This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
Greta Thunberg’s September 23rd speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons: first, because of her speech’s rhetorical excellence, and second for Thunberg’s selection of facts about climate change which supported the speech’s main thesis that governments’ failures to act to reduce the threat of climate change are morally repugnant.
A. The Speech’s Rhetorical Excellence
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefensibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate change harms given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.
Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
Logos. In an effective speech, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning’ and sociologists have warned for over a decade that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral indefensibility of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC. Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, I was sitting at the microphone representing the United States during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development when an agenda item arose about whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming then already discernible as had largely been predicted by the peer-reviewed science, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers include, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, changes in ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the growing global warming was human-caused. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which have consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing are largely caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how our planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of energy a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) have determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s.
Climate change is not only a terrifying future problem, it is already causing increasing devastation and human suffering to more and more parts of the world. Just in early March, Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi killing over a 1000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others in Mozambique alone. The New York Times described the devastation as follows:
Nearly a week after southern Africa was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades, it was all rescue workers could do to try to reach the victims let alone count the dead. People were climbing to trees desperately waiting for some form of rescue. Around them, the remnants of homes sat in piles, collapsed as easily as if they had been houses of cards. Hundreds of thousands of people in Mozambique alone were displaced and everywhere there was a vast inland sea where once there had been land.
The 1.1 0C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution that the mainstream scientific community has attributed to human activities has already caused brutal suffering caused by increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa.
Because even modest amounts of additional warming create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. These thresholds include ice sheet destabilization, methane leakage stored in permafrost and oceans, loss of the energy reflective properties of sea ice, and changes to the ocean heat circulation system among others. If some of these tipping points are triggered, the increased warming will subject some parts of the world, including many African states, large parts of the middle east, and hundreds of cities near oceans to multiple impacts including crop failures, deadly heat waves, expansion of tropical diseases, flooding, and drought. Thus, future devastation threatened by climate change is horrifying. For this reason, all the nations of the world in 2015 agreed to adopt policies that limited warming to as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Yet limiting the warming to these levels will require all nations and levels of government, including state and local governments, to act with a war-like coordinated effort to decarbonize the global economy.
Despite the universal agreement among nations that climate change is human-caused and very dangerous, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy invited Gregory Wrightstone on March 27 to testify on climate change issues. Mr. Wrightstone’s only qualifications to testify as an expert on climate change are bachelors and masters degrees in geology and some published research on geology including the geology of the Marcellus shale. Although Mr. Wrightstone acknowledged that he has never published in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, Mr. Wrightstone took issue with the conclusions of 97% of climate scientists who publish in peer-reviewed climate science literature and who support the consensus view on human causation of climate change and its potentially catastrophic impacts to the human race from current climate change trends. The “consensus” view on climate science is also supported by 80 academies of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science, and at least 21 prestigious scientific organizations whose members engage in science relevant to climate change including the American Geophysical Union, the European Geosciences Union, the Geological Sciences of America and London, organizations whose members include geologists, Mr. Wrightstone’s discipline.
The consensus view of mainstream science has often been initially articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization created by the world’s governments and the United Nations at the suggestion of the United States in 1988 to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change science and make recommendations to the world’s governments on climate change policies. IPCC does not do independent scientific research but approximately every five years examines the peer-reviewed scientific literature and draws conclusions which are further reviewed by climate scientists and approved by experts from the governments of the world. The IPCC has issued five comprehensive assessments starting with the first assessment report in 1990 and several special reports. The 5th assessment was published in 2014 and was written by 861 climate scientists whose nominations were reviewed to determine whether they had expert qualifications in climate science. (IPCC, 2014)
Mr. Writestone’s testimony began with a statement that he would “undercut the notion that our changing climate is primarily caused by human-caused increases in greenhouse gases and those changes are having negative impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and on humanity.”
Skepticism in science is a good thing, in fact, it is the oxygen that allows science to make contributions to human understanding of how the world works. But skeptics, to be taken seriously, must abide by the rules of science which require that scientific claims be subjected to peer-review. Mr. Wrightstone’s claims about climate change made during the March 31 hearing not only have never been peer-reviewed, but they were also either dramatically inconsistent with peer-reviewed climate change science or were cherry-picked facts that although true on their face do not undermine the conclusions of peer-reviewed science. “Cherry-picking” means picking from possible facts only those facts that support a predetermined conclusion while ignoring other facts. Examples of Mr. Wrightstone’s cherry-picked arguments made in his testimony to undermine the scientific consensus view that human activities were responsible for raising atmospheric CO2 to dangerous levels included that:
The current concentration of CO2 is very low compared to other levels in the historical record, ignoring the strong scientific consensus that current elevated CO2 levels are human-caused and global catastrophe is likely unless there is an unprecedented international effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions;
Earth’s ecosystems thrived when CO2 levels were much higher, ignoring the fact that when atmospheric CO2 levels got high enough, the resulting warming tripped dangerous positive feedbacks which led to abrupt warming increases that several times caused mass extinctions of much of life on Earth and mainstream scientists believe that the current rise in global temperatures is approaching levels which may trigger several of these positive feedback triggers which could cause abrupt very dangerous levels of warming;
CO2 is good because it promotes plant growth and prevents the Earth from getting too cold, ignoring the huge scientific literature that has identified enormous human suffering and damages that current levels of warming have already caused particularly harming the world’s poorest people and the potential to cause abrupt climate change which could cause mass extinction;
Current concentrations of CO2 are not unprecedented if one looks at the full history of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than the time span usually considered, ignoring the scientific evidence that that high CO2 levels in the Earth’s history were sometimes responsible for causing mass extinctions and conditions such as sea level rise which would now cause hard-to-imagine destruction especially to hundreds of the Earth’s most populated cities small island states, and poorest people and countries.
Several sociologists, including Dr. Robert Bruelle from Drexel University and Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State, among others, in many peer-reviewed sociological papers and in a recent book (Dunlap and McCright, 2015), have documented how some fossil fuel companies or their industrial organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks have funded and supported efforts to undermine the public’s faith in the consensus view of climate science similar to the way the Tobacco Industry supported disinformation about the health threats of smoking tobacco. One of the tools in this effort has been to financially support or publicize the claims of climate skeptics whose claims frequently have not been subjected to peer review.
Mr. Wrightsone’s claims, like many of the arguments made by climate skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry, not only have not been subjected to peer-review, they were dramatically inconsistent with the large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
I have no evidence that Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony was orchestrated by any members of the Pennsylvania fossil fuel industry or politicians that frequently represent their interests, however, his testimony was similar to the problematic claims of the skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry organized climate science disinformation campaign.
Mr. Wrightstone also took issue with the frequent claim that the consensus climate science is supported by 97% of climate scientists by stating he was one of the 97% while ignoring that the full claim is that 97% of scientists who engage in “peer-reviewed” climate change science, a group he does not belong to, support the consensus view along with every academy of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science.
Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony included arguments against two proposals under consideration in Pennsylvania that would lower GHG emissions from the state. One, a petition before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to establish a Pennsylvania cap and trade program similar to programs in other states. The second proposal is known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative which is a proposed multi-state cooperative program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
His argument against these two programs was that the Governor and the House Committee should make recommendations on these two programs that were based on scientific facts, not on a politically driven narrative of coming planetary gloom. Yet the “facts” of science are established in constant testing through peer-review.
On May 1, the Senate Majority Policy Committee held a hearing about climate change at which Mr; Wrightstone along with climate change deniers David Legates (The Heartland Institute) and Joe Bastardi (WeatherBELL Analytics/frequent FOX News contributor) also testified making arguments that disagreed with the enormous peer-reviewed science which has been synthesized by 861 climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s and agreed to by every government in the world and every Academy of Science in the world. The testimony of all three of these skeptics took issue with elements of the scientific consensus view agreed to by every country in the world and their Academies of Science.
We have written extensively on this site under the category “disinformation” in the above index about why the fossil fuel disinformation campaign is some new heinous crime against humanity. (see index above under “disinformation”) Also see D. Brown, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?
Yet, because the Pennsylvania state government has done little so far to adopt aggressive climate change policies, but Pennsylvania Governor Wolf has announced his intention to begin to adopt Pennsylvania climate change policies that will significantly reduce Pennsylvania’s GHG emissions, the legislative hearings discussed in this article which have been devoted to publicizing the views of climate skeptics who have not published the claims made in the hearings in peer-review journals are likely only the beginning of more intense efforts to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate science.
Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of GHGs among US states, behind only Texas and California. The Keystone state is responsible for 1 percent of global emissions yet has only 0.19 percent of the global population.
The Pennsylvania legislature and the Wolf administration have thus far failed to enact policies that will prevent activities in Pennsylvania from causing harsh climate impacts here and to hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world. Although Governor Wolf in January took the welcome step of issuing Pennsylvania’s first executive order on climate change which included a goal of reducing GHGs by 26 percent reduction by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, from 2005 levels, these targets are woefully short of Pennsylvania’s fair share of needed global action to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C and no greater than 2.0 o C and nothing has yet been done to decarbonize the Pennsylvania economy as required of the world to by the Paris Agreement.
IPCC said in an October special report that to limit warming to 1.5 0C, total global CO2 emissions would need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero by 2050. (IPCC, 2018) If Governor Wolf takes climate change seriously, it is very likely that members of the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania will try and undermine Pennsylvania citizens’ support for the consensus climate science position by among other tactics making arguments similar to those made by Mr. Wrightstone.
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
On Monday, December 1, climate negotiations billed as the most important U.N. cliate conference since the Paris 2015 deal began in the Polish city of Katowice, the capital of the country’s Silesian coal mining district. The major hope and expectation of COP-24, the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was the finalization of a “rule-book”, that is a set of procedures, that nations must follow to have any hope that the world could achieve the warming limit goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement of as close as possible to 1.50 C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Shortly before 190 countries met in Poland on the first day of the two-week COP-24 negotiations, prospects for the international community working together to avoid catastrophic warming had become much gloomier due to several recent scientific papers that concluded the world was running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. At virtually the same time, the additional bad news was breaking that global CO2 emissions had risen in 2018 by more than 2% after having flattened out two years earlier.
At the Katowice COP, 32,800 people had registered, most of whom who were representing governments, international institutions, scientific and civic organizations, higher education, business and financial institutions, along with a large media presence. In addition to the two-week long negotiations, the Katowice COP, like the 23 that proceeded it. was a setting for scores of side events at which speakers made presentations on myriad scientific, technical, civil society, financial, and educational topics relevant to human-induced warming.
Many of the COP participants from non-government organizations had come to pressure the governments of the world to greatly ramp up their climate change policies. Also in attendance was a much smaller group of pro-coal activists including a small delegation from the United States while many nations sought to negotiate a timetable for the world to get out of coal. In the midst of growing gloom about potential catastrophic climate change impacts, delegations from local and regional governments were providing some hope of preventing climate change catastrophe because several thousand sub-national governments around the world have made commitments to seriously reducing GHG emissions.
On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures. This report, along with several additional recent scientific studies published in the last few months, including a paper published by the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2018, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et. al., and a paper published in mid-August of this year in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath, lead to the conclusion that the international community is facing an urgent existential crisis that threatens life on Earth. Preventing this catastrophe now requires the entire international community at all levels of government (i.e., national, state, regional, and local) to engage immediately in an unprecedented effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions to net zero in the next few decades. These papers also revealed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had been previously underestimating likely climate change impacts. Another paper, What Lies Beneath: On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, recently published by the Breakthrough Institute, claimed both that climate change risks are far greater than is evident from recent conclusions of IPCC and examined why IPCC has often underestimated threats from climate change. This report attributed the overly conservative conclusions of the IPCC to the consensus building nature that IPCC must follow to get governments to approve IPCC final reports and to the peer-reviewed science synthesized by IPCC was produced by scientists who follow scientific norms that condemn speculation. As a result, the What Lies Beneath report concluded that much of the climate research on which IPCC has relied has tended to underplay climate risks.
The Katowice negotiations began in the heart of Poland’s coal fields with nations mindful that although the use of oil and gas is still rising worldwide, and some countries are still using coal to fuel their economic growth, the international community needed to agree on a set of rules that would allow the international community to evaluate clearly and transparently national progress in implementing and increasing the ambition of nationally determined commitments (NDCs) under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The COP 24 negotiations sought agreement among nations on how they would report, in a clear and transparent way, on national progress on GHG emissions reductions and developed country financing of emissions reductions and adaptation programs in poor vulnerable nations around the world.
As the Katowice negotiations began, the best hope for getting the international community on a GHG emissions reductions pathway required to prevent catastrophic climate change rested on establishing a clear set of rules on national GHG emissions reporting and financing emissions reductions and adaptation programs in developing countries. Yet in the first week of COP-24, deep disagreements between high-emitting developed countries and lower emitting more vulnerable developing countries continued to plague the negotiations. The disagreements were over elements of the proposed “rule-book” and which provisions should apply to both developed and developing nations. Since international climate negotiations began in 1990, efforts to find an adequate global solution to prevent catastrophic climate change have been plagued by the unwillingness of some high-emitting nations with large fossil fuel resources to agree to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, as well as conflicts between developed and developing countries about developed nations’ responsibility for funding GHG reduction programs and adaptation responses in vulnerable developing countries.
Throughout the large Katowice negotiating complex, anger and frustration with US President Trump’s backward movement on climate change were loudly evident. Several times, I heard charges from some COP participants that President Trump was guilty of some kind of vicious crime against humanity given that the US was the second largest GHG emitter in the world after China but a much greater emitter than China in historical emissions and per capita emissions, yet the Trump Administration was in the midst of rolling back regulations on electric power plants, rules for measuring methane leakage from natural gas production facilities, and on fleet mile average on automobiles and trucks. Furthermore, the US also announced its unwillingness to provide finance at levels previously promised under the Obama administration for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries. Anger at the US unwillingness to participate in the Paris deal was intense because President Trump had justified his announced intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on the basis he was putting US economic interests first, a justification which flunked minimum ethical scrutiny because US emissions were already contributing to great human suffering from intense storms, droughts, flood, spread of tropical diseases, killer heat waves, and loss of plants and animals around the world. Any country that justified its unwillingness to help minimize such massive suffering and destruction on the basis of economic self-interest was beyond moral comprehension at the very time much more aggressive US climate change policy is believed to be urgently needed to prevent a human catastrophe.
At the end of the first week, a text which initially “welcomed” the IPCC Special Report on limiting warming to 1.50 C was blocked by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait even though their governments had approved the final IPCC report before it was released in October
The US had also cosponored along with Australia a pro-coal event as the world was seeking to negotiate a global agreement to eliminate coal combustion.
COP 24 ended with some progress on the “rule-book” but disappointment on developed country support for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries.
Most arguments against climate change laws and policies are based on claims of unacceptable costs or scientific uncertainty, arguments that hide or ignore ethical problems with these arguments, This video explains how to ask questions of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or scientific uncertainty which questions are designed to expose ethical problems with these arguments.
The list of questions referenced in the video follows:
Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, or job destruction.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, or kill jobs:
Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
Do you deny that a high emitting nation needs to take responsibility for the harms to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations
Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
Do you agree that a nation’s climate change policy is implicitly a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise?
Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels?
Do you agree that no nation has a right kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
Do you agree that the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?\
Given that the United States has for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to it and that due to delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if the United States acted twenty-five years ago, is it just for the United States to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost
Questions to be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emission because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
Should a nation like the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2.Oo C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
Do agree if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of others and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This entry will examine ethical issues raised by relying on putting a price on carbon as a policy response to reduce the threat of climate change.
Establishing a price on carbon emissions as a response to reduce a government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has received strong support around the world. One observer of global climate change policy developments has concluded:
Not only is there a robust consensus among economists, but they have been remarkably successful in spreading the gospel to the wider world as well. Climate activists, wonks, funders, politicians, progressives, and even conservatives (the few who take climate seriously) all sing from the same hymnal. It has become conventional wisdom that a price on carbon is the sine qua non of serious climate policy. (Roberts, 2016)
This article will identify potential ethical problems with relying on carbon pricing to reduce the enormous threat of climate change despite the widespread popularity of pricing carbon regimes. As we shall see, although a few ethicists have ethical problems with any carbon pricing scheme, many others approve of carbon pricing schemes provided that the regime design adequately deals with certain ethical issues that carbon pricing regimes frequently raise.
Climate pricing regimes vary greatly from the government to government and among different types of carbon pricing regimes. However, there are two basic methods for using a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions.
The first is to distribute carbon caps, often referred to as carbon allowances, to GHG emitters usually followed by a tightening of the cap over time to achieve desired GHG emissions reduction goals. Those who have more allowances than they need may sell allowances to those who do not have enough. Thus carbon allowances may be bought and sold, a scheme that is often justified by economists by claiming that this approach leads to GHG reductions at the lowest cost thereby finding an efficient solution to climate change while the amount`of GHG emissions achieved by the scheme may be determined by the total amount of allowances permitted. This method is usually referred to as “cap and trade”
Many cap and trade regimes allow those who need additional allowances to reduce GHG emissions to levels required by the cap to fund GHG emissions reduction projects often anywhere in the world including in places without a cap and get credit for the amount of GHG reductions achieved by the funded project, which credit then can be applied to determine whether the cap has been achieved. Different trading regimes have different rules specifying where and under what conditions emissions credits can be obtained by funding projects in other places.
The other common carbon pricing scheme is for government to charge a price for carbon emissions, a method usually referred to as carbon taxing. The carbon tax works also to lower GHG emissions because it makes technologies which produce less GHG per unit of energy more attractive thereby creating strong incentives for energy users to switch to energy technologies which produce less GHG emissions per unit of energy produced. A price on carbon also creates incentives for all those responsible for GHG emissions to do what they can to emit less GHGs, including, for instance, reducing their carbon footprints by driving less, walking more, lowering thermostats in the winter, adding insulation to buildings, etc.
For these reasons, putting a price on carbon emissions as a policy response to human-induced climate change has strong global support particularly among economists.
This article will identify ethical issues created by (a) any carbon pricing scheme, (b) cap and trade regimes, and (c) carbon taxing regimes. This analysis will be followed by several conclusions.
II. Ethical Issues Raised By Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
Although many ethicists who have identified ethical issues raised by policy responses to climate change that rely on putting a price on carbon acknowledge that pricing schemes have shown to be effective in reducing GHG emissions often at lower costs than other regulatory approaches, some ethicists nonetheless oppose carbon pricing schemes because of certain ethical problems with these schemes. Many other ethicists who acknowledge potential ethical problems with carbon pricing schemes believe these problems can be adequately dealt with by appropriate carbon pricing regime design. Yet even if ethical problems raised by carbon pricing regimes can be averted through carbon pricing regime design, policymakers and citizens need to understand these ethical problems so that they can be mitigated in the design of the carbon pricing scheme.
An ethical approach to climate change would limit GHG emissions by law at levels necessary to prevent human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems. For instance, many governments have established legal requirements on the percentage of renewable energy required of electricity providers, a policy response that does no rely on pricing carbon. An ethical approach to climate change is based on different justifications for reducing change harms than some economic approaches. As Vanderhelen said:
An ethical approach to climate policy is based on different assumptions than economic-based policy assumptions. The ethical approach says we should act on climate change now, not because the future costs of inaction exceed those of mitigation, but because the failure to do so harms others. It is our ethical duty to avoid this. (Vanderhelen, 2011)
And so an ethical approach to climate change requires those who are responsible for human-induced climate change harms to comply with their duty to not harm others without regard to the economic value of costs and benefits of climate change policy responses. All national governments in the world have duties to take actions that reduce GHG emissions from their jurisdiction to the nation’s fair share of safe global GHG emissions under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In addition, an ethical approach to climate change also identifies ethical issues raised by carbon pricing schemes including the following:
A. Assuring the price will achieve GHG reductions at levels entailed by the government’s ethical obligations.
The amount and speed of GHG emissions reductions that government policies should achieve is fundamentally an ethical question that economic reasoning alone cannot determine. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 5th Assessment Report:
How should the burden of mitigating climate change be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 215).
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014,.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 225).
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 225).
[I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
Thus, no carbon pricing scheme alone without consideration of ethical issues can determine what the magnitude and timing of a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals should be because a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals must be based on fairness, justice, and obligations to not harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends without the consent of those who will be harmed. These are essentially ethical matters that economic rationality alone cannot deal with. Proponents of carbon pricing schemes claim that pricing regimes allow those responsible for reducing GHG emissions to achieve reductions at the lowest cost, yet the amount of reductions that a nation is obligated to achieve is essentially an ethical matter. So the goal of any pricing scheme should be designed to achieve ethically justified national GHG emissions reduction targets.
All nations in the world have agreed under the 2015 Paris Accord that they are duty bound to adopt policies that will enable the international community to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, the warming limit goal, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of national circumstances, the ‘equity’ requirement under the Paris Agreement.(UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 2.) And so all nations have an ethical duty to determine their GHG emissions reduction goals which at a minimum would limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C although no greater than 2.0 degrees C on the basis of what equity requires of it to achieve these warming limits. Equity is understood by philosophers as a synonym for distributive justice.
Although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
there is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317)
As a result, because some pricing regimes will not reduce national GHG emissions to levels required by their national obligations under the Paris Agreement even those nations that have adopted some kind of carbon pricing regime have had to enact other climate change policies to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction goals. For this reason and because some politicians have conditioned their support for a proposed carbon pricing scheme on acceptance of legal provisions that prohibit policy responses that are in addition to a carbon pricing scheme under consideration by a legislature, policymakers and citizens need to understand that any carbon pricing scheme must assure that a government’s emissions reduction policies will achieve the government’s ethically determined carbon emissions reduction obligations. Thus they must oppose legislation that prohibits a government from supplementing carbon pricing schemes with other laws to reduce GHG emissions.
Thus the quantity of the price placed on carbon under a taxing scheme or the magnitude of allowances under a cap and trade regime should be established after express determination of the government’s ethically prescribed obligations to reduce GHG emissions to its fair share of adequately safe global emissions.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on others including poor vulnerable people and nations, Since all nations have agreed under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C and no greater than 2.0 degrees C, these warming limits should be the default assumptions of governments’ GHG reduction target formulation;
the nation’s fair share of total global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C
Thus, to make sense of the acceptability of any carbon pricing scheme, government’s should; (a) identify its GHG reduction target, (b) how the target achieves its GHG emissions reduction obligations in regard to warming limits and fairness, (c) the date by which the target will be achieved, and (e) the reduction pathway that will achieve the GHG reduction goal.
The date by which the GHG reductions will be achieved is ethically relevant because any delay in achieving required reductions affects the remaining carbon budget that is available to assure that any warming limit goal is achieved. Carbon budgets that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal such as the 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C warming limit goals under the Paris Agreement continue to shrink until total GHG emissions are reduced to levels that will stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at levels that will not cause warming greater than the warming limit goal. Therefore both the magnitude of the government’s GHG emissions reduction goals and the time it takes to achieve the goal are relevant factors in regard to whether any government will achieve GHG reductions that represent its fair share of safe global emissions. In fact the reduction pathway by which the reduction goal will be achieved is also relevant to whether a government will reduce its GHG emissions to levels required of it by its obligations because pathways which produce rapid reductions early in any period will consume less of a shrinking carbon budget than pathways that achieve most of the reductions at later times in the relevant period. This fact is depicted in this chart.
This chart demonstrates that different GHG reduction pathways may consume different amounts of any relevant carbon budget even if the percent amount of reductions, in this case, 100% reduction by 2050, is the same for the different pathways. The amount of the budget consumed by the two pathways is represented by the areas underneath the curves.
B. Intrinsic Ethical Problems With Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
A few ethicists argue that relying on putting a price on carbon to achieve a government’s obligations is ethically problematic without regard to the details of the pricing scheme.
Ethicist Michael Sandel, for instance, in a 1967 OpEd in the New York Times entitled It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute identified the following ethical problems with pricing carbon after acknowledging that trading GHG emissions allowances could make compliance for the United States cheaper and less painful. (Sandel, 1967)
Turning pollution into a commodity to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that is properly associated with it. If a company is fined by a government for spewing excessive pollutants into the air, the government conveys its judgment that the polluter has done something wrong. A fee, on the other hand, makes pollution just another cost of doing business, like wages, benefits, and rent. (Sandel, 1967)
The distinction between a fine and a fee for despoiling the environment is not one we should give up too easily. Suppose there was a $100 fine for throwing a beer can into the Grand Canyon, and a wealthy hiker decided to pay $100 for the convenience. Would there be nothing wrong with his treating the fine as if it were simply an expensive dumping charge?
Or consider the fine for parking in a place reserved for the disabled. If a busy contractor needs to park near his building site and is willing to pay the fine, is there nothing wrong with his treating that space as an expensive parking lot?
In effacing the distinction between a fine and a fee, emission trading is like a recent proposal to open carpool lanes on Los Angeles freeways to drivers without passengers who are willing to pay a fee. Such drivers are now fined for slipping into carpool lanes; under the market proposal, they would enjoy a quicker commute without opprobrium. (Sandel, 1967)
Some human behavior is so morally reprehensible that charging a price for the behavior to create a disincentive is widely seen as morally unacceptable. For instance, most societies would agree that a strategy to reduce child prostitution that relies on increasing the price of child prostitution or taxing a sexual transaction in which children are involved is morally unacceptable. Because some countries’ GHG emissions are far greater than any reasonable determination of their fair share of safe global emissions and these GHG emissions are already contributing to the killing or harming millions of people around the world while threatening tens of millions of others, allowing GHG emitters to continue to emit GHGs at unsafe levels if they are willing to pay the price required by a government rather then establishing a legally determined maximum emissions rate consistent with the emitter’s morally determined emissions limits can be argued to be as morally unacceptable as dealing with child prostitution by imposing a tax. Even though a tax might achieve the same amount of reductions as a legal limit implemented by an enforceable cap on GHG emissions amounts, applying a tax implicitly signals that it is morally permissible to continue emitting GHGs at current levels as long as the carbon tax is paid. Thus, the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.
Putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change is often justified by economists as a way to make sure that market transactions consider the value of harms caused by climate change that are unpriced in market transactions. For instance, because the price of coal does not consider the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal that will be experienced by some people who are not participants in the sale of the coal, putting a price on carbon equivalent to the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal is a way of assuring that the value of the harms caused by the coal are considered in the market transaction. This addition to the price is referred to as a Pigovian tax or a tax on any market transaction that generates negative externalities, so that the value of the negative externalities is included in the market price. Most economists recommend that the amount of the tax be based on the social cost of the negative externalities where the social costs are measured in dollars or other monetary units determined by the amount people would be willing to pay to prevent the harm. Once the cost the harms is determined and included in a tax, the market will be able to operate efficiently.
Economists thus justify a tax set in this way because it enables the market to maximize preferences. But ethics is interested not in maximizing preferences people have but in assuring that people’s preferences are those that people should have morally. For ethicists, it is wrong to harm people without their consent, even if those causing the harm could pay victims money calculated by the market value of the harm. That is, according to most ethicists it is morally wrong to harm people or the ecological systems on which life depends even if those causing the harm are willing to compensate those harmed. Some ethicists therefore argue, putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change does not pass ethical scrutiny unless the price prevents all non-trivial harms to life, health, and ecological property that people have not consented to. Given that some human rights have already been demonstrated to be violated by climate change (UNHR, 2018), any price on carbon that allows human rights violations to continue does not pass ethical scrutiny.
And so putting a price on carbon does not pass ethical scrutiny as long as the price does not prevent the harms that people have right to object to without their consent.
Although the money from the carbon tax could be used to compensate people for harms caused by climate change, this potential use of the tax revenues does not ethically justify continuing the behavior which causes serious harms to others without the consent of those who are harmed. In addition, because those being harmed by GHG emissions are people all around the world, if the revenue from a tax is to be used to compensate those who will be harmed by the GHG emission, the revenues from a tax would have to be distributed worldwide. At this time there is no such global revenue stream from national carbon pricing schemes.
Many citizens and institutions around the world including many colleges and universities have significantly reduced their carbon footprint because they believed they had a moral obligation to do so as long as their GHG emissions could contribute to harming people, animals, ecological systems on which life depends, or things of great value to people. A sense of moral obligation, without doubt, motivates, at least some people and institutions, to do the right thing. Yet pricing carbon as a response to climate change does not create a legal prohibition to reduce GHG emissions but only an economic incentive to do so. A government could always legally prohibit activities that create GHG emissions that create harms, an approach to changing behavior that was the dominant strategy in environmental law for many decades. Economists, however, have often objected to these “command and control’ approaches because they claim that market-based mechanisms can achieve needed reductions in a more efficient economic way, that is, at a price that includes consideration of the value of the harms created.
At least in the United States, many of the proponents of carbon pricing are failing to educate civil society about the moral obligations of all nations and people to reduce GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a concern particularly in light of the very limited time left to limit warming to non-catastrophic levels. These proponents often passionately advocate for the adoption of a carbon pricing scheme because they are accurately convinced that a price on carbon will reduce GHG emissions, yet ignore discussing the non-discretionary moral duty to reduce GHG emissions thus inadvertently leaving the impression that provided that those who are willing to pay a price placed on carbon they have no moral obligation to cease activities which are responsible for carbon emissions.
Economists often justify their market-based solutions as a method for maximizing the enjoyment of human preferences. They thus calculate the value of harms avoided by climate policies by determining a market value of the harm and if there is no market value they often determine the value of the harms by determining what people are willing to pay to prevent the harm. This allows the economists to compare the cost of reducing GHG emissions against the value of harms prevented through pricing and in so doing allows a policymaker to select a policy option which maximizes human preferences. Yet, as we have seen ethics is concerned not solely with efficiently achieving the preferences people have but with establishing what preferences people should have in light of their moral obligations.
Under an ethical approach to climate change based on an injunction against harming others, because any additional GHG are raising GHG atmospheric levels which are already increasing harms people are suffering from droughts, floods, intense storms, tropical storms, and heat waves among other causes of climate-induced harms, an ethical argument can be made that any carbon pricing scheme should seek to achieve the lowest feasible GHG emissions levels as quickly as possible. Ethics refuses to define what is ‘feasible’ in terms of the balance of costs and benefits. Ethics requires that harm to innocent victims must be avoided, even when the cost of reducing pollution exceeds the monetary value of harms to life and ecological systems on which life depends. Not all economists, of course, argue that government policies should be based on cost-benefit analysis but many do.
An ethical approach to climate change also requires that polluters should pay for the harms and damages they create as well as the costs to them of reducing the pollution. Many carbon pricing schemes ignore the duty of GHG emitters to compensate those who have been harmed by their GHG emissions and base the amount of the tax on the amount of money needed to reduce GHG emissions while ignoring any obligations to compensate those who have been harmed by their emissions. This problem could be remedied by basing any price on the amount of money needed to compensate those who have experienced loses and damages or by providing separate funds to compensate those who are harmed by climate change but most carbon pricing schemes fail to take these matters into consideration.
Ethicists also acknowledge that climate-related harms are more likely to affect the poor, not just those who are now being asked to contribute toward its mitigation. For this reason, many ethicists prefer laws that prohibit certain immoral behaviors over laws that allow people to continue their immoral behavior if they are willing to pay higher prices entailed by the value of the harms caused by their behavior.
Economists often support pricing schemes if the pricing leads to the market incentivizing the use of alternative technologies that don’t create the harms of concern. In such cases, the morality of the pricing scheme likely depends on whether the technical transformation created by the pricing scheme will take place soon enough to prevent the harms of concern.
However, even in these cases, many ethicists believe that human activities that create morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions should be responded to as moral obligations and only support pricing schemes so long as the scheme will enable reducing GHG emissions to morally acceptable levels as rapidly as possible. However, even so, some ethicists warn against erasing the moral stigma entailed by morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions that could occur by allowing some to continue to exceed their moral obligations if they are willing to pay to do so.
Pope Francis inLaudato Si, the papal encyclical released in July 2015, questions whether market capitalism can effectively protect the poor, and in one passage specifically criticized “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits.’ More specifically Laudato Si argues that:
The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (Laudato Si 171).
The Pope’s objection appears to be based in part on the fact that a carbon pricing scheme will allow those who can afford to continue emitting GHGs after paying the pricing fee to do so while those that are unable to afford to pay the fee will need to reduce the activities that create GHG emissions. Yet this problem can be somewhat ameliorated by carbon pricing regime design decisions on how revenues are distributed or how allowances to emit are allocated. However, these decisions raise questions of distributive justice, that is questions about how burdens or benefits of public policy should be allocated to comply with what fairness requires. For this reason, carbon pricing schemes often raise serious questions of distributive justice.
In addition if revenues from pricing schemes are to be used to help compensate those who are most harmed by climate change, given that those who are most harmed are often very poor people in poor nations that usually have done little to cause climate change, the revenues would need to transferred to poor nations and people around the world. Yet no national carbon pricing schemes have yet proposed such international financial transfers.
III. Ethical Issues Raised by Cap and Trade GHG Emissions Reduction Schemes
This paper next examines the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are additional to those discussed in Section II.
A very detailed examination of some ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn is entitled Carbon Trading: Unethical, Unjust, and Ineffective? The Carey/Hepburn paper discusses in detail the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are in addition to those discussed above. The following is a summary of issues discussed by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
A. Rights to use nature cannot be owned
Because GHG emitters that receive allowances or buy allowances from those that have excess allowances could under some trading mechanisms hold or bank these allowances, holders of allowances could be understood under some trading schemes to have a right pollute the atmosphere at levels entailed by the allowances they hold. However, most ethicists believe that no one should have a property right to pollute the atmosphere. Because in absence of a rule that would prevent the owner of allowances to bank the allowances for use far into the future, the owners of the allowances could accumulate the right to pollute far into the future. As a result, some ethicists have argued that allowances should be limited to a specific time period and be understood to be revocable if the science changes and concludes that greater reductions are necessary then those that were understood to be necessary to prevent harm when the allowances were distributed.
B Responsibilities to abate harms cannot be transferred to others
Some ethicists believe that some human responsibilities should not be allowed to be transferred to others. For instance, it is generally believed to be ethically unacceptable for those who are potentially subject to being drafted into the military to be able to buy their way out of this obligation by paying someone else to agree to take one’s place if he or she is drafted. For this reason, some ethicists claim that is ethically problematic for high GHG emitters to get a credit for reductions made by others while not requiring more of the high emitters to reduce their emissions.
C. Distributive justice issues with how allowances and revenues are allocated
Because those with the money to do so can buy scarce allowances, participants in a cap and trade regime can wind up with vastly unequal levels of allowances creating significant differences among participants in rights to emit GHGs. In addition, because rules determining who can get allowances and what is done with the money generated from allowance trading can create great imbalances, rules for allocating allowances and revenues from sales of allowances should be consistent with what distributive justice requires to assure fair burden and benefit sharing. Distributive justice requires that people should be treated equally unless there are morally relevant reasons for treating people differently. There is no reason in principle for allowance and revenue allocations to lead to a more unequal distribution of wealth. It will depend on how the cap and trade scheme is designed.
These issues are discussed in more detail by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
D. Ethical issues created by the fact that some cap and trade regimes allow high emitters of GHGs to count emissions reductions made by projects of others funded by the emitters in achieving the high emitters’ GHG reduction obligations.
Some cap and trade regimes allow those with GHG emissions reduction obligations to count the reduction of GHG emissions made by others’ projects funded by the emitter as a credit in achieving the emitter’s cap obligations. Economists justify this feature of cap and trade because it allows emitters to achieve GHG reductions at a lower price, However, not all GHG reduction strategies will reduce GHG emissions with equal probabilities that GHG reductions made by the emitter would actually have achieved. For instance, an electricity supplier can commit to reducing its emissions to amounts that will be achieved with high levels of confidence by installing non-fossil energy but if the electricity supplier relies on funding a forestation project in a third world country to obtain a credit for its emissions reductions. the actual reductions to be achieved by the funded project are much more speculative because of problems in assuring that any forest project will keep GHG reductions achieved by photosynthesis of the forest out of the atmosphere forever. Thus funding a project to achieve GHG emissions credits raises issues about the reliability of achieving specific GHG emission reduction amounts that are more reliable if the person responsible for GHG emissions must assure that GHG emissions will actually be achieved.
Thus cap and trade regimes often also raise the following ethical problems which were discussed in more detail in a prior entry on this website. (Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading, 2010).:
a. Permanence. Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by a project will stay out of the atmosphere forever. Yet permanent storage of carbon is needed to assure equivalence between emissions reductions avoided if no credits were issued and atmospheric carbon reductions attributable to a project which creates carbon credits. This is so because emissions reductions should guarantee that some quantity of GHG will not wind up in the atmosphere, yet some projects which are used to substitute for emissions reductions at a source have difficulty in demonstrating that the quantities of carbon reductions projected will actually be achieved. For instance, carbon stored in forests, soils, or geological carbon sequestration projects could be released to the atmosphere under the certain conditions. For example, rapid temperature change could kill trees thus releasing back into the atmosphere carbon stored in the trees. This problem is usually referred to as the problem of “permanence” of carbon reduction projects. For this reason, only projects that assure permanent reduction of carbon in the atmosphere can be categorized as environmentally effective projects and should be used to offset activities which actually release carbon.
b. Leakage.Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the trade could be resumed at another location. For example, paying people to plant trees in location A is not environmentally effective if these same people that receive the money chop down trees at place B. This is the problem usually referred to as “leakage.” Forest and other kinds of bio-sequestration projects that sequester carbon in particular often create leakage challenges. Industrial projects can also create leakage problems if the industry gets credit for reducing carbon at one industrial plant while moving the carbon producing activities to another place. If leakage occurs, then the trade is not environmentally effective.
c. Additionality. Getting a credit for a project which is used in a trade will also not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons. This is so because trading regimes usually assume that a GHG emitter should get credit because of their willingness to invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions that would not happen without the incentive to get credit for carbon reductions. If the project would happen without the investment of the emitter, then the investment in the project is not “additional” to business as usual. This is the problem usually referred to as the “additionality” problem.
d. Enforcement of trading regime. A trading regime is environmentally ineffective if its conditions cannot be enforced. Although enforcement of trading regimes is sometimes practical when the project on which the trade is based is within the jurisdiction of the government issuing the allowances, enforcement is particularly challenging when the project is located outside of allowance issuing government. In such cases, enforcement must be “out-sourced” to other institutions or governments In addition, while many hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in setting up emissions trading schemes all over the world, virtually no resources are being channeled into their enforcement or verification. Although most cap and trade regimes have built-in carbon reduction verification steps, verification remains extremely difficult for many types of carbon reduction projects for which credits are being issued because of the lack of enforcement or long-term verification potential. This enforcement challenge is exacerbated when projects for which credits are issued are in poor countries without the technical capability to enforce or verify that reductions have been made. Because of this, a strong case can be made that those who desire to rely on projects that have dubious enforcement and verification potential should have the burden of demonstrating enforcement and verification potential before they may obtain credits generated from these projects.
e. Distributive justice and internal allocation of a government-wide cap.How a cap is allocated among entities within a government creates many potential distributive justice problems. Governments sometimes distribute a cap they have by giving away allowances, auctioning allowances, and other ad hoc considerations that often take into account political feasibility. Each of these methods of distributing a cap raises distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. For instance, both auctioning allowances and giving away allowances could be significantly regressive, making higher-income households better off while making lower-income households worse off. Auctioning could also be regressive if the most wealthy get the most permits forcing those without the financial resources into non-polluting options. Sometimes governments choose to allocate the cap by placing caps on “upstream” carbon users such as coal and petroleum companies and ignoring “downstream” carbon emitters such as coal-fired industrial users. A decision to place a cap upstream makes the climate change regime easier to administer but could have regressive effects on those least able to afford increased fuel costs. An upstream cap also can create little incentives for those who can afford to waste energy to change behavior. In contrast, downstream caps puts the responsibility on energy users. There is no ethically neutral way to decide these design questions.
f. Distributive justice and revenue from allowances. When allowances are auctioned or otherwise purchased, governments must make decisions about how to use allowance revenues. These decisions raise a host of distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. Some governments have chosen, for instance, to use allowance revenues to fund climate change technology research, to meet international obligations to fund climate change adaptation projects in developing countries, to fund programs to reduce deforestation projects in developing countries, to buy off politically powerful opponents to climate change legislation, to help those least able to cope with rising energy costs, or to subsidize nuclear power, geologic carbon sequestration, or renewable energy. Thus, decisions about how to allocate revenues from distributing allowances raise distributive justice issue
IV. Ethical Issues With Carbon Taxes.
In addition to the ethical issues that apply to all carbon pricing regimes identified in section II of this entry, carbon taxing regimes can raise the following additional ethical issues.
a. Distributive Justice and a Carbon Tax. Carbon taxing regimes must decide who must pay the tax and just as is the case for cap and trade regimes in the allocation of allowances, taxing schemes may choose to apply the tax either to upstream producers of carbon fuels such as petroleum or coal companies that distribute fossil fuels or further downstream to entities such as electricity generators who consume the fossil fuels. Upstream taxation creates fewer taxable entities who have a huge tax burden. Therefore the decision on who to tax creates different winners and losers, an outcome which has political significance particularly in places where fossil energy is mostly produced. If the tax is based on the amount of CO2 per unit of energy, then some fossil fuel industries such as coal production will pay a much higher tax per unit of energy, a fact which most greatly affects those places and communities that produce fuels with higher CO2 emissions levels per unit of energy. This fact creates heavy burdens from the tax for those who are dependent on the sale of fuel with higher CO2 production levels. And so a decision about who must pay a tax has distributive justice implications.
How the tax revenues are used by the government also has enormous political and distributive justice implications. Policymakers are faced with many competing ways of using tax revenues generated by putting a price on carbon. Many parts of the world that have established a carbon tax use it primarily to subsidize technologies that produce lower amounts of GHG per unit of energy such as wind and solar power. Other governments use the revenues to ease the burden on those who are most affected by the tax, including poor people. Thus how the revenues of a carbon tax are distributed raises deep questions of distributive justice which also create issues of political feasibility.
b.Amount of the tax.
As we have seen all carbon pricing schemes raise ethical issues about whether the price is sufficient to achieve GHG emissions reductions consistent with the government’s ethically determined obligations to reduce GHG emissions. A pricing regime that is based on taxing carbon emissions raises more challenging questions about whether the tax is ethically stringent enough than cap and trade regimes because governments are able more easily assure that the cap is stringent enough than a regime based on taxing carbon because the size of the cap may be set directly on the magnitude of GHG reductions required for the government to achieve its ethically determined GHG emissions reductions obligations while the sufficiency of a tax must rely on economic modelling to determine the magnitude of reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax. Determining the amount GHG reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax is always somewhat of a guessing game due to the inherent imprecision of economic modeling to predict how entities and people will respond to different price signals. For this reason, taxing schemes that seek to assure that the government will reduce GHG emissions reductions levels congruent with the government’s ethically determined reduction obligations should include accelerator provisions that would increase the amount of the tax once it is determined that actual GHG reductions are not consistent with reductions pathways required to achieve ethically determined reductions obligations. However, because experience with carbon taxing programs around the world has demonstrated that political backlash will likely arise that undermines government support for continuing a carbon tax that is judged to be too high, governments which seriously seek to reduce their GHG emissions through imposing a tax alone may need to consider back up strategies rather than rapidly accelerating taxes if the original tax does not achieve the GHG reductions required of it by its ethical obligations.
c. Considering responsibility for prior emissions, an issue relevant to distributive justice.
Distributive justice supports an allocation of burden sharing obligations on the basis of who is most responsible for causing the current problem. Carbon tax regimes are usually forward-looking; in that most schemes make everyone pay the same price for using the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2. Thus the scheme ignores responsibility determined by looking backward at questions such as:
Who caused the problem?
Who benefited from past emissions?
Who is in the best position to fix the problem?
To deal with these questions, a carbon tax may need to be supplemented by additional policies, for example by tax credits for poor people or sharing of tax revenues with those who must pay the tax but who have done little to cause the current problem so that the tax scheme can consider the distributive justice implications of looking backward at who is most responsible for the current problem
As we have seen carbon pricing schemes designed to reduce GHG emissions raise a host of ethical issues and problems.
Although many of these ethical problems can be dealt with by the pricing carbon regime design, given the enormous threat to life and ecological systems created by human-induced climate change, perhaps the most important ethical issue raised by carbon pricing regime is whether the carbon pricing regime will be successful in reducing a government’s GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.
Because there is limited political support for enacting carbon pricing schemes with sufficient pricing levels to achieve the enormous reductions in GHG emissions now necessary to prevent very dangerous climate change, carbon pricing schemes will likely require policy responses in addition to carbon pricing alone.
Because of the need to judge whether any carbon pricing scheme will achieve a government’s ethically determined GHG emissions reduction obligations, all proposed carbon pricing schemes should be clear and transparent on how the pricing scheme will achieve the government’s ethically determined GHG reduction goals. A pricing scheme could contribute to achieving a nation’s GHG reduction obligations either by establishing a price that will sufficiently reduce a government’s GHG emissions to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction obligations by itself or in combination with other GHG reduction policies. However, to judge the adequacy of the pricing scheme, governments should explain the role of any carbon pricing scheme in achieving its ethically determined GHG reduction obligations.
The following comments on this entry were made by Eric Haites, an economic consultant for Margaree Consultants Inc, in Toronto
Ethical Issues Entailed by Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change confuses benefit-cost analysis with carbon pricing and criticizes carbon pricing on grounds that also apply to non-price policies.
Carbon pricing policies – cap and trade systems (CTSs) and carbon taxes – are regulatory measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by specified sources within a jurisdiction. They may be implemented in conjunction with or as substitutes for non-price regulations such as subsidies for non-carbon energy, minimum gasoline efficiency standards for vehicles, funding for affordable public transportation, requirements/incentives to increase the supply of renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for buildings.
Benefit-cost analysis of climate change compares the estimated costs of different levels of global emissions reductions with the estimated value of reduced global climate change damages associated with those emission reductions. Benefit-cost analysis of climate change is extremely complex conceptually and in practice. Since the analysis must span a century or more due to the long atmospheric lives of greenhouse gases, the calculations are very sensitive to the discount rate and have large uncertainty ranges.
A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented by a jurisdiction to help achieve its GHG reduction goal regardless of how that goal is established. A country that has a nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement can use carbon pricing and/or non-price policies to meet its commitment.
It is true that many economics textbooks suggest that the carbon tax be set at the level determined by benefit-cost analysis, but that is not necessary and is based on the implicit assumption that an emissions reduction goal has not been established by other means, such as international negotiations.
Many of the criticisms of carbon pricing policies do not specify an alternative policy. If emissions are to be reduced, the alternative is a set of non-price regulations including efficiency standards and increased reliance on renewable energy. In practice, neither carbon pricing nor non-price regulations cover all GHG emissions, so there are regulated emissions and exempt emissions under every policy.
Consider then the claim that it is immoral to buy the right to pollute. Before a regulation is implemented, the right to pollute in unlimited quantities is free. Regulations impose costs and/or quantity limits on the right to pollute. In the case of a carbon tax, there is a cost for each ton of GHGs emitted by specified sources. In the case of a CTS, total emissions by specified sources are capped. In the case of non-price regulations there is a compliance cost, but any remaining emissions are free and unrestricted. The cost of an efficient automobile is higher, but its emissions are not priced or restricted.
One of the arguments by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn cited by the paper is that the rights to nature can not be owned. Many CTSs explicitly state that the allowances are not property rights. Almost all of the CTSs have cancelled or greatly devalued surplus allowances.
In the paper, the discussion of the distinction between a fine and a fee is misleading for a CTS. Every CTS has penalties for non-compliance, so the correct comparison is the fine for a CTS and that for a non-price policy. The non-compliance penalty for most CTSs is a reduction in emissions equal to the exceedance plus a penalty. To use the analogy in the paper, a CTS requires the offender to pick up the beer can and pay a penalty. In contrast, a non-price regulation only imposes a fine.
The paper raises the concern that “the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.” Why would the moral stigma associated with residual emissions differ? Are the residual emissions by a source subject to a carbon tax morally less acceptable than those by the owner of a more efficient automobile. Sources subject to carbon pricing policies have a financial incentive to make emission reductions that cost less than the tax/allowance price. Sources subject to non-price policies have no incentive to reduce their emissions.
Issues of distributive justice arise for all regulations; which sources are regulated, how stringent is the regulation, how should groups that are adversely affected by compensated? The paper clearly identifies these issues for CTSs and carbon taxes. But they apply equally to non-price regulations. Who pays for the more efficient vehicles and buildings, the public transit and the additional renewable energy? Those costs will be borne by specific groups or the government. Carbon pricing policies have the advantage that they generate revenue that can be used to help address distributive justice.
The paper argues that past emissions should be considered when addressing distributive justice. Presumably, this consideration applies to any policy, not just carbon pricing. In practice the ability to do this is limited due to lack of data and the long atmospheric lives of GHGs. Non-price regulations often differentiate between existing and new sources and CTSs address this concern through their allowance allocations.
In summary, carbon pricing can be implemented by a government to help meet its GHG emissions reduction target regardless of how that target is established. A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented alone, jointly or in combination with non-price policies. In practice all jurisdictions with a pricing policy also implement non-price policies. Many of the ethical criticisms of pricing policies apply to non-price policies as well. Price policies have the advantage of raising revenue that can be used to address distributive justice.
 Indeed, they may have a financial incentive to increase emissions. A more efficient vehicle may have a lower operating cost per km so the owner may drive more.
Resonse to comments
I agree that levels of GHG reductions achieved by a pricing scheme need not be determined by Cost-Benefit Analysis although some economists recommend this. In such cases the ethical issues discussed in this paper apply
Mr, Haite is correct that the articles criticism of carbon pricing schemes may also apply to other responses to climate change, However, if the level of reductions that constitute a nation’s GHG reduction target are based on a nation;s ethical obligations, then the problem entailed by some carbon pricing scheme’s allowing emitters to continue emit as long as they pay a tax is not possible.
I. The Failure of Ethical Principles to Get Traction in Climate Change Policy Formation.
This entry will explain why a type of rationality, referred to as instrumental rationality, both dominates policy formation on climate change around the world and is responsible for the failure of ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change.
As we have explained frequently on Ethicsandclimate.org, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include that:
First, it is a problem that is being caused by some people in one part of the world who are putting others in other places who have often done little to cause the problem at great risk.
Second, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends. In fact, unless humans adequately respond to climate change’s growing threats, most of life on Earth is threatened.
Finally climate change is a problem about which many of its greatest victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments for protection. The victims’ best hope is that the those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have duties to climate change victims to avoid harming them.
The ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical obligations, climate change will eventually cause great harm to all but particularly to those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who usually have done little to cause the great harm.
There are many ethical principles that should, without controversy, guide national responses to climate change. These include, for instance:
Governments around the world have agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and agreements by parties under this treaty since then, including the Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), to adopt national climate change policies on the basis of several ethical principles including the duty to establish national policies in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1), to apply the precautionary principle that prohibits nations from using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3), and the principle that developed countries have the obligation to take the lead on reducing the threat of climate change (UNFCCC,1992, Art 3.1), and to enact policies that limit warming to between 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C (United Nations, 2015 Art 2)
In addition there are numerous other non-controversial ethical norms that are understood to apply to nations as a matter of international law to global environmental problems such as climate change including the “no harm principle” which obligates nations to prevent people or entities within their jurisdiction from harming people and nations outside their borders (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “polluter pays principle” which requires those nations causing harm from pollution to pay for the damages they cause (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16).
Yet most nations are completely ignoring these ethical obligations when they formulate policy responses to climate change (National Climate Justice. Lessons Learned).
A research project led by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland found that despite express national promises under the Paris Agreement to base national climate commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce the threat of climate change to prevent warming as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2°C, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, all 24 nations studied actually set their NDCs on economic self-interest. Yet this conclusion was not determinable from the documents that nations submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat when the nations submitted their NDCs (National Climate Justice, Lessons Learned). The study also found that environmental NGOs in the country that supported national action on climate change did not seem to understand how to critique the failure of the nation to set its NDC on the basis of the nation’s ethical obligations including ethical obligations that the nation expressly agreed to.
Every national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GOHG) emissions, or NDC, is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on poor vulnerable people and nations, and
the nation’s fair share of global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding a warming limit goal.
Yet nations around the world are setting their NDCs on economic self-interest and ignoring their ethical responsibilities on these issues.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for their GHG reduction targets does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its fifth assessment report that despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014).
And so ethical principles are failing to guide national climate change policy formation despite the uncontroversial applicability of several ethical principles that should guide national climate change policies.
The failure of ethical principles to get traction in guiding policy is a much broader problem than in regard to climate change policy formation alone. Despite the emergence of the academic sub-discipline of environmental ethics in the late 1970s, ethical principles are failing to influence environmental policy-making for most environmental problems.
The claim that ethical principles are rarely guiding environmental policy formation is strongly supported by the comments of the founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, Eugene Hargrove, who in 2003 published an essay “What’s Wrong ? Who’s to Blame? (Hargrove, 2003). This essay invited reflection on why environmental ethics has not had an influence on environmental policy. Just three years later, Robert Frodeman, in the same journal in an article entitled “The Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics” also reflected on the huge failure of environmental ethics to achieve traction in environmental policy formation (Frodeman, 2006).
Since its inception in the late 1970s, academic environmental ethics has been mostly focused on theoretical issues while completely failing to help policy makers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always use arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide dubious unstated norms that are the justification for the arguments and which would often fail minimum ethical scrutiny if the norms were made express and critically reflected on.
One of the reasons why ethical principles have failed to affect environmental policymaking is the failure of the academic discipline of environmental ethics to pay attention to actual controversies that arise in environmental policymaking debates. Academic environmental ethics since its inception in the late 1970s has been almost exclusively focused on theoretical issues, such as how to ground a biocentric or ecocentric ethics, while completely failing to help policymakers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always rely on arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide or ignore dubious unstated norms on which the arguments are based.
II. The Problem of Instrumental Rationality
This article now explains why a first order task that needs to be addressed before ethical principles can play their appropriate role in shaping environmental public policy is to open policymaking arguments on environmental issues including climate change to express ethical reflection. This is a first order task because throughout the world those responsible for environmental policymaking are following instrumental reason, a mode of reason which hides or ignores ethical questions, to determine the acceptability of environmental policies. It is a first order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, policymaking must be made open to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed policies, they can’t apply the appropriate ethical rules.
Instrumental rationality is a mode of rationality that is exclusively concerned with the search for efficient means or scientific facts which, consequently, is not concerned with assessing the goals—or ends— that policies should pursue. This form of rationality has existed throughout history, but has become increasingly more dominant in post-Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist societies (Cruickshank,2014).
Ethics rationality, on the other hand, is concerned about what the goals of society should be. Ethical reasoning seeks to determine what should be the goal of human behavior by examining what is right or wrong, what is permissible or impermissible, what actions are obligatory or non-obligatory, and how burdens of preventing harm should be justly distributed.
Instrumental rationality, because it focuses on means, usually ignores ethical questions about what the goals of policy should be despite the fact that every argument against a proposed environmental policy already contains an unstated norm. For instance, a claim that a proposed climate change policy should not be adopted because it imposes unacceptable costs rests on the unstated norm that the government should not adopt policies that impose significant costs on the economy or specific industries.
Scientific and economic reasoning, which have increasingly dominated public policy-making from the beginning of the Enlightenment, almost always focuses on how to achieve goals, not on what goals or ends should be desired.
Economic rationality often focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have.
Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is.” Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
Yet instrumental rationality that scientists and economists deploy in their search for scientific and economic facts has dominated public life and higher education for several centuries.
That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policy making is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics. This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental rationality is deployed to make policy recommendations. Although employees of government agencies responsible for policy formation often understand they should apply policy rules entailed by relevant laws, many relevant laws do not contain clear rules on how to respond to economic and uncertainty arguments against proposed environmental policies.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons:
First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose expertise depends on the use of instrumental rationality. Since the power of experts depends, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their expertise is the central key to solving modern problems, these experts are reluctant to acknowledge that their analytic tools for solving problems are often ethically inadequate and sometimes ethically inappropriate (Thomas, 2017). Moreover particularly in capitalist societies, wealthy interests are able to hire experts and frequently do so to fight government action which would reduce profits.
Second, opponents of proposed environmental policies usually frame opposition to these policies on the basis of excessive costs to governments or specific industries or lack of scientific certainty about harms the policy seeks to prevent. These arguments very frequently hide controversial normative assumptions implicitly embedded in the arguments. For instance, cost arguments made in opposition to environmental policies often rest on the very ethically dubious idea that any policy which creates significant cost to a nation, regional economy, or to a specific industry should not be adopted even when the problematic behavior causes serious harm to people or nations who have not consented to be harmed. The public debate in response to these claims often narrowly focuses on the magnitude of the costs or whether the regulatory action will create jobs and in so doing ignores several serious ethical problems with these arguments.
In policy disputes about matters in which potential harms are acknowledged by opponents of proposed policies, the public debate about the acceptability of the harms is often limited to some form of “cost-benefit analysis”(CBA).
Yet CBAs frequently hide important ethical issues. If, for instance, a CBA concludes that government action to protect vulnerable people or ecological systems should not be taken because costs of taking action to reduce an environmental threat outweigh the economic value of harms avoided by the proposed regulation, controversial ethical assumptions may be hidden in factual assertions about the magnitude of the costs or value of benefits particularly if:
Potentially but not fully proven catastrophic harms were ignored in the CBA.
The costs of taking action would be imposed upon parties that are harming others, yet the victims of the harm have not consented to be harmed.
Things that were believed to be sacred by one culture are valued in the CBA as if they were commodities whose value can be measured adequately by “willingness-to-pay” monetary measures. CBAs usually commodify all human values and thus value is restricted to monetary value while ignoring other values including sacred value or beliefs that certain entities should not be for sale. Thus in CBAs, usually the value of things that could be harmed are measured by human preferences measured in monetary values. Yet ethics is concerned with what preferences people should hold, not simply what preferences people hold.
Human rights will be violated if regulatory action is not taken.
The proposed government action implements the ethical duty of people to not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
The CBA determined economic value of entities that might be harmed are determined without obtaining the consent of those who might be harmed.
The benefits of government action to protect the environment are discounted too greatly in calculations that seek to allow future benefits of action to be compared to current costs to those who must act to prevent harm (Brown, 2008).
Thus, if a decision to take no government action on a potential environmental problem is justified only as a matter of imbalance between costs and benefits, very dubious ethical assumptions are frequently hidden in the CBA calculations while ethical principles, including those that have been widely acknowledged as valid and applicable to government policy formation are often ignored.
In this writer’s experience, proponents of environmental policies also not only rarely identify the ethical problems with the use of CBAs or almost any cost-based argument made in opposition to proposed policies, they almost always respond to the cost-based arguments by making counter cost claims. And so public debate about proposed policies usually focuses on economic “factual” claims while ignoring ethical principles.
Evidence of the utter dominance of instrumental rationality in the United State includes executive orders of several US presidents which require that any US proposed regulation must satisfy a CBA before it may be promulgated (Congressional Research Service, 2017).
This is so despite the fact that, as we have seen, a CBA used as a prescriptive guide to policymaking often hides many controversial ethical issues including, for instance, the duty of nations to not harm others on the basis of national economic self-interest.
Using cost to those causing harm to others as justification for failing to abate the harm also violates well-established principles of international environmental law including the “polluter pays principle” (Rio Declaration,1992, Principle 16 ) and the “no harm principle.” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble)..
Yet the United States continues to very frequently base the acceptability of environmental regulations on the results of a CBA.
In 1997, while working as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of International Affairs, this author closely observed the US debate about whether the US should agree to the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This debate focused exclusively on two different CBAs, one completed by the US EPA and the other by the US Department of Energy which reached slightly different conclusions about the magnitude of negative impacts on US GDP if the US agreed to be bound by the Protocol. Amazingly both CBAs examined costs and benefits to the United States alone if the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol while completely ignoring potentially harsh climate impacts on poor people around the world and the most vulnerable nations. Yet no one in the US government nor NGOs participating in the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocol raised any ethical problems with the US reliance on CBAs that examined costs and benefits to the US alone as a tool to determine the appropriateness of US action on climate change.
In most Western capitalist countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norm agreed to by almost all religions and nations that people should not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
Opposition arguments against proposed environmental policies often rest on the unstated very dubious norm that regulatory action limiting commercial activities should not be taken unless the harms are proven by the government with high degrees of scientific certainty even in cases where achieving high levels of certainty is scientifically difficult or very prohibitively expensive.
For over 30 years, opponents of US action on climate change have frequently based their opposition on scientific uncertainty about human-caused climate change harms despite the fact that the United States agreed to the “precautionary principle” when it agreed to the UNFCCC in 1992. (UNFCCC. 1992, Art 3.3) This principle says that governments will no longer fail to take action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Yet advocates of national action on climate change in response to opponents’ scientific uncertainty arguments almost always simply claim that the scientific “facts” of harm have been sufficiently scientifically demonstrated not on the ethical rule that precaution is required once it is scientifically established that significant harm might be created by certain human activities.
If a government decides not to act to reduce the threat of environmental harm on the basis of lack of proof of harm, such a decision can hide important ethical questions particularly if:
The government assumes that the proponents of government action to prevent environmental harm should shoulder the burden of proof of demonstrating harm particularly in matters where proof is very expensive, difficult to demonstrate, or cannot be fully demonstrated before potential harms are experienced..
There is credible but uncertain evidence that the current activity may be approaching thresholds that could trigger very serious consequences.
If the government waits until all uncertainties are resolved it will be too late to prevent serious harm.
Some very serious potential harm is judged to be low probability just because the mechanism for causing serious harm is not completely understood so that the probability of the serious harm cannot be confidently evaluated.
The victims of potential harm have not consented to put at risk.
All of these considerations are relevant to climate change yet, the United States has failed to decisively act on climate change since international climate change negotiations began 30 years ago because opponents of US climate change policies have claimed that there is insufficient proof of human-induced climate change caused harms.
Although the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world including most national academies of science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded with high levels of confidence that humans are causing and threatening great harms from human-induced climate change, even conceding, for the sake of argument, that great harms from human induced climate change are not yet proven, ethical principles requires that action should be taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet the ethical basis for requiring action is almost never discussed in the US public debate about whether scientific uncertainty about human-induced climate change is an appropriate justification for US unwillingness to act on climate change.
Scientists employed by environmental agencies usually focus on understanding the environmental harms and risks of various human activities and whether proposed government action will acceptably reduce threats to human health and the environment. The goals of environmental regulatory action are usually given to them by law or regulation such as water pollution should be reduced to prevent unreasonable harm to humans or ecological systems. Yet, in the face of scientific uncertainty about whether human actions may cause harm, scientists cannot determine who should have the burden of proof or what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof by scientific methods alone because these are fundamentally ethical questions.
An understanding the ethical problems with instrumental rationality leads to an understanding of why nations often ignore even well-established ethical principles in policy formation such as the ethical principle that no nation should harm others outside their jurisdiction on the basis of national economic interest.
For this reason, a first-order problem on the road to a world which formulates policies guided by ethical principles is to open policy formation controversies to express consideration of ethical issues. This goal requires that those engaged in policy formation spot and identify the ethical issues frequently hidden in economic and scientific arguments against proposed policies that currently dominate policy formation controversies on environmental issues around the world.
Unfortunately most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against environmental and sustainable development policies. Nor do those NGOs who participate in controversies about these issues have the training to spot ethical problems made by opponents of proposed policies that are derived from various forms of instrumental rationality.
Frodeman, R. (2006) A Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics, Environmental Ethics, 26
Hargrove, E., ‘(2003) What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4,  3-4
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014) 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Chapter 4. Sustainable Development and Equity. Sec 4.6. 2.1, p 4., http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/ assessed , Dec 23, 2017
National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned, https://nationalclimatejustice.org, accessed 24 Dec, 2017
When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that CO2 atmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world. This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.
Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C. Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.
Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation. This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.
Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”. The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.
For over 35 years, opponents of climate change policies most frequently have made two kinds of arguments in opposition to proposed climate policies. First proposed climate policies should be opposed because there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action. Second climate policies should be opposed because of the adverse economic harms that the policies will cause. This kind of argument has taken several different forms such as, climate policies simply cost too much, will destroy jobs, harm the economy, or are not justified by cost-benefit analyses just to name a few cost-based arguments made frequently in opposition to climate change policies. .
For most of the 35 years, proponents of climate change policies have usually responded to these arguments by making counter “factual” claims such as climate policies will increase jobs or trigger economic growth. Although the claims made by opponents of climate change policies about excessive costs are often undoubtedly false and therefore counter factual arguments are important responses to these arguments of climate change opponents, noticeably missing from the climate change debate for most of the 35 years are explanations and arguments about why the cost-based arguments fail to pass minimum ethical and moral scrutiny. This absence is lamentable because the moral and ethical arguments about the arguments of those opposing climate policy are often very strong.
This video identifies questions that should be asked of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or adverse economic impacts to expose the ethical and moral problems with these arguments. The video not only identifies the questions, it give advice on how the questions should be asked. The questions in the video also can be found below.
We are interested in hearing from those who use these questions to expose the ethical problems with cost arguments made against climate change policies. Those who wish to share their experiences with these questions, please reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post identifies three updated 15 minute videos which have previously appeared on this site. These videos describe, analyze, and respond to controversies about the climate change disinformation campaign. They include descriptions of:
(1) The enormous damage to the world that has been caused by a mostly fossil fuel corporate funded disinformation campaign on climate change,
(2) What is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign, a phenomenon sociologist describe as a “countermovement,”
(3) The tactics of the disinformation campaign,
(4) An explanation of why the tactics of the campaign cannot be excused either as an exercise in free speech or as responsible scientific skepticism,
(5) What norms should guide responsible scientific skepticism about climate change.