Some US politicians claim that the US need not reduce its GHG emissions because it is not in the US economic interest to do so. This short vide explains why the US has ethical duties to the rest of the world to reduce US ghg emissions, not only economic interests.
Donald A Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
This is great. Succinct. Thank you.
Now you have said the magic phrase: ethical mandate. What is that?, or rather, what are the burdens and obligations of an ethical mandate? Shouldn’t law follow ethics? If it doesn’t seem to, what do we do?
Lets look at medicine – no doctor can mandate treatment of a patient who refuses the treatment – unless that patient can harm others… i.e. a tuberculosis patient must be treated or kept separate from others they might infect.
If we accept the ethical mandate to protect the future of human civilization, then what must we do? We can be very mindful and careful of our own carbon output, but that doesn’t help me witness mindless carbon pollution. If human behavior today is harming human life in the future – don’t we have a duty to stop harmful acts? Is inaction immoral? Doesn’t our ethical mandate extend to both persuasion and to coercion?
I realize that “ethical mandate” is an inflammatory phrase, but it may deserve serious thought and better definition.
Thank you for the comment. Of course the question you raise is very important, namely what specifically does the ethical mandate require of the United States. Before answering this, let me explain that the video was prepared to help people understand that the position on what the United States should do on climate change by those opposing action is very frequently based upon the assumption that the United States need only look at US interests alone and need not consider its obligations to those who are being harmed by climate change. Time and time again we hear justifications by US politicians for their opposition to climate change policy on the basis that proposed legislation on climate change will harm the US economy or a US industry such as the coal industry. These politicians ignore the fact that the US has ethical obligations to not harm others and as such we have ethical duties to prevent our emissions from harming others. So the video attempts to explain why this position does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. All major ethical theories require that humans refrain from harming others simply on the basis of self-interestalone.However, when it comes to what level of emissions that are required of the US, the ethical issues become more complex and more ethically contentious. We have written extensively about this in EthicsandClimate.org and in my new book, Climate Change Ethics; Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm. Different ethical theories would reach different conclusions about what the US emissions reductions should be. However, all nations need to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. The fact that different ethical theories would reach different conclusion, however, does not mean that anything goes. Furthermore we can say strongly that all developed nations must dramatically reduce their ghg emission greatly and dramatically below existing levels and that justifications for the status quo fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. It is beyond the scope of this video to get into these issues. To make a long story shorter, we can with high levels of confidence, that no ethical system would condone the justifications for non-action on climate change that have been offered in opposition to proposed climate change legislation even if there is disagreement about what perfect justice requires. It is non-controversial to spot injustice even in cases whare it may be difficult to say what perfect justice requires.
Many thanks for your reply.
The world should keep a sharp eye on the current level of climate damage .. and what will be unfolding. (Some warming is in momentum, and some can be halted) Many have died from climate change events, many more will. And we cannot exclude the possibility of complete human extinction. If that is ever declared inevitable, then a whole different set of ethics might apply (call it civilization hospice?).
But science can most certainly tell us what behavior is necessary for assured – or a most likely human survival. Often, I have heard that a complete cessation of carbon combustion is the most widely agreed action. Since that is both painful and difficult – everyone starts to negotiate change. But here our opponent is just thermodynamic laws that will not make counter-offers. So it seems that our ethical mandate must agree with scientific recommendations. And so anything outside of scientific plausibility, becomes unethical. (maybe that is why there is so much challenge to the science)
Thanks so much for this discussion. It is unpleasant, but necessary. While the science seems straightforward, the solution seems complex.
Although it is beyond the scope of this entry to explain the following in the detail such a conclusion deserves, all ethical theories would require that developed nations to reduce their emissions to levels more stringent than levels of emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. This is a staggering conclusion because the entire world needs to reduce emissions by 25 to 4o % below 1990 levels by 2020 at a time when global emissions are increasing by above 4 % per year. Moreover the latter the developed nations take to get on this kind of emissions reduction pathway, the steeper their reductions need to be. Given this, there is a staggering failure of the media and the public conversation to match the scale of the problem.