The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms.

I. Introduction.

Although some progress was made on a number of procedural issues and voluntary emissions reductions commitments at the conclusion of the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in December, the international community had failed for the 20th year in a row to agree to a meaningful global approach to climate change.

That is, Cancun failed to produce binding and equitable national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change nor dedicated and predictable funding needed for adaptation by vulnerable developing nations.
In fact, the voluntary emissions reduction commitments agreed to in Cancun, even if fully complied with, virtually guarantee that rising global temperatures will exceed dangerous levels.

Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change. In fact, as we shall see, the United States among the developed countries is the only nation to make no binding commitments on climate change.

Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages from human-induced climate change now are becoming more visible around the world. And so, as the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States is ignoring its global obligations.

Even though the election of President Obama was widely seen as a basis for hope in the international community that the United States would for the first time accept its international responsibilities on climate change, it would appear that at least for his first term President Obama will not be able to deliver on his promise to make the United States a responsible participant in solving climate change.
Because the United States recently elected a Congress that shows no interest in developing national climate change policies and there are reasons to believe that the Obama administration will not be able to make meaningful reductions through administrative action under existing law, the international community is becoming increasingly pessimistic that it will be able to achieve a global deal on climate change in the continuing absence of US leadership. The international community needs the United States to commit to reduce its emissions not only because of the relative size of the US emissions as a percentage of global emissions (over 21%), but because other countries have signaled that they will not act without the United States greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

This post reviews: (a) the state of international climate change cooperation in light of COP-16 in Cancun, (b) the unfortunate and tragic history of the failed US response to climate change, (c) the political domestic opposition to climate change policies, and (d) the need of the United States to respond to its ethical duties to reduce the threat of climate change.

II. Cancun Outcome.

To understand the state of the global deal on climate change, one needs to examine the agreements reached at COP-16 in Cancun. In a recent post, ClimateEthics examined in considerable detail the positive outcomes and huge disappointments of COP-16 in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010. See, An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome.

In summary, despite a few agreements on mostly procedural matters and non-binding national emissions reductions commitments and aspirations for adaptation funding that have kept hope alive for some eventual global deal on climate change, the Cancun agreements failed to achieve legally binding agreements on national greenhouse gas emissions reductions and sufficient dedicated funding for adaptation efforts to climate change in vulnerable countries around the world.

Although Cancun made progress on voluntary national greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments, these commitments even if complied with, will not avoid dangerous climate change. In short, Cancun made some progress but deferred decisions on the most difficult international climate change issues to later COPs. As we explained in the previous post, Cancun utterly failed to achieve an agreement that: (a) was environmentally sufficient, (b) adequately funded needed adaptation, or (c) allocated national responsibility on the basis of equity.

A. Environmental Sufficiency Criteria

As we have seen the Cancun agreements fail to modify the inadequate voluntary commitments on ghg emissions reductions made pursuant to the Copenhagen Accord. Not only does the Cancun agreements fail to require sufficient ghg emissions reductions to assure that the international community is on a ghg emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change, the emissions reductions commitments that have been identified under the Cancun agreements almost guarantee that millions of poor people, plants, animals, an ecosystems will be harmed by climate change. That is, the voluntary emissions reduction commitments made in Cancun leave at a very minimum a 5Gt gap between emissions levels that will be achieved if there is full compliance with the voluntary emissions reductions and what is necessary to prevent 2°C rise, a warming amount that most scientists believe could cause very dangerous climate change.

B. Just Adaptation Criteria

The second criteria for judging the sufficiency of any second commitment period under the UNFCCC is that it must provide adequate funding to support adaptation programs in developing countries given that some developing countries have done nothing to cause climate change and must now or soon take steps to avoid harsh impacts. Although the Cancun agreement did manage to create an adaptation framework to enhance adaptation efforts by all countries and a process to help least developed countries (LDCs) to develop and implement national adaptation, Cancun failed to identify dedicated sources of funding to implement an adaptation agenda that is based upon “mandatory” contributions to “new, predictable, and additional sources of funding.”

C. Equity Criteria

As we explained in the recent post on Cancun, a third criteria that all post-Kyoto proposals must meet is the requirement that national emissions reduction proposals must be consistent with what “equity” and “justice” demands of nations. That is, equity requires that each nation reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. In other words, each nation’s emissions reduction levels should be based upon what distributive and retributive justice demands, not on national self-interest. As we explained in the recent post, the voluntary emissions reductions commitments made under the Cancun agreements utterly failed to satisfy the requirement that national emissions reductions be based upon “equity” or are otherwise distributively just.

III. The United States Climate Change Record Approaching Cancun.
Although the Presidency of Barak Obama gave the world some hope that the US approach to climate change would reverse a twenty year history of US unwillingness to make climate change commitments, it is now increasingly unlikely that the Obama administration will be successful in making the United States for the first time a responsible nation on climate change.

To understand the importance of the US solving the global climate change problem, one must keep in mind that: (a) the US is by far the largest historical emitter of global greenhouse gases that have caused the existing problem, (b) the US is near the top of national greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis, and (c) the US is second only to China in total tons of greenhouse gases emitted.

Not only is the United States an indispensable participant in solving climate change because of the size of the US contribution to the problem, the United States has a dismal record in over twenty years of international efforts to achieve a global solution to this civilization challenging global problem. In American Heat, Ethical Problems With the United States Response To Global Warming, (Brown, 2002) this writer documented in detail the negative role in achieving a global approach to climate change that the United States played in the first decade of climate change negotiations from the late 1980s through the year 2000. Among other things:

• During the negotiations of the UNFCCC between 1990 and 1992, the United States, virtually standing alone, successfully prevented the UNFCCC from including enforceable national emissions reductions targets for developed nations.
• The United States is the only developed country in the world to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol and therefore commit itself to a binding interim emissions reduction target.
• George W. Bush announced that the United States was not only unwilling to ratify Kyoto Protocol, it was withdrawing the United States from Kyoto Treaty all together.
• Since George W. Bush’s second term, the United States has consistently resisted building on the architecture of the Kyoto Protocol to design a second commitment period under the UNFCCC thus making the world renegotiate matters that had been settled under Kyoto despite the fact that it is not clear that the United States will be able to commit to any new agreement on climate change.

When President Obama was elected, there was wide-spread hope the United States would change course on climate change. Yet, the United States approached Cancun in 2010 and the year before in Copenhagen by making a voluntary commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020 making the US promise: (a) the weakest of all of the developed country promises and the US commitment, (b) far short of what is required of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, and (c) without any response of what equity would require of US emissions, reductions. Although the United States promised to try and mobilize significant amounts of adaptation funding in Copenhagen and Cancun, it made no binding promises on adaptation funding other than promises to try and mobilize funding from various sources.

Obama’s commitment on greenhouse gas emissions reductions was limited by what he thought he could get through the US Congress. That is, the US promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 levels was based upon proposed legislation that had passed the US House of Representatives that was never passed in the US Senate. Because of the recent US elections it is very unlikely that even this weak commitment can be made again in the next few years for there is now little hope of passing the House bill.

Although there is evidence that President Obama hoped to make the United States for the first time a responsible participant in an adequate global approach to climate change, given the recent Republican take over the US House of Representatives in November of 2010 it now looks very unlikely that the United States will be able to make meaningful national commitments on climate change until 2012 at the very earliest. And so, many around the world are pessimistic about the prospects for COP-17 in Durban.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is attempting to use its administrative authority under the Clean Air Act to begin to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases through rule-making of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) However, since the US Congress holds financing authority over EPA and Congress has expressed its intention to not fund EPA programs on climate change emissions reductions, it is not clear that the US will be able to reduce its emissions through administrative action alone. It is also very unlikely that the US could commit to magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions that are required of it to be a responsible global citizen by relying on administrative rule-making alone. For these reason, the Obama administration is not likely to be in a strong position to make any meaningful commitments to the International community when it meets in COP-17 in Durban, South Africa in December.

And so, since international climate change negotiations began in 1990, the United States has yet to adopt meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction legislation or policies necessary to fulfill its global responsibilities. It is also now unlikely that the Obama administration can reverse this trend before Durban. Yet. as the world waits, effects of human-induced climate change particularly in increased intensity of precipitation and drought events are becoming more visible as time goes by.

One might ask about the state of political discussion in the United States about these issues.

During the last twenty years, well-financed opposition to climate change policies have successfully fought proposed US climate change action. As we shall see, this opposition has based its positions on the premise that climate change policies should be resisted if they are not in the US short-term economic interest.

Despite demonstrated interest in climate change, the Obama administration has failed to lead US in generating understanding that the US policies on climate change must consider not only US short-term economic interest but duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others around the world.

IV. US Internal Political Opposition to Climate Change Policies and the Failure to See US Ethical Obligations.

For almost 20 years arguments against US climate change legislation or US participation in a global solution to climate change have been made that have almost always been of two types.

By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are economic predictions of various kinds such as claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, or increase the cost of fuel. A variation of this argument is that the United States should not adopt policies on climate change until other nations such as China take steps to reduce their emissions because if the United States acts and other nations don’t reciprocate this will harm the US economy.

The second most frequent argument made by US opponents of climate change policies are assertions that governments should not take action on climate change because adverse impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “main-stream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate change researchers are unproven.

Both the economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies implicitly argue that climate change policies should be opposed because they are not in the US national interest.

The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

By simply opposing the factual claims of the opponents of climate change, the advocates of climate change policies are implicitly agreeing with the assumptions of the opponents of climate change action that greenhouse reduction policies should not be adopted if they are not in the US national self-interest.

Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. By ethics is meant the domain of inquiry that examines claims that given certain facts, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibilities attach to human activities.

If nations or individuals have ethical obligations, they are likely to have duties, responsibilities, and obligations that require them to go beyond consideration of self-interest alone in making decisions. And so, if climate change raises ethical considerations, governments may not base policy decisions on self-interest alone.

Given this, one might ask what aspects of climate change raise ethical questions. In fact there are several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.

First, climate change creates 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.

The third reason why climate change is 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.

And so if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions which imply duties, responsibilities, and obligations, the arguments against US climate change policy that have been based on self-interest alone are deeply ethically problematic.

Yet climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. This is so because several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating ethical responsibilities that limit a nation’s ability to look at narrow economic self interest alone when developing responsive policies.

Despite the fact that climate change creates obligations, the United States continues to debate this issue as if the only legitimate consideration is how our economy might be affected.

The US press almost never challenges those who oppose climate change on the basis that policies will increase cost. This is curious because the debate at the international level has created a consensus among all countries that those developed countries most responsible for climate change should take the first steps to reduce its enormous threats. In fact the senior George Bush administration in 1992 agreed that the rich developed countries including the United States should take the lead in combating climate change when it negotiated and finally ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the United States, however, even those supporting climate-change policies often follow the same implicit reasoning on cost by responding that climate-change policies will create jobs. Although this may be true, depending upon the actual policies implemented, this limited focus on job creation undermines the need to help Americans see their ethical duties while giving unspoken support for the notion that the reasonableness of climate change policies turns on whether they will create jobs.

Because the majority of climate scientists believe the world is running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change, a case can be made that there is a urgent need to turn up the volume about American duties to others to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

V. Conclusion

Many around the world believe there will not be an adequate global solution to climate change until the United States responds at a level consistent with its global obligations for climate change. Yet, because of well-financed US domestic political opposition to climate change, there is not likely to be political support for adequate domestic climate change policies, unless the assumptions of those opposing climate change policies are expressly examined and refuted.

Because US domestic opposition is premised on short-term economic interest and not national obligations, to get political support for kind of US commitments needed, US leadership is needed on helping US citizens understand their global ethical obligations that must be considered in setting climate change policies.

The world awaits US leadership on climate change at a time when human-induced climate change harms are becoming more visible. Yet there is little evidence that US citizens understand their obligations to poor people around the world for climate change damages. This is tragic failure of US domestic leadership.


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


Brown, 2002, American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.

Brown, 2011, An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome.

7 thoughts on “The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms.

  1. Don:
    I commend you for writing another commentary on the failure of the United States to take meaningful action to address global climate change.
    Unfortunately, I suggest that the situation is worse then you describe. Although the international community (in general) has accepted a 2 C degree mean atmospheric temperature increase as constituting “dangerous anthropogenic climate change,” recent scientific evidence increasingly indicates that the “dangerous” level is lower (see references below). Given the opposition of the United States to addressing global climate change, it is highly unlikely that the United States would be willing to form policies on a level lower than the 2 C degree change despite the increasing scientific evidence that this is necessary. (Why would it, given its failure to do anything to address climate change at all?)
    Further, scientific studies show an urgency for the need to have greenhouse gas emissions peak and then substantially decline before 2020 or, optimistically and for the sake of argument, by no later than 2030. Consequently, although the issues you raise are relevant, this demand for urgent response means we no longer have the luxury of unconstrained time to address the problems about which you speak. Meeting the demands that urgency requires means that whatever proponents to address global climate change have been doing is not going to work and, therefore, addressing climate change demands new approaches and strategies, although I am at a loss as to what these might be.
    Finally, it might be worth mentioning the work of Erik Conway and Naomi Orsekes, two excellent historians of science, who in theie extensively researched book “Merchants of Doubt” document the history and pervasive influence of a handful of individuals and corporate funding to seed (scientifically unfounded) doubt about the science of climate change in a manner that has helped shape the political inaction of the United States to deal with the problem.
    Sample references:
    den Elzen MGJ, Beltran MAM, Roeflsema M, van Ruijven BJ, van Vliert J, van Vuuren DP, Hohne N, Motlmann S (2010) Evaluation of the Copenhagen accord: Chances and risks for the 2 C climate goal. Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Bilthoven, The Netherlands.
    German Advisory Council on Global Change (2009) Solving the climate dilemma: The budget approach. Berlin,
    Hansen J, Sato M, Beerling D, Berner R, Masson-Delmotte V, Pagani M, Raymo M, Royer DL, Zachos JC (2008) Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2:217-231.
    Turney CSM, Jones RT (2010) Does the Agulhas current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials? Journal Quaternary Science 25:839-843.
    Again, thanks for your thoughtful commentary.
    Dr. John Lemons
    Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
    Department of Environmental Studies
    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME 04005

  2. Thanks to Dr. Lemons for correcting and oversight in our recent report. I will respond more in detail soon in agreement with the comment in an upcoming post.
    Don Brown

  3. Dear Don,
    Thanks for another great assessment of the tragedy and indeed immorality of our present situation.
    Something — something in my “gut” — suggests to me something unfortunate and deeply problematic: that most journalists, most bloggers (even some otherwise excellent climate-change bloggers), and indeed many other people discount (at best) and often entirely ignore even the most solid ethical arguments in favor of responsible action. In other words, to an alarming degree, the topics of ethics/morality are often filed in the “nice but not important” folder and forgotten about. They are paid lip-service. They are periodically mentioned, or even “featured”, and then forgotten: not followed up.
    Some people (journalists, bloggers, etc.) might argue, “but the ethical/moral aspects of things are not taken seriously by many people, so why should I cover them more than once-a-month, if that?” How does one even begin to address such a silly argument? After all, for one thing, one of the primary reasons that many people don’t take the subject seriously is that the media don’t cover it seriously or give it the focus it demands (if we are to address our problems).
    So, we have this, in essence: “John and Jane don’t take this serious subject seriously, it seems to me, so I don’t bother to try to discuss it seriously with them.” But such reasoning facilitates John’s and Jane’s habit of not taking the subject seriously (if indeed they don’t). Is the subject (ethics) serious and vital? Yes, of course. So journalists and bloggers should cover and feature it seriously and vitally, of course, until the public get it and until we are making responsible and ethical choices. But too few do.
    I’m sure you realize the disturbing fact that “philosophy” itself, as a professionalized academic discipline, is at least partly responsible for the fact that many people have a diminished idea of the reality and import of ethical considerations. Some so-called philosophers have become so “sophisticated” (in their own minds anyhow) that they think they’ve argued “morality” out of existence, almost as if they’ve argued their own noses out of existence. So public analyses about such things as climate change are often put mainly, or only, in “economic” and scientific terms, the very real ethical considerations either forgotten or only partially (and usually incorrectly) embedded in economic terms.
    Although I’m not an expert on Thoreau, and there’s not enough space here to discuss my own thoughts, it would be interesting to revisit some of Thoreau’s thoughts in his “Civil Disobedience”, to see what modern ethicists think about those thoughts these days, given the predicament regarding climate change you discuss in your present post.
    As always, thanks for the great post, Don.
    Be Well,

  4. I agree with Jeff Huggins comment entirely, including the fact that academic philosophy is part of the problem. In fact, I think it is a large part of the problem because it is almost exclusively focused on meta-ethical theories rather than applied problems.

  5. In 2009, Obama signed Executive Order 13514. Among many things, it requires the federal government reduce ghgs, adapt to climate change, create climate task forces reportable to the Office of the President, and train decision making employees on climate science.
    Notably, the EO expands on GWBush’s EO 13423, on sustainability in the federal government, which also called for ghg reduction.
    Obama signed this EO as leverage going in to the COP15. It was a symbol of good faith to the world, sans a deal from the legislative branches. In other words, he plays the long game.
    Look, it has taken decades for the science to congeal. It will take a few more for politicians to act. Remember, there was no EPA just a few years ago, so temporally, environmental regulation is new. They’ll act, it’ll just take time.
    To see how this has affected private industry, see the National Defense Industrial Association’s 2010 conference schedule, here:
    Billions of dollars in deals and innovative new products have blossomed from his EO.
    Finally, see my piece on the EO 13514, here:
    Thank you, Donald, for an excellent piece. It is not in vain, I assure you.
    Michael Cote

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