Ten Practical Policy Consequences of Acknowledging That Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.

I. Introduction.

If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it would appear there is widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.

Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.

The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask those governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of national economic cost alone whether they deny that in addition to national economic interest nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep or a whisper about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.

Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. Many have asserted that climate change is an ethical problem, but few appear to understand what practical difference it makes if climate change is seen as an ethical problem.

Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?
First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people around the world. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them. .

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world if not the entire 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. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.

Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created 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 the problem. 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.

Although many have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be widely not understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem.

Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles and are not repeated here to reduce complexity.

II. Ten Practical Consequences of Acknowledgement Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then:
1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.

2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individual must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.

3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.

5. Because it has been scientifically well established that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.

6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed are will be harmed by climate change.

7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.

8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very latest nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.

9. In determining what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.

10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that don’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.

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


7 thoughts on “Ten Practical Policy Consequences of Acknowledging That Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.

  1. “Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world.”
    Donald A. Brown, you have grossly underestimated the impact of climate change. There is no reason to believe that anybody will survive this century. If there are survivors, they are likely to be stone-agers in a very remote place. “Advanced” societies have the most to loose and are the most fragile.
    If we don’t act immediately and take draconian action, we humans could be extinct by 2060.   This is not a joke.
    Please read:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.81/full
    “Drought Under Global Warming: a Review”
    See the maps of drought in the 2060s on page 15.
    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published. Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].
    “Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment”  by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008” also by Rees.
    We went past the Earth’s permanent carrying capacity for humans some time in the 1980s.   We are 20%+ over our limit already.   And the US no longer has excess biocapacity.   We are feeding on imports. 4 Billion people will die because we are 2 Billion over the carrying capacity. An overshoot must be followed by an undershoot.
    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.   When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses.   Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations.   Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes.   In some cases, all of that group died.   On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived.    We humans could go EXTINCT in 2051.   The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food.   If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.
    1. We must take extreme action now.   Cut CO2 production 40% by the end of 2015.   [How to do this:  Replace all coal fired power plants with factory built nuclear and renewables.]   Continuing to make CO2 is the greatest imaginable GENOCIDE.   We have to act NOW.   Acting in 2049 will not work.   Nature just doesn’t work that way.   All fossil fuel fired power plants must be shut down and replaced with nuclear and renewables.   Target date: 2015.
    2. Expect at least 4 Billion people to die because of the population overshoot. Attempt to maintain some form of civilization while this happens.
    How are we feeding 7 billion now? On “mined” water. Aquifers are running dry. When the aquifers are dry, the food is gone.


  2. I have received several comments that assert that they think I am seriously underestimating the terrible nature of the threat. It has not been my intention to do this, in fact the enormous seriousness of the problem has been the motivation for ClimateEthics. Nevertheless, these comments I have received about this make me think that ClimateEthics needs to clearer about the enormity and urgency of the problem. Donald Brown


  3. I am interested in your underlying but unstated assumption; that there are universal ethics. The challenge that needs to be explored here is “whose ethics”; and if one answers that, then by what authority and what metric is the choice made? Inevitably one then needs to address the consequent conflict of ethics. I think that without addressing this question, it is hard to defend the 10 policy consequences you note.
    Now, I do not disagree with your 10 points, But I do think that the inherent conflict of world views and ethics undermine any attempt to justify the 10 policy responses.
    I would be greatly interested in a posting that explored conflicts of ethical systems.


  4. Your question is a good one worthy of a serious response. I will devote an upcoming blog to these questions. Let me say, preliminarily, there are many issues faced by humans that there is strong disagreement among ethical systems about what should be done, some about which there is an overlapping consensus among different ethical systems, and sometimes there is agreement among ethical systems that positions taken by some that are unjust even in cases where there is disagreement about what perfect justice requires. As far as the issues raised by climate change there are some issues about which there is agreement among ethical systems about what justice requires. The evidence of this is that all nations have agreed to what is just in international law. More on this later.


  5. Hey Don,
    Just curious when we can expect that new blog post (as mentioned above in your reply to fred). Would love to read your views on enjoy a discussion. Ethics have always been a passion of mine, so I’m very much looking forward to that post.


  6. Professor Donald Brown, perhaps it was my comment that impetuously charged you with underestimating the problem. I beg your forgiveness, I had not seen your superb climate ethics summary that you delivered nearly 5 years ago.

    In your extemporaneous statement, I clearly see firebrand passion.
    You superbly framed global warming as an ethical problem. I am just bothered by my own growing anxiety – disappointed by continuing human failure to notice this problem.
    Given the increasing problems that affect all humans, are there ways that climate ethics change as Global Warming increases? It feels like a personal moral failure to see increasing danger and not sound the alarm far more. Is this just the common problem of asking whether we can stop evil and we fail to do so, are we wrong?
    After a brief search – it seems there is very little trusted data on global warming deaths – in 2005 the journal Nature set global warming casualties as 200,000 deaths per year. As the death rate escalates, we will surely shoulder added duties like climate hospice and transformative justice.
    These are such cursedly interesting times.
    Thanks for all that you do.


  7. I just got back from a trip to Germany and seeing the attitude to recycling, green energy, and carbon polution was a wake up call. The people see it as their resposiblilty, not the goverment. Australia and the US are too wrapped up in greed totry change things.


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