The following are slides presented at a side event at COP 22 in Marrakech on the enormous damage to the world caused by the climate change disinformation campaign that started in the United States and spread to a few other countries
“Program at the UNFCCC COP 22, Marraketch Morroco”
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
1 pm to 2 pm, Baltic Room, Blue Zone
The Pennsylvania Environmental Research Consortium
For Information Contact:
Donald A. Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
The program will begin with a briefing on what peer-reviewed social science has revealed about the climate change disinformation campaign’s structure, funding, tactics, successes in blocking climate policies, and main participants. This will be followed by a discussion of:
Why despite fact that scientific skepticism is good and should be encouraged, this is not responsible skepticism?
Why this behavior cannot be excused as an exercise in free speech?
What damage has been caused by this campaign?
What kind of malfeasance is this? Tort, crime, fraud?
How to increase public international awareness of these developments?
This is the 3rd entry in a series that has been examining the practical significance for climate change policy formation of insights of sociologists about the failure of governments to respond to the enormous threat of climate change.
This series is reviewing a new book about the social causes of climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.
In the first entry in the series, we described why sociological explanations for the success of the opponents of climate change policies and identification of deep ethical and moral problems with arguments made by climate change policy opponents largely have been missing from mainstream climate change literature and the media coverage of human-induced warming issues.
In the second entry in this series, we looked at the insights from sociology about the morally reprehensible climate change disinformation countermovement.
We now review what advocates of strong government action on climate change should learn from sociologists. We note that the Dunlap/ Brulle book contains many other issues about the sociology of climate change than those discussed in this series. However, advocates of climate change policy should:
1. Pay attention to and educate others on how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful forces, that is, help citizens see the wizard behind the curtain who has been projecting a false understanding of climate change matters.
In the first entry in this series, we reviewed the conclusions of sociologists summarized in the Dunlap/Brulle book about why most of the climate change literature relevant to relevant to changing the dangerous path the world was on assumed that the primary challenge was to motivate individuals to respond to the danger of climate change described by scientists. Therefore, many of not most climate policy advocates focused on how to improve messaging about climate change policies or how to we incentivize individual behavioral change through the use of economic incentives.
We also explained that for over 30 years, proponents of action on climate change mostly focused on responding to the arguments made by opponents of climate change that government action on climate change was unjustifiable due to scientific uncertainty and high costs of proposed climate policies.
Because motivating individual behavior to engage in activities that don’t produce GHGs was assumed to be the major challenge to improve government responses to climate change, proponents of climate change policies have largely relied on the disciplines of economics and psychology, two disciplines which claim expertise on how to motivate individual behavior, to make policy recommendations on how to change individual responses to climate change. Yet sociologists warn that individuals almost always make decisions in response to the cultural understanding of the problem of concern. Therefore, large scale individual behavioral change on climate change is not likely as long as many people are influenced by the cultural narrative pushed by the opponents of climate change that climate change science is uncertain and that proposed responses to climate change will create great unacceptable damage to a nation’s economy.
Therefore, those working to improve government and individual responses to climate change should adjust their tactics to respond to the insights of sociologists that have concluded that citizens need to understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been shaped by powerful actors who have used sophisticated tactics to achieve support for their position that climate change policies should be opposed on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs to the economy. It is not enough for proponents of climate change policies to simply make counter scientific and economic “factual” arguments to the scientific and economic claims of the climate change policy opponents, advocates for climate policies need to help citizens understand what interests are responsible for the disinformation that is the basis for the false arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, why the tactics used the opponents of climate change policies are morally reprehensible, and why the arguments of those opposing climate change policies will continue to create huge injustices and immense suffering in the world.
As we explained in on this website many times, although skepticism in science is a good thing, opponents of climate change participating in the denial countermovement have engaged in a variety of morally reprehensible tactics that have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,
(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 well-settled climate change science,
(c) using think tanks and front groups to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science 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.
The United States and some other countries are nations where a culture of individualism dominates, cultural understanding which often hides the role that politically powerful actors play in formulating public policy. On this issue, the new book on sociology and climate change states:
Psychological and economic perspectives on climate change can easily be misused to reinforce the societal tendency to focus on individuals as both the primary cause of, and solution to climate change. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015. p. 10 ) …..These disciplines assume that addressing the human dimensions of climate change is in essence a matter of incentivizing, persuading and encouraging individuals to do their bit and to quit the habit of excessive resource consumption. This approach leads to an emphasis on addressing climate change by changing individual behavior via financial incentives or disincentives or through various communications efforts aimed at promoting lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 10 )
The notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their personal choices is widely held among US policymakers, the media and the general public and is of course quite compatible with the assumptions of economics and psychology. But simply pursuing strategies to motivate individual behavioral change without helping citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change was manufactured by morally indefensible strategies, does little to change the cultural understanding of the problem held by many.
Proponents of climate change policies need to help citizens see who is the wizard behind the screen which has over and over again been making false claims about the lack of scientific grounding for the conclusions that humans are responsible for creating huge climate change threats. Proponents of climate change policies need to achieve greater understanding of and focus on who is funding the false claims of the opponents of climate change policies, and how they are organized and communicate, what tactics they have and continue to use to propagate a false narrative, and how the actions of politicians who resist action on climate change are linked to the the climate change denial countermovement.
In the last month,19 US Senators led by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse have begun to publicize the role of fossil fuel coal companies in misleading citizens on climate change (See Web of Denial). This political effort has been made possible by the sociological work of Dunlap, Brulle, and McCritte, among others. And so there is a growing body of sociological work that is now available to help citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been manipulated at the federal level in the United States and in several other countries. However, additional sociological analysis is needed to better understand how opponents of climate change policies have successfully manipulated the government response to climate change at the State and local level in the United States and other countries, matters which the Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges.
Simply improving messaging in accordance with recommendations of psychologists or following the recommendations of economists to create economic incentives to engage in less GHG producing behavior will not likely create strong citizen support for climate change policies unless citizens better understand that the narrative created by opponents of climate change policies about high levels of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable harm to the economy from the adoption of climate policies is not only false but has been manufactured by fossil fuel companies and other entities which have economic interests in continuing high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Advocates of climate policies need to help citizens understand that the wizard behind the curtain has been the fossil fuel industry, their industry organizations, free-market fundamentalists foundations, and the politicians who represent the interests of and are often funded by these groups.
As we have seen, in the first two entries in this series, the new book edited by sociologists Dunlap and Brulle includes information on how participants in the denial countermovement have prevented governments from responding to climate change by undermining the scientific basis on which claims about the urgent need to take action. The participants in the countermovement have attacked climate models, paleoclimatic data on which warming trends are based, modern temperature records, mainstream scientists who have claimed there is an urgent need to act, and manufactured bogus non-peer-reviewed climate science claims which they have then widely publicized in books and pamphlets, and then widely circulated the publications to journalists and politicians, tactics which have succeeded in getting the disinformation propaganda widely distributed by friendly media. (Dunlap, R., and McCright, 2015, p. 306–307).
The climate denial countermovement has also blocked critical reflection on and serious debate about climate change through other strategies which seek to promote the idea that civil society will be better off if climate change policies are not adopted. These strategies have included funding politicians that will promote the interests of participants in the climate change denial countermovement, placing people sympathetic to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in positions of authority in government institutions with regulatory authority, limiting the budgets of government environmental agencies in ways that prevent government action on climate change, orchestrating political opposition to climate change legislation through funding campaigns and lobbying efforts, and stroking the fear of individuals about adverse economic effects of climate change legislation (Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., 2015, p. 306–307).
As we have seen in the first entry in this series, opponents of climate change policies have also successively tricked proponents of climate change policies and the media covering climate change issues to focus on “factual” scientific and economic arguments while ignoring the deep moral and ethical problems with these arguments.
Advocates of climate change policies need to better educate civil society about how opponents of climate change policies are actually preventing government action on climate change. On these issues. sociological research can be helpful in explaining what has happened to prevent government action on climate change..
Sociologists can help citizens understand how the concentrated wealth of the opponents of climate change policies have created an enormous inequality in the ability of different groups to participate in public decisions about climate change. For this reason, advocates of climate change policies need to publicize the details of how the opponents of climate change use the political processes open them to achieve their goals and why the opportunity for citizen involvement in climate change policy formation is often hindered by institutional structure and processes.
2. Help civil society better understand the ethical and moral limits of the economic narrative discourses which are dominating civil society’s understanding of the acceptability of climate change policies.
The Dunlap/Brulle book explains how the discourse of neoliberal economic ideology has dominated political approaches to society’s problems.(Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 304) This ideology holds that civil society is better off if market capitalism is left alone and unimpeded by regulations that interfere with the generate of wealth. Advocates of neoliberal ideology value individual rights. private property, laissez-faire capitalism, and free enterprise (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 302). Because neoliberal ideology has dominated political life in many countries including the United States, many if not most proponents of climate change policies have advocated for “market” based solutions to climate change such as carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Yet market ideology often ignores moral and ethical questions such as on what justice and fairness considerations should the burdens of reducing GHG emission be allocated. Yet questions of distributive justice about which nations should bear the major responsibility for most GHG reductions at the international level have and continue to block agreement in international climate negotiations, as well as questions about which countries should be financially responsible for adaptation costs and damages in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest climate impacts and who have done little to cause the problem.
Many proponents of strong climate change policies that advocate for market based solutions have largely ignored the many obvious ethical and equity questions raised by climate change and as result the mainstream press has largely ignored these issues despite the fact that these issues are at the center of international disputes over climate change. Also despite the fact that the positions that the United States and several other countries have frequently taken in Internationale climate negotiations have clearly flunked minimum ethical scrutiny, the US media has largely ignored the ethical and justice issues raised by the US response to climate change. (See Brown, 2012, A Video: Even Monkeys Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?)
The Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges that the dominant scientific and economic discourses framing the climate debate “reinforces the existing socio-politico-economic status quo” and “removes moral and political considerations from the discussion” (Brulle. R., and Dunlap. R. 2015, p.12). Yet, unless the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are seriously considered by nations when they formulate their international emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC, the international community is not likely to find a global solution to prevent potential enormous damages from human-induced warming (See, On The Practical Need To Examine Climate Change Policy Issues Through An Ethical Lens)
For these reasons, proponents of strong climate change policies should expressly integrate ethical and moral considerations into their analyses of climate change policies. Ignoring these issues will likely continue to be responsible for the lack of media coverage of these issues, despite the fact that there is an enormous need at the international level for nations to respond to climate change at levels consistent with what justice requires of them if a global solution to climate is become viable.
In addition, every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, nations must face the question of what does fairness and justice require of it when formulating national climate policy, yet issues of justice and fairness are virtually absent from US media coverage of US climate policy. Also, the magnitude of GHG emissions reductions committed to by a nation is implicitly a position on how much warming damage a nation is willing to inflict on others around the world, a matter which is a moral issue at its core.
The failure to identify the ethical and moral dimensions of a nation, state, or regional governments GHG reduction target an invitation to hide profound moral and ethical issues behind scientific “factual” matters thus preventing public debate about what justice and morality require of governments.
3. Educate civil society about climate change issues in ways that will promote and sustain a social movement about climate change.
Sociology studies how large scale social change is produced by social movements (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, 2015, p. 235). Given the civilization challenging nature of climate change, many observers of the failure of governments to respond to the threat of climate change have concluded that creating a strong social movement on climate change is the best hope of preventing catastrophic harm from human-induced warming given the enormity of the challenge facing the world. For this reason, proponents of strong climate change policies should work consciously to build and sustain a social movement to aggressively reduce GHG emissions mindful of what works to make social movements arise, become effective, and be sustained..
Sociology has developed an extensive and robust literature on the process of social change driven by citizen mobilization, including the development and advocacy of alternative policy perspectives, the creation of new organizations, how these organizations can affect both corporate actions and public policy (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S.. 2015, p. 235).
The most basic way that social movements change the social landscape is by framing grievances in ways that resonate with members of civil society (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz,S., 2015, p.237). Because a high percentage of the arguments made by most proponents of climate change policy have been focused on adverse climate impacts that citizens will experience where they live, while ignoring the harms to hundreds of millions of vulnerable poor people around the world that are being affected by GHG emissions from all-high emitting nations, along with claims that mainstream climate science is credible and has been undermined by morally reprehensible tactics, there is a need to make more people aware of:
(a) the catastrophic harm that their GHG producing activities are imposing on others around the world;
(b) that government action to reduce the threat of climate change has been consistently blocked by the disinformation created by the fossil fuel industry;
(c) that the campaigns of politicians who support the fossil fuel industry have often been funded significantly by fossil fuel money;
(d) that the fossil fuel industry funded disinformation campaign has resulted in almost a 30 year delay which has now made it much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm; and,
(e) and that every day that action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the problem more difficult to solve.
Proponents of climate change policies need to stress the enormous damages that the fossil fuel industry is inflicting on poor people around the world and the gross unfairness of high-emitting nations such as the United States on international climate issues because an understanding of basic unfairness will help build and sustain a social movement on climate change
Social movements focus members of civil society on particular dimensions of social problems of concern and provide their publics with clear definitions of those problems, along with arguments regarding who is at fault and what options exist for solving their social grievances. (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S., 2015, p.237) For this reason, proponents of climate change policies should seek to widely educate civil society about who has funded the numerous participants in the climate change countermovement and the morally reprehensible tactics that they have used.
Although sociologists have now documented which corporations, corporate industry groups, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and institutions have been most responsible for the spread of climate change disinformation at the national level in the United States and a few other countries, knowledge about who is blocking climate change action at the state and local level has not yet widely been developed. Proponents of climate change policies should seek to assure that civil society understands what corporations, institutions, and foundations have been responsible for climate change disinformation and which politicians have advanced the interests of these groups at the national level and seek to better understand, perhaps working with sociologists, entities and politicians most responsible for resistance to climate change policies at the state and regional level.
To create and sustain a social movement on climate change, it is not enough for advocates of climate change policies to counter the false scientific and economic claims of climate change policy opponents, they must constantly seek to educate civil society about the causes of the grave injustices that climate change is causing if they seek to build and sustain a social movement on climate change.
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Caniglia, B., S., Bruelle, R., Szasz,A., (2015). Civil Society, Social Movements, and Climate Change, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:
(a) It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.
(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)
(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.
Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.
Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:
Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions to climate change?
What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?
This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.
Editors Note: The following entry has been written by guest bloger, Michael Hoexter. This entry was first published on the Web Site New Economic Perspectives on February 27, 2014. We republish this article with permission of the author because it contains a number of excellent points about the ethical dimensions of climate change particularly in regard to who should be understood to be responsible for the failure of the United States to take adequate action on climate change. This analysis concludes that different parties should be differentially responsible for inaction on climate change. In addition, the article makes several compelling arguments for the urgent practical need to understand climate change as an ethical and moral problem. The article also explains why government action on climate change is indispensable to an adequate climate change solution, that is, why market solutions such as cap and trade or even carbon taxes will not alone create an adequate US response to climate change.
Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
The climate crisis is an event with such profound personal and broadly social moral implications that many shy away from discussing the crisis itself let alone its ethical aspects. Via our society’s use of fossil fuels we are, if our combustion of these fuels remains unchecked and in addition we further destroy the carbon fixing capacity of natural systems, destroying almost all wealth, the likelihood of their being future civilizations, and even the possibility for existence for future generations. To continue ignoring climate change and effective climate action is definitely an après moi le deluge stance, an expression of callousness and self-absorption unsupportable by moral justification. Morality and ethics is here not an exotic preoccupation of a select group but a basic reality-check: does what we are doing make sense and promote the general ends to which these activities are devoted? How do we assess our own agency and role and those of others, in events that are occurring around us and will with very high likelihood exacerbate in the future?
In addition to the lulling effects of the organized climate denial industry as well as propaganda for fossil fuels broadcast in all media channels, one of the difficulties facing climate change activism is that, taking effective, durable action is not primarily an individual phenomenon but a massive group enterprise, ideally with full participation and leadership by governments. It is difficult for people to understand how a sense of personal ethical obligation, which people may or may not feel, can translate into effective action, given the uncertainties and variability of the participation of others and of the varying, non-existent, or contrary commitments of social institutions to the necessary changes in our energy system. With some justification, people on the ground believe they are, in their isolation, too small and insignificant to remake the energy basis of society and the economy.
Also, because the way to effective climate action is not clearly in mind, people who do not feel themselves to be in positions of power or influence might resent people pointing out, as I am doing now, their role, moral or otherwise, regarding climate change. We are living in an age where people feel that ethical appeals, more generally, are felt to be a hindrance to living one’s life unencumbered by obligations to others, that ethics competes with and impedes the light sense of freedom that is one of the sought-after states of mind in our time. Often this sense of freedom is defined by many throughout the developed and developing world as a choice of a variety of consumer goods for immediate or near-term consumption. The attachment to near-term pleasures can even turn into a form of climate nihilism, a philosophical rejection of ethics in favor of sensuous pleasure über alles. Nihilism’s formal severance from ethical considerations in turn leads ultimately to an acceptance or enactments of varying degrees of psychopathy/sociopathy and eventually to the collapse of civilization.
As of late, the North American climate action movement and outspoken climate scientists such as Michael Mann have focused on counteracting the massive propaganda and obfuscation campaign that has delayed climate action. Fingers have been pointed at the fossil fuel industries and their role in creating clouds of doubt and confusion around the findings of climate science, while continuing to profit from climate change denial and or fossil fuel addiction. The climate movement is pointing out that unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques (fracking, tar sands excavation, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining) are leaving or will leave toxic wastes and scars on the landscape as the fossil fuel industry gouges and lacerates the earth in search of combustible fossil resources. The freight rail network in North America is being turned into a conduit for crude oil from the landlocked Canadian tar-sands and the Bakken Shale, as construction timelines and permitting decisions are awaited for new pipelines. It appears that conventional oil has reached its peak and is, as well, controlled by sovereign oil companies not the oil majors.
Local groups and national environmental organizations are attempting to combat fracking operations, pipeline build-out and crude-by-rail programs either by reference to their local damages and risks, or too little, in my opinion, via reference to the impact of these activities on global warming. I am active in groups that are focused on halting the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries including the Keystone XL pipeline and yet the climate movement is still figuring out how a focus on local damages and pollution translate to action on the global long-term issue. The phrase “leave it in the ground” has started to gain currency, though it appears not have yet become the central demand of any national campaign. Recently, activists in our area have created the slogan “NIMBY => NOPE” (“’Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’”).
While some of the defenders of the fossil fuel industries deny climate change, there are others like President Obama and those who support his energy policy, who simultaneously admit that climate change is a problem and continue encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and therefore its ongoing use. The MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, known as a progressive, has voiced support for the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline as does his frequent guest, the supposed progressive and would-be challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016, former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Schultz, to his credit, has been devoting considerable time on his air to the issue of the pipeline, and may be reconsidering his stance. As another MSNBC commentator, Chris Hayes, points out, the stance of Obama and others, that they are against global warming but for the building of new pipelines, are the protestations of fossil fuel addicts, who haven’t yet confronted their addiction.
And it is and will be very difficult for us, particularly here in North America, to confront our fossil fuel addiction as well as lessen our impact on the climate more generally, individually and also as a society as a whole. We are, all of us, in various positions along a continuum of lesser to greater individual or family climate virtue, whether by intention, by pre-existing preference, or by level of means, though in the developed societies, we are as individuals and families bunched towards the less virtuous end of the spectrum in terms of the stability of the climate. However, as many people know, individual and familial efforts even if all of us were paragons of climate virtue within our various means, do not add up to the systemic changes required to cut emissions on a grand scale across the economy. The vision of climate action as simply the accumulation of individual and familial choices overlooks the importance of public goods like infrastructure and the design and locations of cities and towns, which can only be changed by government action or other coordinated collective means. This fact alone reveals that market-based instruments (either cap and trade or carbon taxes) are more likely auxiliary policies rather than the central policy structure to transform our societies. Carbon pricing instruments, at least in the form of a gradually escalating carbon price, are “nudges” when we are needing in many areas a reversal of direction and a major concerted push, or time will have run out on our best intentions.
Chicken and Egg: Demand- vs. Supply-Focused Campaigns
Among those who have taken some interest in addressing climate change, there have over the last decade or so been discussions about whether a focus on curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industries or a focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels is the right single or leading method to move society into a transition away from fossil energy. Economics is divided on the subject of what is the primary cause of business activity in general, though strangely in the area of curtailing fossil fuel use, almost everybody is a “Keynesian” in the sense of theorizing a demand-led business cycle. Keynes is the most influential economist who challenged the old dogma of Say’s Law that states that supply creates its own demand; i.e. “build it and they will come”. With, in theory, supply no longer controlling the business cycle, Keynes advocated stimulation of demand via government spending and/or tax cuts as a cure for economic depressions caused by what turned out to be a collapse in demand.
With fossil fuels, a large majority of economists that contemplate climate action advocate a price on carbon, either a tax or a permit to emit, which would reduce demand for the fuels without restricting supply. By contrast, this is the reverse of the current right-leaning consensus among policymakers regarding what to do about unemployment, which prescribe, almost exclusively, supply-side solutions. The unemployed or youth are said to lack the proper skills, so the focus is on skills training and educational reform would supposedly create jobs. Meanwhile few economists are advocating curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industry or rationing fuel, both supply-side measures, to meet the challenge of global warming. This could be seen as a tribute to the relative political power of the fossil fuel industries and high-consumers of fossil energy (large corporations and the affluent) versus the power of the unemployed and youth; the former are treated, if at all, with gentle “nudges” while the latter are viewed as “clay to be molded” by elites.
Demand and supply-side interventions have different ethical implications, with ethics being the social discourse about how we manage our own agency or agencies (our “doing”) in the light of what is best or better for us or for a greater community or some combination thereof. Policy focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels starts from the premise that we are not able by internalizing legal-ethical mandates/strictures, foresight, and rational planning to change our behavior. Only after incurring a succession of monetary losses or anticipated losses from the “sin” tax or increased price do “appetites” for fossil fuel use diminish: consumers, as they have limited monetary resources, figure out for themselves the trade-off in monetary terms of one set of appetites for another and start choosing the higher benefit-to-cost satisfactions. The process of choosing between those appetites, or the restriction of the satisfaction of other appetites because of a lack of funds, leads eventually, in some, to a waning of interest in the targeted product or service. A supply-side restriction, such as rationing or cutting off certain types of fossil fuel supply (reducing overall supply), assumes that people are able to rein in their appetites via either their own internalized moral compass, or they accept the legitimacy of the external moral instance of government or the community to regulate their usage of, in this case, fossil fuels
The divide between supply- and demand-side policies is a byproduct of mainstream economic assumptions and academic disputes that some heterodox economists criticize, yet have not yet presented an alternative causal model of business and sectoral development. Presented in current contretemps between self-identified Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as an “either/or”, a longer view look at economic history suggests that the causal role of supply and demand are historical and sectoral snapshots of the complex unfolding of the actual economy. Due to the rapidity of energy transition required for human civilization to survive as well as the need for a change in energy systems, a combination of supply- and demand-side measures are required, together applied with as much force and speed as possible and effective. Supply-side restrictions of fossil fuels, for instance, would create a feedback loop where a restriction of supply will for instance act as a virtual “carbon tax” as oil companies charge more for their scarcer product. This should be seen as intentional rather than accidental, if one is advocating that both supply and demand be simultaneously curtailed. At the same time, government needs to supply or help design and subsidize the building of many of the connective pieces of a zero-carbon infrastructure. A new source or switch of suppliers is not well theorized by the supply-demand framework.
Even the institution and maintenance of an effective demand-side policy, advertised as the more moderate and “reasonable” solution, would in reality require a high degree of ethical commitment by the polity to effective climate action, more than the neoclassical economic fantasy of what constitutes the human being could accommodate. A behavior-changing carbon price (a tax or fee) of perhaps $150-200 per metric tonne CO2-equivalent emissions (with or without a refundable tax credit, sometimes called a dividend to blunt its regressivity) would require sacrifice differentially among economic sectors and groups, as well the need to change comfortable habits and ways of life. Such sacrifice would need to be openly acknowledged beforehand, requiring people, as citizens beyond their roles as consumers, to develop an ethical commitment to the large-scale task of preventing climate catastrophe.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
A political campaign on climate that focuses its anger and claims of responsibility only on the role of the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates is naïve: their power is sustained by the number of paying customers available for their products, as well as their accumulated wealth from a 225-year history of fueling industrial growth via fossil energy. On the other hand, campaigns that focus only on demand-side policy, on the population’s demand for cheap, polluting fuel, tend to overlook the effects of the massive political-economic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates on laming climate action once human-caused climate change was recognized internationally as a problem around 25 years ago. The assumption of demand-side policy is that our “appetite” for the products and services that fossil fuels enable is the driving force and therefore a wide-swath of the developed world is culpable for climate catastrophe.
Holding ordinary consumers in the developed world responsible on an individual basis for the continued dominance of fossil fuels either implicitly or explicitly is unfair and unrealistic. Some combination of an appeal to the moral sense of each individual as well as an appeal to macroethical justice for those who have delayed climate action and profit from climate inaction is required for climate action to be both heart-felt by many and also politically and economically astute.
Furthermore, there is a third category of people who have neither made executive decisions nor consumption/purchasing decisions that have had significant climate impacts. Some of these people live in poverty in the developing world or are too young now to have made significant decisions about how to live their lives yet. These people will pay the price of the decisions of others yet are or will become responsible for protecting the climate from further negative change and devastation of a conducive life-world for them and humanity more generally. Their responsibilities then start now or lie in the future.
I am proposing then that we subdivide responsibility into three categories or levels with regard to climate change, though this type of subdivision may be applicable with other large scale societal institutions and events. In delaying action on climate, some people have had a much greater role than others in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels. As a parallel example, many legal jurisdictions, for instance, assign a higher culpability to drug pushers/dealers than to drug addicts, though unfortunately the latter group is in the United States subject to excessive legal penalties for non-violent drug offenses. The dealer/user distinction found in many legal codes should be carried over to the politics and ethics of global warming.
Around global warming then, at the current juncture in history, we can say that there are those who have primary moral responsibility for causing climate catastrophe, a much larger group of those who have secondary ethical responsibility for climate catastrophe, and a still larger group who are bystanders in terms of causality of global warming to date but will need to assume some responsibility in solving the climate crisis. The growth of a political movement will be in part by determined by how these relative responsibilities as we will see below will be addressed by climate politics and climate policies.
Historical Responsibility and Present-Day Responsibility
With large-scale complex systems such as energy infrastructure, an industrial economy, or an entire civilization, it is fair to distinguish between historical responsibility and ethical responsibility. The socially-constructed complex systems we live in are the product of generations of decisions and actions by our ancestors as well as those now living, some of whom may be retired from positions of power and authority. There are those who set up and reinforced the fossil-fuel-dependent industrial base of our civilization who were and are responsible but cannot be said, because of their lack of awareness of global warming and the continued dominance of fossil energy up to the present to be ethically responsible for global warming. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others made crucial decisions in the design of American civilization. The American model of development remains one of the primary models for many developed and developing industrial cultures from early 20th Century onward that, of course, require a large supply of fossil energy with current infrastructure. These historical figures and others hold historical responsibility but they cannot be held ethically responsible for global warming as they were not made aware of the consequences of their actions at the time. We then can only discuss the ethical responsibilities for global warming of those in the current generation because a crucial piece of that ethical responsibility is having been made aware, in this case, by the geosciences and in particular climate science, of the consequences of maintaining the status quo in these complex large-scale systems.
Global warming emerged as a very strong hypothesis in the then-obscure scientific discipline of climate science in the 1980’s with mounting empirical data supporting the human role in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The climate science community alerted policymakers to the danger in the late 1980’s with among other events, James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to Congress during the heatwave of 1988. From these interactions and subsequent meetings between policymakers, there eventually emerged in 1997 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions-trading (cap and trade) instrument selected as the general policy tool to reduce emissions worldwide. Emissions trading is an implementation of the economic idea of carbon pricing, the idea that an escalating carbon price will shape economic behavior to emit less greenhouse gases, while supposedly being able to meet an overall “cap” in quantity of emissions, set by policymakers. While the Kyoto Protocol had already been set into place as the primary solution to climate change, the historian of science Stuart Weart marks the point at the year 2001 where climate scientists had actually reached a consensus that human activity was warming the planet via GHG emissions and land-use changes, the former largely from fossil fuel use.
Having been alerted of an impending catastrophe in 2001, perhaps in terms that were soft pedaled at the time and filtered through the politics of national governments, it can be said in theory that all adults in the world were at that point informed enough to know that they had an ethical responsibility as citizens and consumers to address climate change. Even if the emissions trading instrument chosen by the UN was and is opaque and faulty, as it turned out to be, theoretically it was then and is now incumbent upon people as citizens to correct or amend climate policy.
However, in reality, a number of trends and events have intervened that make it unreasonable to have conferred responsibility upon all adults in 2001 when the climate science consensus was formed. Unfortunately, it has required a real degradation in the climate and a series of failures of the cap and trade instrument before it is reasonable to assume that ethical responsibility has been fully transferred, in varying degrees, to all adults in the world. In the intervening time between 2001 and today, the international and various national policy communities, outside of a few nations like the US and China, were claiming that it was on the road to “solving” the climate issue with emissions trading. I have devoted a good portion of my writing over the past decade to showing how insufficient and ineffective emission trading is and also a diversion from leaders’ and citizens’ primary ethical duties to act on climate change. It may be that the transmission of ethical responsibility is not yet complete until it is made abundantly clear that:
It is incumbent on everyone to act in some way to save the climate.
Existing solutions and actions are insufficient to address climate.
There must be a search for new solutions on political and economic levels to climate.
These new solutions must be implemented until such time as we see radical reductions in the emissions of warming gases.
This document is part of this transmission of responsibilities.
The climate change denial industry acts as an effort to delay the realization and transmission of ethical obligations as well as deflect accusations of immoral behavior or deficient character on those who continue to drive us toward climate catastrophe. By attacking the level of certainty that people may hold with regard to either the existence of or human causation of global warming, climate change denial has attractions for those outside the inner circle of beneficiaries from the fossil fuel industry who do not want to reckon with either changes in their own lifestyle or with the increased role of government required by effective climate action. Climate denial functions to blunt either the pangs of internal conscience or to deflect accusations of climate destruction or sluggish inaction.
As hinted at above, ethical responsibility with regard to taking action on climate is not discharged simply by committing to a putative or first-offered greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, but effectively seeing through the execution of that plan. If the plan first selected is ineffective or not sufficient effective, either via prima facie analysis based on its highly likely outcomes or by empirical results, then continued subscription to the initial reduction plan becomes itself as unethical as inaction. One’s ethical responsibilities in this case are discharged by effective actions, not by expressions of good intention or commitments to climate virtue in the future.
Primary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
As discussed above, responsibilities and therefore accusations of culpability with regard to the impending climate catastrophe should not be equally distributed. Responsibilities are differentially distributed in society already by the different levels of power that people exert in relationship, largely, to their roles in the social institutions relevant to a given phenomenon. A fire chief is more responsible for extinguishing fires throughout a town than a baker or for that matter a trainee in the fire department. Now, 13 years after 2001 and 22 years after the 1992 Rio Summit that initiated international action on global warming, we can determine with a high degree of certainty that some people bear primary responsibility for at least the last decade if not the longer 22 year delay in substantive climate action. To bear primary responsibility means to have been exposed to the overwhelming scientific data and analysis on anthropogenic global warming and willfully and misleadingly denied or acted in ignorance of that consensus. Additionally primary responsibility for climate catastrophe falls on those who bear substantial responsibility by dint of economic positioning, scientific obfuscation, political patronage, political influence or political position as to the direction of our political-economic system, where that system effects our society’s energy and land use and therefore climate impacts.
The following categories of people then bear primary responsibility for the impending climate catastrophe, if they do not soon change their course by attempting to radically change the course of the institutions they are involved in (which is not always possible), agitate in the public sphere for immediate and thoroughgoing climate action and/or to publicly leave those institutions, transferring a substantial portion of their financial gains to investments in or contributions to effective climate action. Though they are primarily responsible for the continuance and acceleration of global warming, those primarily responsible for the disaster should not expect to be responsible for the solutions, though they should at least get out of the way of those solutions, for their sake, the sake of their children, and for the sake of humanity more generally. Some individuals will fit more than one category of the following:
1) “Denier-Leaders” – Political leaders that over the past 13 years to the present have promoted denial or unscientific doubt of anthropogenic global warming and its highly likely negative effects or have promoted, voted for, passed into law or administered local, regional or national government’s transport, land use and energy policy as if there were no ongoing catastrophic, human-caused global warming trend. Much of the current U.S. Republican Party leadership and Congressional delegation as well as the leadership of other right-wing parties in a number of countries including Canada and Australia are thus primarily responsible for the continuation of our global warming trend. These politicians can be viewed as spokespeople for the fossil fuel industries of their countries. The slightly more respectable “doubter” position has similar effects to “denial” in sensitive positions where the critically important instrument of government is either put to work to change the energy system or in the case of denier-leaders, used to reinforce the fossil energy status quo.
2) “Lip-Service Leaders”- Political leaders on the local, regional, national or UN levels that acknowledge human-caused global warming exists and is a problem but either a) support the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries as they veer into “extreme” extraction techniques, b) support “fig-leaf” or ineffective climate policies such as most existing emissions trading schemes, c) continue to subscribe to the fiction that natural gas is a “bridge” fuel to a greener future or d) some combination a) , b) and c). Many of the center and left-leaning political party leaders and political representatives in the US and around the world fit into this category. Barack Obama is a leading example of category “d)”. Likewise the leadership of fossil fuel exporting nations such as Russia that acknowledge climate change but are sluggish to implement effective policies are similarly primarily responsible for global warming. The weakness of the policy proposals and leadership on climate of this group is a reflection of compromises that these groups make with climate deniers, with the power of the fossil fuel lobbies, and with the dominance over the past 30 years of neoliberal theories of government’s fallibility and the market’s infallibility. However their stance and the policy infrastructure they have erected are, in many ways, a dangerous diversion of attention from designing and implementing more effective and timely climate action that involves both direct investment by government as well as regulation of markets via rule-making and tax policy/direct carbon pricing. Both “Lip-Service Leaders” and “Denier Leaders” are avoiding the difficult though necessary confrontation with both the fossil fuel industries and with their own political constituencies. These leaders have turned away from the task of preparing their constituents to wean themselves off or pay more for fossil-dependent conveniences available in developed nations. Additionally these leaders have avoided providing their constituents with the public funding and programmatic guidance to enable them to devote themselves to remaking the energy and transportation basis of our societies for their and for future generations’ benefit.
3) “Climate Destruction Sponsors” – There are some extremely wealthy people, most of which have or have had substantial investments in fossil fuel extraction and sales who have funded climate science denial efforts by institutions such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute as a means of delaying action on climate change. These are the funders of the odd collection of scientists that Naomi Oreskes has termed “the Merchants of Doubt”. The Koch Brothers and the corporate leadership of Exxon/Mobil are the most famous of these funders, who also have almost their entire business empires devoted to fossil fuels. There are also a large tranches of funding that are donated as “dark money” via Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund directed in the direction of delay of climate action. These sponsors (who may also be profiteers from delay of effective climate action) cloak their activities in the rhetoric of “freedom” or the fictions of free market economics, distracting themselves from the physical consequences of our emissions trajectory as well as distracting others from their often substantial financial interests in climate destruction.
4) “Climate Destruction Profiteers” – There is substantial overlap between the “sponsors” group and those who profit from the destruction of the climate but what I am calling the “sponsors” have shrouded themselves in the ideological mantle of the dominant neoliberal political philosophy that idealizes markets. The Koch Brothers are of course also profiteers on the destruction of the climate as are major stockholders and share owners of large and medium-size fossil fuel companies. There are others, high level employees and strategists of major oil companies, who are driving the business of fossil fuel extraction and can no longer take the defense that they were just following orders. The same goes for passive fossil fuel investors, who have become the target of the “Go Fossil Free” fossil fuel divestment campaign. At some point, at lower level employees or small service businesses within the oil, gas and coal industries, the argument can be made that the existential needs of their families keep them in the business, rather than the accumulation of profits. At these lower levels of the organization or market segment, it can be no longer said that they bear primary responsibility for climate catastrophe and their work or business would simply be replaced if they withdrew bids for business, if they quit, or would be fired if they sought to change the terms of their work.
5) “Media Deniers/Equivocators” – Newspapers, magazines, television, and Internet journalism play key roles in telling people what they should think about and how they should think about it. While there are obvious prominent owners of right-leaning media, like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and News Corporation who are climate change deniers or “doubters”, the media in general in the United States and other key countries has suppressed or downplayed the story of global warming, delegating it to obscure web-only blogs or leaving it out entirely of their offerings. Instead of a steady drumbeat of stories reminding people of the present danger, media outlets have tended to reflect the “comfort zone” of a political spectrum where one side is devoted to half-measures and lip service while the other is militantly against the idea of human-caused global warming because it contradicts their political-economic ideology. Many media outlets for too long have seen their work as trying to “split the difference” between two opposed sides on a number of issues, including global warming, rather than investigate the terrifying facts, report those facts as well as who is representing those facts more truthfully. In the United States, a critical role has been played by among others by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, who at a critical point turned over his blog at the New York Times to largely serve as a forum for doubt and contrarianism about basic climate science. It cannot be underestimated how much the doubt sowed by supposed environmental journalists has distracted readers from the critical questions of how to deal with impending climate catastrophe.
6) “Characterological Contrarians/Merchants of Doubt” – The fodder for much media coverage of climate change has been supplied by the self-styled courageous “skeptics” that claim to challenge the climate science consensus that human activity is driving global warming on supposedly scientific grounds. Using scant data and ignoring most findings that suggest warming, these “merchants of doubt” have attempted to suggest that political motivations and/or sloppy science has led to the what would amount to a massive “conspiracy” of climate scientists to assert that humans are causing global warming. While in science, true skepticism is welcome, the climate “skeptics” play primarily to a political and media audience and some have received funding from the “Climate Destruction Sponsors”. While some deniers may be driven by a psychological compulsion towards contrarianism, this also leads to the “reward” for some of enjoying a great deal of attention as well as some financial support. Whether paid or simply driven to contradict for psychological reasons, this group has with the aid of the media and their sponsors, helped humanity continue on its destructive path vis-à-vis the climate, providing reassurance to the ill-informed and to those with more malevolent or destructive intentions.
7) “Fossil-Dependent Electric Utility Executives & Large Shareholders” – One of the prime consumers of coal and natural gas is the electricity generation industry, which consumes almost all of the coal produced in the world, and a high percentage of the natural gas. While many electric utilities have built their capital intensive infrastructure around the availability of fossil energy to drive their generators, utilities have had the choice to lead the transition to a zero net emissions energy system via the use of renewable and nuclear energy to generate electricity. Electric utilities have for the most part only under the duress of regulators moved towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Some have made gestures towards acknowledging that we live in a carbon-constrained world, only to continue on with the fossil fueled status quo. New nuclear generation has not been an option in many areas, as there have been prohibitive technical, environmental and political challenges associated with building and operating new nuclear plants. Many utilities continue to undermine the spread of renewable energy, in part because it has meant a loosening of their monopoly on electricity generation. Unfortunately this has also meant with few exceptions that they remain prime supporters of the coal and natural gas industries.
8) “Propagandists of Neoliberalism/Neoliberal Government, Corporate and Financial Elites” – The discovery of global warming and attempts at concerted climate action have occurred within the neoliberal era, (1978 to the present). Neoliberalism is a political-economic philosophy derived from neoclassical economic dogmas and “Austrian” political philosophy that persistently holds up the idealized construct of “free markets” as infallible (and supposedly real or about-to-be-realized) and government as the nexus of fallibility in society. Neoliberalism’s over-praising of markets has supported an idealization of an increasingly deregulated private financial sector among political elites who came to believe that finance should lead the economy and was a magical fountain of wealth. Subsequently, economies in the last 30 years have become financialized, de-industrialized at the geographic metropolitan “center” where political and economic power is concentrated, highly economically unequally, and burdened down with mountains of private (corporate, financial and household) debt. Neoliberalism is the overarching current political-economic philosophy of elites, and some of these elites may believe that global warming is a problem (some are “Lip-service Leaders” or the corporate equivalent) but their neoliberal philosophy makes actual effective government action on climate to seem “beyond the pale” to them. Beyond these elites steeped in neoliberal dogma, the economists and pundits that continue to reinforce and reproduce the dogma of neoliberalism are equally responsible for removing the most important tool in the fight against climate catastrophe from the table, i.e. government committed to the public good. The following are the real effects of neoliberal governance and corporate policy that lead its propagandists and practitioners to be primarily responsible for climate catastrophe:
In the first 20 years of carbon policy, as noted above, policymakers’ almost exclusive focus on “market-based” policy rather than the combined political-economy as a whole including direct public investment and utilizing the policy space available to monetarily sovereign government in the area of fiscal policy more generally.
In turn, the choice of a market regulation that relies on a financialized concept (emissions trading) rather than a binding tax obligation. Emissions trading systems have been intentionally riddled with loopholes to enable companies to postpone cutting emissions as well as mute the carbon price signal that would favor the lower-emitting products or services on the market.
The politically- or philosophically-motivated devaluation of the reputation of government by neoliberal academics, business leaders and government officials has made much more difficult the effective deployment of government to address climate change. Governments not markets, particularly monetarily sovereign national governments, are the central institution to transform the energy and systems and social practices that require fossil fuel inputs.
The ballooning of private debt in step with worldwide ballooning of real estate/asset bubbles is a product of a financialized political economy that has shunned public provision of financial assets via government spending in favor of debt issuance by banks. Mounting private debt claims a portion of nominal economic growth for debt service and therefore increased emissions that contributes only to the welfare of the credit issuers, mostly large financial institutions or speculative traders and not to overall social welfare or, on average, net incomes of the borrowers.
9) “Austerity-Mongers” – A subset of neoliberals and the latest iteration of the neoliberal philosophy after the 2007-2008 financial crisis are the advocates of fiscal austerity, which is a hyperaggressive campaign of sabotaging government functions from within by arbitrary restriction of government spending, leading to the giveaway of public functions and assets to supposedly more efficient “market” actors, i.e. private corporations. The pretext for this fire-sale of the public sector is the intellectual and/or politically-motivated confusion in mainstream economics of financially-constrained local, regional, and Euro-Zone nations that do not control their currencies and the governments of countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan and many others that issue their own currencies. Austerity-mongers claim that all public entities are “running out of money” for social programs and public spending projects, when the latter can at will create more currency units to pay for necessary projects. Austerity advocates are knowingly or unknowingly the useful idiots of the bloated financial sector, as artificially limiting government expenditure and giveaways to public assets, makes more room for and dependence upon private debt issuance. While some austerity mongers, like David Cameron in Britain, claim to care about global warming and may believe that the fictional shortage of government money he promotes is a stand-in for the real shortage of atmospheric assets of the earth, the overall effect of austerity is to, as with neoliberalism more generally, to undermine the critically important instrument of government at exactly the time when it is needed most. One leader of the U.S. austerity drive, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, seems to have no position on climate change but nevertheless continues on his quest to hand financial dominion over the economy to Wall Street and scuttle the power of government to mobilize real assets by public spending for public purposes. The timing of this drive for power by the private financial sector, cloaked in the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, could not come at a more inopportune time for the collective good of the current and future generations.
10) “Leaders of Large Organizations without a Low-/Zero-Carbon Strategy” – Besides electric utilities, much fossil energy or electricity generated by combusting fossil fuels is consumed by large corporations, non-profit organizations, and departments/ministries of various governments throughout the world. These large organizations are some of the major customers for oil companies, gas and electric utilities, sustaining demand for fossil energy. While a high-enough carbon tax/fee would provide a financial incentive for organizations to transition off carbon-based energy, it makes sense for many to anticipate this move by starting an energy transition before it is a requirement. Those organizations that move sooner will have greater advantages and also contribute less to emissions overall. For some sectors this is much more difficult than others and therefore the obligation is greater for leaders of organizations in sectors where technological or organizational process choices already exist.
Secondary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Those primarily responsible for accelerating and exacerbating the degradation of the climate do not generally make decisions in isolation about energy policy or the course of our society but as part of larger social systems in which there are many participants, workers, co-beneficiaries and counter-parties. The use of fossil fuels has made the physical lives of many in these countries much easier, as human labor is either aided or replaced by mechanical work fueled largely by fossil fuels. While these fuels may have brought into the production process primarily to increase profits for the owners of a business, the mechanical work of machines has had secondary benefits for workers especially with the advent of consumer durables and Fordism, the ability of those in the lower middle and working classes to afford major energy using devices like automobiles.
The powers and convenience conferred on poor, working-class, and middle-class individuals by participation in a majority fossil fueled energy system are great in comparison to the existence of those in “Dickensian” early industrial society and in comparison to those in underdeveloped societies currently. Much of the relative physical ease of those in developed nations would be much sought-after by those who must do hard physical labor to enjoy just a basic and uncertain subsistence in those underdeveloped societies. Most residents of the wealthier OECD countries (Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan) and many of the wealthier residents of the less wealthy OECD (Eastern Europe, Mexico) and developing countries have secondary responsibility for impending climate catastrophe.
It is patronizing and fatalistic to assume that people in positions of relative but not absolute powerlessness, who nevertheless benefit from a high carbon-emitting society, are entirely bereft of the ability to chose and therefore of power. With that power comes moral responsibility, especially as their/our activities and choices lead to durable “memorials in the sky” in the form of carbon emissions.
So while there are those with primary responsibility for the ongoing climate catastrophe, who have had a central decision-making role, there are largely passive beneficiaries who can additionally be used as ideological cover by those with primary responsibility. The benefits that the services that this broader swath of the population enjoys from our energy- and carbon-intensive society can be put forward as a quasi-sacred duty, by those who defend the energy status quo. And many who enjoy these conveniences agree that these are indeed valuable goods or services offered by our energy-intensive society.
However, that these enjoyments are leading to a negation of all of our work and our desires to build a future for our family and loved ones should give us all pause. The question for each remains: “Which is more valuable: our current satisfactions or the satisfactions of many future generations?” It is this, what I am calling “secondary”, moral responsibility that can be the basis of action as citizens and consumers start upon the road of transforming societies and economies. Without recognizing this secondary moral responsibility, a movement for climate action will be inconsequential and unserious.
Prospectively, the movement for climate solutions draws from those who are secondarily responsible for climate change as political activists and leaders. This process involves recognizing one’s own agency and choices, an ethical process, and fomenting a broader discussion and subsequent actions that remedy to some degree the damages done to the viability of the earth for human life and civilization.
Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Furthermore, there are many people in the world, mostly the billions of poor in the developing and underdeveloped world, who may wish to enjoy the ease and benefits of a supplementary-energy powered society but have not yet enjoyed them. Or they may be satisfied with some version of their own current lifestyle with or without the addition of some of the conveniences offered by supplementary-energy powered technology. While they have had very little of the benefits of fossil fuel use, there are still matters of choice and moral agency which are entirely their prerogative, as the climate catastrophe sweeps the globe.
Those with tertiary moral responsibility, who aspire to a better life, have a choice to pursue a more or less carbon-intensive lifestyle and development path, even as they are by international agreements entitled to pollute more than those who pollute less. Secondly, as the effects of climate change mount, it is incumbent on them, as it is every individual, to help protect their families and their nation more generally from the effects of climate chaos. They could become powerful political agents and world political leaders, which is a process that involves moral choices, in favor of climate solutions that makes the earth more habitable for all.
Degrees of Responsibility Counteracts Psychological “Splitting”
While the notion of degrees of responsibility may seem obvious, this is a departure from the assumption of a “perpetrator-victim” or “transgressor-transgressed” model for relationships assumed by many who discuss the relative blame or varying moral rights with regard to underdevelopment and climate change. In politics and in other stress-ridden domains of life, there are tendencies for people to engage in milder and more severe forms of the psychological defense mechanism called “splitting”. In “splitting”, a defense that emerges in early childhood, children imagine that some people or things are “all-good” and some are “all-bad”. They are “split” because the child cannot see “shades of grey” in goodness and badness. Many of the fairy-tales of childhood are built around children’s attachment to “all-good” and fear of “all-bad” characters.
There are contexts in adult life where splitting is a cultural norm though one could argue it also has deleterious effects. The adversarial process in legal proceedings as well as political conflicts between parties are two of the main cultural institutions where a polarization of good and bad is encouraged in peacetime and in wartime or international conflicts, there is often a tacit acceptance of jingoism in public discourse. In many parts of popular culture particular in action and suspense movies, television and games, the polarization of good and bad becomes the prelude to various forms of combat and dehumanization of antagonists.
Splitting is particularly unrealistic in dealing with the differential responsibilities for climate catastrophe. The entire developed world is implicated by its dependence upon fossil fuels to function yet some have over the past few decades struggled valiantly to change this while others have fought to keep the status quo. Some who have fought for what they thought were climate solutions, have in my opinion and given the trajectory of emissions, been fighting for ineffective instruments and with the wrong allies (the finance sector). Even if we have been fighting for the most effective and appropriate tools to reduce emissions, we are still to some degree morally responsible for the impending climate catastrophe. On the other side, those who are primarily responsible are not necessarily “all-bad” but they still are primarily responsible for causing grievous harm to the climate that has been favorable to human growth and civilization.
Meeting the Evolutionary Challenge of the Anthropocene
Already a different animal than co-evolved species, humanity has initiated as a byproduct of its activity over the last several decades, if not before, a new geological era that scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means that what marks this era in terms of geologic phenomena are the traces of human activity on the biosphere, the atmosphere, and even the geosphere, of which the mining and burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful agents. But human-caused climate change is only the most critical of a number of ways in which humanity is putting its imprint on the planet, having effects that are largely unintended by people with feedbacks that are out of the immediate control of humanity.
This places humanity in an unprecedented situation as a species. While many different animal and plant species can be said to shape their various ecosystems by activity “pre-programmed” by their genomes, no single species until human beings has had its own future within its voluntary control via the outsized impacts it has had through its tool creation and use and through the ability to coordinate social activity, think alone and deliberate together via the use of language. Humanity is both endangering its own future and has the potential to secure, within the limits of untoward events occurring in the universe or an upsurge in violent geological activity, its own future.
In order to meet the evolutionary challenge of an environment that no longer will accept the byproducts of human activity without destroying our future, we will have to care enough about ourselves and future generations to institute new systems and sets of rules that coordinate nationally and internationally our use of the environment, starting with the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere. A recognition of our agency (our “ability to do”) and our ethical choices in the immediate past, now and in the future, is an important starting place for this evolutionary journey.
Many observers of the state of global response to climate change have concluded that there is no hope in preventing devastating climate change harms unless nations and individuals understand that they have ethical and moral responsibilities that are not captured by framing climate change as a matter of economic interest or welfare maximization alone not to mention that framing climate change policies as matters of economic interest distorts and ignores ethical responsibilities. For this reason, there is a growing consensus among serious observers of national commitments on climate change, that the only hope to increase national ghg emissions emissions reductions targets to levels that will avoid dangerous climate change impacts is to find ways to assure that national ghg targets are based upon “equity” and justice.
A New York Times article on September 11, 2013 makes a greatly misleading claim about the moral basis for action on climate change. The article, Counting the Cost of Fixing the Future, by Edwardo Porter, erroneously claims that a moralist would respond to climate change by demanding that the price on carbon be significantly higher than what the business world would recommend the price should be ($65.00/ ton versus $13.50 /ton). Although the article doesn’t say explicitly that that if the social cost of carbon is high enough there are no moral objections to using welfare maximization considerations as the basis for determining the acceptability of climate change policies, this is implied by the article because the use of the social cost of capital calculations by policy-makers is almost always used in cost-benefit analyses. The problem with this claim is that there is an unexamined premise in this article that is deeply ethically flawed. The article assumes that whether a government should act to prevent climate change depends upon whether a proposed government climate change policy will increase welfare after the social cost of carbon is calculated and compared to the costs entailed by reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. There are strong strong moral and ethical reasons against using the social cost of carbon in this way.
Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency or welfare maximization. Although some utilitarians might agree that government policy should maximize welfare or utility, there are strong ethical objections to a nation basing its climate policy on the basis of welfare maximization alone. Moral problems with the use of the social cost of carbon calculations in cost-benefit determinations used to determine whether a government should act to reduce the threat of climate change include the following:
Some governments and individuals more than others are more responsible for climate change because they have much higher emissions of ghg in total tons, per capita levels, and historical contributions to elevated atmospheric concentrations. Justice requires that these considerations be taken into account in determining emissions reductions targets.
Some of the poorest people in the world who have done almost nothing to cause climate change are the most vulnerable to climate change. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions based upon “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” considerations. These people have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high. “Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of the entire community.
The harms to vulnerable people from climate change are not mere reductions in economic welfare, they include catastrophic loses to life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends.
Damage estimates on which the social cost of carbon are based are not evenly distributed. Some places more than others face catastrophic risk. People in these places have not consented to be harmed. Theories of procedural and distributive justice prevent these people from being harmed without their consent.
Climate change will interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. Those who violate the human rights of others may not use “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” justifications for violating the human rights of others.
Nations and individuals have ethical and moral duties to reduce the threat of climate change, not simply economic interests.
These are only a few of the ethical and moral problems with the use of social cost of carbon calculations in cost-benefit analysis as justification for non-action on climate change. For additional ethical problems with economic arguments made about the acceptability of climate change policies see articles on this website under the category Economics and Climate Change Ethics in the Index.
The New York Times article makes a claim about what moralists would do which is very misleading because it implies that as long as the calculation of the social cost of carbon is high enough, there are no moral objections with the use of welfare maximization calculations as the basis of climate change policy.
The New York Times article should have acknowledged that there are ethical objections to a nation basing its climate policies on cost-benefit analyses. One of the reasons why there has been a widespread failure of citizens to understand their ethical responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change is because free-market fundamentalist ideologies have successfully framed the climate change debate as a matter of economic interest rather then global responsibility. The New York Times article implicitly continues to encourage people to look at climate change policies as a matter of economic self-interest rather than ethical obligation. This both distorts and hides obvious ethical problems with national and individual responses to climate change.
Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon. Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.
Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.
One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions. More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.
The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation. In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.
The US natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less CO2 per unit of energy produced than coal combustion. For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)
The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural gas, oil, and coal combustion.
As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.
II. The Controversies
Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.
A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates
Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012) Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4% and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013) As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature. In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.
Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.
(b)The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel
To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C. (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)
And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous human problem.
Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.
And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.
Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed. Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)
This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions, it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels. In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.
In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
There are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.
Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy. It is also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO2 emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95% reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.
Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.
III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies
Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.
Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term. Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone. As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.
A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible
No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions. Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.
The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.
One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries. (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.
As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.
No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.
Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)
Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of non-fossil energy.
And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations. Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.
B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation
There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)
Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis. There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include
Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility. Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion. We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article, such opposition is ethically problematic.
Donald A Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Why is it practically important to identify the ethical questions that need to be faced in making climate change policy? A new video, 14 minutes long, is the second in a two part introduction on the basics of climate change ethics that answers this question. Part two identifies a number of specific civilization challenging ethical issues, looks at these issues briefly, and makes the case for the urgent practical need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of these issues. Part one in this series explained why climate change must be understood essentially as an ethical problem and why this understanding has profound practical consequences foe policy. Par one is found on this web site and is 11 minutes long. This second part takes up the issues introduced in part one in the context of several specific climate change ethical issues.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
EthicsandClimate.org will be publishing videos that explain basic climate change ethical issues starting with this post.
This first video is about 14 minutes long and introduces basic climate change ethics issues, explains why climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical question, identifies some important practical consequences of framing climate issues as ethical questions, and introduces very briefly a few of the many civilization challenging ethical questions raised by climate change.
Part 2 in this series will introduce specific ethical issues entailed by climate change
Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law
One of the defining premises of any “free market” is that parties participate in transactions voluntarily.
Shoving, imposing, and force–not allowed.
Indeed, voluntary participation is a vital part of the justification–and defense–of free markets. Why are free markets supposedly “free”? Because people participate in transactions freely, voluntarily, as free human beings. Why are free markets considered beneficial? Because the outcomes are often beneficial to the participants and, often, to a broader community.
But what if the nature of a transaction forces you to take part? What if someone else’s so-called free market imposes costs or harmful consequences on you involuntarily? What if ambitious aliens from another solar system were to run their economy as a free market that utilized Earth as a cost-effective dumping ground–ignoring the concerns, rights and pleas of mere humans?
More concretely, what if someone’s free market forces harms–such as a destabilized climate and associated problems–upon someone else who wants nothing to do with those harms and hasn’t agreed to suffer them?
Ultimately, as I’ll explain, we arrive at this question: Can a free market retain any credibility, coherence, and integrity if it violates the deepest principles upon which its own existence is justified?
II. The Man and A Stream
The problem becomes obvious once you think about it carefully, but let’s begin by considering an interesting source.
In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote about one of the principal limits of free markets that justify and sometimes necessitate government involvement. Here’s a passage:
“A second general class of cases in which strictly voluntary exchange is impossible arises when actions of individuals have effects on other individuals for which it is not feasible to charge or recompense them. This is the problem of ‘neighborhood effects’. An obvious example is the pollution of a stream. The man who pollutes a stream is in effect forcing others to exchange good water for bad.” (Friedman, 1962)
Friedman’s main focus here was on “neighborhood effects” that occur within a market system and that represent a limit, or failure, of the market. Most present-day economists use the term ‘externality’ to refer to such effects. Friedman’s ultimate point was that neighborhood effects often justify government regulation, the aim of which is either to prevent them (if they are unwanted) or to ensure that benefits and costs are borne fairly by the responsible parties. If participants in a market and others who are subject to the market’s consequences all fall under the auspices of a particular government or regulatory authority, that government or authority can–and often should–act to regulate such effects.
Let’s revisit, however, an obvious and consequential point in Friedman’s passage:
“The man who pollutes a stream is in effect forcing others to exchange good water for bad.”
Friedman’s observation here holds whether the “others” are within a nation’s border or beyond it, whether they’re participants in the market or not, and whether they accept the values of a particular type of market economy or not. In other words, just as a man who pollutes a stream in his own town forces others to exchange good water for bad, so also a market economy that undermines climate stability forces those consequences upon the entire world. Markets, of course, can fail people within them or outside of them.
This post continues exploration of ethical issues raised by the numerous carbon cap and trade regimes that have arisen or are under consideration around the world.
One of the happy surprises of publishing ClimateEthics is that occasionally we get comments on our entries that raise very important and thought-provoking questions about our initial ethical analysis. This is a response to helpful comments by Robert Sullivan on our recent entry on the Ethics of Carbon Trading. This post originally appeared at: http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2010/06/ethical-issues-raised-by-carbon-cap-and-trade-regimes.html. The section numbers referenced below refer to sections in the original article. In that article, ClimateEthics examined ethical questions that arise in cap and trade programs. These ethical questions fell into the following categories: (a) Justice of the Cap, (b) Creating Property Rights in the Atmosphere, (c) Environmental Effectiveness, (d) Distributive Justice, and (e) Procedural Justice
In the last post, ClimateEthics explained that the purpose of the analysis was not to resolve all the many ethical issues raised by cap and trade but to encourage further exploration of these ethical issues. Thanks to the comments of Robert Sullivan, this post attempts to go deeper on some of the issues raised in the earlier post with the goal of continuing the exploration of the ethics of cap and trade regimes.
II. Specific Issues
1: Justice Of The Cap
In the original post, ClimateEthics argued that if the total society-wide cap, before it is allocated among emitters within the jurisdiction of the government allocating the cap, is less than the government’s fair share of safe global emissions, then the cap is not environmentally just particularly to those who are vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts. We also claimed that most existing cap and trade regimes could be accused of being insufficient as a matter of justice.
A. Comment -Mr. Sullivan says:
The first issue is justice of the cap. I agree with you that the world is not doing nearly enough to even put us on a pathway to avoiding catastrophic climate change let alone following that path. However, I don’t see a failure of caps being strict enough as an indication of the inherently unethical or unjust nature of cap and trade or emissions trading per se. Without having read any of the references you include on countries’ obligations, I am not sure I agree with the statement “many cap and trade regimes do not derive the quantity of the cap from these international obligations”. There is an international obligation under Article 2 of the UNFCCC to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, and this is further articulated in the QELRCs set out in the Kyoto Protocol (see the first part of Art 2 of the UNFCCC which links into the KP, and also note the clarifying text at the end of Art 2 around also ensuring sustainable development). While I agree that the Kyoto caps are insufficient to meet Art 2 of the UNFCCC over the long term, the Kyoto caps do indeed reflect the most detailed set of international obligations with respect to GHG caps to date. I would argue these are the dominant obligations of countries under public international law, and the cap and trade system set up by the Kyoto Protocol complies with these obligations as does the European Emissions Trading Scheme. However, I also acknowledge that here you may be drawing a distinction between a countries legal obligations under public international law and some other sort of other (ethical?) obligations premised on cuts that are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change and some means of allocating these cuts amongst countries.
Whether or not a cap and trade represents a “fair share” is another issue. The caps are the result of political negotiations, and if there was no cap and trade there may still be emission reduction commitments and targets but I don’t think they would necessarily be any fairer simply because they were not linked to cap and trade. If anything developed countries would be less willing to assume steeper cuts, making cap and trade an ethical imperative as the most likely means of achieving the steepest global reductions.
B. Our Response
Mr. Sullivan probes appropriately about elements of our claim that if the cap is unjust the entire cap and trade regime may be unjust. It appears to us that there are several different questions Mr. Sullivan raises.
First, Mr. Sullivan asks what is the basis for our claim that many caps do not meet a nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.
Answer, there is a growing scientific consensus that to prevent dangerous climate change the world most likely needs to reduce global emissions by between 25 to 40 per cent by 2020.
A rich literature on this issue exists. In citing this literature it is important to acknowledge that because there is uncertainty about climate sensitivity, that is we don’t know for sure how much warming will be experienced at equilibrium from different concentrations of CO 2 equivalent in the atmosphere, various emissions reductions targets are recommended to give different levels of confidence that warming will be limited to additional warming targets such as 1.5 0C or 2 0C. We must also acknowledge that there is great controversy about whether 20C.should be the global warming limit target or 1.50C or even lower temperature should be the target. In addition, it should be recognized that there is no ethically neutral way of making this decision because of the inherent uncertainty in the climate sensitivity coupled with uncertainty about at what temperatures the Earth will experience rapid non-linear responses of the climate system. For this reason, determining a global target raises a host of ethical questions which are beyond the scope of this post. These ethical questions include who should have the burden of proof about what temperature levels are safe and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof. Nevertheless, there appears to be a growing scientific consensus that 20C should be, at the very minimum. a global warming temperature limit target that should be the goal of the UNFCCC.. However, as we will see, we don’t have to decide this to conclude that current caps are ethically problematic (see below). For a discussion of what reductions are needed to achieve a 20C, see.
However, given that global emissions most likely need to be reduced by at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 at the very minimum to give any reasonable confidence that the world will avoid rapid non-linear warming, one can conclude that national commitments made pursuant to the Copenhagen Accord will not achieve what is needed to achieve the 25% minimum reductions by 2020 because they just don’t add up to 25% reductions. A fortiori, individual high-emitting nations can be accused of not meeting their fair share of safe global emissions because fairness would require that high-emitting nations would have to achieve lower emissions than what is needed for the globe, yet no high emitting nations have made commitments at a levels which now appear to be necessary to achieve the 20C target for the entire world.
For this reason, a strong case can be made that existing caps on high-emitting countries do not achieve what justice would require of high-emitting nations to avoid dangerous climate change to others.
Second, Mr. Sullivan appropriately asks ClimateEthics whether given some of the caps that nations have agreed to are now legally recognized by international law such as the Kyoto Protocol, how can we say they are unethical.
We would argue that legal validity does not equal ethical sufficiency given that: (a) nations have never claimed that the emissions reductions commitments they have agreed to in accepting a cap represent their fair share of safe global emissions, (b) nations seem to base the legitimacy of their emissions reductions targets on national self-interest not international responsibility, and (c) nations have negotiated the cap that they have accepted on the basis of what was viewed by them to be politically viable. . We, therefore, don’t agree that legal commitments can be construed to satisfy ethical obligations.
One could of course argue, that making any legal commitments in a cap is better than no commitments. We would agree. However, ClimateEthics believes it is important to acknowledge that existing caps do not achieve what would be required of nations if they took their ethical responsibilities seriously to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
Along this line, we believe it would be an improvement to require in international negotiations that each government be required to expressly articulate what atmospheric concentrations of ghg emissions their commitments are designed to achieve. No national target makes any sense unless it is seen implicitly as a position on a safe global atmospheric concentration target but nations are not asked to explain what global targets will be achieved by their voluntary targets and why their emissions commitments should be understood to constitute their fair share of total global emissions.
Third, we understand Mr. Sullivan to be asking once the cap is agreed in international negotiations, can we claim that the entire cap and trade regime is unjust.
We think this question raises interesting ethical issues not yet dealt with. Another way of stating this question is- if the world has agreed to caps in an international agreement, given the agreement how can we say the entire cap and trade regime is unjust. We believe the trade features of cap and trade could lead to seeing the entire scheme as unjust if the cap is unjust for the following reasons. If country A only agrees to a 10% reduction by 2020 when their fair share is 25% for instance, and they actually achieve 15% reduction they can sell the 5% excess tons to country B to be counted against country B’s target. This then creates two injustices. First country A has not achieved its fair target. Second it gets unjust revenues because the cap was set too low. This also gives the buying entity, country B a right to exceed its fair share of safe global emissions because it has bought credits from country A. From the standpoint of a country that is very vulnerable to climate change impacts, the trading scheme is unethical.