Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
- It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
- It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
- The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law