The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change-A Serious Ethical Lapse?

Editor’s note on the following entry. On the very day that the following entry was posted, President Obama mentioned climate change for the first time in a long time  in a speech at the University of Iowa by claiming that recent fleet fuel efficiency standards adopted by his administration will make climate change less threatening for the planet. (See Obama Speech) Yet, it is too early to tell whether President Obama will speak out strongly on climate change in a way that the following post argues is his ethical responsibility. We also note that this speech does not include many of the ideas about climate change that the following post argues should be part of the US President’s message on climate change.



US President Obama has been silent on climate change for two years even when discussing related issues such as the severe drought affecting large parts of the United States.  With the exception of a Rolling Stone article in which President Obama was quoted as saying that he expected climate change to become an issue in the upcoming presidential election, nothing has been heard from the US President on climate change since the US Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010. (To see the Obama quote on climate change, see Wenner 2012.) The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration has been somewhat quietly issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act that will create very modest US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from some new stationary and mobile sources, yet these regulations will not come close to reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions. (For a discussion of US EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, see, EPA 2012) Although US EPA has today announced a new fleet fuel efficiency rule for US automakers that will double fleet efficiency by 2025, these rules will not produce overall US greenhouse emissions reductions congruent with levels the consensus scientific view has concluded are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. (For a description of the EPA auto rules, see Vlassic, 2012)  Although the majority of US citizens now believe climate change is human-caused according to recent polls, very few Americans seem to understand the civilization challenging scope of the problem, a fact that can be attributed to a failure of US political leadership.

Several commentators have strongly criticized President Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue for the last two years.  For instance, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has frequently written critically about President Obama’s silence including a recent article entitled The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t (Romm 2012).

Those criticizing US President Obama for failing to make climate change a high profile political issue in the last several years often point to the practical need to build a political mandate in the US to enact federal climate change legislation coupled with the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unless climate change is kept alive as a political issue, so the argument goes, no US congressional action is likely. And so the US White House silence on climate change has been criticized as a practical political failure to make progress on an issue about which the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous harms.

In addition to being a practical political failure, can the White House silence on climate change also be understood to be a serious ethical and moral failure even if legislative action is not likely because of the current political opposition by those who control Congress?  If the US President’s silence  is an ethical issue, then the President should talk about climate change not solely as a consideration in developing  political strategy, but because he has a duty to do so.

A strong argument can be made that the failure of the head of state in a high-emitting country to encourage his or her country’s citizens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not just a practical political mistake but a serious ethical failure. This is so because, among other reasons, all nations have duties that they have expressly acknowledged in several international agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from causing harm of to others beyond their borders. In the UNFCCC, nations have agreed to:

  • Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).

 These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all nations and establish clear national responsibilities for developed nations in particular to prevent harm from climate change to others beyond their jurisdiction, to help pay for damages of those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic activities, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action.  And so, the above international law provisions, among others, make it clear that nations have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to others to prevent climate change damage- caused harms.

 In addition to these agreed to international norms almost all ethical theories require that individuals refrain from harming others without regard to where they are located. In addition almost all religions have versions of the Golden Rule that also create a mandate to not harm others. Because government action is a way for individuals to achieve their collective individual ethical responsibilities, governments should act in conformance with the obligations of individuals required by the Golden Rule.

 Climate change is a problem caused by some who are emitting greenhouse gases at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but a current problem which is already causing human deaths and harms to ecological systems around the world in the form of diseases, drought, floods, and damages from intense storms. In addition, the mainstream scientific view holds that the current harms to human health and ecological systems now visible will grow in the years ahead putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at great risk to harsh consequences.

As chief executive officer of the United States, the US President has the responsibility to assure that the nation complies with its international obligations. The inability of the US President to convince the US Congress to pass climate change legislation is not an excuse for him or her to be silent on climate change as long as the United States could make progress in reducing its emissions through other means.

Without doubt, government leaders and especially the President could help citizens understand that responsible citizenship requires them to refrain from unnecessary or wasteful activities that create greenhouse gas emissions.  The US President could encourage US citizens, states, sub-national governments, organizations, and businesses to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint through voluntary actions, measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, development of plans that set voluntary targets for emissions reductions, and monitoring achievements.

The US President also could give positive publicity to individuals, local and regional governments, universities, businesses and organizations that achieve notable success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama should also speak up forcefully against the climate change disinformation campaign that is now well-documented while reminding Americans that the US Academy of Sciences has concluded at least four times over the last several decades that human-induced warming is a great risk to people and ecological systems around the world. (For a discussion of US Academy of Science Reports on climate change, see Brown 2011)

The US President should also help US citizens understand that reducing US greenhouse gas emissions is not only in the US interest but also something which is strongly required by ethics and justice. If he did this, he would help US citizens respond to those who oppose climate change policies on economic grounds alone, that in addition to US economic interests, Americans have responsibilities to the victims of climate change to  prevent the harsh climate change impacts which  are predicted by mainstream science.

And so, US presidential leadership is urgently needed to help minimize the harm that US greenhouse gas emissions are now contributing to in parts of the world. Those who have followed international climate negotiations since they began in the late 1980s know that the US has not only failed to adopt a climate change national strategy that it could commit to help create a global solution to the global problem of human-induced warming but has often been a barrier in international negotiations seeking to achieve a just global solution.

And so the failure of US national leadership on climate change is a significant ethical failure. Every day the US waits to take meaningful action to reduce the threat of climate change, the problem gets worse. Two years of silence, is two years of missed opportunity to begin to align US greenhouse emissions with US ethical obligations. The United States has failed for over 30 years since the US Academy of Sciences first warned Americans that human-induced climate change was a looming threat. (For a discussion of reports of the US Academy of Science, see Brown, 2011.) After 30 years of US inaction on climate change, the US President has a duty to loudly speak up and encourage US citizens to reduce the threat of climate change.


Brown, Donald (2011) The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

Romm, Joe (2012) The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t, Climate Progress,  http://thinkprogress

United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) ‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.

United States Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) (2012) What is EPA Doing? Climate Change,

Vlassic. Bill (2012) US Sets High Long-Term Fuel Efficiency Rules for Automakers, New York Times, August 29, 2012: B!

Wenner, Jann (2012) Ready for a Fight: The Rolling Stone Interview of Obama, Rolling Stone,



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law




ClimateEthics Analysis Moves to Widener University School of Law As

Dear former subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors  to


After over 80 articles on the ethics of climate change at, I am moving to Widener University School of Law where the analyses formerly posted on ClimateEthics as well as new posts will continue at this site, 

Climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem. This realization has profound practical consequences for policy formation.   Yet the ethical implications of policy responses have usually been ignored in policy debates that have now spanned thirty years. Despite 20 years of international negotiations to come up with a global solution to climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ethical and justice dimensions of national positions remain the key missing element in the positions of national governments.

This site examines the ethical dimensions of climate science, economics, politics, policy responses, trading, atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilization goals, as well as the obligations of nations, governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to respond to climate change and pay for adaptation responses and damages.

The site will follow the positions taken by governments in international climate change negotiations and subject them to an ethical critique. The site will subject arguments made by proponents and opponents of  climate change policies to ethical scrutiny.

The site believes that turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change is key to moving the world to a just solution to climate change.

Because many of the most important ethical issues that need to be faced in climate change policy formation are often hidden in dense  scientific and economic discourses that most people, including many policy professionals, have difficulty in unpacking, this sites seeks to help those concerned about climate change understand the ethical issues often obscured by what first appears to be the “value-neutral” languages of science and economics.

For these reasons, the purpose of this site is to help civil society understand, debate, and respond to the ethical dimensions of climate change.

Prior subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to this site,  please subscribe to this new website by clicking on the subscribe button. 


Thank you,

Donald A. Brown
As of July 1, 2012,
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law

Going Deeper On What Happened In Durban: An Ethical Critique of Durban Outcomes.

I. Introduction: What Is Missing In Reporting About The Durban Outcome?

It has now been two weeks since negotiations at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were completed in the early morning of Sunday, December 11, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. We will claim that there is something missing from the reporting of what happened in Durban that is crucial if one aspires to think critically about the Durban outcomes. That is, reporting on Durban has for the most part missed the biggest story, namely that most nations continue to act as if they have no obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emission, that the positions they have been taking on most major climate issues fail any reasonable minimum ethical test, that an acknowledgement that nations not only have interests but duties and responsibilities continues to be the key missing element in the negotiations, and that some nations in particular have lamentably not only failed to lead on climate change but are continuing to take positions that not only fail to satisfy their immediate international duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also encourage irresponsible behavior of other nations.

Among these nations are the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan and several developing countries. As we shall see, these countries, among others, have continued to negotiate as if: (a) they only need to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emission if other nations commit to do so, in other words that their national interests limit their international obligations, (b) any emissions reductions commitments can be determined and calculated without regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, (c) large emitting nations have no duty to compensate people or nations that are vulnerable to climate change for climate change damages or reasonable adaptation responses, and (d) they often justify their own failure to actually reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the inability to of the international community to reach an adequate solution under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are not saying that these countries were exclusively the blame for disappointing Durban outcomes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet, some countries have distinguished themselves by their positions that are obviously based upon national economic interest rather than a fulfillment of global responsibilities.

Although the leadership in the United States and other nations that are failing to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations will no doubt claim that their position in the international climate negotiations is limited by what is politically feasible in their countries, the world needs national leaders who are prepared to urge their nations to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations, not on national self-interest alone. (For an example of national leadership that fulfilled this requirement, see, Brown, 2009)

As has been the case for recent COPs, commentators about achievements at COP-17 are split on whether these negotiations accomplished some important positive steps toward an eventual meaningful global solution to climate change or whether Durban must be understood as another tragic international failure to come up with an adequate solution to the immense threat of human-induced warming. (For a good articulation of these two views, see: Light, 2011 and Hertsgaard, 2011)

As we shall see this difference of opinion about how to characterize Durban outcomes is ultimately a disagreement about whether each COP outcome should be judged on the basis of what is politically feasible at that moment in history in which the COP takes place or whether what is politically feasible at any moment in history should itself be critically reflected on. If one judges Durban outcomes on the basis of what was deemed politically feasible coming into Durban, one can reasonably draw positive conclusions about Durban outcomes. But if one reviews Durban outcomes from the standpoint of what nations should agree to in light of their ethical and moral responsibilities, Durban is another tragic missed opportunity.

ClimateEthics has frequently explained that the key missing element in international climate negotiations as well as in the development of domestic climate change policies for most nations has been acknowledgement that nations not only have economic interests that can be affected by climate change policies but also have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to protect people around the world and the natural resources on which life depends. (See for example, Brown, 2010a) This is so because climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem and the failure to acknowledge and act on this has been responsible for an inadequate global response to climate change’s immense threat during the twenty years of international negotiations that have sought to reach agreement on a global solution. That is the major problem with international climate negotiations is that most nations are approaching the negotiations has if their economic interests trump their global responsibilities.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then practical consequences for national positions on climate change follow. (See, Brown, 2011 for a discussion of specific practical consequences that follow from recognition that climate change is an ethical problem) These consequences include that nations should commit to do what their ethical responsibilities, obligations, and duties requires of them without regard to whether all other nations are agreeing to do so.

This post examines concretely what happened in the recently concluded Durban climate change negotiations with the goal of explicating why the lack of acceptance of duties and responsibilities, that is lack of acceptance that climate change is an ethical problem, continues to be the major barrier to achieving an adequate global approach to reduce the threat of climate change. Unless, the international community can convince or cajole nations to make commitments consistent with their ethical obligations, then international climate negotiations are likely to continue to be plagued by the failure to tackle the most difficult climate change issues.

Continue reading

Chinese University Hosts First Conference in China on Climate Change Ethics.

Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology in collaboration with the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University organized the first conference on climate change ethics in China that was held on October 29 and 30 in Nanjing. This conference examined the ethical dimensions of climate change as well as other economic, legal, and policy issues entailed by climate change policy-making. Papers presented included nine papers on climate change ethics, eight papers on climate change policy and law, and eight papers on social and economic issues entailed by climate change.
This conference was particularly notable because both Chinese and non-Chinese participants appeared to agree that climate change must be understood to be essentially an ethical matter that can only be solved through reliance on some common global values. To this writer’s knowledge, this was the first conference in China that expressly explored the ethical views of Chinese and Western ethicists about climate change.
The papers presented at the conference included the following:
A. Climate Change Ethics And Philosophy
1. The Practical Significance of Understanding Climate Change As An Ethical Problem (Donald A. Brown, Penn State University)
2. The Border Between Climate Change And Libertarianism (Jun Chen, Hubei University)
3. Thoughts On Climate Change And The Conflict Of National Interest (Gang Guo, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
4. Review On The Climate Change Ethics (Jun Shi, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Philosophical Review On Climate Change (Fan Chen & Guozhang Liu, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
6. Analysis On The Root Of Climate Crisis Through Biological Marxism (Feng Xu, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
7. Possibilities Of Global Cooperation On Climate-the Dilemma Of Nation-State Theory And World Theory (Fangxing Ye, Hehai University)
8. Climate Justice And Climate Ethics (Rongnan Zhang, Department of Philosophy-East China Normal University)
9. Climate Change: Ethical Dimension On Sustainable Development (Siwei Dai, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
B. Section Two: Climate Change Policy And Law
1. Discussion, Debate, And Democratic Negotiation: The Choice Of Tools In Global Climate Change Policy Making (Xiangrong Su, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
2. Adaptation To Climate Change Impacts: Challenges To China’s Environmental Law And Changing Directions (Xiangbai He, Law School-Western Sydney University)
3. Response And Choice To The Climate Legislation And Regulation Under Multiple Pursuits Of Benefits (Xiaodan Song & Zhangjun Pang, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
4. Research On Regulation Of Atmospheric Property Under Climate Change (Shibin Wu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Study On The Legislation Of Human-impact Climate Change (Zhi Qiao, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
6. The Inspiration of “Others Theory” Of Ethics On Contemporary Public Policy (Xi Wang, China mMeteorology Bureau)
7. A Brief Analysis On The Cooperation On Climate Study Across Taiwan Straits In The Last 60 Years (Suhua Yong & Xiangping Liu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
8. Research On The NGOs’ Influence In Coping With Climate Change (Meili Tang, Huijuan Shi, & Fengjiang Cheng, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
Section Three: Economic And Social Management In Climate Change
1. Climate Change And Ecocities In China: Challenges And Opportunities To Building A Sustainable And Equitable Society (Erich W.Schienke)
2. Efficiency And Reduction In China: Carbon Tax Or Sectoral Cap And Trade? (Rongxiang Cao, Central Bureau of Translation)
3. Energy Saving In China: Tax, Control On Total Amount In Each Department, Or Trade? (Rongxiang Cao, Central Bureau of Translation)
4. Democratic Governance: Probe On The Democratic Mode In Coping With Climate Change (Zhijiang Li, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Change Of The “Leadership” Of Global Environmental Control: Case Study In Canada (Laihui Xie, Central Bureau of Translation)
6. Path Selection Of China’s Ecological Regulation Construction Through Ecological Civilization (Fen Sun & Jie Cao, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
7. Climate Change, Eco-system, And A Sustainable Developing Society (Zhangguo Liu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
8. Research On The Factors That Drive Low Carbonization On China’s Traditional Manufacturing (Decai Tang & Changshun Li, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
9. Discussion On The Practical necessity And Basic Ideas On China’s Ecological Regulation (Fen Sun & Jie Cao, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
10. Analysis Of The Influence Of REDD On Slowing Down China’s Climate Change Process (Jichuan Sheng, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
For further information about this conference, contact Donald A Brown, Penn State University,
Donald A. Brown,
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University

New York Times Krugman Claims That US Congressional Hearings Are A Moral Failure: The US Congress and The Ethics of Willful Ignorance.

I. Introduction

In an April 4, 2011 New York Times op-ed entitled “The Truth, Still Inconvenient,” Paul Krugman charged that Republican led climate change hearings that had just concluded were a deep moral failure. (Krugman, 2011) Krugman described the GOP US House of Representatives hearings at which of five invited witnesses on climate change, one was a lawyer, another an economist, and a third a professor of marketing—witnesses without any expertise in climate change science. One of the witnesses that was actually a scientist was expected to support the skeptical position but surprised everyone by supporting the mainstream scientific view on the amount of warming that the world has already experienced. Yet he was immediately attacked by climate skeptics.

The point of the Krugman article is that it is obvious from the witnesses who were asked to testify that the GOP led hearings were never meant to be a serious attempt to understand climate change science. In this regard, Krugman says:

But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.
For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.
So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race.  (Krugman 20110)

This post examines Krugman’s moral claims about the hearings.

Continue reading

An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome.

I Introduction

Two dramatically conflicting headlines about the outcome of the recently concluded Cancun United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change’s 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) are initially defensible. One might be: Nations At Cancun Tragically Fail to Make Meaningful Commitments on Climate Change for the Twentieth Year In A Row Another might be: Cancun Surprises Many By Keeping Hope Alive for A Global Climate Change Deal.

This post looks at these conflicting conclusions about Cancun through an ethical lens. This post will explain that although some hope for a global solution to climate change is still alive due to decisions adopted in Cancun, one must see Cancun in the context of a twenty-year failed attempt to prevent dangerous climate change. From that standpoint Cancun must be seen as another troubling ethical failure of those most responsible for climate change. This is a tragedy because each year when there has been a failure to commit to adequately reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions has made it more difficult in subsequent years to get on a ghg emissions reduction pathway capable of preventing serious climate change.

For some, the modest progress in Cancun toward a global approach to climate change has been seen as a positive step forward. (BBC, 2010). This is so because many thought that the UNFCCC architecture for a global solution to climate change was in jeopardy of completely unraveling before Cancun; a legal structure that had been gradually been put into place since 1990 when negotiations on a global solution to climate change began. Yet, this post will argue that Cancun must be seen in the context of what has failed to happen in the last twenty years on climate change and not only on the basis of the very limited positive steps made in Cancun.

To many others, Cancun was another tragic lost opportunity for the international community to prevent dangerous climate change, as well as, the most recent in a series of moral failures of those most responsible for climate change to commit to steps necessary to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts. One observer of Cancun concluded, for instance, that:

The Cancun Agreements of the 2010 UN Climate Summit do not represent a success for multilateralism; neither do they put the world on a safe climate pathway that science demands, and far less to a just and equitable transition towards a sustainable model of development. They represent a victory for big polluters and Northern elites that wish to continue with business-as-usual. (IBON, 2010)

We must see climate change as an ethical problem because: (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world that puts others and the natural resources on which they depend at great risk, (b) the harms to these other people are not mere inconveniences but in some cases catastrophic losses of life or the ability to sustain life, and (c) those who are vulnerable to climate change cant petition their governments to act to protect themselves but must rely upon a hope that a sense of justice and responsibility of those causing the problem will motivate them to change their behavior. Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions, any proposed climate change regime must be examined through an ethical lens.

This post reviews the Cancun outcome through an ethical lens in light of the overall responsibility of those nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions in regard to their duties: (a) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels necessary to prevent harm to others, (b) to reduce greenhouse gas emission to levels consistent with what is each nation’s fair share of total global emissions, and (c) to provide financing for adaptation measures and other necessary responses to climate change harms for those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for climate change.

To understand the significance of what happened in Cancun, it is necessary to briefly review the history of international negotiations leading up to Cancun. That is, it is not sufficient to simply examine what happened in Cancun without seeing Cancun in the context of the twenty-year negotiating history whose goal has been the prevention of dangerous climate change and the harms that each year of delay in agreeing to a global deal exacerbate.

II. The Path To The Cancun Agreement

The Cancun conference took place from November 29 to December 10, 2010. The Cancun goals were modest in light of the failure of COP-15 in Copenhagen the year before to achieve an expected global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was expected to produce a global solution to climate change pursuant to a two-year negotiating process and agenda that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.

To understand the ethical significance of the Cancun Agreements, it is necessary to review the twenty-year history of climate change negotiations that led to Bali, Copenhagen, and Cancun. This history constitutes a failed attempt over two decades to adopt a global solution to climate change.

Negotiations on a global climate change deal began in 1990 and led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 (Bodansky,2001) The climate change negotiation process began in December 1990, when the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, to negotiate a convention containing “appropriate commitments” in time for signature in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Because of the opposition of the United States and a few other countries, this treaty itself did not contain binding greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions limitations for countries but nevertheless included numerous other binding national obligations. Among other things, for instance, the parties to the UNFCCC agreed that:

(a) They would adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system;
(b) Developed countries should take the first steps to prevent dangerous climate change;
(c) Nations have common but differentiated responsibilities to prevent climate change;
(d) Nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action; and,
(e) Nations should reduce their ghg emissions based upon “equity.” (UN, 1992)

In the early UNFCCC negotiations, the European Union and Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) advocated establishing a target and timetable to limit emissions by developed countries in the UNFCCC, while the United States and the oil-producing states opposed this idea. (Bodanksy, 2001). Other developing states generally supported targets and timetables, as long as it was clearly understood that these targets and timetables would apply only to developed states. (Bodanksy, 2001)

The UNFCCC has 192 parties, a number that includes almost all countries in the world including the United States which ratified the UNFCCC in 1993.

The UNFCC is a “framework” convention because it has always been expected that additional requirements would be added to the initial framework in updates that are known as “protocols” or in annual decisions of the conferences of the parties (COPs).

Each year as the parties to the UNFCCC meet in COPs , decisions were made that affect the responsibilities of the parties. The UNFCCC COPs were as follows:
• 1995 – COP 1, The Berlin Mandate
• 1996 – COP 2, Geneva, Switzerland
• 1997 – COP 3, The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change
• 1998 – COP 4, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 1999 – COP 5, Bonn, Germany
• 2000 – COP 6, The Hague, Netherlands
• 2001 – COP 6 (Continued), Bonn, Germany
• 2001 – COP 7, Marrakech, Morocco
• 2002 – COP 8, New Delhi, India
• 2003 – COP 9, Milan, Italy
• 2004 – COP 10, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 2005 – COP 11 Montreal, Canada
• 2006 – COP 12, Nairobi, Kenya
• 2007 – COP 13 Bali, Indonesia
• 2008 – COP 14, Poznań, Poland
• 2009 – COP 15, Copenhagen, Denmark
• 2010 – COP 16, Cancun.

Each year nations have meet in COPs to achieve a global solution to climate change and each COP for the most part continued to add small steps toward the goals of the UNFCCC. Yet in all COPs some nations have resisted calls from some of the most vulnerable nations to adopt a solution to climate change that would prevent dangerous climate change.

As the international community approached Cancun, no comprehensive global solution had been agreed to despite the fact that the original negotiations on the UNFCCC began in 1990 with a goal of achieving a global climate change solution. For this reason, Cancun must be understood as the latest attempt in a twenty-year history of mostly failed attempts to structure a global solution to climate change.

The first major addition to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated in 1997 because the international community had been convinced by then by the emerging climate change science that developed nations needed to be bound by numerical emissions reductions targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005 and currently has 190 parties. The United States is the only developed country that never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
Going into the Kyoto negotiations, the European Union proposed a comparatively strong
target, requiring a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2010, while other industrialized states such as the United States and Australia proposed weaker targets, with Japan somewhere in the middle. (Bodansky, 2001) Ultimately the issue was resolved by specifying different emission targets for each party, ranging from an 8 percent reduction from 1990 levels for the European Union, to a 10 percent increase for Iceland. (Bodansky, 2001)

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. The developing countries had no binding emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto.

The Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 were necessary not only to expand the modest commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol but also because the emissions reductions obligations of developed countries set out in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.

Kyoto was never understood as the final solution to climate change but only as a small initial step of developed nations to begin to take responsibility for climate change. As we have seen, the developed nations had agreed in the UNFCCC that they should take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change because they were mostly responsible for the build up of ghg in the atmosphere and Kyoto was understood to be a modest initial step toward a global solution. That is, Kyoto negotiators understood that a global solution would be negotiated later in future meetings of the UNFCCC parties. From the standpoint of some the most vulnerable countries,including some of the small island developing states making up the organization AOSIS, Kyoto was not aggressive enough to prevent climate change threats to them.

At the COP-13 negotiations in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a second commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement was referred to as the Bali Roadmap, which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions. The original UNFCCC climate treaty had neither a quantified temperature limitation goal nor a ghg concentration atmospheric stabilization goal. In the Bali Roadmap the international community agreed to work on such a goal.

The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), meaning climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed and extended in Copenhagen.

Although some progress was made on a few issues in the two-year lead-up to Copenhagen, little progress was made on the major issues needed to define a global solution for climate change and particularly on legal commitments for GHG emissions reductions and funding for adaptation, deforestation programs, and technology transfer.

As Copenhagen approached, optimism about a Copenhagen deal faded although there was a short spurt of renewed hope several weeks before the conference started in December 2009 as the US, China, and a few other nations publicly made non-binding commitments on emissions reductions.

During the Copenhagen conference representatives from poor vulnerable nations begged developed countries to: (a) commit to reduce GHG emissions to levels necessary to prevent dangerous climate change;and (b) to fund adaptation programs in developing countries that are necessary to protect the most vulnerable from climate change impacts that could be avoided or compensate for the damages that could not be avoided.

Despite these pleas, not much happened during the Copenhagen conference to resolve the most contentious issues until US President Obama appeared on the morning of the last day, Friday, December 18, 2009. For much of that day, President Obama negotiated with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma. (Lerer, 2009) Yet, a large part of this time was focused on a dispute between the United States and China on whether China would agree to monitoring and verification of Chinese climate change commitments.

President Obama could not commit to anything in Copenhagen that he knew he could not get through the US congress. Because a climate change bill that had passed the US House of Representatives was very weak compared to what science said was necessary to protect the world’s poorest people, the United States took a position in the lead-up to Copenhagen that continued to be the weakest of all the developed countries’ commitments on emissions reductions. The US could only commit to a 13% reduction below 2005, a 4% reduction below 1990 levels. Yet most scientists were asserting that the world needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% reductions below 1990 levels to have any confidence that the international community would limit warming to 20 C, a level which was widely believed to trigger dangerous climate change.

Because none of the developed countries were willing to make emissions reduction commitments congruent with what scientific community said was necessary to protect them, some of the most vulnerable developing countries saw the developed countries’ positions in Copenhagen as ominous, perhaps a death sentence.
President Obama personally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord during last hours of the conference. Yet, to get this deal, President Obama had to ignore many of the positions of the most vulnerable nations that were unresolved in the two negotiating documents that had been created in the lead-up to Copenhagen over two years. That is, for instance, among other things, the Copenhagen Accord failed to get commitments from the United States and some other developed countries to reduce ghg emissions at levels necessary to prevent serious climate change damage.

President Obama managed to get fairly wide spread support for the Copenhagen Accord on the last day of the Copenhagen negotiations despite the fact that the United States was not able to commit to emissions reductions at levels to prevent dangerous climate change. Politically President Obama’s hands were tied in regard to his ability to commit to issues of interest to those nations most vulnerable to climate change because of domestic political constraints. Before Copenhagen, the US House of Representatives had passed a bill requiring a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 and this was a practical limitation on what the United States could commit to in international negotiations.

For domestic political reasons, the US President also wanted agreement from China and other large developing countries on transparent procedures for verifying their non-binding emissions reduction commitments.

Those opposing climate change legislation in the United States often have argued that it would be unfair to the United States if it was bound to reduce GHG emissions and China was not required to do the same. In fact, a decade earlier, when the Kyoto Accord was under consideration in the United States, opponents of the Kyoto deal frequently ran TV commercials that argued that the Kyoto Protocol was unfair to the United States because China was excluded from emissions limitations. This argument was often made without e critical comment in the United States even though the United States had committed itself to take the first steps to reduce emissions along wAlthough President Obama originally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with just four other countries, in the last few hours of the Copenhagen conference the United States successfully convinced most large emitting countries to support the Accord.

Continue reading

Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens

I. Introduction

With the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that the proposed legislation can’t be afforded by the public.

Of course, not all cost arguments about climate change policies are irrelevant to enlightened climate change public policy. For instance, economists can often help decision-makers reduce greenhouse gas emissions to target levels at the lowest cost, create economic incentives that will most effectively achieve climate change protection goals, and help with questions about how to distribute climate change reduction burdens in society with the least disruption to human flourishing. Without a doubt, economic analyses of climate change reduction strategies are vital to finding the most efficient solutions to human-induced climate change’s immense threat. The more low-cost solutions to climate change that are found, the more hope there is to reduce climate change’s immense menace.

Yet many cost arguments in opposition to climate change policies are both ethically and factually flawed. This is not surprising as many of the arguments against climate change policies are often defensive moves by parties who are trying to protect themselves against a perceived reduction in their profits if climate change policies are enacted.(Oreskes and Conway. 2010) Climate change policies will clearly create economic winners and losers and those who perceive that their economic interests will be adversely affected have organized to attack climate change policies as being too costly. This is not to claim that all costs concerns about climate change policies are illegitimate but to suggest why so many cost arguments about climate change policies contain deeply problematic ethical assumptions.

As we shall see, cost arguments also sometimes raise ethical questions about which different ethical theories may reach different ethical conclusions. In these cases, spotting ethical issues can lead to disagreement about what ethics requires. Yet, the paper will identify ethical conclusions that can be made about some cost arguments that have a strong overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories. Philosopher John Rawls defined an overlapping consensus as a matter about which citizens support the same basic laws or justice outcomes for different reasons. (Rawls, 1987) For instance, both utilitarians and Kantians require the interests of people be considered regardless of where they live in the world, but reach these conclusions based upon different ethical theories. In cases where there is an overlapping consensus on ethical principles, different ethical theories support the same prescriptive guidance but for different reasons. This paper will identify some ethical conclusions that can be used to criticize some cost arguments about climate change that are supported by different ethical theories.

A third outcome of ethical issue spotting are matters about which there is disagreement on what ethics requires when different ethical theories are applied to the issues under consideration yet most ethical theories would condemn positions taken on these issues by some parties despite this disagreement about what ethics requires. In other words, some responses to climate change justified on the basis of cost are universally rejected by ethical theories despite disagreement on what perfect justice would require. In these cases, spotting ethical problems raised by these cost arguments can restrict alternatives about appropriate climate change policies to ethically acceptable options about the use of cost considerations in climate change policy.

Recent arguments made against US climate change legislation are typical of cost arguments that have been made in opposition to climate change policies in the United States for over 30 years.
For example, a comment made by US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in reaction to US House climate change legislation:

“The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch, or fill up their car–but that’s exactly what this bill would do.” (Trygstad, 2009).

Another typical example of common cost arguments made against climate change is the following statement about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on climate change, a proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under existing US air pollution law.

Virtually every concern heightened by the economic downturn, especially job losses, would be exacerbated under the ANPR. As with cap-and-trade legislation, the EPA’s suggested rulemaking would be poison to an already sick economy. But even in the best of economic times, this policy would likely end them. The estimated costs–close to $7 trillion dollars and 3 million manufacturing jobs lost–are staggering. So is the sweep of regulations that could severely affect nearly every major energy-using product from cars to lawnmowers, and a million or more businesses and buildings of all types. And all of this sacrifice is in order to make, at best, a minuscule contribution to an overstated environmental threat. (Lieberman, 2010)

There are often problems with these cost arguments that go beyond the ethical concerns discussed in this post. For instance, cost claims often: (a) include factual errors in calculating the costs and benefits of proposed climate change policies, (b) are based upon assumptions in the economic models on which the cost claims are based that ignore other potentially valid assumptions, (c) fail to consider costs that society would bear from inaction on climate change, and (d) include outright falsehoods.

An example of an outright falsehood is a claim recently made by Glen Beck, a US television personality, who informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that the Waxman-Markey US House of Representatives bill would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. There was no such study. (Krugman, 2009)

Despite these and other problems with cost arguments that need to be seriously considered to critically evaluate them, this paper focuses exclusively on ethical issues that often arise when cost arguments are made against climate change policies.

This is the second in a series of posts that have looked at the ethical limitations of cost arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to climate change policies. In a prior post, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs,, ClimateEthics examined why cost-benefit analysis in which “cost” arguments did not consider how the “costs” of action were disaggregated from the “benefits” of taking action or which exclusively relied upon “preference utilitarianism” as the ethical justification for non-action are deeply ethically problematic.
This post looks at arguments that attempt to justify non-action based upon claims of excessive costs to one country alone. Future posts will examine other ethical problems with cost arguments such as; (a) The failure to see the ethical limitations on cost arguments when climate change creates human rights violations, (b) ethical limitations of exclusive use of ” willingness-to-pay.” as justification for non-action, (c) procedural justice problems with cost arguments, (d) ethical problems when cost arguments try to calculate the dollar value of harms avoided by climate change, and (e) ethical problems with discounting future generations.

Many of the cost arguments made against climate change are simply assertions that climate change policies are too costly. They do not explicitly compare costs of taking action against the benefits of taking action, the form of arguments made in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). To the extent that these arguments are based upon additional costs alone, serious ethical objections can be raised because, as we shall see, one may not do harm to others on the basis that it will be less costly to the one proposing the harm. For instance, it would be ethically problematic for a husband who owed child support to his ex-wife to refuse to give the support on the basis that he would like to use the money for a trip to Bermuda (Garvey 2008:98)
Although many objections to climate change policies are based upon cost alone, this and other posts will focus on CBAs as they more explicitly compare costs of climate change reduction strategies against the benefits to society of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One can usually understand other kinds of cost arguments against climate change policies as implicitly taking the form of CBAs because even though they don’t explicitly compare the costs of climate change policies against the benefits of taking action, they usually can be understood to this implicitly do this.. That is, behind any objection against climate change policies that simply states that the policy costs too much is usually the unstated assumption that the benefits to society that would be obtained by the implementation of the policy are not worth it. Therefore, ethical analysis of CBA is also usually relevant to simple claims that the policy is too costly.

CBA is a generic term for a variety of techniques designed to allow decision-makers to determine in a rigorous way whether the payback from a program will be greater than the costs of implementing it. If costs of an environmental program are greater than environmental benefits produced by a program, according to mainstream CBA theory, the program should be abandoned. The economic justification for this use of CBA is the notion that society must decide how to spend its scarce resources and it should spend its money in the most efficient way possible. If money is spent by society on environmental protection programs that don’t produce an environmental payback that is greater in economic value than the cost of the program, it is a bad investment and should not be supported. (Shogren and Toman, 2000) This is so, according to CBA theory, because public money should be spent on programs that will produce the largest aggregate benefits. As we have seen in the prior post referenced above, the philosophical justification for this approach is often a form of utilitarianism sometimes referred to as “preference utilitarianism.”

II. The Ethical Duty Of Nations to All People, Not Just Citizens.

Proponents of CBAs often argue that governments should not take action to reduce greenhouse emissions if the cost to reduce emissions is greater than the value of climate change caused harms avoided because of the government action. Although CBA may be a very valuable tool for decision-makers who are trying to decide whether investment in a particular project will provide an adequate payoff compared to other projects or investments, CBA’s use for some environmental problems such as climate change can be ethically dubious, particularly when it is applied to environmental problems such as climate change where harms and benefits are significantly disaggregated. That is, climate change is a problem being caused by some people around the world who are often separated by significant time and space from those who are most vulnerable to a warming world. Therefore, the costs that CBAs seek to avoid often fall on different people than those who will benefit from climate change policies.

Continue reading

What Needs To Be Done To Assure That Ethical Principles Guide Climate Change Policy Making: A Look At The Bridge at The End OF The World

I. Introduction.

Every once in a while a book is published that goes to heart of issues examined in ClimateEthics This is a review of such a book. This post reviews The Bridge At The End Of The World, Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis To Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. (Speth 2008)

Although this new book examines the causes of an unfolding failure to protect the environment on a matter of a number of global environmental issues, this book makes a major contribution to many issues that have been of interest to ClimateEthics. It is a provocative book, but in the best sense of the word. It is a compelling exhortation to look deeper and more critically at the institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas structuring and defining global environmental controversies-matters that for the most part have gone unchallenged by civil society including environmental groups.
According to Speth, it is the current form of capitalism and its influence on governing institutions that it has that is most responsible for global environmental deterioration. If Speth is right, the dominant ideas shaping our environmental discourses must be confronted if there is any hope of moving away from the approaching environmental abyss.

Speth’s new book is a clearly written, exhaustively researched, courageous, and compelling description of why the global environment has continued to deteriorate despite forty years during which the modern environmental movement has risen. Seeing a huge failure to make progress on protecting the global environment after almost four decades, Speth explains that in this book he is attempting to go deeper than he has before to examine the root causes of the growing global environmental crisis.

Speth’s conclusions are remarkable coming from someone who has been called an “insider’s insider.” Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, member and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President during the Carter administration, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, founder of the World Resources Institute, a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and now a professor at Vermont Law School. There are few people in the United States that have been in a better position to diagnose the worlds environmental problems and their causes.

Because Speth so forcibly attributes the causes of the daunting global environmental crises to an out-of-control global capitalism, given his background as a very well connected Washington insider, the books conclusions are an astonishing lightening bolt that illuminates both the nature and causes of the environmental abyss the world is facing. That this book has come from the dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with high-level ties to some of the most respected environmental institutions is astonishing.
The main idea of this book is that there is no hope of solving the world’s major growing environmental and social problems unless there is much more robust government intervention in global economic markets. Although Speth in the end is not completely anti-market-he is very strongly critical of market failures and the hegemony of market ideas. Speth wants to keep a place for markets, but believes governments must keep markets in their place.

Continue reading