relevance.
    But what about that 6th interglacial, the one that wasn’t on the half-precessional “clock”. That would be MIS-11 (or the Holsteinian) which according to the most recently published estimate may have lasted on the order of 20-22kyrs, with the longest estimate ranging up to 32kyrs.
    Loutre and Berger’s 2003 paper was soon followed by another landmark paper by Lisieki and Raymo (Oceanography, 2004), an exhaustive look at 57 globally distributed deep Ocean Drilling Project (and other) cores, which stated:
    “Recent research has focused on MIS 11 as a possible analog for the present interglacial [e.g., Loutre and Berger, 2003; EPICA community members, 2004] because both occur during times of low eccentricity. The LR04 age model establishes that MIS 11 spans two precession cycles, with 18O values below 3.6o/oo for 20 kyr, from 398-418 ka. In comparison, stages 9 and 5 remained below 3.6o/oo for 13 and 12 kyr, respectively, and the Holocene interglacial has lasted 11 kyr so far. In the LR04 age model, the average LSR of 29 sites is the same from 398-418 ka as from 250-650 ka; consequently, stage 11 is unlikely to be artificially stretched. However, the June 21 insolation minimum at 65N during MIS 11 is only 489 W/m2, much less pronounced than the present minimum of 474 W/m2. In addition, current insolation values are not predicted to return to the high values of late MIS 11 for another 65 kyr. We propose that this effectively precludes a ‘double precession-cycle’ interglacial [e.g., Raymo, 1997] in the Holocene without human influence.”
    To bring this discussion up to date, Tzedakis, in perhaps the most open peer review process currently being practised in the world today (The European Geosciences Union website Climate of the Past Discussions) published a quite thorough examination of the state of the science related to the two most recent interglacials, which like the present one, the Holocene (or MIS-1) is compared to MIS-19 and MIS-11. The other two interglacials which have occurred since the Mid Pleistocene Transition (MPT) also occurred at eccentricity minimums. Since its initial publication in 2009, and its republication after the open online peer review process again in march of this year, this paper is now also considered a landmark review of the state of paleoclimate science. In it he also considers Ruddiman’s Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis, with Rudddiman a part of the online review. Tzedakis’ concluding remarks are enlightening:
    “On balance, what emerges is that projections on the natural duration of the current interglacial depend on the choice of analogue, while corroboration or refutation of the “early anthropogenic hypothesis” on the basis of comparisons with earlier interglacials remains irritatingly inconclusive.”
    End Part I


  4. Part II
    I am going to presume that the original Part II got lost in the bit bucket somewhere as sometimes happens with this type of blog engine (I have seen this before). And I did not make a copy before shutting down hours ago. So I will attempt to do this from memory.
    In Part I we took a look at the present state of the science with respect to the discussion concerning the presumed length of the present interglacial, the Holocene (or MIS-1). As we move further towards the construction of the antithetic argument, we will take a closer look at the post-MPT end interglacials and the last glacial for some clues.
    An astute reader might have gleaned from Part I that even on things which have happened, the science is not that particularly well settled. Which makes consideration of the science being settled on things which have not yet happened dubious at best.
    The pursuit continues as to what we might expect as regards the possible end Holocene. Higher resolution proxy studies from many parts of the planet suggest that the end interglacials may be quite the wild climate ride from the perspective of global climate disruption.
    Boettger, et al (Quaternary International 207 [2009] 137–144) abstract it:
    “In terrestrial records from Central and Eastern Europe the end of the Last Interglacial seems to be characterized by evident climatic and environmental instabilities recorded by geochemical and vegetation indicators. The transition (MIS 5e/5d) from the Last Interglacial (Eemian, Mikulino) to the Early Last Glacial (Early Weichselian, Early Valdai) is marked by at least two warming events as observed in geochemical data on the lake sediment profiles of Central (Gro¨bern, Neumark–Nord, Klinge) and of Eastern Europe (Ples). Results of palynological studies of all these sequences indicate simultaneously a strong increase of environmental oscillations during the very end of the Last Interglacial and the beginning of the Last Glaciation. This paper discusses possible correlations of these events between regions in Central and Eastern Europe. The pronounced climate and environment instability during the interglacial/glacial transition could be consistent with the assumption that it is about a natural phenomenon, characteristic for transitional stages. Taking into consideration that currently observed ‘‘human-induced’’ global warming coincides with the natural trend to cooling, the study of such transitional stages is important for understanding the underlying processes of the climate changes.”
    Hearty and Neumann (Quaternary Science Reviews 20 [2001] 1881–1895) abstracting their work in the Bahamas state:
    “The geology ofthe Last Interglaciation (sensu stricto, marine isotope substage (MIS) 5e) in the Bahamas records the nature of sea level and climate change. After a period of quasi-stability for most of the interglaciation, during which reefs grew to +2.5 m, sea level rose rapidly at the end ofthe period, incising notches in older limestone. After briefstillstands at +6 and perhaps +8.5 m, sea level fell with apparent speed to the MIS 5d lowstand and much cooler climatic conditions. It was during this regression from the MIS 5e highstand that the North Atlantic suffered an oceanographic ‘‘reorganization’’ about 11873 ka ago. During this same interval, massive dune-building greatly enlarged the Bahama Islands. Giant waves reshaped exposed lowlands into chevron-shaped beach ridges, ran up on older coastal ridges, and also broke off and threw megaboulders onto and over 20 m-high cliffs. The oolitic rocks recording these features yield concordant whole-rock amino acid ratios across the archipelago. Whether or not the Last Interglaciation serves as an appropriate analog for our ‘‘greenhouse’’ world, it nonetheless reveals the intricate details ofclimatic transitions between warm interglaciations and near glacial conditions.?
    The picture which emerges is that the post-MPT end interglacials appear to be populated with dramatic, abrupt global climate disrutpions which appear to have occurred on decadal to centennial time scales. Given that the Holocene, one of at least 3 post-MPT “extreme” interglacials, may not be immune to this repetitive phenomena, and as it is half a precession cycle old now, and perhaps unlikely to grow that much older, this could very well be the natural climate “noise” from which we must discern our anthropogenic “signal” from.
    If we take a stroll between this interglacial and the last one back, the Eemian, we find in the Greenland ice cores that there were 24 Dansgaard-Oeschger oscillations, or abrupt warmings that occurred from just a few years to mere decades that average between 8-10C rises (D-O 19 scored 16C). The nominal difference between earth’s cold (glacial) and warm (interglacial) states being on the order of 20C. D-O events average 1470 years, the range being 1-4kyrs.
    Sole, Turiel and Llebot writing in Physics Letters A (366 [2007] 184–189) identified three classes of D-O oscillations in the Greenland GISP2 ice cores A (brief), B (medium) and C (long), reflecting the speed at which the warming relaxes back to the cold glacial state:
    “In this work ice-core CO2 time evolution in the period going from 20 to 60 kyr BP [15] has been qualitatively compared to our temperature cycles, according to the class they belong to. It can be observed in Fig. 6 that class A cycles are completely unrelated to changes in CO2 concentration. We have observed some correlation between B and C cycles and CO2 concentration, but of the opposite sign to the one expected: maxima in atmospheric CO2 concentration tend to correspond to the middle part or the end the cooling period. The role of CO2 in the oscillation phenomena seems to be more related to extend the duration of the cooling phase than to trigger warming. This could explain why cycles not coincident in time with maxima of CO2 (A cycles) rapidly decay back to the cold state. ”
    “Nor CO2 concentration either the astronomical cycle change the way in which the warming phase takes place. The coincidence in this phase is strong among all the characterised cycles; also, we have been able to recognise the presence of a similar warming phase in the early stages of the transition from glacial to interglacial age. Our analysis of the warming phase seems to indicate a universal triggering mechanism, what has been related with the possible existence of stochastic resonance [1,13, 21]. It has also been argued that a possible cause for the repetitive sequence of D/O events could be found in the change in the thermohaline Atlantic circulation [2,8,22,25]. However, a cause for this regular arrangement of cycles, together with a justification on the abruptness of the warming phase, is still absent in the scientific literature.”
    In their work, at least 13 of the 24 D-O oscillations (indeed other workers suggest the same for them all), CO2 was not the agent provocateur of the warmings but served to ameliorate the relaxation back to the cold glacial state, something which might have import whenever we finally do reach the end Holocene. Instead of triggering the abrupt warmings it appears to function as somewhat of a climate “security blanket”, if you will.
    Therefore in constructing the antithesis, and taking into consideration the precautionary principle, we are left to ponder if reducing CO2’s concentration in the late Holocene atmosphere might actually be the wrong thing to do.
    Meanwhile, enjoy the interglacial, while it lasts.


  5. simply stated the same arguement used to by Edison when confronted with alternating current.
    direct current was his economic monopoly.
    Mr Brown , you have yet to comment on my solution, directly. Yet you do undermind the oposition indirectly so well.


  6. Prof. Brown,
    The US exports its chemical process industries that are having a hard time passing EPA standards. They are now in 3rd World countries like China, India, and the Philippines.
    Do 3rd world governments really care about regulating these chemical plants? Of course not. They are too happy welcoming these multinational companies to provide their population with jobs – too often killing innocent workers who are not protected by laws that protect US citizens.


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