As we have explained in a previous article in Ethicsandclimate, government officials who have responsibility for policies that may affect climate change may not rely on their own uninformed opinion on climate change science. They have an ethical duty, unlike ordinary citizens, to take positions on climate change that are informed by a scientifically sound understanding of human-induced warming. That is they have a responsibility to go beyond uninformed opinion on the science of climate change as long as mainstream scientists are claiming that people within their jurisdiction are greatly threatening others and ecological systems outside their jurisdiction. Ethics requires that they not engage in willful blindness or unexamined ignorance if mainstream scientists are concluding that their constituents are greatly harming others.
Despite a firestorm over comments he made about climate change, by a vote of 42-8 on December 11, 2013 the Pennsylvania Senate voted to confirm Christopher Abruzzo as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. (Philly.com 2013) Abruzzo touched off controversy last week when he told lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unaware of any “adverse impacts” of climate change on human beings or animals. (Cusick, 2013)
Abruzzo also told the committee that although he does believe climate change is occurring and that it seems to be at least partially attributable to human factors, he does not view it as harmful and sees no reason for Pennsylvania to adopt new policies to address it. He further said, “I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share.” (Cusick, 2013)
Given that he will head the state agency responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s environment, Mr. Abruzzo’s comments demonstrate astonishing ignorance about the science of climate change, Pennsylvania’s role in contributing to the problem, and the civilization challenging magnitude of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the scientific community says are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
Just last week, the US Academy of Sciences issued a new report about abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. (US Academy, 2013) The report warned that the Earth is already seeing some abrupt changes like fast retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and that there is also a real risk that other rapid and drastic shifts could follow in the coming decades if the Earth keeps warming. These harsh impacts included widespread plant and animal extinctions and the creation of large “dead zones” in the ocean, the very kind of thing Mr. Abruzzo claimed to be unaware of.
Abruzzo’s blindness also appears to include ignorance of the civilization challenging magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the scientific community has identified as necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts. This September, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international organization created by the world’s governments to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science, issued a report on this very subject. (IPCC, 2013) This report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community does not emit greenhouse gases greater than the budget according to IPCC, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. When other greenhouse gases that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. (Carbon Briefing, 2013) This fact has led the climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and means the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.
DEP Secretary designate Abruzzo is also staggeringly misinformed when he claimed that Pennsylvania is doing “its fair share.” According to a State DEP 2009 plan on climate change which was prepared at the end of the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania contributes a full 1 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of the United States contribution. (Pa DEP, 2009) The Pennsylvania population of approximately 12,742,886 is approximately 0.18 percent of global population of slightly over 7 billion people.
A strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should, as a matter of basic fairness, limit its emissions to achieve a greater percentage of greenhouse gas emissions reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because, like all US states and most of the world’s developed nations, greenhouse emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita emissions, not to mention historical emissions that remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Because it has been determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by over 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions at levels greater than 80% on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments. For instance, if all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits CO2 at a rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of GHG per capita. (World Bank, 2013)
An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set greenhouse gas emission targets on the basis of equity. (NY Statem When fairness is taken into account, the New York report acknowledged that New York must reduce its emissions by at least 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. And so, Pennsylvania is emitting climate change causing emissions far above its fair share of safe global emissions.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, may not simply rely on their personal opinion as a matter of ethics. This is so because they have some power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions. That is, government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so when government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may hide behind willful blindness.
Yet, Mr. Abruzzo and the Corbett administration appear to have no interest in reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet Pennsylvania’s global obligations.
Philly. com, 2013, Abruzzo confirmed as Pa. secretary of DEP, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/state/20131211_Abruzzo_confimed_as_Pa__Secretary_of_Department_of_Environmental_Protection.html#gjLE6rZgvOmtRf0d.99
Carbon briefing. 2013, Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget, http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/carbon-briefing-making-sense-of-the-ipcc’s-new-carbon-budget/
Cusick, M., 2013, Corbett’s pick to run DEP does not view climate change as harmful.,State Impact Pennsylvania, http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2013/12/04/corbetts-pick-to-run-dep-does-not-view-climate-change-as-harmful/
IPCC, 2013, Climate Science, The Physical Basis, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.Uqh0e6X_MpE
New York State, (NY State), 2009, Climate Change Issue Brief, New York Energy Plan 2009, http://www.nysenergyplan.com/final/Climate_Change_I
Pa DEP, 2009, DEP Pennsylvania Final Climate Change Action Plan, http://www.elibrary.dep.state.pa.us/dsweb/Get/Document-77736/ALL%20OF%20VOLUME%201%20AND%202.pdf
Philly.com, 2013, Abruzzo Confirmed as Pa Secretary of DEP http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/state/20131211_Abruzzo_confimed_as_Pa__Secretary_of_Department_of_Environmental_Protection.html#gjLE6rZgvOmtRf0d.99
US Academy of Science, 2013, Abrupt Climate Change: Anticipating the Surprises, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18373 x
World Bank, (2012b), CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Windener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University,
Nanjing University Information Science and Technology