Seven Features of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.

I. Introduction

Climate change has certain features that other environmental problems don’t have that citizens and the media need to understand to effectively evaluate both any government’s response to this enormous menace and arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.

 Opponents of climate change policies have effectively framed the debates that the public climate controversy has focused on by claiming that nations should not adopt climate policies because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts or excessive costs to the national economy of proposed climate policies. While proponents of climate policies have usually responded to the scientific uncertainty arguments and the excessive cost claims of the opponents of climate policies for over 40 years by calling on scientists, economists, or other technical experts. These technical experts have usually made counterclaims about the strength of mainstream climate science and the economic costs of moving away from fossil energy. In so doing, the public debate has usually ignored several ethical/legal principles that the international community agreed in 1992 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should guide national responses to climate change despite the fact, as we will see, that these principles undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive economic cost arguments that have successfully prevented or delayed adequate national responses to climate change for many decades.

As we will also see climate change has certain scientific features that make government delays in meeting their responsibilities under law potentially catastrophic. Therefore before discussing the issues that citizens need to understand to effectively evaluate climate change policy controversies, this article will begin with a brief description of some climate change scientific features that citizens need to understand to grasp the importance of the seven issues that are the focus of this article.

The seven issues discussed in this article are:

1. Because of certain features of climate change, many policy-making issues raise ethical/fairness questions that are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.

2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting of a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.

3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain world emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reductions are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.

4. Although the consensus scientific position on climate change is extraordinarily strong, no nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed under the 1992 treaty to be bound by the precautionary principle.

5No developed nation may fail to comply with Its obligations to reduce Its GHG emissions to Its fair share of safe global emissions under the UNFCCC on the basis of cost to the nation.

6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.

7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing their adaptation and mitigation costs and have a moral/legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate change caused losses and damages.

To understand the issues discussed in this article, the following very simplified image of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will help visualize several scientific features of climate change that will be discussed in more detail later in this paper. This simplified image ignores other GHGs including methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor which are sometimes included in the concept of CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent.
The bottom ring in the bathtub depicts the approximate atmospheric concentration of CO2 (approximately 280 ppm) that existed before the mid-19th Century when increasing fossil fuel use began to raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
The middle ring in the tub is meant to visualize the current CO2 concentration which was 414 ppm CO2 in July 2020 (NOAA, 2020).
The top ring depicts the CO2e level at which atmospheric CO2e concentration levels must be stabilized to achieve any warming limit goal.
The space between the middle ring and the top ring is meant to visualize the amount of additional CO2e emissions that can be added to the atmosphere before the upper atmospheric stabilization goal is reached. This concept is referred to as the “carbon budget” or the number of tons of CO2e (all GHG emissions expressed in the common unit of CO2) that must constrain total global emissions if the international community will be able to successfully achieve any warming limit goal by stabilizing atmospheric CO2e concentrations at a level that will prevent warming greater than the warming limit goal.
This idea alone, as we shall see, and because GHGs and particularly CO2 are long-lived in the atmosphere, suggests an enormous challenge for climate change policy-making that is not a problem with other air pollution problems. Namely, before the atmospheric CO2e stabilization level goal is reached, global CO2e emissions must approach zero if any warming limit goal will be achieved. 
The multiple lines into the faucet are meant to depict that different nations have been more responsible than others for raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2e.
The following chart depicts the long-lived retention of CO2 in the atmosphere, a fact which has a profound significance for policy-making. Although approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions are removed by the ocean, forests, and other global carbon sinks in about 100 years, some of the emitted CO2 persists for tens of thousands of years . (Yale Climate Connections, 2010).
(Yale Climate Connections, 2010)
A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or constructed, of carbon that absorbs more carbon than it releases. Globally the most important carbon sinks are vegetation, the ocean, and soils. Because the health of carbon of sinks affects the atmospheric concentration of CO2e and because carbon sinks can become less effective sinks or carbon sources in a warming world or upon a government’s failure to protect sinks, a government’s management of carbon sinks is an important element of its climate change response.
Critically Evaluating a Nation’s Response to Climate Change or Arguments Made By Opponents of Climate Change Policies
Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change nations  agreed that: 

  • Nations have duties to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change and to take steps toward stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (UN 1992: Art 2).

Although the 1992 UNFCCC did not define dangerous climate change, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 nations agreed to adopt policies to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (Paris Agreement, 2015).

Nations also agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that:

States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, Preamble).

This principle is referred to as the “no harm” principle.

This paper now identifies seven issues that citizens and the media need to understand to critically evaluate both any nation’s response to climate change and the most frequent arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.

1. Because of certain features of climate change, many climate change policy issues raise ethical/fairness questions which are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
Certain features of climate change require it to be understood and responded to as a moral and ethical problem. These features are:
  • Some nations are more responsible than others for the rise of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.
  • The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
  • The potential harms to the most vulnerable are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to health, life, and ecological systems on which life depends.
  • Those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts usually can’t petition their governments for protection. Their best hope is that the countries that are most responsible for climate change will comply with their duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while complying with several other principles expressly agreed to in the UNFCCC which are discussed in this paper.  

(Sceptical Science)

Because of this, climate change policy-making raises a host of ethical or fairness issues that arise in specific policy-making steps that have important practical significance for global prospects of preventing dangerous climate impacts. Yet these ethical issues have frequently been ignored in the technical scientific and economic debates which have largely dominated climate change controversies visible to the public.

2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.

Every national GHG emissions reduction target adopted by a nation under the UNFCCC commonly referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, implicitly takes a position on four issues that raise ethical or fairness questions that have profound implications for policy-making. Almost all nations thus far have failed to identify their justification for their positions on these four issues (Brown and Taylor, 2015). Yet under the goals of the enhanced transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement, nations should explain their justification for their positions on these issues because a nation’s NDC implicitly takes a position on these issues when they develop an NDC. Because some developed nations including the United States successfully resisted making the Paris Agreement enforceable in 2015, requiring nations to explain their justifications for their NDCs under the transparency mechanism under the Paris Agreement is the only tool under the Paris Agreement to put pressure on governments to improve their compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. For a more detailed discussion of the four steps , see (Brown et. al, 2018).

The four issues arise in four steps that all NDC policy formation processes must implicitly take a position on:

(1) Identify a global warming limit goal to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target or NDC.

Because under the Paris Agreement nations pledged to take best efforts to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C but no greater than 2.0 C, nations have some discretion to adopt NDCs that will achieve a global warming goal in the 1.5 C to 2.0 C. Yet because a nation’s position on any warming limit goal is implicitly a position on how much harm to others the nation deems acceptable, this decision raises questions of fairness and justice which are usually referred to under the term “equity,” a  concept which nations expressly agreed would guide their GHG policies under the UNFCCC and a concept which this article will examine below. Because there remains some scientific uncertainty about what temperatures will cause the most feared climate impacts that may be caused if temperatures trigger numerous “tipping points” or positive feedbacks that will accelerate the warming, the warming limit goal that the NDC seeks to achieve also raises profound questions of fairness to those nations and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts particularly if warming triggers any of the tipping points.

(2) Identify a global carbon budget that must constrain the international community’s GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.

IPCC and other scientific organizations have identified different carbon budgets with different probabilities, usually expressed in gigatons of CO2e, available to achieve any warming limit goal. Because carbon budgets are usually arranged in probabilities of achieving a warming limit goal and some countries are much more vulnerable than others to climate harms, the selection of a carbon budget from among others that have different probabilities of achieving warming limits goals raises issues of fairness to the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this writer’s experience, governments very frequently rely on carbon budgets that were calculated at least several years before that have not been adjusted to reflect the shrinking of the budget that has occurred due to emissions since the date at which the budget was calculated. For a discussion of how to identify a carbon budget that reflects the considerations that ideally should relied upon in selecting a carbon budget see, Brown et al, 2018. 

(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as agreed to in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement.

Although what “equity” requires is an issue that ethicists have different opinions on, there is widespread agreement among ethicists that some claims nations have made about what equity requires of them in setting their NDC that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, ethicists often claim one need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. For instance, in response to some nations who argued that their high costs of reducing GHG emissions was relevant to what equity required of them, IPCC concluded that:

The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the well-being of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).

A claim made by US President Trump for his justification for removing the US from the Paris Agreement was that the Paris deal was unfair to the United States is obviously false because the Paris Agreement allows nations to determine what equity requires of the nation in achieving the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

To determine any nation’s fair share of any carbon budget is essentially a question of what “equity” requires of the nation in achieving any warming limit goal. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:

There 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 expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, 317).

The IPCC went on to say that;

(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).

Responsibility is understood to mean historical responsibility for the current problem not emissions levels per year.

(Columbia University, 2019)

This chart demonstrates that the US historical emissions are much greater than China’s despite China surpassing the US in total tons of yearly CO2 emissions several decades ago. Frequent claims have been made by opponents of climate change policies that because China is currently the largest emitter of GHG in respect to tons of emissions, it is unfair to require a nation such as the United States to make significant emissions reductions without acknowledging that this is not true in respect to historical emissions which are more relevant to determine which countries are more responsible for the current warming problem.

Another variable that IPCC concluded is a legitimate consideration for determining what equity requires of a nation in determining its NDC is per capita emissions. The following chart depicts that the US has among the highest per capita emissions among countries.

(Columbia University,2019)

The other two factors that IPCC concluded are relevant to a nation’s determination of what equity requires of it in formulating its NDC are “economic capacity” and “rights of developing nations to sustainable development.” These variables support the arguments of poor vulnerable countries that developed countries such as the United States should adopt more aggressive emissions reductions than poor vulnerable nations.

The following chart demonstrates that unless high emitting nations including the EU and the USA base their emissions reduction targets on what equity requires of it to reduce their GHG emissions, there is no hope that the international community will achieve any warming limit goal. The upper line in the chart represents the emissions reduction pathway that must constrain the entire world to achieve a 2C warming limit goal. The reduction curves of the four largest national emitters represent reduction pathways that these countries’ NDC would achieve. 

(Global Carbon Project, 2019)

Thus unless high emitting nations base their emission reduction target or NDC on their equitable share of any carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, there will be nothing left of the remaining carbon budget for lower-emitting developing countries to allocate to themselves when they establish their NDC and they will thus have to achieve zero emissions quicker than the higher emitting developed nations. Therefore requiring nations to base their NDC on their equitable share of a remaining carbon budget is both required by principles of fairness and practically indispensable for the international community to achieve any warming limit goal.

(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions reductions on a pathway to achieve any warming limit goal.

These two different curves of different pathways to achieve zero emissions by 2050 demonstrate that different pathways to the same reduction target will consume more of the available remaining carbon budget to achieve any global warming limit goal. 

Although citizens around the world have learned the importance of being able to visualize whether governments are flattening the COVID-19 infection curve to judge the effectiveness of policies to minimize the risks of the pandemic, such a curve of a government’s GHG emissions reductions is even more important to help citizens track and evaluate the effectiveness of a government’s climate policies because, among other reasons, any failure to reduce GHG emissions as planned in its emissions reduction pathway makes the global problem more difficult and expensive to solve as we will see below. The speed at which GHG reductions are made is extraordinarily relevant to evaluate a nation’s reduction policy because delay makes the carbon budget available for the world to use smaller and, as will see, makes the possibility of achieving any global warming goal more expensive and difficult to achieve.


The hourglass on the left represents the available carbon budget for any warming limit goal at any point in time. Yet because all GHG emissions are reducing the available budget, the top half the hourglass on the right is meant to visualize the relevant carbon budget sometime in the future. For climate change policy, doing nothing or delaying to reduce emissions makes the problem worse for the world. Thus the delays by the United States in adopting policies necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals since they were established in 2015 has already made it more difficult for the international community to achieve the Paris warming limit goals. In addition, US President Trump’s justification for US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of “putting America first” is indefensible because the US agreed under the UNFCCC that it had a duty to adopt policies that will stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and US GHG emissions are making the problem more difficult for the world to achieve any warming limit goal,

3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reduction are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.

Much of the public debate about climate change policies in the United States has focused on the quantify of GHG emissions needed by a date certain, such as 80% by 2050, without any acknowledgment that the speed of achieving the reduction target must be understood to evaluate the acceptability of how much of the remaining carbon budget the policies which will implement the reduction goal target will allocate to the nation. 

 In 2016, the United Nations “Bridge the Gap Report” found that to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal with a 50% probability, the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2045 (UNEP, 2016).  To achieve the 2.0 warming limit goal with a 66% probability, UNEP also claimed in 2016 the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2070 (UNEP, 2016). Given these estimates were based on carbon budgets available for the entire world before 2016 and did not include adjustments for equity that are particularly practically important for developed countries to do to determine their fair share of the available remaining carbon budget, developed nations would need to reduce their emissions to net-zero even earlier than these dates. 

In 2019, UNEP published another “Bridge the Gap Report” which quantified the profound policy implications of delaying global emissions reduction programs necessary to achieve the 1.5C  warming limit goal. On achieving the 1.5C warming limit goal the report said:

Thus a mere six-year delay of waiting from 2019 until 2025 to implement policies needed to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal increases the needed necessary global reduction rate for the whole world from 7.6 % to 15.5%. Yet, in this writer’s experience, there has been little media coverage of the consequences of governments’ delay in reducing GHG emissions to levels required of them to meet the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals. Although the US media occasionally comments on President Trump’s intention to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, I have never heard anyone from the US media comment on the harm to the world caused by the Trump decision to move out the Paris Agreement.

4. No nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle.

More specifically the treaty in Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC said:

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 (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3).

 From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know for sure that their behavior would actually cause harm once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that an activity is dangerous. In fact, many ethicists hold that those who are engaged in dangerous behavior should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate that their behavior is safe before being permitted to continue the dangerous behavior. Hans Jonas, a highly respected philosopher on ethical issues that arise in policy-making that must face scientific uncertainty, has said in responding to scientifically plausible dangerous human activities in policy-making, that prophesies of gloom should be given priority over prophecies of bliss (Jonas, 1984). 


In this writer’s experience, many, if not most scientists and engineers, don’t know that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof in regard to responses to activities that create scientifically credible concerns of dangerous impacts is an ethical issue, not a value-neutral scientific issue. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that most scientific disciplines usually follow epistemic norms or rules that determine when causal claims can be made which are designed to prevent a false positive, or a premature conclusion claiming the cause of an effect has been demonstrated. This phenomenon is referred to by scientists that scientific procedures are designed to prevent a “Type1 statistical error”  Although many, if not most scientists, in this writer’s experience, are aware that the epistemic rules of their discipline have been established to prevent a false positive, they are infrequently aware that when human activity is already creating a scientifically plausible risk of harm, but because the complexity of the problem, such as the case in determining the cancer risk of mixtures of carcinogenic substances, prevents a government from determining the magnitude of the risk of the dangerous behavior before exposure to the risk can be prevented, ethics requires governments to follow a “precautionary science” approach to determine the nature of the harm. For a discussion of these issues see on this website “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.”  

A recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute claimed that IPCC has been underestimating the speed that some of the most worrisome climate tipping points could be triggered, including methane from permafrost, because the models on which IPCC relied could not integrate empirically-based permafrost risk melting rates because the melting was taking place from the bottom of the permafrost land mass up to 50 miles inland. (WLB, 2018)  If this was the case, ethics would require that scientists develop a precautionary approach to estimating the speed of the methane leakage which would rely on reasonable speculation of the timing of the methane leakage from the permafrost rather than ignoring the risk.

Some issues in environmental policy-making have relied on a “precautionary science” including the development of cancer risk levels for very low doses of known carcinogenic substances because of practical limitations of determining the carcinogenicity of substances at very low dose levels.

In addition to the express inclusion of the “precautionary principle” in the 1992 treaty, as we have seen, nations agreed under the “no harm” principle that they have duties to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. This principle of customary international law has been interpreted by courts to assign responsibility to governments to protect others beyond their borders not only when a nation knew for sure that an activity within its jurisdiction would cause harm beyond its borders but legal responsibility is triggered when the nation could envision that certain harms to others could result from the activities within its jurisdiction (Voight, 2008) 

As a matter of ethics, those engaged in scientifically plausible dangerous activities about which for practical reasons the uncertainties cant be resolved quickly enough for the government to take precautionary action should have the burden of proof to determine that the activity is safe. For this reason, a strong ethical argument can be made that opponents of climate change have had the duty to demonstrate following normal scientific epistemic norms in peer-reviewed journals that the world’s increasing GHG emissions and resultant atmospheric concentrations are safe.The scientific skeptic community have always had the option of publishing their claims in peer-reviewed journals but rarely have.

Scientific uncertainty argument has continued to dominate the debate about climate change policy adoption for almost 40 years despite the mountain of scientific evidence of human causation that began slowly in the early 19th Century and began significantly speeding up after measurements that began in 1958 by Charles Keeling on Mona Loa, Hawaii demonstrated rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, this writer was tasked by the US State Department during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to co-chair for the United States a negotiation on whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming, then already discernible, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers included, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, due to changes in the sun’s orbit, wobble on its axis, and changes in radiation levels, ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.

A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of  IPCC climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the balance of scientific evidence supported that the increasing global warming the world was experiencing was human-caused. Although scientists from around the world in IPCC meetings had agreed to human causation, this negotiation was the first time the world’s governments agreed to state that science supported human causation of change. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which had consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing have been primarily caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities. Yet opponents of climate change policies including some fossil fuel countries and related industries continue to support witnesses in public fora considering proposed climate legislation who claim that human activities are not causing climate change.

The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how the planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, these differences are referred to as “human footprints”,(2) have compared the temperature forcing of human GHGs to forcing of the natural causes of climate variations in “attribution studies,” and have concluded that only the forcing from human sources can explain the rise in global temperatures, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of forcing a molecule of CO2  generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s, (6) these models have not only accurately predicted future warming, they have been run backward and accurately described past temperature regimes, .

(Skeptical Science)

The way the atmosphere heats up is one of ten lines of evidence referred to as fingerprints that support human causation of experienced warming. For instance, if a layer of GHGs is causing the observed warming, the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools. If variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth are causing the warming, the upper and lower atmosphere warm at a similar rate. This has been tested and the conclusions support atmospheric GHG are causing the warming.

(Simple Climate)

This chart compares the warming expected from human activities in red, to the warming expected by natural forcing in blue, to the actual observed warming in black. Thus this comparison is strong evidence for attributing recent warming to human forces. 

The scientific confidence in the consensus view of climate change is also extraordinarily strong because, in 1988, the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Program Created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose mission is to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science and socio-economic literature on climate change and make recommendations to the international community. Approximately every five years, starting in 1990, thousands of scientists, most of whom had been recommended by member governments for their scientific expertise, produce comprehensive three volume IPCC  reports.  The IPCC does not  do  research, it synthesizes the published scientific literature.


This chart depicts that IPCC’s conclusions about human causation of climate change increased in confidence in every report with the last report claiming that human cause of climate change was virtually certain, meaning at least a 95% probability,

IPCC has issued 5 Reports since 1990.The Reports are produced in three different working groups, WGI synthesizes the physical climate science literature, WGII  synthesizes the science on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WGIII which focuses on  mitigation. This writer was a contributing author on a new IPCC Chapter in Working Group III in the IPCC 5th assessment on ethics and sustainability.

Scientific uncertainty arguments have continued to generate political opposition to government action on climate change despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence of human causation, that every Academy of Science in the world, and over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have issued statements in support of the consensus view, and at least 97 % of all scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science support the consensus view, and as we have seen, every government in the world agreed that climate change is human caused. .    ,

In “The Denial Countermovement”  sociologists Riley Dunlap and Araon McCright describe how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depend on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change by funding the climate change disinformation campaign which they explain sought to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream science (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).

On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times,, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According to the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”

Without doubt, those telling others that there is no climate danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never rigorously checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.

This website includes 17 entries including three videos on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, “Start Here and Index” Tab above under “Disinformation Campaign”).  Just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech because the claim of fire will likely lead to recklessly damaging behavior, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign because inaction will cause atmospheric  CO2 concentrations to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, likely cause great harm, and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends.

On this website, we have consistently acknowledged that skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. For a summary of why the tactics are immoral see on this website:Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement

The immoral tactics have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth on some climate change science claims;

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of settled climate change science;

(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which have not been submitted to peer-review;

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science;

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science;

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies; and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

We have frequently explained on this website that although skepticism in science a good thing, ethical considerations require that those making claims that conflict with a large body of peer-reviewed science should play by the rules of science by subjecting their claims to peer review. This conclusion is particularly strong when the scientific claim is about activities which are potentially very harmful.

 5. No nation may fail to comply with Its obligations under the UNFCCC due to high economic cost to the national economy.

As we have seen, all nations in 1992 when they agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle acknowledged that they had a duty to adopt climate change policies that would keep climate change from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished  under the “no harm: rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or a national industry.

In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.

A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019).

Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes 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 numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.

As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points” that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – 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 triggering a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system 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 which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.

(Business Insider)

Although the upper warming limit goal of 2 C in the Paris Agreement was based on an informal scientific consensus in 2015 that the tipping point feedbacks would not likely be triggered until warming exceeded 2 C, recently there has been some evidence that several tipping points of concern are showing signs of destabilization including methane permafrost (Anthony et al, 2018), arctic summer ice sheets are predicted to disappear in the coming decade, and the Greenland ice sheet has already past a point of no return (Morgan McFall-Johnson, 2020). These tipping points could trigger a domino effect tipping other feedbacks creating an existential crisis for much of life on Earth (Leahy, S. 2019).

Cost is also not an acceptable justification for a nation’s refusal to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent horrific climate impacts because nations agreed to the ” polluter pays” principle under the Rio Declaration in 1992 which says:

National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16)

6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable analytical tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.

Many opponents of proposed climate change policies have argued that a nation’s response to climate change must satisfy cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Cost-benefit analysis can be a useful tool to determine how to maximize human preferences, but ethics ask a different question. Ethics asks us to consider which preferences are acceptable to have. 

CBA can be a useful tool to determine economic efficiency but cannot determine what justice requires of our choices. As a result, for example, few people would propose the government use CBAs to determine whether the government should decriminalize child prostitution or when rape is acceptable.

CBA also requires that government policy-making translate all values into commodity value. Using CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change policies requires the policy process to compare the costs of implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions to the economic value of harms avoided by the implementation of the policies, including the economic value of people who might be killed by climate impacts, the economic value of health free of diseases that will be avoided by climate change policies, the economic value of treasured ecological systems, plants and animals and many other things that ethical theory holds should not be valued only for their commodity value. Although, for instance, some plants and animals are sacred in some cultures, such as cows in India and Elephants in Thailand, using a willingness to pay to determine the value of climate harms avoided requires transforming sacred value into commodity value. Given that GHG emissions harm people and governments around the world, using CBA to determine the acceptability of costs to a government of reducing GHG emissions requires that the economic value of avoiding the harms everywhere that will be avoided by the implementation of the climate policies be quantified, a concept often referred to as the “social cost of carbon.”. This is usually calculated by governments without the acceptance of those whose interests will be harmed by determining the “willingness to pay” for protecting things that will be harmed that have no market value and by determining the present value of things that will be harmed in the future by discounting the values of things harmed in the future by judging what discount rate should apply, a decision for which there is no value-neutral way of proceeding. 

Since as we have seen, CO2 will last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and because climate change is capable of killing much of life on Earth particularly if a tipping point causes a cascade of tipping points, CBA used in climate change policy-making needs to face incredibly difficult challenges in determining what future harms will be created by GHG emissions and how to value these harms.

A question posed by a well-known economist to the audience at a conference I recently attended I thought demonstrated the absurdity of using commodity value to quantify the value of all potential climate harms. The economist asked the audience if they had any ideas about how to put a value on all human life if climate change killed all human life on Earth.

Support of CBA has been sometimes justified by some economists on the basis of utilitarian ethical theory which claims that society should develop policies that maximize human preferences although most philosophers hold that maximizing utility is not an ethically supportable justification for violating human rights.  

There are numerous other ethical problems with the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate policies. See, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program.  

Many subnational governments, including Pennsylvania for example, have used CBA to determine whether proposed climate policies are justified by comparing the costs of the policies to the economy of the government implementing the policy, such as Pennsylvania, to the economic value of the harms avoided by the policy only in the sub-national government. Yet this approach is ethically problematic because such comparison ignores the harms to the rest of the world that will be caused by the GHG emissions from the sub-national government.

7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing adaptation and mitigation and have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate losses and damages.

The arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on the cost to a government of adopting climate policies ignore the fact that under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention through, that is their mitigation costs (UNFCCC, Art. 4, 3). The developed countries also agreed under the UNFCCC that they have the responsibility to assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting their costs of needed adaptation to adverse effects (UNFCCC, Art 4, 4). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention (Paris Agreement, Art. 9.1). Yet the arguments made by opponents of climate change based on excessive costs to a nation of needed climate policies have not considered the costs that developed countries may be responsible for if they must contribute to financing the mitigation and adaptation costs of climate change to poor developing countries.

The “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC also makes nations responsible for climate losses and damages to other nations caused by activities within their jurisdiction. Yet the fact that all nations have contributed to rising atmospheric CO2 levels and there is an absence of legal rules in the international legal system that prescribe how the value of damages should be allocated among all nations responsible for the climate change harms makes it unlikely that a court will find any country financially legally liable for a specific amount of loses or damages in any country (Voight, 2008)  Nevertheless because nations have agreed in the UNFCCC that they have a duty to prevent activities in their jurisdiction from harming countries and people beyond their borders, many of the most vulnerable countries have been pushing for the creation of a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC that would compensate vulnerable countries for climate losses and damages that adaptation cant remediate.

.At the 2012 Doha Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, the international community agreed to establish a formal mechanism for compensation for losses and damages which is known as the “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages (WMLD)”  Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement made the WMLD an official negotiating body of the UNFCCC.  Since the beginning of negotiations of the WMLD, negotiations have gotten bogged down over how to finance compensation for losses and damages in developing countries as developed nations have stressed that any agreement on compensation should not be understood as establishing legal liability for the developed nations to compensate for losses and damages. Although developed nations will likely prevail in avoiding any language that could be construed as establishing their clear legal liability for losses and damages in developing nations, in this writers opinion, developed nations will eventually likely agree to create some mechanism, such as an insurance fund, to compensate vulnerable developing countries for some kinds of losses and damages in developing countries which developed countries will be expected to provide financing for. .

Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments by developing countries are required to significantly reduce their emissions and very dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries.

Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already causing devastating effects to communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts to developing nations are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which have caused mass migration of refugees which are already destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe (Brookings, 2019). Since 2014 serious drought in and severe weather in Central America has caused large migrations of refugees which have put pressure on the US southern border,  (Wernick, 2018). Because climate change caused refugees are already destabilizing developed countries who have been fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, developed nations have a strong practical incentive to assist developing nations with adaptation. If developed countries do not help finance adaptation needs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people’s problems including the 150 million refugees that the World Bank predicts will be created by a 2C temperature rise by the end of this Century, a temperature rise that now appears to be almost inevitable (World Bank, 2018).


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2 thoughts on “Seven Features of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.

  1. Great article! Thanks Don. About “The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations” I wonder if the counts are still over emmissions or consumption counts have evolved. I ask because as most development countries find more profit when they install their plants and businesses in less development countries´ “backyard”, I wonder if there is a sort of control that these emmissions are made by that developed nation. I believe this is a huge ethical issue.

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