This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
The media’s inadequate focus on climate change is not simply a failure of the appropriate amount of media climate change coverage, but the total failure to cover numerous climate change issues that citizens need to understand to effectively critically evaluate both their government’s response to climate change and the argument’s most frequently made by opponents of proposed government climate change policies.
Climate change issues deserve to be the highest continuous priority of the US media not only because this problem increasingly threatens life on earth and ecological systems on which life depends, but because: (a) it is a problem that, as we will explain, gets worse every day because every ton of GHG emissions raises atmospheric GHG concentrations, making the problem more difficult and expensive to solve while increasing the harms already devastating millions of poor people and nations around the world, (b) the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent a global catastrophe, and (c) frequently politicians and opponents of climate change policies make arguments as a justification for their opposition to proposed policies that do not withstand minimum ethical, legal, or factual scrutiny. Yet the US press usually ignores important ethical, legal, and many factual issues that need be understood to critically evaluate the most common arguments made in opposition to proposed climate policies despite the fact that:
- Climate change is already killing and causing immense damage around the world and aggressive immediate action is necessary to prevent global catastrophe;
- As we shall see, climate change is much more threatening to life on Earth than COVID-19 and a particular ghastly menace to the most vulnerable people and countries;
- Like COVID-19, the solution to climate change requires an “all hands on deck” approach by all nations, subnational governments, and people around the world to reduce the global threat;
- The US media rarely reports, in any systematic way, on what leading nations, subnational governments, organizations, and individuals are doing to respond to climate change, nor follows their progress in bending their GHG emissions reductions curve needed to achieve net-zero emissions as quickly as possible, a goal which we will explain is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe;
- Although citizens around the world appear to have agreed that in response to COVID-19 they have a duty to adopt social distancing behaviors not only to protect themselves but due to their acknowledged moral responsibility to not harm others, citizens don’t seem to understand that they have a similar moral responsibility to reduce GHG emissions because every ton of GHG emissions makes the problem worse as all GHG emissions contribute to raising global atmospheric GHG concentrations and thereby increase harms around the world. Thus each ton of GHG emissions increases harms to the most vulnerable people and nations, and as we will explain, increases the difficulty of preventing global emissions from depleting carbon budgets that must constrain global emissions to have any chance of keeping warming to acceptable limits, while making the problem more difficult, expensive, and urgent to solve.
- This article will explain that climate change policies that ignore a government’s responsibility to not harm people outside their borders or other nations violates numerous well-accepted moral and international legal principles that almost all countries including the United States have expressly agreed to.
- When the media reports on the scientific and economic arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, it almost always only reports on counter-arguments made by scientists and economists, thus completely ignoring non-controversial ethical and legal principles such as a nation’s duty to protect human rights including the right to life which climate change is already interfering with around the world. Well accepted legal norms most often ignored in coverage of climate controversies include the “polluter pays” (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16), the “no harm,” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “precautionary” “(UNFCCC, Article 3, 1992) principles, all of which the US government has expressly agreed to when it agreed in 1992 to the Rio Declaration (Rio Declarartion, 1992), and in the same year ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992).
- Examination of why media climate change coverage is weak in the United States reveals that some media companies have chosen not to give more attention to climate change because when climate change stories were covered, ratings went down (Pope and Hertsgaard, 2019). We will explain that this weakness is also attributable to the press’s propensity to respond to the scientific and economic arguments made by opponents of climate change by exclusively quoting scientists and economists and thus ignoring strong moral and legal responses to these arguments.
- Unlike the government’s ability to adopt relatively unopposed scientifically responsible policies in response to COVID-19, there has been a well-funded climate change disinformation campaign that has been extensively documented in numerous peer-reviewed sociological papers but the press has poorly covered this material. This website under the tab at the top of the first page, Start Here and Index, under the heading Disinformation Campaign and Climate, contains 22 articles on this campaign that cover issues such as who has funded the campaign, should the campaign be understood as a new kind of crime against humanity, can it be justified on the grounds of free speech, an explanation of while skepticism in science is a good thing and needs to be encouraged, why the scientific claims in the disinformation literature are not the product of responsible skepticism, and other topics relevant to the disinformation campaign rarely mentioned in the mainstream media including how this campaign has successfully undermined urgently needed proposed government climate change policies. Three short videos on these issues are available on this website. The following chart depicts as the scientific community reached higher levels of scientific certainty about climate change (indicated by the blocks above the jagged rising atmospheric GHG concentrations line), opponents of climate change policies influenced by the climate change disinformation campaign mounted campaigns to block government action (indicated by the blocks on the right of the jagged line).
This article next examines more closely: (a)The comparative danger of COVID-19 compared to climate change; (b) The grossly inadequate US media coverage of climate change compared to its intense coverage of COVID-19; (c) Climate change policy formation issues that raise important ethical issues that are rarely discussed by the US media; (d) A preview of issues to be discussed in the second and third articles in this series about the failure of the media to adequately cover climate change issues, (e) Conclusions and Recommendations for the media in light of this article.
II. The comparative danger of COVID-19 compared to climate change.
When questions arise about how destructive COVID-19 could be, health experts sometimes rely on the toll of the 1918-1920 Great Influenza Pandemic which caused deaths of 2% of the world’s population or 39 million people. (Barro, Ursua, Wang, 2020). Two percent deaths of the current world population of 7.8 billion would mean that 156 million might die globally from the COVID-19 pandemic if the1918 pandemic is a reliable guide.
That climate change harms are obviously much more threatening to life on Earth and ecological systems on which life depends, than COVID-19 is indisputable because human-induced climate change is expected to increase the frequency of virus pandemics like COVID-19, including those that have not too long ago caused great misery — namely Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — which fall under the larger umbrella of zoonotic diseases, which are diseases transmitted between animals and humans (Zhang, 2020). While experts are still trying to pinpoint the source of COVID-19, the current prime suspects include bats and a few other animals sometimes eaten by people (Zhang, 2020). Other well-known zoonotic diseases include rabies, Ebola, plague, and Lyme disease (Zhang, 2020). Zoonotic infectious diseases are expected to increase in a warming world as agricultural food sources diminish in response to water scarcity and inhospitable climates (Zhang, 2020). Climate change is also expected to increase other infectious diseases through greater transmissions by insects and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world.
Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current number of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the millions of refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
Existing climate impacts and damages are already justification for strong climate change policies including those which have been successively thwarted by those responsible for the climate change disinformation campaign and the politicians they back. Current adverse impacts include but are not limited to:
- Destabilizing climate refugees. In 2011, 1 million Syrians were unleashed on Europe by Civil War which was inflamed by climate change and droughts,
- Increases in human diseases are growing or threatening:
- Lyme disease (ticks}, 300,000 per year
- Yellow fever
- Increased rainfall and higher temperatures favor vector-borne diseases—those caused by parasites, viruses, and bacteria transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas (Ghebeyesus, 2019). Cold-blooded insects generally prefer warmer temperatures, which not only extend their breeding seasons but accelerate their geographical expansion (Ghebeyesus, 2019).
- The mosquito is already the deadliest animal in the world, causing more than half a million deaths each year—438,000 of them from malaria (Ghebeyesus, 2019). Warmer temperatures make it easier to transmit malaria at higher altitudes and may cause it to spread farther into African highlands.
- Heatwaves in 2019 killed 1,435 people in France alone, the only country to have published statistics on heat-related deaths (Ghebeyesus, 2019). As many of the world’s major population centers grow hotter and more humid, more people will die from simply overheating.
- Climate caused conflicts are increasing as predicted more than three decades ago. From 1980 to 2010, 23 % of the world’s conflicts began in countries stressed by weather, 32 countries stressed by weather also face conflict over civil unrest from climate disruption (Brookings, 2019). This writer, when employed as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at US EPA, Office of International Activities, in 1997 was invited to participate in war games about potential climate caused conflict at the Army War College. One of the countries that the army organized a war game on was Syria which the military was interested in because they had predicted that drought could cause conflict in the area. From 2007 to 2008 a drought is believed to have contributed to creating between 60,000 and 70,000 refugees which ultimately were responsible for destabilizing many European countries (Brookings 20019). In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions alone (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050 (Brookings, 2019).
- Climate change has already been responsible for widespread death and destruction from increased storm winds. Cyclone Idai which was likely more destructive because of higher winds were energized by warmer water killed at least 150 in Malawi and Mozambique (NYTiimes, 2019). The New York Times described the devastation as follows:
- Nearly a week after southern Africa was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades, it was all rescue workers could do to try to reach the victims let alone count the dead. People were clinging to trees desperately waiting for some form of rescue. Around them, the remnants of their homes sat in piles, collapsed as easily as if they had been houses of cards. Hundreds of thousands of people in Mozambique alone were displaced and everywhere there was a vast inland sea where once there had been land.(NYT, 2019).
Predicted future climate change impacts are horrific and include:
- Heat Death
- Flooding and drowning
- Damages from intense storms
- Freshwater scarcity
- Dying oceans
- Economic collapse in some countries
- Conflict in some parts of the world caused by many stresses including millions of refugees that were forced to leave their home from climate damages to their communities
The amount of likely warming caused loss and harm is, of course, dependent on whether the world is capable of limiting warming to a warming limit goal such as the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2.0 degrees C (IPCC, 2019). The IPCC concluded that even if warming is limited to 1.5 degrees C, a goal about which there is a growing scientific consensus is now virtually impossible to achieve, water scarcity will be experienced by 350 million people and at 2.0 degrees C warming, water scarcity will be experienced by 411 million people, 1.5 degrees C warming will destroy 80% of coral reefs while 2.0 degrees C warming will destroy all coral reefs, sea-level rise at 1.5 C will expose 69 million people to sea flooding while 2 degrees.0 C will expose 80 million to sea flooding, 1.5 degrees C will expose 14 % of the world’s people to extreme heat, while at a 2.0 C increase 37 % of people will be exposed to extreme heat. (IPCC, 2019). Leaders of small island states such as Maldives and Marshall Islands believe that their survival depends on keeping warming closer to 1.5 C (Kormann, C.,2019)
As horrific as these climate impacts are, citizens need to understand that even modest amounts of additional warming create the risk that certain thresholds, i.e. “tipping points,” including ice sheet destabilization, methane leakage in permafrost, and others that may be triggered subjecting some parts of the world, including many African states, to multiple impacts, crop failures, heat waves, and expansion of tropical diseases.
(Business Insider, 2020)
A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth’s climate systems – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system (WLB, 2018). Progress toward a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in the component leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback, or decreases in the area of polar ice change surface reflexivity, trapping more heat and producing further sea ice loss (WLB, 2018 ).
In some cases, passing one threshold will trigger further threshold events, for example, where substantial GHG releases from polar permafrost carbon stores increase warming, releasing even more permafrost carbon, a positive feedback, but also pushing other systems, such as polar ice sheets past their threshold point (WLB, 2018, p. 21).
The climate change scientific community is extraordinarily worried because many scientists believed a decade ago that these potentially catastrophic tipping points were not likely to be triggered until human-induced warming causes a 2 C rise in global temperatures. But a series of papers in prestigious scientific papers in the last year have reported that some of the worrisome tipping points are showing signs of tipping already although warming from GHG emissions has only risen about 1.4 degrees C. For instance, among many recent papers published in prestigious scientific journals claiming tipping points are showing signs of tipping earlier than expected are:
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper,Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (Steffen et.al., 2019), explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea-level rise, coral bleaching, and acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world. This paper explains that, contrary to common assumption,s made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures and 2 degrees C. Moreover, once triggered the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of GHG emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over preventing disastrous warming
Another paper explained why IPCC models have underestimated the responsiveness of some aspects of the climate system that could lead to earlier tripping of positive feedbacks (WLB, p.18). claims that climate science has succumbed to the norm followed by most physical sciences to refrain from any speculation that cannot be grounded in empirically determined probability calculations. This epistemic norm, the report claims, is not well-suited to guide predictions about very scientifically complex matters such as earth system dynamics..
This is a truly frightening possibility because most of the horrific climate impacts discussed in the media have been based on existing IPCC predictions which may be based on inadequate models.
Climate change is truly an existential threat to life on Earth. Four of the Earth’s last five mass extinctions were triggered by high levels of CO2 which eventually triggered other feedbacks such as methane release and ocean acidity (Science Daily, 2019).
II. The grossly inadequate US media coverage of climate change compared to its coverage of COVID-19.
This chart concludes that comparing the news coverage of COVID-19 for the period January 1 to March 3, 2020, to the period of February 25th to March 3, the amount of news coverage rose from 17% to 30% of all articles, an amount which was greater than for the topic which in previous periods dominated the news, namely articles which reported on Donald Trump.
This chart depicts that a 1919 survey of news coverage calculated that the percentage of news coverage of climate change was a paltry 0.7%. An observer of these trends concluded:
” (T)he media’s snapping to attention on coronavirus throws its coverage of the climate crisis into sharp relief. The press has never treated the climate story with anywhere near this level of attention or urgency” (Hertsgaard, 2020). This article goes on to say: “Both scientific reality and journalistic responsibility call upon newsrooms to treat the climate crisis as an emergency no less pressing than the coronavirus. As with the virus, they can start with the necessity of “flattening the curve”—which, thanks to all the media coverage, has become a household phrase. There is now widespread understanding that early and wide-ranging intervention is crucial to limiting the virus’s spread. Now journalists should help their audiences understand that flattening the curve of GHG emissions is just as imperative, and the longer we wait to reduce those emissions, the greater the eventual damages will be (Hertsgaard, 2020),
This conclusion clearly applies to the inadequate frequency of the news media’s coverage of climate change but an even more damning criticism is the media’s almost complete absence of coverage of a host of issues that citizens and governments need to understand to effectively evaluate the adequacy of a governments response to climate change and the frequent arguments made by opponents of climate change policies that usually go unchallenged.
III. Climate change policy formation issues that raise important ethical issues that are rarely discussed by the US media.
As we have explained frequently in Ethicsandclimate.org, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. Those features include that it is a problem being largely caused by some people and nations in one part of the world who are putting others at great risk in other parts of the world who have often done little to cause the problem. Secondly, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends. Finally, climate change is a problem about which the victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments. The victims’ best hope is that those high-emitters causing the problem will see that they have duties to the victims to avoid harming them.
And so, the ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting GHGs at high levels reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical and legal obligations, climate change will cause great harm to hundreds of millions that have done little to cause the problem while threatening life on Earth.
Thus people around the world should respond to climate change in accordance with their ethical obligations because it is the right thing to do. Yet in addition to the moral reason for acting ethically in response to climate change, there are numerous practical reasons for examining climate change policy issues through an ethical lens. As we will explain, there is almost no hope of avoiding climate catastrophe unless nations comply with their ethical obligations. In addition, because numerous positions governments take on climate policies are implicit positions on critical ethical questions such who is it OK for the nation to harm, but the government’s justification for the position ignores the ethical questions it has implicitly taken a position on, by, for instance, justifying its position on economic grounds. For this reason, many positions on climate change policy issues cannot be thought about clearly nor evaluated effectively without express ethical analysis. Yet because most policymakers and NGOs working on climate issues have technical training and have difficulty in spotting important ethical questions, critical ethical issues raised by climate change policy formation processes frquently go unexamined. Contributing to this problem, academic environmental ethics has never developed a strong applied ethics focus and has devoted most of its time to theoretical issues such as how to replace anthropocentric ethics with a biocentric approach and thus the academic ethics programs rarely become engaged in actual climate policy formation controversies.
Ethicsandclimate.org has sought to identify and examine ethical issues that should be faced in climate change policy formation yet are rarely discussed in public controversies about the adequacy of climate policy. This site now includes over 200 articles and 11 videos that look at ethical issues that frequently arise in climate change policy formation yet are rarely discussed in the media. Although the reasons for this startling phenomenon are rarely discussed by anyone other than sociologists, the problem was predicted over 50 years ago by social scientists under the topic of “the dominance of instrumental reason” For a discussion of this topic see this website: Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation.
Instrumental reasoning is reasoning about the means of achieving goals of policy rather than reasoning about what the goals should be. Climate change policy debates have been dominated for four decades by disputes about whether costs of proposed policies are too high and scientific arguments about whether feared adverse climate change impacts have been sufficiently proven.
Disagreements about whether costs of policies are too high have dominated because opponents of climate policies have pushed have pushed a normative claim such as governments should not regulate entities in a market economy if costs of the regulation are too high either to an entiity or too the economy. But rather than critically examining the unstated normative claim, the public debates usually focuses on the factual elements in the claim about what the costs of regulation will be, the expert domain of economists. And so the normative basis of the claim usually goes unexamined. This is a classic example of instrumental reasoning.
Also opponents of climate policies have pushed the normative idea, that regulation should not be supported unless the harms which the regulation is designed to prevent have been proven by the use of “sound science.” On such issues, both sides appeal to the conclusions of scientists,, assuming this dispute can be resolved by getting the scientific facts right while ignoring the normative assumption that is the basis of the claim. In my over 30 years in the middle of the climate debate, I have discovered that very few scientists seem to be aware that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof is not a ‘value-neutral’ scientific question but at its core an ethical question. As a result, most governments have passed laws that makes very dangerous behavior criminal or the basis for damages in tort litigation. This is why every government in the world has agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle expressly recognized in the 1992 climate treaty.
Most debates about environmental policies, at least in the United States, are classic examples of instrumental reasoning which ignore ethical reflection. Sociologists attribute this phenomenon to the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame public debates so that controversies only consider scientific and economic facts and the propensities of technically trained experts to admit that the intellectual tools on which their expertise is grounded are limited in resolving policy conflicts.
The following issues frequently arise in climate policy formation controversies that cannot be thought about critically and clearly without considering the ethical dimensions of these issues :
1.The magnitude of the GHG emissions reductions in a government’s reduction target. There are many ethical issues that necessarily arise in setting a government’s GHG emissions reduction target that are usually ignored by the media even though the target necessarily takes a position on these issues. For instance, every target is implicitly a position on how much harm the government is willing to inflict on other nations and people around the world and a position on the government’s fair share of a remaining carbon budget that the whole must be constrained by to achieve any warming limit goal. This is so because all additional GHG emissions will raise atmospheric GHG concentrations thus increasing warming and associated harms. Yet these two profound implications of the government’s GHG target are almost never discussed in the media.
The shape of the GHG emissions reduction curve that the government policies will achieve in implementing its reduction target is even more important to understand to evaluate climate change policies than is the shape of the new infection curve to evaluate and judge various programs designed to mitigate COVID-19 infection rates.
The shape of the virus infection curves is indispensable to know whether infections are increasing and whether mitigation strategies may be suspended or should be adjusted. Thus, it is an indispensable tool for creating and evaluating COVID-19 policies.
Yet GHG emissions reduction curves are even more important to evaluate climate emissions reduction policies because of the need to determine the number of tons of GHG emissions that will be achieved by the implementation of the policies and when the policies will be in place. It is not enough to know when the target will be achieved, such as 40% by 2030, the only information evaluated in almost all media discussions about the acceptability of government GHG reduction targets. This is so because as the following chart demonstrates the shape of the curve is determined both when policies will be implemented to achieve and more importantly will determine the total number of tons that will be reduced by the implementation of the policies. If, as we will explain, governments wait until the final compliance date to reduce emissions to the reduction target level they will have consumed much more of the remaining carbon budget than if a government more quickly reduced its emissions.
Even though both curves show the government achieves zero emissions in the same year, the policies producing the bottom curve in this chart will utilize much less of the global carbon budget that must constrain the entire international community to achieve any warming limit goal such as the warming limit goals of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no more than 2.0 degrees C agreed to by all nations in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
(Inside Climate News),
This hourglass chart helps to understand the policy implications of a carbon budget available for any warming limit goal is indispensable to judge the adequacy of any government’s GHG emissions reduction target that seeks to achieve any warming limit goal. This is so because a government must understand how many tons of total global GHG emissions may be emitted by the international community to limit warming to any warming limit goal. (This is what is meant by a carbon budget). In the hourglass chart above the total amount of tons is represented by the total red mass in both the top and bottom parts of the hourglass constitute the carbon budget available at one time but the carbon budget available later is only the amount in the top part of the hourglass. Yet because existing emissions are depleting the carbon budget available at one time, at any future time the available carbon budget decreases just as the material in the top of the hourglass decreases in time. Therefore because any national GHG emissions reduction that seeks to achieve a warming limit must consider the remaining carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal, the government’s assumptions necessarily made about the remaining carbon budget it implicitly relied upon if it claims that its GHG reduction target will help achieve a warming limit goal need to be expressly stated to be critically evaluated.
In my experience, it is very common for otherwise highly motivated academics and NGOs to make a claim about what a government’s target should be without realizing the reduction amount they were recommended which was often copied from another government was based on carbon budgets that were a decade old that needed to be revised for the shrinkage in the carbon budgets over time. Yet assumptions about this are rarely expressly stated by any government nor discussed in public controversies about the adequacy of a government’s GHG reduction target. To evaluate a GHG reduction target, ideally, the government should disclose assumptions about what amount of any carbon budget is still available for achieving any global warming goal that the government relied on when it quantified its GHG emissions reduction target. To set a target that represents the government’s share of maximum global emissions that can be emitted to limit warming to a warming limit goal actually requires four steps that are very poorly understood by governments and NGOs, yet need to be understood to rigorously evaluate a government’s compliance with its obligations under the Paris Agreement (Brown, et al, 2018).
Research organized by myself and a colleague Prue Taylor from the University of Auckland solicited the help of 23 other researchers to examine the actual basis for 23 national GHG reduction targets. A summary of the project and its conclusions are available on this website under the article Lessons Learned From Research on How 23 Nations Actually Considered Or Ignored Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Commitments” (National Climate Justice, 2015) This project concluded, among many other things, that there appears to be little understanding among governments and civil society about what equity, ethics, and justice would require of the country in formulating its national GHG reduction target and particularly in regard to living within a carbon budget that should constrain all global emissions so that atmospheric GHG concentrations remain below levels needed to achieve target warming limit levels. Also, the project concluded that:
(a) Almost all nations have actually based their GHG reduction target at least in part on economic self-interest rather than a global ethical and legal principles they had committed to.
(b) Not only have most nations ignored equity, ethics, and justice in the development of a national GHG reduction target, national media and NGOs in most countries have not criticized inadequate targets on the basis of equity, justice, and some legal principles that nations have agreed to such as the “no harm” and “precautionary” principles mentioned earlier.
(c) Even nations that have given lip service to the need to develop GHG reduction targets that represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, these nations have not explained how ethics and justice principles that they have agreed to quantitatively influence the formulation of their GHG reduction target and in most cases, our research found the GHG reduction target has actually been based on national economic self-interest.
(d) National explanations of their GHG reduction target often hide the actual basis for the weakness of the target (National Climate Justice, 2015).
This is also another reason why displaying the shape of a government’s reduction curve needs to be understood to critically evaluate a government’s GHG reduction target because the slower GHG emissions are reduced, the faster the available budget is decreased. Yet these aspects of a government’s policies are almost never discussed in media coverage of a nation’s climate change responses nor by civil society.
The shape of a government’s emissions reduction curve is also necessary to compare it to the shape of the reduction curve needed for the whole world to limit warming to acceptable levels. Below is a GHG emissions reduction curve needed to achieve a warming limit goal of 1.5 C published by UNEP in 2019.(UNEP, 2019).
The bottom curve in this image depicts the staggering amount of reductions needed from the entire world to achieve a 1.5 degrees C warming limit in 2019 according to the United Nations Environment Program Bridge the Gap Report (UNEP, 2019).
The following chart includes recent conclusions from this UNEP report about the magnitude and speed of needed global GHG emissions to limit warming to 1.5 C.
The media has rarely included coverage of this stunning fact that the world must now reduce GHG emissions by 7.6 % per year because of global delay in reducing global emissions nor linked much of the global delay to the delay of the United States and a few other developed nations. Any analysis of GHG emissions targets needs to consider both the implications for the world of delay in reducing emissions and also explain how delay hurts everyone while making global catastrophe more likely.
2. A nation’s duty to establish its reduction target in conformance with what equity requires. The nation’s policy position on its GHG emissions reduction target is also implicitly a position on its fair share of needed global GHG emissions reductions. This issue is generally referred to as the “equity” issue.
Under international law including the 1992 climate treaty and the 2015 Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to set their GHG emissions target on the basis of equity. Equity and fairness issues rarely are covered in the climate change news coverage even when bogus claims are made about fairness such as President Trump’s false claim that the Paris Agreement is unfair to the United States despite the fact this agreement allows each nation to adopt a GHG emissions target on the basis of their definition of “equity.” Frequently opponents of climate change oppose proposed climate policies on the grounds that they are unfair and in so doing support the argument with factual claims despite the truth that facts alone without applying them to a normative assumption that can be criticized can be the basis for a rational examination of the ethical assumption. Because all GHG targets are implicitly a position on a government’s fair share of carbon budget, the government should be expressly required to disclose its normative assumption which was the basis for its claim that its target was based on its fair share of a carbon budget that the whole world must live within to limit global warming to an acceptable warming limit goal.
Although some nations and opponents of climate change policies make fairness claims that do not survive minimum ethical reflection, the media almost always just repeats these arguments without ever inviting serious ethical reflection on the claims. For instance, opponents of proposed climate policies in the United States frequently claim that the United States should not make reduction commitments unless countries such as China do the same, even though the United States is a much larger historical contributor to the climate problem and has much higher per capita emissions than China. The international community needs governments to explain the basis for their fairness claims about their GHG reduction targets
Even though there is reasonable disagreement even among ethicists about what equity requires of a government when setting climate change policy, not all positions on what equity requires survive ethical examination. Philosophers often explain this phenomenon by saying, you need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. On this IPCC said: “(T)here is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors” (IPCC, 5th, Assessment, 2014).
In addition to the need to evaluate the fairness of the nation’s climate policies to assure that governments are acting fairly, there is an important practical reason to assure that government’s GHG emissions reduction targets is no greater than its fair share of a carbon budget that must constrain global emissions.
This chart helps understand why a nation that fails to reduce its emissions to its fair share of needed global emissions virtually guarantees that total global emissions reductions needed to achieve a warming limit goal will not be achieved. If the top line reduction curve represents reduction levels and speeds needed by the entire world, and if high emitting nations such as those named in the chart don’t reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share, the chart makes it easy to understand that there will be nothing left of the available carbon budget that many nations and developing nations will need to keep their economy alive and require them to go to zero emissions much faster, Thus getting nations to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity is indispensable to prevent climate catastrophe.
3. Ethical problems with economic arguments made against climate change policies. This website’s 200 articles include many entries that evaluate arguments frequently made by opponents of climate change policies through an ethical lens. For about 40 years, opponents’ most common arguments against climate policies have been variations of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments. Although there are strong ethical and legal arguments that should be made in response to these arguments, proponents of climate change policies have most frequently responded by making counter-economic and scientific claims.
In response to economic arguments made against climate policies such as climate policies will harm the national economy or destroy jobs, for instance, proponents of climate policies have almost always made counter-economic claims such as the climate policies will create jobs and in so doing both ignored strong ethical and legal arguments that can be made in response to economic arguments, while at the same time implicitly validating the potential validity of the economic arguments.
This website contains numerous articles evaluating ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to climate change policies.(See start here and index ) tab under the category of Economics and Ethics. There are numerous ethical problems with economic arguments that are frequently made against climate change policies including the implicit denial of obligations, responsibilities, and duties to not harm others, the implicit rejection of the well established international law norms that polluters should pay for the harms of pollution, and the duties of nations not to harm people and nations outside their borders and other nations, the invalidity of cost arguments if the harms are violating human rights, numerous ethical problems with “cost-benefit” analyses that have even been acknowledged by some highly respected economists yet are deployed by economists anyway. Most economic arguments are based on the premise that the government should maximize human preferences; but ethics asks a different question, namely what human preference should people have.
The phenomenon of the common failure to identify ethical problems with some economic arguments even by environmental organizations and many university professors who are otherwise passionately engaged in climate change issues is stunning given the ethical and injustice arguments that can be made against most cost arguments made in climate change policy debates are very strong. For a discussion of this phenomenon, see on this website the following article which includes a short satirical video on this subject.
If some of the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are so obvious that even monkeys would get them, why doesn’t the media, NGOs, and citizens spot these ethical issues in climate change policy formation controversies?
4. Ethical issues with scientific uncertainty arguments made against proposed climate change policies. This site examines 13 ethical issues raised by scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change policies. See Start Here and Index Tab under Scientific Uncertainty. Yet, despite the fact, most scientists and environmental NGOs almost never spot these issues. As we have explained on this website although opponents of climate change policies have justified their opposition on the basis of scientific uncertainty, and despite the fact that the most prestigious scientific organizations have expressly stated their conclusions about the enormous threat of climate change with increasingly higher levels of scientific probability for over 40 years, scientific uncertainty continues to be probably the most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies. Yet rather than explaining why scientific uncertainty is not a justifiable response for any nation’s unwillingness to adopt climate change policies as a matter of law or morality, proponents of climate policy usually respond to the scientific uncertainty arguments by claiming that the science is settled ignoring the following: Under international law, including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change states in relevant part “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty may not be used as a reason for postponing such measures ( that is those required of nations to prevent dangerous climate change) (UNFCCC, Art. 3.3). The uncertainty arguments also ignore that nations are bound by the “no harm principle”, a principle of customary international law recognized in the Preamble to the UNFCCC, which has been interpreted by courts to mean that nations may not legally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take action to prevent dangerous environmental harms to others outside their jurisdiction once there is evidence that they were engaging in potentially harmful behavior.
Also as we explained previously in a prior post in The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty, nations also have had a strong moral responsibility to take action to reduce the threat of climate change once it was scientifically understood that GHG emissions could cause serious harms, even if the harms had not been proven with high degrees of scientific certainty. Although most legal systems have laws making dangerous behavior criminal and civil laws requiring care if there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a person’s behavior might harm others, these facts are usually ignored in climate debates triggered by opposition to proposed policies based on scientific uncertainty. In addition, at least in this writer’s experience, very few scientists and engineers seem to understand that requiring high levels of proof before a government prohibits dangerous behavior is both legally and ethically unsupportable.
In fact, a prominent philosopher, Hans Jonas, in the 1960s claimed that getting civil society to understand the ethics of scientific uncertainty was the most important ethical issue facing society (Jonas, 1984). He made this claim based upon his belief that humans were now capable of creating technology that could cause great good and great harm but those invested in the potentially harmful technology would resist government regulation unless the potential harms were fully proven. When I first heard Jonas’s claim I thought it was hyperbolic, but now I see it as prescient in light of the failure of governments to respond to the dangers of climate change in part due to the successful mostly unquestioned campaigns of opponents of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. Jonas’s work on the ethics of scientific uncertainty is often claimed to be responsible for the wide-spread acceptance of the precautionary principle in European law while the wide-spread ignorance of the ethical dimensions of policy-making in the face of scientific uncertainty appears to be attributable to forces that Jonas feared would prevail, namely those who would demand scientific certainty before the government regulated any technology that they could profit on. I became aware of this issue in the early 1970s while doing graduate work at the New School for Social Science where Jonas was the Philosophy Department Chair.
While working on environmental issues for the next 40 years in government and academia, I continued to be surprised by what appeared to be to me the total ignorance of many ethical issues raised by scientific certainty among policy-makers, lawyers, and citizens, an issue that an upcoming blog will examine in more detail. Even more surprising, is that most technically trained people I have discussed this issue assume that the scientific norms for proof required by most scientific disciplines before scientists can make proof claims, such as the 95% confidence levels are value-neutral but actually have largely been agreed upon by scientists to prevent a false positive, namely a premature conclusion about cause and effect which is a reasonable assumption when science is attempting to understand how the world works with some confidence. But when science is engaged in identifying something as dangerous, requiring high levels of proof before determining something is dangerous is ethically problematic. This issue is discussed under an article on this website, On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics (Brown,2011). Yet stunningly, opponents of climate change policies have for almost 40 years opposed mainstream climate change science on the basis that all claims have not been fully proven and although the most common response of proponents of climate policies is accurate that there is a strong consensus among scientists who publish in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, Academies of Sciences around the world, scientific organizations whose members practice in sciences relevant to climate change science, some opponents of climate change policies have continued to convince some people that as long as there are some scientists who disagree even though most who do rarely subject their claims to peer-review, I have never heard any proponent of climate change policy make the argument that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof is not a scientific issue but an ethical question and that is why the ”precautionary principle” is widely accepted by governments around the world.
A second article on the theme of this article, i.e., “what the press can learn from its coverage of COVID-19 to fix its failed coverage of climate change,” will be published soon and include identification of at least 10 other concrete climate change policy issues that raise ethical questions that need to be spotted to critically reflect on climate change policies. This next article will also include a section that evaluates President Trump’s numerous deeply ethically problematic pronouncements on climate change.
The third entry in series will examine the causes of the failure of climate change policy formation controversies to consider ethical questions which will consider, among other things, the failure of higher education to educate students and civil society about ethical issues that arise in environmental policy formation controversies, and other causes of the failure for ethics to get traction in policymaking.
V. Recommendations to the Press So Far
The press should significantly and aggressively intensify its coverage of climate change by;
- Examine and regularly report on whether governments have adopted and are implementing GHG emissions reduction targets that represent their fair share of global emissions reductions necessary to prevent harm to their citizens, people around the world, ecological systems on which life depends.
- In reporting on this, the press should question the government on what warming limit goal their GHG emissions reduction target is designed to achieve, what GHG emissions carbon budget did it assume was available to achieve the global warming limit goal, and on what basis did the government determined the reduction target was a fair share global emissions reductions needed to achieve an acceptable global warming limit goal.
- Ask all governments to publish an emissions reduction curve that displays when policies that will reduce GHG emissions will actually produce the reductions that are expected by the policies and periodically publish success or failure of the government in achieving expected reductions.
- When the government does not achieve goals due to political opposition, identify the organizations, people, or interests responsible for the opposition and publish the justification for the opposition based upon interviews.
- When politicians refuse to support climate change policies, identify the organizations, people, or interests responsible for the opposition, and publish their justification for the opposition.
- Particularly if the opposition is based on scientific or economic arguments, seek comments on the merits of the opponents’ arguments not only from economists, scientists, or engineers but also from those who have appropriate legal or ethical expertise.
- When opponents of climate policies base their opposition on economic or scientific uncertainty grounds, ask them questions designed to expose ethical problems with their positions including questions recommended on this website. See: Questions That Should Be Asked of Opponents of Climate Change Policies, Including Politicians, To Help Expose the Ethical, Moral, and Justice Problems with Their Position
- When politicians oppose climate policies, ask them questions that make them explain as clear as possible the factual and normative basis for their opposition.
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Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School