The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change-A Serious Ethical Lapse?

Editor’s note on the following entry. On the very day that the following entry was posted, President Obama mentioned climate change for the first time in a long time  in a speech at the University of Iowa by claiming that recent fleet fuel efficiency standards adopted by his administration will make climate change less threatening for the planet. (See Obama Speech) Yet, it is too early to tell whether President Obama will speak out strongly on climate change in a way that the following post argues is his ethical responsibility. We also note that this speech does not include many of the ideas about climate change that the following post argues should be part of the US President’s message on climate change.



US President Obama has been silent on climate change for two years even when discussing related issues such as the severe drought affecting large parts of the United States.  With the exception of a Rolling Stone article in which President Obama was quoted as saying that he expected climate change to become an issue in the upcoming presidential election, nothing has been heard from the US President on climate change since the US Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010. (To see the Obama quote on climate change, see Wenner 2012.) The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration has been somewhat quietly issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act that will create very modest US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from some new stationary and mobile sources, yet these regulations will not come close to reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions. (For a discussion of US EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, see, EPA 2012) Although US EPA has today announced a new fleet fuel efficiency rule for US automakers that will double fleet efficiency by 2025, these rules will not produce overall US greenhouse emissions reductions congruent with levels the consensus scientific view has concluded are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. (For a description of the EPA auto rules, see Vlassic, 2012)  Although the majority of US citizens now believe climate change is human-caused according to recent polls, very few Americans seem to understand the civilization challenging scope of the problem, a fact that can be attributed to a failure of US political leadership.

Several commentators have strongly criticized President Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue for the last two years.  For instance, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has frequently written critically about President Obama’s silence including a recent article entitled The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t (Romm 2012).

Those criticizing US President Obama for failing to make climate change a high profile political issue in the last several years often point to the practical need to build a political mandate in the US to enact federal climate change legislation coupled with the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unless climate change is kept alive as a political issue, so the argument goes, no US congressional action is likely. And so the US White House silence on climate change has been criticized as a practical political failure to make progress on an issue about which the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous harms.

In addition to being a practical political failure, can the White House silence on climate change also be understood to be a serious ethical and moral failure even if legislative action is not likely because of the current political opposition by those who control Congress?  If the US President’s silence  is an ethical issue, then the President should talk about climate change not solely as a consideration in developing  political strategy, but because he has a duty to do so.

A strong argument can be made that the failure of the head of state in a high-emitting country to encourage his or her country’s citizens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not just a practical political mistake but a serious ethical failure. This is so because, among other reasons, all nations have duties that they have expressly acknowledged in several international agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from causing harm of to others beyond their borders. In the UNFCCC, nations have agreed to:

  • Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).

 These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all nations and establish clear national responsibilities for developed nations in particular to prevent harm from climate change to others beyond their jurisdiction, to help pay for damages of those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic activities, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action.  And so, the above international law provisions, among others, make it clear that nations have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to others to prevent climate change damage- caused harms.

 In addition to these agreed to international norms almost all ethical theories require that individuals refrain from harming others without regard to where they are located. In addition almost all religions have versions of the Golden Rule that also create a mandate to not harm others. Because government action is a way for individuals to achieve their collective individual ethical responsibilities, governments should act in conformance with the obligations of individuals required by the Golden Rule.

 Climate change is a problem caused by some who are emitting greenhouse gases at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but a current problem which is already causing human deaths and harms to ecological systems around the world in the form of diseases, drought, floods, and damages from intense storms. In addition, the mainstream scientific view holds that the current harms to human health and ecological systems now visible will grow in the years ahead putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at great risk to harsh consequences.

As chief executive officer of the United States, the US President has the responsibility to assure that the nation complies with its international obligations. The inability of the US President to convince the US Congress to pass climate change legislation is not an excuse for him or her to be silent on climate change as long as the United States could make progress in reducing its emissions through other means.

Without doubt, government leaders and especially the President could help citizens understand that responsible citizenship requires them to refrain from unnecessary or wasteful activities that create greenhouse gas emissions.  The US President could encourage US citizens, states, sub-national governments, organizations, and businesses to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint through voluntary actions, measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, development of plans that set voluntary targets for emissions reductions, and monitoring achievements.

The US President also could give positive publicity to individuals, local and regional governments, universities, businesses and organizations that achieve notable success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama should also speak up forcefully against the climate change disinformation campaign that is now well-documented while reminding Americans that the US Academy of Sciences has concluded at least four times over the last several decades that human-induced warming is a great risk to people and ecological systems around the world. (For a discussion of US Academy of Science Reports on climate change, see Brown 2011)

The US President should also help US citizens understand that reducing US greenhouse gas emissions is not only in the US interest but also something which is strongly required by ethics and justice. If he did this, he would help US citizens respond to those who oppose climate change policies on economic grounds alone, that in addition to US economic interests, Americans have responsibilities to the victims of climate change to  prevent the harsh climate change impacts which  are predicted by mainstream science.

And so, US presidential leadership is urgently needed to help minimize the harm that US greenhouse gas emissions are now contributing to in parts of the world. Those who have followed international climate negotiations since they began in the late 1980s know that the US has not only failed to adopt a climate change national strategy that it could commit to help create a global solution to the global problem of human-induced warming but has often been a barrier in international negotiations seeking to achieve a just global solution.

And so the failure of US national leadership on climate change is a significant ethical failure. Every day the US waits to take meaningful action to reduce the threat of climate change, the problem gets worse. Two years of silence, is two years of missed opportunity to begin to align US greenhouse emissions with US ethical obligations. The United States has failed for over 30 years since the US Academy of Sciences first warned Americans that human-induced climate change was a looming threat. (For a discussion of reports of the US Academy of Science, see Brown, 2011.) After 30 years of US inaction on climate change, the US President has a duty to loudly speak up and encourage US citizens to reduce the threat of climate change.


Brown, Donald (2011) The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

Romm, Joe (2012) The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t, Climate Progress,  http://thinkprogress

United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) ‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.

United States Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) (2012) What is EPA Doing? Climate Change,

Vlassic. Bill (2012) US Sets High Long-Term Fuel Efficiency Rules for Automakers, New York Times, August 29, 2012: B!

Wenner, Jann (2012) Ready for a Fight: The Rolling Stone Interview of Obama, Rolling Stone,



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law




3 thoughts on “The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change-A Serious Ethical Lapse?

  1. This is such an important subject, thank you. Indeed, we tread too lightly in criticising President Obama for this blatant short-coming. I am more disappointed in his science advisor John Holdren, since he could be speaking out more.

    It is easy to forgive Obama for being politically trapped by a strange form of kleptocratic carbon capitialism. But we don’t have 2 years of failed presidential leadership – we have 50 years. It was President Lyndon Johnson who first received reports from his science advisers warning of climate heating. Later Nixon was told there would be a serious atmospheric CO2 problem in 40 years – his response: “Get back to me in 39 years”

    Now it could be that we have passed the point of climate castastrophy where the actions of huge governments are mostly inconsequential. And just by carefully parsing the political statements one could read that each party believes that is it too late. And their platforms are just the way to paper over an issue that cannot be fixed. After all, it is an issue that carbon campaign money cannot allow to be discussed.

    In such a collapse and decline, regional organizations will be more important. After we feel more droughts, fires, floods, heatwaves and hurricanes then maybe political pressure will be more powerfully felt. When that government-as-usual is not helping, then we will change. Pity that it may be too late to mitigate climate damage. Governments that help only with adaptation just amount to running a climate hospice.

    The GOP climate-denialist-drill-baby platform amounts to indulgent carbon cornucopianism – and it will just hasten our demise.

    It is time to rate all leaders for how well they promote adaptation and mitigation. The unified GOP – which used to have a few climate concerned politicians – has now slipped back into negative numbers. The Dems, lead by Obama, seems to have only token scores. Maybe he awaits our pressure

    Thanks for pushing this issue harder.

  2. On Independence Day, President Obama gave a brief address to servicemen and their families having a picnic on the White House South lawn. Washington D.C., as well as much of the country, had been suffering in a scorching heat wave, reaching a record temperature for June 29th of 104°. Across the country, temperatures had soared in March as well, setting many thousands of temperature records.

    With the temperature hovering at 99°, with sweat dripping from the crowd, his opening remarks were, “…Are you hot? It’s supposed to be hot! It’s the 4th of July” ( Well, it’s not supposed to be that hot!

    Clearly this was a near perfect teachable moment, a time when he could and should have used his “bully pulpit” to link the extreme temperatures to climate change, a time when people would have been acutely aware of the warming climate and responsive to a Presidential message urging individual and congressional action to improve energy efficiency, reduce energy consumption, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

    Ethical considerations, as Dr. Brown has clearly shown, clearly demand such a message. But I’m afraid that with the all-to-rare exception, political expediency rules in Washington.

  3. The subject on President Obama’s silence on climate change is extremely relevant and the world should know that the president of one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emissions is making a very practical political mistake in keeping his silence about the matter.

    In the world today, there is such an urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and I fully agree with Mr Donald Brown that unless climate change is developed into a political issue, there will no action intitiated by the US congress. Our world is running out of time and America is a first world, developed country that can start mitigating dangerous effects. In my opinion, it seems as if Obama and America are not taking into consideration how crucial the impacts of climate change are. Reasons being are probably because they can afford to fix the costs of damage effecting them. What about developing countries? with so much poverty and the lack of financial back up, how are they meant to survive with climate change effecting them so terribly. A sad thought is that these developing country’s are hardly even a notable contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – take South Africa for example, they are only emitting a mere 3% of the world’s carbon emissions.

    What America needs is some form of leadership to express to the public what responsible citizenship involves. The government and Obama should be fulfilling this leadership role. Obama has the duty as President of the US to address the global crises of climate change and global warming. I agree completely with Donald that it is an ethical failure to not promote ways of reducing a global crises.

    International Law has made provisions that have been agreed upon by all nations. Nations have the responsibility to prevent harm from climate change on all developed nations; to help pay for the damages caused and lastly to not use scientific uncertainty as a reason for failure to address the issue of climate change.
    Do the US not realise the extent to what climate change is doing to the world?! Greenhouse gas emissions are higher than what was expected in the worst case scenario for in 2000. Another fact is that 98% of the Greenland ice cape melted in the last Northern hemisphere summer. The impacts are hectic but there are still actions that can be taken to mitigate further impaction by climate change. Unfortunately, for the US to make a change, one of its cities needs to be hugely effected for them to hit realisation.

    Despite all the uncertainties, the message is still readable. As one of the world’s largest emitters, the US need to take action to try and mitigate further climate change impacts. It is the duty and the responsibility of the president to fulfil a leadership position and inform citizens of their responsibility. The US president needs to take political action and ethical grounding and stress to America the importance of climate change. Without this, the world will slowly but surely overcome its threshold of vulnerability!

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