Fossil Fuel Manipulation Of Governments Has Led to Potential Global Climate Catastrophe. Adam Smith was Right, Some Merchants Will Ruthlessly Plot Against the Public Interest
This post will examine what we can learn from the momentous failure to get nations to comply with ethical principles that they had agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC climate treaty should guide their responses to climate change.
The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global solutions, a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change not only don’t understand: they have no understanding of why getting compliance with ethical principles is important, how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will be traumatized by a suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.
Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about climate change. Some detail is included here because getting traction on these ethical ethical principles is still crucial to getting a nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime the and opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment. In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ethical obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to, is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates
Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have hope of achieving any warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.
The sections of this paper are:
1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues to achieve the common good.
2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.
3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieving the global common good.
I . Why governments have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying international rules seeking to achieve the global common good.
Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice.
Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which is achieved by grappling with justice.
Well funded, organized, sophisticated efforts to minimize the US governments central role in ordering society for the common good is often attributed to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful woman’s and environmental movements in the 1960s. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.
He recommended 10 things that businesses should do, all of which have been well funded and aggressively pursued. See, The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo
The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed; That government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem’ Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge some benefits of free markets, it is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most peopled want, such as affordable health care, protection from environmental threats, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things, protection from some merchants who throughout history have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public interest as Adam Smith warned, while sometimes undermining cooperative efforts among nations to protect citizens around the world from threats that cant be solved at the national level. While I worked for EPA on UN issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty that other countries were pushing. Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues
The process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty. For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 treaty established veRy general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions reductions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that the problem necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. The best initial the negotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.” At every stage of the initial climate negotiations, the US blocked further negotiations to make the meaning of equity more specific. Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992, such as “equity” or “common but differentiated” responsibilities. Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts.
During the negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interest.
An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is that the market will order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there is no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice. As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.
An example, while I was working as the US Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different Cost-Benefit Analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol. During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification.
During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that. For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and the events of the late 1960s.
A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i] The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs. Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy.
2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.
Although Adam Smith is widely praised around the world for convincing much of the global community of the benefits of free markets, lesser known, however, is he also warned that the merchant class would sometimes conspire against the public interest and in so doing predicted that the merchants would sometimes be ruthless and effective in manipulating policymakers and legislatures by influencing the public’s understanding of issues that must be addressed to achieve the common good. (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)
Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry in the climate change disinformation to undermine politicians’, and civil societies faith in the mainstream science employed morally ruthless immoral tactics that will be explored in the next section.
3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieving the global common good.
I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues science who I praise for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical work with ethical considerations.
I have met no US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. Therefore citizens do not need to agree on what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite 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 establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317)
The failure of international community to give some guidance to nations on how to apply the concept of equity to their GHG emissions reduction obligations is a gift to the opponents of climate change policies because they, like Trump has already done, will make completely false claims about the unfairness of international climate law to their government and citizens. So far have seen no one appearing in the media that knows how to respond effectively to this because I believe their valued contributions to this problem in technical knowledge only allows to answer with technical derived reason such as; we still have time.
US opponents of climate change law frequently claim, for instance, that unless China reduces GHG emissions at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China. According to IPCC’s recommended considerations for determining equity, the US percentage reductions should be greater than China
Although recognizing the following claim is counterintuitive, I have not seen any GHG emissions reduction target recommended by any US academics who otherwise do valuable technical climate work on a US reduction target that seemed to me to be based on any reasonable interpretation of equity and in some cases when I have asked them why frequently they have responded that if they do this they would be branded as “alarmists.”
Notice US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world.
The enormous damage to the world has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC. See discussion of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website.
The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is evidence that the disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders.
Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon.
The article will argue this US failure has also been caused by the economically powerful houses successful framing of the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on factual about scientific uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.
This problem is we will argue is a major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative dimensions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good despite all claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage on the factual premises. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects needed to critically evaluate factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good.
Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion.
US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences or policy about ethics that a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of arguments.
Almost all claims about what government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have publicly honored have admitted to me that they were were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments. or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in precautionary science when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.
Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems. Nor are most American scientists aware that some EU countries have already done this and this has been done in the US for determining the cancer risk of low doses of toxic substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of hams from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described that in its first assessments. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.
Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal.
In 1992, under the all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction 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 they haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is almost universal acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity cant continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.
Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof fromhe government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.
Yet most climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC,
I also urge hat activists who are pushing for an economically based solution couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because none of the market-based solutions that admittedly could be a tool used to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools and the market-based tools implementation will not be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an god trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal regimes to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matte. Therefore the laudable efforts of many to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes should be identified as a tool to achieve a legally enforceable target.
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). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues.
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. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing 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.,
The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes undermine the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.
I have struggled to express the depth of the moral depravity0 of the climate change disinformation campaign about which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science. this globally damaging behavior is deeply morally reprehensible. Skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.
Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.
Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.
Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal. No other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic . I have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses need to consider input from different disciplines.
The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is almost never discussed in the US media, which is even more startling when the media turns it attention to issues involving migrants.
Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College decades ago that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.
In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,” I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro.
Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC allows nations to decide what equity requires of them.
In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard never mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.
Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.
Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with a nation’s ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most people in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. For a discussion of these issues see
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.
This fact demonstrates another enormous failure of higher education, namely the failure to educate students on how to spot ethical issues that arise in concrete policy questions.
I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became more and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.
By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.
About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.
It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said it is economic conclusions by themselves cant p that this is another symptom of higher education’s determine justice.
This is another example of the dismal failure of higher educations to teach critical thinking skills needed to effectively evaluate normative conclusions already present in claims about what a government should do given certain facts. For identification of ethical issues raised by climate change policy making relying on cost-benefit analysis, see Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/,
In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US a UN negotiation that was considering a document in which all governments would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused. By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance.
Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.
In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good.
The next entry on this topic will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change
There over 200 entries on these issues on this website which can be found
In conclusion the United States highest spending priority should be in reducing US emissions to net zero as soon as possible f0or several reasons
- A equitably based national emissions target for the US to achieve the Paris Warming Goal should be net zero ASAP plus financing the mitigation of developing countries.
- Any additional GHG emissions from the US increase the unspeakable harms already being experienced that will get worse for some time because GHG emissions already in the atmosphere have baked in additional heating.
- Unless the international community reaches net zero almost immediately, there is a growing possibility of unspeakable suffering continuing to get worse if tipping points are destabilized.
- Although reasonable people may disagree what equity requires of the US under the UNCCC to achieve a 2.0 C warming limit goal, based upon my preliminary investigations of those around the world sophisticated in this issue argue it is at least a -150% which means the US has a duty to fund mitigation efforts in other countries which the H. W Bush administration already agreed to in the UNFCCC.
- By agreeing to the “no harm” rule, the US agreed it is legally and morally responsible for the harms it has contributed to in other countries although there are open questions whether the international legal system can adjudicate these monetary obligations.
- Governments should follow the example of the Scottish Parliament that we owe it to the rest of the world to have an aggressive GHG target. Governments should refrain from justifying stronger climate policies on jobs alone although they may explain one of the benefits of the transformation of commerce entailed by going to net zero carbon emissions would be new jobs while not leaving the impression that new jobs are the justification for serious GHG emissions reduction policies.
- The next entry will explain why higher education has been part of the problem and make several recommendations on teaching students on how to teach environmental ethics that is manageable and useful without making students competent in resolving at a theoretical level all differences in ethical conclusions about what governments should do.
Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics also, and so the problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for global governance.
Shapiro, M., 2007. Exposed, The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Chemicals and What Is at Stake for American Power, Chelsa Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School