The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

I. The US Academy of Sciences Thirty-Year Record in Warning the US About the Risk Of Climate Change.

Earlier this month, the United States Academy of Science issued its most recent report on the science of climate change that once again concluded that human-induced climate change was a very serious threat to humans and ecological systems around the world. This Report was entitled “America’s Climate Choices 2011″ (US Academy, 2011) Among other conclusions, this report found:

Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks. In the judgment of this report’s authoring committee, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks posed by climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts. ” (US Academy, 2011)

This is not the first US Academy of Sciences report on climate change. In fact the US Academy gas been warning Americans about climate change since international interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions grew dramatically in the late 1970’s as computer modelers began to use new computing tools to construct climate models that were capable of predicting temperature changes caused by human-induced climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the National Research Council a branch of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. (White, 1978)

A report prepared by the Carter administration a few years later in 1981 declared that “[t]he responsibility of the carbon-dioxide problem is ours-we should accept it and act in a way that recognizes our role as trustees for future generations.” (Charney et al., 1979) This report also estimated that the amount of warming that would be experienced from a doubling of the pre-industrial levels of CO2 would be 3 degrees C, very close to the amount that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would predict almost 30 years later.” (Charney et al., 1979)

For over thirty-five years, the US Academy of Sciences has warned the US about the enormous threats of climate change with each successive report making stronger claims that human caused climate change is a serious threat to civilization. If the United States can be accused of failing to live up to its ethical responsibilities to the rest of the world on climate change, one cannot blame the US Academy of Sciences for failing to ring alarm bells. US citizens cannot claim that their most prestigious scientific institutions have failed to take a position on the seriousness of climate change.
ClimateEthics has previously explained that that the failure of the United States to respond to climate change can be attributed in largest part to a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign. See, for example, A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?:The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change. (Brown, 2010a) ClimateEthics has also repeatedly argued that the failure of the United States to respond to its ethical duties for climate change may also be attributed to the almost complete failure in the United States of the media and even climate change policy advocates to acknowledge that climate change raises not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. See, for example, 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. (Brown, 2010b)

II. Ethics and The National Academy of Sciences.

If climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical issue, can the US Academy reports on climate change be criticized on ethical grounds??

The US Academy reports acknowledge that climate change has serious adverse world-wide impacts, that is impacts outside the United States. For instance, in its most recent report, the US Academy concluded that climate change would cause the following world-wide impacts:

• Water availability will decrease in many areas that are already drought-prone and in areas where rivers are fed by glaciers or snowpack;
• A higher fraction of rainfall will fall in the form of heavy precipitation,
increasing the risk of flooding and, in some regions, the spread of water-borne illness;
• People and ecosystems in coastal zones will be exposed to higher storm surges, intrusion of salt water into freshwater aquifers, and other risks as sea levels rise;
• Coral reefs will experience widespread bleaching as a result of increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.

(US Academy, 2011)

Yet, the Academy report for some understandable reasons does not acknowledge that what a nation should do about climate change is an ethical question. Instead the report encourages policy makers to frame climate change as a risk management problem. Such a framing suggests climate change is a matter of national self-interest, not obligation.

If duties and obligations should drive climate change policy, this would change or at least expand the kind of science needed for climate change policy making to include such things as disaggregation of climate change impacts, including associated uncertainties, in order to facilitate debate about obligations and responsibilities. In other words, ethical questions about obligations will drive the science of climate change to consider facts that don’t need to be examined in the absence of ethical obligations.

The dilemma for the US Academy of Sciences is that the role of the US Academy is to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive. The US Academy’s role does not allow it to take positions on ethical debates about climate change policies, but it can and should anticipate those debates, present data, portray uncertainties to facilitate discussions of equity and other ethical issues. This will allow negotiators, decision makers, and other stakeholders to ground important ethical discussions in relevant science.

For instance, policy makers and scientists need to understand that how scientific uncertainty is approached raises normative and ethical questions because such questions as who should have the burden of proof to reduce uncertainties are ethical questios not simply scientific issues.. These normative questions need to be expressly identified so that they are not hidden in scientific descriptions of impacts of human actions. This is particularly true in cases when there are scientifically plausible but insufficiently understood serious and irreversible consequences of human actions, and in such cases ethical questions about the scientific uncertainty should be acknowledged. .

One important ethical question raised by climate change science that needs to be expressly acknowledged in reports about climate change science is the ethics of scientific uncertainty. Doing this an a US Academy report is most likely resisted because there is a potential conflict between the US Academy’s role to synthesize the peer- reviewed scientific literature, which normally requires high levels of scientific proof before drawing conclusions, and the ethical duty to act entailed by the precautionary principle that is in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This principle requires governments to act despite scientific uncertainties.

The United States bound itself to the precautionary principle for climate change when it ratified the UNFCCC in 1993. A precautionary science would identify all scientifically plausible impacts, not only those impacts that can be identified with relatively high levels of scientific certainty. If the precautionary principle is to be taken seriously, then decision-makers should be informed about all major potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts of climate change. If the US Academy does not have the mandate to do this, someone in the US scientific community should be given the responsibility to do so and US Academy should make it clearer that it is relying on scientific conclusions in the literature that have reached relatively high levels of certainty. It should, at a minimum, also acknowledge ethical questions raised by scientifically plausible but uncertain impacts. It can do this without taking a position on what should be done in the face of uncertainty by simply acknowledging that ethical questions arise in such matters.

Since the United States government expressly adopted the precautionary principle when it ratifies the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a case can be made that the US Academy should identify all scientifically plausible impacts and particularly those that are experienced by those most vulnerable to climate change. If it were to do this, the US Academy should of course be clear that these impacts are less certain than others.

The US Academy could resolve its inherent conflict between its duties to stick to the science and avoid taking positions on ethical matters by simply acknowledging the ethical issues raised by climate change science. This would be an improvement on current practices of ignoring the ethical questions while encouraging Americans to see climate change policy options as risk management decisions alone.

For this reason, ClimateEthics recommends that the National Academy simply acknowledge ethical issues raised by climate change science. Without doing this, the Academy gives the false impression that US climate change policy is a matter of national interest alone and nothing needs to be done until all uncertainties are resolved. .

III. Ethics and the US Obligation for Climate Change

When the US Academy of Sciences reached issued its first report on climate change science in 1977, CO2 atmospheric concentrations were approximately 330 ppm. Now CO2 in the atmosphere is over 392 ppm. As ClimateEthics has frequently explained, the duty to take action on a problem like climate change is triggered long before all uncertainties are resolved because climate change is a problem that waiting: (a) makes the problem worse, (b) makes the ability to take action to avoid catastrophic harm more difficult, and (c) is not justified without consulting those who will be most harmed by waiting.

As we have asserted in previous posts, a strong ethical argument can be made that high-emitting countries and individuals have a strong duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions once threshold scientific knowledge establishes that the failure to take action can increase the harm. Not only is it not necessary to have absolute proof about climate change impacts from human activities before duties arise, asking what science tells us to do about climate change and only considering proven scientific facts in so doing is a wrong question as an ethical matter.

This confusion is at the core of why policy makers, the press, and environmental groups may have been tricked into asking the wrong question for over 30 years about science and climate change. This is so because decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises profound ethical questions not only “value-neutral” scientific questions. Ethics would make us responsible for our behavior once we are on notice that there is a sufficient threshold of scientific evidence for concluding that what we are doing is dangerous and that our behavior is putting others at risk. That is ethics would have us ask not only what do we know about climate change impacts, but what impacts are possible.

Yet, frequently when climate change impacts at the upper end of predicted scientific ranges are quoted they are categorized as “alarmist” even though these possible impacts are relevant as an ethical question once it is established that they are plausible scientifically.

For these reasons, the United States had an ethical duty to begin to take actions to reduce the threat of climate change over thirty-five years ago when the first Academy of Sciences report on climate change was issues.

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


Brown, D. 2010a, A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Chang.

Brown, D. 2010b, 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.

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,

US Academy of Sciences, 2011, America’s Climate Choices (2011),

White, Robert, 1978, Oceans and Climate -Introduction, Oceanus, 21:2-3

8 thoughts on “The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

  1. Don:
    A few minor points to your excellent post. One, as you know, the US government was officially informed of the risks of global climate change in 1965 by the President’s Science Advisory Committee “Restoring the Quality of the Environment,” to the White House under President Johnson. (No, this was not a NAS report, but the US government was put on official notice about the dangers of global climate change)
    Two, as far as I can discern there is nothing in the constitution or bylaws of the NAS that mandates that it avoid acknowledging the ethical dimensions of global climate change. For example, in my view if it chose to do so it could acknowledge that achieving a reduction of 50-80 percent carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 compared to 2000 levels as per IPCC’s AR4 might help reduce the global climate change problem (although current studies suggest this would be insufficient), but the later the reductions were in effect would exacerbate problems on developing nations because it would reduce the amount of “emissions space” available for developing nations to alleviate poverty and achieve minimal development goals.
    The questions you raise about why NAS and by extension other scientific organizations are reticent about at least acknowledging the ethical dimensions of global climate change are puzzling. They do have discretion to do so, in a way that avoids the problems of being “policy prescriptive.”
    Avoiding mention of the ethical dimensions of aspects of global climate change is tantamount to a medical doctor saying he/she should not comment that there is a duty to reduce smoking.
    Dr. John Lemons
    Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
    Department of Environmental Studies
    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME 04005

  2. Thanks for this comment and reminding us that the US was on notice long before the first US Academy of Sciences report. I also agree that the US Academy of Sciences could and should identify the ethical issues entailed by climate change science. I agree with your comment completely.

  3. Don, thanks for the great post. And Dr. Lemons, thanks for the helpful comment.
    A few thoughts …
    First, Don, your writing is very clear (thanks!) but sometimes just a slight bit passive, if that’s the right word. What I mean is this, for example: You write, “Ethics would make us responsible for our behavior once we are on notice that …”. But of course, ethical considerations DO make us responsible: there’s no “would” about it. We are responsible for this mess we’re creating and refusing to address. (And we are failing to live up to our responsibilities.) It sounds bad — and is.
    My oh my, a 1965 report to Johnson. I hadn’t seen that until now, but just read it (the part having to do with CO2 and climate change). That was 46 years ago.
    This is all really just a bit too much. By that I mean: Something needs to be done. Somebody should call together or invite together a group of people who can actually discuss all this — including and importantly the moral obligation and need to act — and begin to make something happen or at least raise the volume of the ethical dimension of the dialogue. Why don’t you two folks do it? — you (Don) and you (John)? Come to the SF Bay Area — Pacific Grove or Santa Cruz or Berkeley or something — everyone on her/his own dime (but there are decent Motel 6’s here) and perhaps you could gather a remarkable group. Lots of people out here. For example, Paul Ehrlich is at Stanford, and very concerned about all these things. And in keeping with the present post, Dr. Bruce Alberts, who was a recent two-term President of the NAS, is out here, in San Francisco. And lots of other folks. Kathleen Dean Moore, editor of ‘Moral Ground’, is at Oregon State or the U. of Oregon, I forget which, and perhaps she would come? Who knows. I would come if invited. Folks like these should be willing to come on their own, if invited and if the group looks like it could be productive. Somebody needs to do something! Or else another decade is going to pass us by.
    Cheers for now, and thanks again, Don, for the great post, as usual.

  4. Dr. Lemons, I have finally read the 1965 report to President Johnson, I never read it before, you are absolutely right, it is a strong argument and warning, now 46 years ago. Thanks for this. Oh my!!

  5. Dr. Lemons, I have finally read the 1965 report to President Johnson, I never read it before, you are absolutely right, it is a strong argument and warning, now 46 years ago. Thanks for this. Oh my!!

  6. I never knew about the 1965 report, either, although I recall a scene building up around that time of people that were privy to such knowledge; but this report certainly is an eye-opener.

  7. The information about the water resources dwindling in places that need it and the increase of rain and storms in others is pretty scary. I will have to look up that 1965 report mentioned above.

  8. Pingback: Obama’s silence on climate change is a serious ethical, political and leadership failure says legal scholar | Citizen Action Monitor

Comments are closed.