New Evidence That Climate Change Poses a Much Greater Threat to Humanity Than Recently Understood Because the IPCC has been Systematically Underestimating Climate Change Risks: An Ethical Analysis


Three papers have been recently published that lead to the conclusion that human-induced climate change poses a much more urgent and serious threat to life on Earth than many have thought who have been relying primarily on the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This paper first reviews these papers and then examines the ethical questions by the issues discussed in these papers.

I. The Three Papers

On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories of  the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen, explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positi climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, and acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world. This paper explains that, contrary to common assumptions made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures and 20 C. Moreover, once triggered the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over preventing disastrous warming.

Another recent paper published in mid-August in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, concludes that models used to predict climate impacts have failed to incorporate abrupt carbon feedback from permafrost decay that recent evidence has revealed is now possible. In fact, the paper claims that early stages of processes that lead to permafrost degradation are already underway, a phenomenon which leads to release of dangerous amounts of methane and CO2. This paper further concludes that carbon emissions from melting permafrost could increase soil carbon emissions by 125–190% compared to gradual thaw alone.

This paper summarizes major conclusions from a third recent paper which analyzes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts. This paper, What Lies Beneath: On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, (hereinafter “WLB”), recently published by the Breakthrough Institute, claims both that the risks posed by climate change are far greater than is evident from the conclusions of IPCC and examines why IPCC has frequently underestimated threats from climate change.

The WLB report also further concludes that climate change is now an existential risk to humanity, that is an adverse outcome that could either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and dramatically curtail its potential. (WLB, p.13)

Although the WLB report acknowledges IPCC has done “critical, indispensable work of the highest standard in pulling together a periodic consensus of what must be the most exhaustive scientific investigation in world history” however, the IPCC process suffers from all of the dangers of consensus-building in such a wide-ranging and complex arena. (WLB, p. 5) The report also attributes 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 IPCC’s following scientific norms that condemn speculation. (WLB. p. 5) As a result, the report concludes that much of the climate research on which IPCC has relied has tended to underplay climate risks and as a result, IPCC has exhibited preferences for conservative estimates of climate change impacts. (WLB, p. 5)  This practice the WLB reports labels as “scholarly reticence.” (WLB, p. 5)

This WLB report further claims that climate science has succumbed to the norm followed by most physical sciences to refrain from any speculation that cannot be grounded in empirically determined probability calculations. This epistemic norm, the report claims, is not well-suited to guide predictions about very scientifically complex matters such as earth system dynamics. The report calls this approach the Probability Obsession of science which is not well suited to predict future states of complex systems about matters for which there are no historical antecedents. (WLB, p. 2)

The WLB report also notes that a conservative approach to climate science began to dominate and as a result, the planetary future has become a hostage to national economic self-interest. Thus, the paper claims it became “alarmist” to claim the climate change is an existential threat to life on earth. (WLB, p.4)

The report further notes that although “a fast emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change…. yet this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive.” And so the paper claims “we have a policy failure of epic proportions.”  (WLB, p. 4)

The WLB report further notes that although it has widely been reported that if the ghg emissions reductions commitments or Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs)  made by governments so far under the Paris Agreement are complied with, the Earth’s temperature is expected to rise to  3.40 C by 2100 without taking into account “long-term” carbon cycle feedbacks. (WLB, p.15) Yet if the positive feedbacks are fully considered, the temperature path defined by the NDCs could result in around 5° C of warming by 2100 according to a MIT study. (WLB, p.13) Yet, the report claims that even if warming reaches 3° C, most of Bangladesh and Florida would drown, while major coastal cities – Shanghai, Legos, Mumbai – would be swamped likely creating larger flows of climate refugees. Most regions of the world would see a significant drop in food production and an increasing number of extreme weather events, whether heat waves, floods or storms. (WLB, p.13)

The WLB report concludes warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%, and the World Bank reports “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C temperature rise would be possible.” Quoting Professor Kevin Anderson, the report claims a 4°C future “is incompatible with an organized global community and is likely to be beyond adaptation by the majority of people.” (WLB, p. 14)

The WLB report also claims that the often-quoted prediction of likely temperature increases if current NDCs are complied with of approximately 3° C rise does not take into account the considerable risk that self-reinforcing feedback loops could be triggered when certain thresholds are reached leading to an ever-increasing rise in temperature. These potential thresholds include the melting of the Arctic permafrost releasing methane into the atmosphere, forest dieback releasing carbon currently stored in the Amazon and boreal forests, with the melting of polar ice caps that would no longer reflect the light and heat from the sun. (WLB, p. 14)

The report cites a recent study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center found that if global temperature rose to 4° C that extreme heat waves with “apparent temperatures” peeking over 550 C (1310 F) will begin to regularly affect many densely populated parts of the world, forcing much activity in the modern industrial world to stop. (WLB, p.14)

The paper claims that one study found that even a 2° C warming “would double the land area subject to deadly heat and expose 48% of the population to deadly heat.” (WLB, p.14)

According to the WLB report, a 4° C warming by 2100 would subject 47% of the land area and almost 74% of the world population to deadly heat which could pose existential risks to humans and mammals alike unless massive adaptation measures are implemented. (WLB, p.14)

The WLB paper also explains how IPCC’s understatements of likely climate change impacts affect what is generally claimed among climate policy-makers about elements of climate science including climate models, climate tipping points, climate sensitivity, carbon budgets, permafrost and carbon cycles, arctic sea ice, polar ice-mass loss, and sea-level rise. The following summarizes some of the main paper’s conclusions on these matters, although we recommend that interested parties read the WLB’s full description of these issues. The full paper also should be consulted for footnote sources of the following conclusions.

Climate Models

Climate modeling is at the core of the work by IPCC, and in developing future emission and warming scenarios a 2007 report by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies Center for New American Security recognized the that: “Recent observations indicate the projections from climate models have been too conservative,” and  “the effects of climate change are unfolding faster and more dramatically than expected,” and, “multiple lines of evidence support the position that the 2007 IPCC reports’ projections of impacts are systematically biased low.” (WLB, p.18) For instance, the paper concludes:

The models used to project future warming either omit or do not account for uncertainty in potentially important positive feedbacks that could amplify warming (e.g., release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost, reduced ocean and terrestrial CO2 removal from the atmosphere, and there is some evidence that such feedbacks may already be occurring in response to the present warming trend. Hence, climate models may underestimate the degree of warming from a given amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by human activities alone. Additionally, recent observations of climate system responses to warming (e.g. changes in global ice cover, sea level rise, tropical storm activity) suggest that IPCC models underestimate the responsiveness of some aspects of the climate system to a given amount of warming. (WLB, p.18)

Climate models simply omit emissions from warming permafrost, but we know that is the wrong answer because this tacitly assumes that these emissions are zero and we know that’s not right. (WLB, p.18)

The WLB report characterizes IPCC reports as presenting “detailed, quantified (numerical) modeling results-such as feedbacks that the models account for in a descriptive non-quantified form. Sea-levels, polar ice sheets, and some carbon-cycle are three examples. Because policymakers and the media are often drawn to the headline numbers, this approach results in less attention being given to the most devastating, high-end, non-linear and difficult to quantify outcomes.” (WLB, p. 19).

The WLB report concludes about this tendency: “The emphasis on consensus in IPCC reports has put the spotlight on expected outcomes which then become anchored via numerical estimates in the minds of policymakers.” (WLB, p. 19)

The WLB report also notes that one of the problems with IPCC is the strong desire to rely on physical models. (WLB, p. 20)

Tipping Points

A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate systems component – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. (WLB, p. 21) Progress toward a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in the component leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic case is global warming is the ice-albedo feedback, or decreases in the area of polar ice change surface reflexivity, trapping more heat, producing further sea ice loss. (WLB, p. 21)

In some cases, passing one threshold will trigger further threshold events, for example, where substantial greenhouse gas releases from polar permafrost carbon stores increase warming, releasing even more permafrost carbon in a positive feedback, but also pushing other systems, such as polar ice sheets past their threshold point. (WLB, p. 21)

In a period of rapid warming, most major tipping points, once crossed are irreversible in human time frames, principally due to the longevity of atmospheric CO2 (a thousand years). (WLB, p. 21)

Climate models are not yet good at dealing with tipping points. (WLB, p.21) This is partly due to the nature of tipping points, where particularly complex confluence of factors abruptly change the climate system characteristics and drive it into a different state. (WLB, p.21) To model this, all the contributing factors and their forces have to be well identified, as well as their particular interactions, plus the interactions between tipping points. (WLB,  p.21)  Some researchers say that “complex, nonlinear systems typically shift between alternative states in an abrupt, rather than the smooth, changes, a challenge that the climate models have not yet been able to adequately meet. (WLB, p. 21)

Risks associated with tipping points increase disproportionately as temperature increases from 1° C to 2° C and become high above 3° C. Yet political negotiations have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

IPCC has published few projections regarding tipping-point thresholds, nor emphasized the importance of building robust risk-management assessments of them in absence of adequate quantitative data. (WLB, p. 210)

The world is currently completely unprepared to envision and even less deal with the consequences of catastrophic climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

Climate Sensitivity

Climate sensitivity is the amount by which the global average temperature will rise due to a doubling of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, at equilibrium. IPCC reports a focus on what is generally called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The 2007 IPCC report gave a best estimate of climate sensitivity of 3° C and said it is likely to be in the range 2° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The 2014 IPCC report says that “no best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given, because of lack of agreement on values across lines of evidence and studies” and only gives a range of 1.5° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The IPCC reports fail to mention that the ECS measure omits key “long-term” feedbacks that a rise in the planet’s temperature can trigger. (WLB, p. 22) These include the permafrost feedback, other changes in the terrestrial carbon cycle, a decrease in the ocean’s carbon-sink efficiency, and the melting of polar ice sheets creating a cold ocean-surface layer underneath that accelerates the melting of ice shelves and hastens the rate of ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 22)

There is a wide range of literature that suggests that climate sensitivity which includes these feeedbacks-known as Earth System Sensitivity (ESS), is 4-6 0 C. (WLB, p. 22).

Long-term feedbacks have already begun to appear on short time frames, climate-carbon cycle coupling is expected to add carbon to the atmosphere as the climate warms, although the magnitude of feedback is uncertain. (WLB, p. 22)

Conclusions about climate sensitivity should take into account that:

  1. Biogeochemical feedbacks (such as less efficient land-ocean sinks, including permafrost loss) effectively increases carbon emissions to 2100 by about 20% and can enhance warming by up to 0.5°C, compared to the baseline scenario. (WLB, p. 23)
  2. Warming has been projected to increase methane emissions from wetlands by 0 – 100% compared with present-day wetland methane emissions. A 50% increase in wetland methane emissions by 2100 is expected in response to high-end warming of 4.1 – 5°C which could add at least another 0.5°C warming. (WLB, p. 23)
  3. It is important to use high-end climate sensitivity because some studies have suggested the climate models have underestimated three major positive climate feedbacks: positive ice albedo feedback from the retreat of Arctic sea ice; positive cloud albedo feedbacks from retreating storm track clouds in mid-latitudes, and positive albedo feedback by the next phase (water and ice) clouds. When these are taken into account the ECS is more than 40% higher than the IPCC mid-figure, at 4.5 to 4.7° C. (WLB, p. 23)

Some recent research concludes that climate sensitivity is higher in warmer, interglacial periods (such as present) and lower in colder glacial periods. Based on a study of glacial cycles and temperatures over the last 100, 000 years one study concludes that in warmer periods climate sensitivity is 4.88 0 C. (WLB, p. 23) The higher figure would mean that an atmospheric concentration 450 ppm CO2, a figure that current trends will reach in 5 years, would be around 30 C in rather than the 20 C number bandied about in policy making circles. (WLB, p. 23)

Carbon Budgets

A carbon budget is the estimate of the total future human-caused ghg emissions in tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalent, that would be consistent with limiting warming to a specific figure, such as

1.5 0 C or 20 C with a given risk of exceeding the target such as 50%, 33%, or a 10% chance. (WLB, p. 24)

Carbon budgets are usually based on mid-term climate sensitivity numbers of around 30 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Yet there are reasons to believe climate sensitivity is closer to 4C. In fact, as we have seen, climate sensitivity may be between 4-60 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Carbon budgets are routinely proposed that have a substantial and unacceptable risk of exceeding specified targets and hence entail large and unmanageable risks of failure., (WLB, p. 24)

Research in 2017 the compared role climate models used by IPCC with models that are “observationally informed” produce 15% more warming by 2100 than IPCC claims and therefore supports the conclusion that carbon budgets should be reduced by 15% for the 20C target. (WLB, p. 24)

The IPCC reports fail to say that once projected emissions from future food production and deforestation are taken into account there is no carbon budget for fossil-fuel emissions for a 20C target. (WLB, p. 24).

There are also problems with carbon budgets which incorporate “overshoot” scenarios, in which warming exceeds the target before being cooled by carbon drawdown. (WLB, p.24)  Pam Pearson, Dir. of International Cryo-sphere Climate Initiative, said that most cryo-sphere thresholds are determined by peak temperatures, and the length of time spent at the peak warning rather than “later decreasing temperatures after the peak are largely irrelevant, especially with higher temperatures and longer duration peaks.” Thus “overshoot scenarios” which are now becoming the norm in policymaking hold much greater risks. (WLB, p. 24)

Permafrost and the Carbon Cycle

The failure to adequately consider long-term feedbacks in IPCC models, and hence in projections of future warming, lies at the heart of the problem with the IPCC reporting process. (IPCC, p.25) Over century time-scales, amplifying feedbacks may ultimately contribute 28-68% of total warming, yet they comprise only 1-7% of current warming. (WLB, p. 25)

The land sink (storage capacity) for CO2 appears much smaller than is currently factored into some climate models. Thus future patterns of warming may be distinctly different from past patterns making it difficult to predict future warming by relying on past observations. (WLB, p. 25)

Soil Carbon. A 2016 study concluded that a soil carbon cycle feedback “has not been incorporated into computer models used to project future climate change, raising the possibility that such models are underestimating the amount of warming that is likely to occur. (WLB, p. 24) The projected loss of soil carbon from climate change is a potentially large but highly uncertain feedback to warming, however, there is likely to be strong carbon-climate feedbacks from colder northern soils. (WLB, p.24)

Forests. At the at the moment about one-third of human-caused CO2 emissions are absorbed by trees and other plants. But rapid climate warming and unusual rainfall patterns are jeopardizing many of the world’s trees, due to more frequent droughts, pest outbreaks, and fires. (WLB, p. 25) This is starting to have profound effects on the Earth’s carbon cycle. (WLB, p. 25)  In 2009 researchers found that 2° C of warming could cut in half the carbon sink of tropical rainforests. Some tropical forests – in the Congo and Southeast Asia – have already shifted to a net carbon source. The tropics are now a net carbon source with losses owing to deforestation and reductions in carbon density within standing forests being double that of gains resulting from forest growth. Other work has projected a long-term, self-reinforcing carbon feedback from mid-latitude forests to the climate system as the world warms. (WLB, p. 25)

There has been an observed decline in the Amazon carbon sink.  Negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern, and central Amazonia at 20 – 25% deforestation. Researchers say that severe droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015-16 could well represent the first flickers of this ecological tipping point and say the whole system is oscillating. (WLB, p.25)

Permafrost. The world’s permafrost holds 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. On land it covers an area of 15,000,000 km². The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on earth, and some permafrost degradation is already occurring. Large-scale tundra wildfires in 2012 added to the concern, as have localized methane outbursts. (WLB, p. 25)

The 2007 IPCC assessment on permafrost did not venture beyond saying “changes in snow ice and frozen ground have with high confidence increase the number and size of glacial lakes, increased ground instability in mountain and other permafrost regions and led to changes in some Arctic and in Antarctic ecosystems. It reported with high confidence that methane emissions from tundra and permafrost have accelerated in the past two decades and are likely to accelerate further. It offered no projections regarding permafrost melts. (WLB, p.25).

The effect of the permafrost’s carbon feedback has not been included in the IPCC scenarios including the 2014 report. (WLB, p. 26). This is despite clear evidence that “the permafrost carbon feedback would change the Arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42 – 88% of the total global land sink. (WLB, p. 26)

In 2012, researchers found that, for the 2100 median forecasts, there would be a 0.23 – 0.27°C of extra warming due to permafrost feedbacks. Some researchers consider that 1.5°C appears to be something of a “tipping point” for extensive permafrost thaw. (WLB, p.26)

A 2014 study estimated that up to 205 billion tonnes equivalent of CO2 could be released due to melting permafrost, This would cause up to 0.5° C extra warming for the high mission scenario and up to 0.15° C of extra warming for the 2° C scenario. The authors say that; “climate projections in the IPCC Fifth Assessment report, and any emissions targets based on these projections, do not adequately account for emissions from thawing permafrost and the effect of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. (WLB, p.26)

Recently attention has turned to the question of the stability of large methane hydrate stores below the ocean floor on the shallow East Siberian Arctic shelf. (Methane hydrates are cage-like lattices of ice within which methane molecules are trapped). (WLB, p. 26)

These stores are protected from the warmer ocean temperatures above by a layer of frozen sub-sea permafrost. The concern is that warmer water could create taliks (areas of unfrozen permafrost) through which large-scale methane emissions from the hydrates could escape into the water column above and into the atmosphere. (WLB, p. 26)

A deceptively optimistic picture is painted when the potential impacts from the degradation of permafrost and methane hydrates are underplayed. (WLB, p. 26)

Arctic Sea-Ice

IPCC has consistently underestimated the rate of Arctic sea ice melt. (WLB, p.27)

Arctic sea ice is thinning faster than every IPCC climate projection, tipping points have been crossed for sea ice free summer conditions, and today scientists say an ice-free Arctic summer could be just years away, not many decades. (WLB, p. 27)

The loss of sea ice reduces the reflectivity of the planet and adds to warming but this feedback is not fully incorporated into models in circumstances where the rate of sea-ice loss is more rapid than expected in the models, as is occurring now. (WLB, p.27) To keep global temperature increase below 20 C, global CO2 emissions would need to reach zero 5-15 years earlier and the carbon budget would need to be reduced by 20-51% to offset this additional source of warming. (WLB, p. 27)

Because climate models are missing key real-world interactions and generally have been poor at dealing with the rate of Arctic sea ice retreat, expert elicitation’s play a role in considering whether the Arctic has passed a very significant and dangerous tipping point. But the IPCC has done none of this. (WLB, p.27)

Polar Ice-Mass Loss

2001 IPCC report said little change in Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet is expected over the next 50-100 years.  (WLB, p. 28)

Greenland Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC report said there were “uncertainties in the full effects of ice sheet flow” and a suggestion that “partial loss of ice sheet on polar land could imply meters of sea-level rise….Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales.” The reality is very different.” (WLB, p. 28)

IPCC said in 2007 that current models suggest virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea-level rise of about 7 meters if global warming were sustained for millennia in excess of 1.9 to 4.60 C relative to pre-industrial values. (WLB, p. 28) This was despite that two 2006 studies found that the Greenland ice cap “may be melting three times faster than indicated by previous measurements, warning that we are close to being close to being committed to a collapse of the Greenland ice cap and reports that rising Arctic regional temperatures are already at “ the threshold beyond which glaciologists think the [Greenland] ice sheet may be doomed.” (WLB, p. 28)

In 2012 then NASA climate science chief James Hansen told Bloomberg that: “our greatest concern is that the loss of Arctic sea ice creates a great threat of passing over passing two other tipping points – the potential instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet and methane hydrates…These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.’ On this very grave threat, IPCC is mute. (WLB, p. 29)

Antarctic Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC assessment proffered: “Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and gain mass due to increased snowfall.” (WLB, p. 29) However, the net loss of ice mass could occur if dynamical ice discharge dominates the ice sheet mass balance. Reality and new research would soon undermine this one-sided reliance by IPCC on models with poor cryosphere performance. (WLB, p. 29)

By the 2014 IPCC assessment, the story was: “Based on current understanding from observations, physical understanding, and modeling, only the collapse of the marine-based sectors of the Antarctic ice sheet, if initiated could cause global mean sea level to be substantially above the likely range during the 21rst Century.” (WLB, p. 29) There is medium confidence that the additional contribution would not exceed several tenths of a meter of sea-level rise during the 21rst Century. And “abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic is sheet is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment.” This was another blunder. Observations of accelerating ice mass in West Antarctic were well established by this time. (WLB, p. 29) It is likely that the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has already been destabilized. (WLB, p. 29) Ice retreat is unstoppable for current conditions, and no acceleration in climate change is necessary to trigger the collapse of the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which comes with a 3-5 meter sea level rise. (WLB, p. 29), Such an event would displace millions of people worldwide. (WLB, p. 29)

In 2016, another significant study concluded that: “Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a meter of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 meters by 2500.” Compare this to the IPCC report, just a year earlier, that Antarctica’s contribution to sea levels “ would not exceed several tenths of a meter…during this century. ” (WLB, p. 29) As well, partial deglaciation of the East Antarctic ice sheet is likely for the current level of atmospheric CO2 contributing ten meters or more of sea-level rise in the longer run, and five meters in the first 200 years. (WLB, p. 29)

A 2018 study showed that ocean-driven melting has caused rates of ice-loss from West Antarctica to triple from 53 + or – 29 billion to 159 + or – 26 billion tons per year from 1992 to 2017. (WLB, p. 29) Forty percent of the total mass loss over that period has occurred in the last and five years, suggesting a recent and significant acceleration in the loss rate. (WLB, p. 29)

Over the same period, ice-shelf collapse had increased the rate of ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula almost five-fold from 7 + or – 13 billion to 33 + or- 16 billion tonnes per year. (WLB, p. 29)

Sea Level Rise

In the 2001 assessment report, the IPCC projected a sea-level rise of 2 millimeters per year. By 2007, the researchers found that the range of the 2001 predictions were lower than the actual rise. Satellite data had shown that sea levels had risen by an average of 3.3 millimeters per year between 1993 and 2006. (WLB, p. 30) IPCC did not use this data to revise its projections. (WLB, p. 30) James Hansen warned of “scientific reticence” in regard to ice sheet stability and sea-level rise. (WLB, p. 30) In 2008, the US Geological Survey warned that sea-level rise could top 1.5 meters by the end of the century. And by the end of 2009, various studies offered drastically higher projections than IPCC. (WLB, p. 30) The Australian government identified research that estimated sea level rise range from 0.5 to 2.0 meters by 2100. (WLB, p. 30) Yet in 2014, IPCC reported a smaller figure (0.55 meters compared to 0.59 meters in 2007) despite mounting evidence of polar ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 30) Noting inconsistent evidence, IPCC said that the probability of specific levels above the likely range cannot be evaluated. (WLB, p. 30)

An NOAA sea level report in August of 2017 recommends a revised worst-case sea level scenario of 2.5 meters by 2100, 5.5 meters by 2150 2150, and 9.7 meters by 2200. (WLB, p. 31)

Today the discussion among experts is for sea-level rise in this century of at least one meter, and perhaps in excess of two meters. (WLB, p. 31)

Goals Abandoned

The WLB report claims that the warming levels already reached at approximately 1.10 C are already “dangerous” and that future warming would need to be limited to 1.20 C to save the Great Barrier Reef. (WLB. p. 37) Therefore, the WLB report concludes that the UNFCCC process has already abandoned the goals of the UNFCCC of “preventing dangerous interference with the climate system.” The report also argues that other key goals of the UNFCCC including that “food production is not threatened’’ and “achieving reductions in a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change” have been abandoned for all practical purposes.”

Conclusion-Ethical Issues Raised by IPCC’s Consistent Underestimation of Climate Change Impacts.

A. Failure to Apply a Precautionary Science

As we have seen, the “What Lies Beneath” Report attributes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts to both the consensus process that IPCC follows in which governments must approve aspects of final IPCC reports and to IPCC’s following norms often followed by scientists which eschew making any claims that cannot be supported by empirically tested observations.

As we have claimed before in, there is a potential conflict between IPCC’s mission to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change scientific literature, which normally requires adequate levels of scientific proof before drawing conclusions, and the precautionary principle stated in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which requires governments to act despite scientific uncertainties. A precautionary science would identify all scientifically plausible impacts, not only those impacts that can be identified with high levels of scientific certainty or impacts about which quantitative probability statements derived from empirical observations can be stated.  If the precautionary principle is to be taken seriously then decision-makers should be informed about all potentially dangerous impacts even if quantitative probability statements about these impacts can’t be derived from observations of how a physical system works.  Since the UNFCCC expressly adopted the precautionary principle, a strong case can be made that IPCC should identify all scientifically plausible impacts. If it were to do this, IPCC should, of course, be clear that some impacts are less certain than others.

Identifying all scientifically plausible climate impacts is also required as a matter of ethics once there is a reasonable basis for concluding that certain human behavior is dangerous to others.

Who should have the burden of proof and how much proof should be required to satisfy the burden of proof in the face of scientific uncertainty about dangerous behavior are fundamentally ethical questions, not ‘value-neutral’ scientific matters, yet scientists are rarely trained in ethical reasoning and very rarely spot the ethical issues raised by decisions about dangerous human behavior that must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty.  Given that the potential harms from climate change include an existential threat to life on Earth, as a matter of ethics, those who claim that scientific uncertainty is justification for not taking strong action to reduce the threat of climate change should have the burden of proof of demonstrating with very high levels of proof that ghg emissions levels are safe.

Ethics would require higher levels of proof of those who are engaged in dangerous behavior to prove their behavior is safe in proportion to how potentially dangerous the behavior is especially for harms to others who have not consented to be harmed and for behaviors that become more dangerous the longer one waits to reduce the uncertainty. Given that climate change actually threatens life on Earth including billions of people who have not consented to put at risk, and given that waiting to reduce ghg emissions makes the problem more threatening, ethics would shift the burden of proof to those who are most responsible for raising ghg emissions to prove with very high levels of proof that human emissions of ghg are safe even if there is some uncertainty about the amount of warming that different levels of ghg emissions will cause. For this reason, the problem created by IPCC’s underestimation of climate change impacts may not be exclusively the fault of IPCC.  The problem may also be the fault of policymakers who fail to respond to the enormous potential harms entailed by human-induced warming by demanding that opponents of climate change policies shoulder the burden of proof by demonstrating with high levels of proof that ghg emissions will not cause serious harms.

This website includes many articles which explain why policymakers and citizens have a strong duty to reduce ghg emissions in the face of some scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts. See, for example:

1. The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions the face of Scientific Uncertainty;

2. On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

Policymakers have a vital need for scientists to explain all scientifically plausible harms that may result from human activities even if the magnitude and creation of potential harms are uncertain. In fulfilling these responsibilities, scientists may not ignore potential harms because they are unable to determine probabilities about the likelihood of their occurrence based on empirical observations. Yet because scientists often follow the epistemic norms of their science when engaged in scientific research which usually require adequate levels of proof before making causal claims, policymakers need to be clear when interacting with scientists that their policymaking responsibilities require that they, the policymakers, protect citizens from all plausible harms.  Therefore policymakers need scientists to identify all scientifically plausible harms. Because IPCC’s mission is to synthesize the existing peer-reviewed climate science, which very likely does not include scientific conclusions about plausible harms partly based on speculation, IPCC cannot fulfill the role of science that policymakers need when policymakers are seeking to protect citizens from all plausible harms, namely to inform humanity about all plausible climate change impacts. Thus, there is a basic conflict between IPCC’s mission of synthesizing peer-reviewed climate change science and providing policy-makers with information about all scientifically plausible climate change impacts.

This need of policy-makers to understand all plausible harms creates an enormous challenge for mainstream scientific instiutions which usually rely on peer-review in which scientists normally review scientific claims by comparing claims to emperically tested observations which are the ground of the scientific enterprise. Yet, as Hans Jonas explained in The Imperative of Responsibility, In Search of an Ethics in a Technological Age, the power of modern technology to create catostrophic harms such as those harms now forseeable from human-induced climate change, ethics requires that policy-makers approach these matters with a “heuristics of fear,” replacing the former “projections of hope” that traditionally guided policy (Jonas, 1984, p.x), Yet, mainstream science is often uncomfortable with conclusions not grounded in scientific observations. If this is so, ethics requires that IPCC’s mandate be amended to synthesize scientifically plausible conclusions about climate change outcomes.

B. The Ethical Bankruptcy of n Which Demand High Levels of Certainty Before Taking Action to Reduce the Threat of Climate Change

The WLB report also claims that quoting a 2014 article in the Guardian increasing evidence ‘that policy summaries on climate impacts and mitigation by the IPCC were significantly “diluted under political pressure from some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, and the United States.” (WLB. p. 34)

The WLB report consistently argues that the remedy to IPCC’s tendency to underestimate climate impacts is to allow or require more speculation about uncertain but plausible climate impacts. However, those governments that seek to restrict discussion of all impacts to those that have been proven with relatively high levels of proof would likely argue that speculation could lead to an overstatement of climate impacts. Yet following a precautionary science that identifies all plausible climate change impacts including those that have been based on speculation can guard against overstating the seriousness of climate impacts by allowing those who claim that the plausible impacts have been overstated to provide reasons for their claims so that policymakers can judge whether some of the plausible but not fully proven impacts are arbitrary or without any plausible scientific support. This would place the burden of proving harm appropriately, as a matter of ethics, on the parties that seek to justify continuing dangerous behavior.

Nations which have demanded high levels of proof before reducing their contributions to climate change have failed to abide by their ethical and legal duties to not harm others and not abide by the ” precautionary principle” which they agreed to UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

C. Ethical Problems with Economics Arguments Against Climate Change Policies

The WLB report also claims that some governments have advocated policies that would not be sufficient to achieve the goals of the UNFCCC to prevent dangerous climate change because they thought policies that achieve safer levels of warming ‘were too economically disruptive.” (WLB, p. 39). This report claims that in so doing,” policymakers are complicit today in destroying the very conditions which make life possible.” (WLB, p. 39) Further, the WLB report claims “There is no greater crime against humanity.” (WLB, p. 39)

An ethical analysis of those nations that refuse to adopt policies that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic harm on the basis of their economic interest would also strongly condemn these nations as deeply morally bankrupt.


Anthony et. al., 2018, 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, Nature Communications ,

Breakthrough Institute, 2018, What Lies Beneath, On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk,

Jonas, H, 1984, The Imperative of Responsibility; In Search of an Ethics for a Technological Age, University of Chicago Press

Steffen, 2018, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,



Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Harrisburg, Pa.



Ethical Issues with Relying on Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change.

I. Introduction.

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 in Laudato 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 regimeA 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 allowancesWhen 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

V. Conclusions.

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.


Brown, D. (2010, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading;

Carey, S.& C.Hepburn, (2011) Carbon trading: unethical, unjust and ineffective?

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change,

Pope Francis, (2015), Laudato Si

Roberts, D. (2016) Putting a price on carbon is a fine idea. It’s not the end-all be-all, Vox,

Sandel, M. (1967) It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute, http//

UNFCCC, Paris Agreement2 (2015),

UNHR, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, (2018) Climate Change is a Human Rights Issue,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence, Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School



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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.


Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation


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, 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.


Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs,, accessed 16 Dec. 2017

Congressional Research Service (2014) Cost-Benefit and Other Analysis Requirements in the Rulemaking Process’,, accessed 18 Dec.,2017

Cruickshank, J., (2014) Democracy versus the domination of instrumental rationality: Defending Dewey’s argument for democracy as an ethical way of life, Humanities 3, 19–41; doi:10.3390/h3010019,, accessed 20 Dec.2017

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, [2003] 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., assessed , Dec 23, 2017

National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned,, accessed 24 Dec, 2017

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration, 1992), accessed 24 Dec 2017,

Thomas. W. (2017) Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis in Modern Life, Rational Action,, accessed 22 Dec. 2017

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), FCC/INFORMAL/84/Rev.1 GE.14-20481 (E), Preamble.

United Nations (2015), Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1,, accessed 23 Dec. 2017


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

An American at the Bonn Climate Change Negotiations.

To be an American at the Bonn 2017 climate negotiations felt very different than the 13 other times this writer has participated in the yearly efforts that almost every nation in the world has participated in with the hope of finding a global solution to climate change.

Shortly after entering the huge complex on the Rhine River at which every nation in the world was meeting to finalize the details of the 2015 Paris Accord, I ran into several acquaintances from other years who all remarked about the outrageousness of the US intention announced by President Trump of withdrawing from the global climate change deal.

The United States had a delegation at the Bonn talks that was telling other nations what they should do on an agreement about which the US president wants no part.  According to a representative from India, Dr. Vijeta Rattani, of the New Deli Center for Science and Environment, at the beginning of the Bonn talks the US was obstructing agreement on some issues that had wide support among most other nations.

The US’s main contribution was to host a panel which made a full-throated defense of coal while most of the rest of the world was trying to get an agreement that nations would phase out coal by 2030 because of the likely impossibility of keeping warming to non-catastrophic levels without phasing out of coal combustion.  According to a story in the New York Times before the Trump team could make its case on the benefits of fossil fuel, “the panel was disrupted for more than 10 minutes by scores of chanting and singing demonstrators. The protesters then walked out, leaving the room half empty. Throughout the remainder of the presentation, audience members shouted down and mocked White House officials who attempted to explain away President Trump’s stated view that global warming is a hoax.”

During the Bonn COP, 20 countries including  Angola, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Fiji, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Portugal and Switzerland agreed to phase out of coal combustion by 2030.

Throughout the Bonn talks, representatives of some of the most vulnerable nations to climate change pleaded with high-emitting nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in light of the current suffering of their citizens. Among others I talked to early during the Bonn talks was a representative from Seychelles, a nation of 115 islands about 900 miles East of the East African coast in the Indian Ocean, who was strongly disturbed by the US lack of response to climate change given that people on her island were already suffering from rising sea levels and drought which was making it more difficult for her island nation’s citizens to grow food.

I also talked to Africans working on climate issues who claimed that massive human suffering from drought is now visible in the sub-Sahara countries of Mali, Chad, and Niger, suffering which is responsible for the creation of waves of refugees who have been attempting to enter Europe often through Libya, many of whom have drown at sea while those of have made it to Europe are destabilizing European politics.

Throughout the Bonn negotiation complex, most nations mounted pavilions which included displays of climate change impacts already being experienced in their countries, adaptation responses which are underway, and mitigation efforts which they are undertaking.  Walking through the Bonn complex, participants could not escape the conclusion that adverse climate change impacts are not just a future menace but a troubling current reality in much of the world.  Although ten years ago, one could participate in the yearly climate negotiations and conclude that most nations thought that human-induced climate change was mostly a future threat, in November 2017 it is clear that most nations are already experiencing some adverse climate change impacts that they realize they and other nations need to respond to now.

In several Bonn events, representatives of the global scientific community created a mood of gloom and urgency by discussing the magnitude and speed of GHG reductions now necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change harms. One program put on by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) described the enormous gap between the GHG emissions reductions pledged so far by nations under the Paris Agreement and those that are required to limit warming to the Paris Accord’s goals of 1.5  to 2.0 degrees C.  A report by UNEP concluded that if the international community fully complied with its GHG emissions reduction pledges made so far, the gap between the pledges and what is needed to achieve the warming limits is “alarmingly high.” The report goes on to say that even if national pledges are fully complied with, the remaining carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C will be 80 % depleted by 2030 while by that year the remaining budget to achieve 1.5 degrees C warming limit goal will have been completely depleted. The report also says much more ambitious national pledges are now necessary by 2020, just over two years from now, to have any realistic hope of staying on a reduction pathway necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

Other scientists during the Bonn negotiations alarmingly warned of the more rapid loss of Arctic ice than what was expected, increasing yearly larger rises of atmospheric CO2 concentration levels perhaps because forest and ocean sinks are starting to decrease, and greater than expected sea level rise.

 Some of the great anger about the United States that I witnessed in Bonn was somewhat muted by the presence of 16 US States and numerous American cities and businesses who had been organized by California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg under the America’s Pledge Campaign. This group which accounted for almost half the US economy had a large presence in Bonn including a large pavilion which showcased what many US sub-national governments and private sector entities were doing to reduce US GHG emissions. One German participant said to me that he had hope that the United States would eventually do the right thing on climate change despite the Trump’s administration indefensible position because of the presence of the defiant US states and local governments. However, he said since these entities only represented about half of the US GHG emissions, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the world was a major global abomination.

During the last event I went to in Bonn, a UNEP representative discussed the fact that even if every nation fully achieved GHG reductions at levels they committed to, the world was headed toward over a 3 degree C warming in this Century, a level of warming that is extremely dangerous particularly for some parts of the world.  He then exhorted the audience to work tirelessly to get every national, state, regional, and local government to set ambitious GHG reduction targets. The situation is ominous he said, we need “all levels of government, that is nations, regions, and local governments,  to immediately work toward achieving zero carbon emissions.”


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law,

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


The Moral Outrageousness of Trump’s Decision on the Paris Agreement







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 COatmosphere 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.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

A video: Questions that Should be Asked of Those Who Oppose Climate Change Policies on the Basis of Costs, Job Loss, or Decreases in GDP To Expose the Moral and Ethical Problems with these Arguments


coal fire obama

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:

The questions in this video are:











Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School








Three Videos on Why the Fossil Fuel Funded Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is Neither an Exercise of Free Speech nor Responsible Scientific Skepticism and Should Be Understood as Some Kind of New Crime Against Humanity


wizardweb of denial


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.

Continue reading

Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.

The tactics of the fossil fuel industry cannot simply be understood as its exercise of free speech. As we have seen in previous entries on the disinformation campaign on this website the disinformation Campaigns tactics have included:

1. Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science.
2. Cherry-picking mainstream climate science by focusing on an issue about which there may be some scientific uncertainty while ignoring a vast body of climate science which is well-settled.
3. Manufacturing non peer-reviewed climate change science claims.
4. The creating think tanks, front groups, and Astroturf groups which widely have disseminated untruthful claims about mainstream climate science and which were created to hide the real parties in interest, members of the fossil fuel industry.
5. Publishing and widely disseminating dubious manufactured climate change scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
6. Widely attacking mainstream climate scientist and journalists who have called for action on climate change.
7 Cyber-bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalists.

A few of these tactics are always ethically troublesome including creating conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, and PR campaigns whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind claims that  attack mainstream climate science.  These organizations have also manufactured bogus climate science claims, cyber-bullied climate scientists and journalists, and widely published claims about climate change science that have not been subject to peer-review.

Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public and intimidate mainstream scientists and journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.

Certain facts about climate change make these ethically obnoxious tactics even more reprehensible. They include the fact that climate change is a problem that the longer governments wait to take action to prevent damage, the worse the problem becomes and the more difficult and more expensive it becomes to solve it. The climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least 30 years of inaction and, as a result, enormous and expensive greenhouse gas reductions are now required of the entire world to prevent potentially devastating and catastrophic climate change impacts. These impacts will likely be most harshly experienced by poor countries around the world which have done very little to cause theca climate problem. In addition, those most vulnerable to the harshest climate impacts have never consented to nor been consulted about waiting until all climate science uncertainties are resolved before action is taken.

For these reasons, just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations and industry organizations, and free market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign. Just as It is morally reprehensible to call fire in a crowed theater when there is no evidence of a fire because such reckless behavior will likely cause harm to people panicking to run to safety, telling those responsible for GHG emissions that there is no evidence that human activities are causing and threatening climate induced harms will likely cause great damage because inaction guarantees that atmospheric concentrations of GHG will continue to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and likely cause great  harm and perhaps make it  impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends. In fact not only is the the deceit propagated by the fossil fuel companies and others funding the disinformation campaign unjustifiable on free speech grounds it is so harmful that it may create legal liability for those entities who have funded the disinformation campaign.

Climate change disinformation is responsible for almost a 40 year delay in reducing GHG emissions to safe levels and harsh climate change impacts are already visible in many parts of the world caused by rising seas, much more intense storms, droughts, and floods. And so some of the great harm caused by the climate change denial countermovement is already being experienced even though the most catastrophic climate change harms will be experienced in future decades.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

What Advocates of Strong Government Action on Climate Change Should Learn from Sociology


sociology and climate

This is the 3rd entry in a series that has been examining the practical significance for climate change policy formation of insights of sociologists about the failure of governments to respond to the enormous threat of climate change.

This series is reviewing a new book about the social causes of climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in the series, we described why sociological explanations for the success of the opponents of climate change policies and identification of deep ethical and moral problems with arguments made by climate change policy opponents largely have been missing from mainstream climate change literature and the media coverage of human-induced warming issues.

In the second entry in this series, we looked at the insights from sociology about the morally reprehensible climate change disinformation countermovement.

We now review what advocates of strong government action on climate change should learn from sociologists.  We note that the Dunlap/ Brulle book contains many other issues about the sociology of climate change than those discussed in this series. However, advocates of climate change policy should:

1. Pay attention to and educate others on  how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful forces, that is, help citizens see the wizard behind the curtain who has been projecting a false understanding of climate change matters.


In the first entry in this series, we reviewed the conclusions of sociologists summarized in the Dunlap/Brulle book about why most of the climate change literature relevant to relevant to changing the dangerous path the world was on assumed that the primary challenge was to motivate individuals to respond to the danger of climate change described by scientists. Therefore, many of not  most climate policy advocates focused on how to improve messaging about climate change policies or how to we incentivize individual behavioral change through the use of economic incentives.

We also explained that for over 30 years, proponents of action on climate change mostly focused on responding to the arguments made by opponents of climate change that government action on climate change was unjustifiable due to scientific uncertainty and high costs of proposed climate policies.

Because motivating individual behavior to engage in activities that don’t produce GHGs was assumed to be the major challenge to improve government responses to climate change, proponents of climate change policies have largely relied on the disciplines of economics and psychology, two disciplines which claim expertise on how to motivate individual behavior, to make policy recommendations on how to change individual responses to climate change. Yet sociologists warn that individuals almost always make decisions in response to the cultural understanding of the problem of concern. Therefore, large scale individual behavioral change on climate change is not likely as long as many people are influenced by the cultural narrative pushed by the opponents of climate change that climate change science is uncertain and that proposed responses to climate change will create great unacceptable damage to a nation’s economy.

Therefore, those working to improve government and individual responses to climate change should adjust their tactics to respond to the insights of sociologists that have concluded that citizens need to understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been shaped by powerful actors who have used sophisticated tactics to achieve support for their position that climate change policies should be opposed on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs to the economy. It is not enough for proponents of climate change policies to simply make counter scientific and economic “factual” arguments to the scientific and economic claims of  the climate change policy opponents,  advocates for climate policies need to help citizens understand what interests are responsible for the disinformation that is the basis for the  false arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, why the tactics used the opponents of climate change policies are morally reprehensible, and why the arguments of those opposing climate change policies will continue to create huge injustices and immense suffering in the world.

As we explained in on this website many times, although skepticism in science is a good thing, opponents of climate change participating in the denial countermovement have engaged in a variety of morally reprehensible tactics that have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

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

(c) using think tanks and front groups to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have not been submitted to peer-review,

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

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

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

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

These tactics do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism, but morally reprehensible disinformation (For a discussion of these tactics and why they are morally reprehensibility, see, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The United States and some other countries are nations where a culture of individualism dominates, cultural understanding which often hides the role that politically powerful actors play in formulating  public policy. On this issue, the new book on sociology and climate change states:

Psychological and economic perspectives on climate change can easily be misused to reinforce the societal tendency to focus on individuals as both the primary cause of, and solution to climate change. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015. p. 10 ) …..These disciplines  assume that addressing the human dimensions of climate change is in essence a matter of incentivizing, persuading and encouraging individuals to do their bit and to quit the habit of excessive resource consumption. This approach leads to an emphasis on addressing climate change by changing individual behavior via financial incentives or disincentives or through various communications efforts aimed at promoting lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 10 )

The notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their personal choices is widely held among US policymakers, the media and the general public and is of course quite compatible with the assumptions of economics and psychology. But simply pursuing strategies to motivate individual behavioral change without helping citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change was manufactured by morally indefensible strategies, does little to change the cultural understanding of the problem held by many.

Proponents of climate change policies need to help citizens see who is the wizard behind the screen which has over and over again been making false claims about the lack of  scientific grounding for the conclusions that humans are responsible for creating huge climate change threats. Proponents of climate change policies need to achieve greater understanding of and focus on who is funding the false claims of the opponents of climate change policies, and how they are organized and communicate, what tactics they have and continue to use to propagate a false narrative, and how the actions of politicians who resist action on climate change are linked to the the climate change denial countermovement.

web of denial

In the last month,19 US Senators led by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse have begun to publicize the role of fossil fuel coal companies in misleading citizens on climate change (See Web of Denial).  This political effort has been made possible by the sociological work of Dunlap, Brulle, and McCritte, among others.  And so there is a growing body of sociological work that is now available to help citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been manipulated at the federal level in the United States and in several other countries.  However, additional sociological analysis is needed to better understand how opponents of climate change policies have  successfully manipulated the government response to climate change at the State and local level in the United States and other countries, matters which the Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges.

Simply improving messaging in accordance with recommendations of psychologists  or following the recommendations of economists to create economic incentives to engage in less GHG producing behavior will not likely create strong citizen support for climate change policies unless citizens better understand that the narrative created by opponents of climate change policies about high levels of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable harm to the economy from the adoption of climate policies is not only false but has been manufactured by fossil fuel companies and other entities which have economic interests in continuing high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Advocates of climate policies need to help citizens understand that the wizard behind the curtain has been the fossil fuel industry, their industry organizations, free-market fundamentalists foundations, and the politicians who represent the interests of and are often funded by these groups.

As we have seen, in the first two entries in this series, the new book edited by sociologists  Dunlap and Brulle includes information  on how participants in the denial countermovement have prevented governments from responding to climate change by undermining the scientific basis on which claims about the urgent need to take action. The participants in the countermovement have attacked climate models, paleoclimatic data on which warming trends are based, modern temperature records, mainstream scientists who have claimed there is an urgent need to act, and manufactured bogus non-peer-reviewed climate science claims which they have then widely publicized in books and pamphlets, and then widely circulated the publications to journalists and politicians, tactics which have succeeded in getting the disinformation propaganda  widely distributed by friendly media. (Dunlap, R., and McCright, 2015, p. 306–307).

The climate denial countermovement has also blocked critical reflection on and  serious debate about climate change through other strategies which seek to promote the idea that civil society will be better off if climate change policies are not adopted. These strategies have included funding politicians that will promote the interests of participants in the climate change denial countermovement, placing people sympathetic to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in positions of authority in government institutions with regulatory authority, limiting the budgets of government environmental agencies in ways that prevent government action on climate change, orchestrating political opposition to climate change legislation through funding campaigns and lobbying efforts, and stroking the fear of individuals about adverse economic effects of climate change legislation (Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., 2015, p. 306–307).

As we have seen in the first entry in this series, opponents of climate change policies have also successively tricked proponents of climate change policies and the media covering climate change issues to focus on “factual” scientific and economic arguments while ignoring the deep moral and ethical problems with these arguments.

Advocates of climate change policies need to better educate civil society about how opponents of climate change policies are actually preventing government action on climate change. On these issues. sociological research can be helpful in explaining what has happened to prevent government action on climate change..

Sociologists can help citizens understand how the concentrated wealth of the opponents of climate change policies  have created an enormous inequality in the ability of different groups to participate in public decisions about climate change. For this reason, advocates of climate change policies need to publicize the details of how the opponents of climate change use the political processes open them to achieve their goals and why the opportunity for citizen involvement in climate change policy formation is often hindered by institutional structure and processes.

 2. Help civil society better understand the ethical and moral limits of the economic narrative discourses which are dominating civil society’s understanding of the acceptability of climate change policies.

The Dunlap/Brulle book explains how the discourse of neoliberal economic ideology has dominated political approaches to society’s problems.(Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 304) This ideology holds that civil society is better off if market capitalism is left alone and unimpeded by regulations that interfere with the generate of wealth. Advocates of  neoliberal ideology value individual rights. private property, laissez-faire capitalism, and free enterprise (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 302). Because neoliberal ideology has dominated political life in many countries including the United  States, many if not most proponents of climate change policies have advocated for “market” based solutions to climate change such as carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Yet market ideology often ignores moral and ethical questions such as on what justice and fairness considerations should the burdens of reducing GHG emission be allocated. Yet questions of distributive justice about which nations should bear the major responsibility for most GHG reductions at the international level have and continue to block agreement in international climate negotiations, as well as questions about which countries should be financially responsible for adaptation costs and damages in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest climate impacts and who have done little to cause the problem.

The failure of nations to consider act on what equity and justice requires of them to reduce the threat of climate change has been at the very center of the most contentious disputes in international climate negotiations (See, Brown, 2013, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity).

Many proponents of strong climate change policies that advocate for market based solutions have largely ignored the many obvious ethical and equity questions raised by climate change and as result the mainstream press has largely ignored these issues despite the fact that these issues are at the center of international disputes over climate change.  Also despite the fact that the positions that the United States and several other countries have frequently taken in Internationale climate negotiations have clearly flunked minimum ethical scrutiny, the US media has largely ignored the ethical and justice issues raised by the US response to climate change. (See Brown, 2012, A Video: Even Monkeys Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?)

The Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges that the dominant scientific and economic discourses framing the climate debate “reinforces the existing socio-politico-economic status quo” and “removes moral and political considerations from the discussion” (Brulle. R., and Dunlap. R. 2015, p.12). Yet, unless the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are seriously considered by nations when they formulate their international emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC, the international community is not likely to find a global solution to prevent potential enormous damages from human-induced warming (See, On The Practical Need To Examine Climate Change Policy Issues Through An Ethical Lens)

For these reasons, proponents of strong climate change policies should expressly integrate ethical and moral considerations into their analyses of climate change policies. Ignoring these issues will likely continue to be responsible for the lack of media coverage of these issues, despite the fact that there is an enormous need  at the international level for nations to respond to climate change at levels consistent with what justice requires of them if a global solution to climate is become viable.

In addition, every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, nations must face the question of what does fairness and justice require of it when formulating national climate policy, yet issues of justice and fairness are virtually absent from US media coverage of US climate policy. Also, the magnitude of GHG emissions reductions committed to by a nation is implicitly a position on how much warming damage a nation is willing to inflict on others around the world, a matter which is a moral issue at its core.

The failure to identify the ethical and moral dimensions of a nation, state, or regional governments GHG reduction target an invitation to hide profound moral and ethical issues behind scientific “factual” matters thus preventing public debate about what justice and morality require of governments.

3. Educate civil society about climate change issues in ways that will promote and sustain a social movement about climate change. 

Sociology studies how large scale social change is produced by social movements (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, 2015, p. 235). Given the civilization challenging nature of climate change, many observers of the failure of governments to respond to the threat of climate change have concluded that creating a strong social movement on climate change is the best hope of preventing catastrophic harm from human-induced warming given the enormity of the challenge facing the world. For this reason, proponents of strong climate change policies should work consciously to build and sustain a social movement to aggressively reduce GHG emissions mindful of what works to make social movements arise, become effective, and be sustained..

Sociology has developed an extensive and robust literature on the process of social change driven by citizen mobilization, including the development and advocacy of alternative policy perspectives, the creation of new organizations, how these organizations can affect both corporate actions and public policy (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S.. 2015, p. 235).

The most basic way that social movements change the social landscape is by framing grievances in ways that resonate with members of civil society (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz,S., 2015, p.237).  Because a high percentage of the arguments made by most proponents of climate change policy have been focused on adverse climate impacts that citizens will experience where they live, while ignoring the harms to hundreds of millions of vulnerable poor people around the world that are being affected by GHG emissions from all-high emitting nations, along with claims that mainstream climate science is credible and has been undermined by morally reprehensible tactics, there is a need to make more people aware of:

(a) the catastrophic harm that their GHG producing activities are imposing on others around the world;

(b) that government action to reduce the threat of climate change has been consistently blocked by the disinformation created by the fossil fuel industry;

(c) that the campaigns of politicians who support the fossil fuel industry have often been funded significantly by fossil fuel money;

(d) that the fossil fuel industry funded disinformation campaign has resulted in almost a 30 year delay which has now made it much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm; and,

(e)  and that every day that action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the problem more difficult to solve.

Proponents of climate change policies need to stress the enormous damages that the fossil fuel industry is inflicting on poor people around the world and the gross unfairness of high-emitting nations such as the United States on international climate issues because  an understanding of basic unfairness will help build and sustain a social movement on  climate change

Social movements focus members of civil society on particular dimensions of social problems of concern and provide their publics with clear definitions of those problems, along with arguments regarding who is at fault and what options exist for solving their social grievances. (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S., 2015, p.237)  For this reason,  proponents of climate change policies should seek to widely educate civil society about who has funded the numerous participants in the climate change countermovement and the morally reprehensible tactics that they have used.

Although sociologists have now documented which corporations, corporate industry groups, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and institutions have been most responsible for the spread of climate change disinformation at the national level in the United States and a few other countries, knowledge about who  is blocking climate change action at the state and local level has not yet widely been developed. Proponents of climate change policies should seek to assure that civil society understands what corporations, institutions, and foundations have been responsible for climate change disinformation and which politicians have advanced the interests of these groups at the national level and seek to better understand, perhaps working with sociologists, entities and politicians most responsible for resistance to climate change policies at the state and regional level.

To create and sustain a social movement on climate change, it is not enough for advocates of climate change policies to counter the false scientific and economic claims of climate change policy opponents, they must constantly seek to educate civil society about the causes of the grave injustices that climate change is causing if they seek to build and sustain a social movement on climate change.


Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Caniglia, B., S., Bruelle, R., Szasz,A., (2015). Civil Society, Social Movements, and Climate Change, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainable Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement

head in sand

This is the second entry in a three part series on sociological insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book on sociology and climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in this series, we described the new book’s contributions to understanding why a sociological understanding of the cause of climate change and reflection on the deep ethical and moral problems with the arguments of the opponents of climate change policies are mostly missing from the dominant climate change literature and the media coverage of global warming. This entry looks at the books conclusions of how mainstream climate change science has been undermined by opponents of climate change policies and thereby changed the cultural understanding of climate change, initially in the United States, and later, in other countries.


The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm.  (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see, Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign” and Chapter 10 of Dunlap and Brulle, 2015)

Before reviewing the contributions of the new book to understanding how powerful interests undermined proposed national responses to climate change through the creation of a countermovement, we note the enormity of the damage that has been caused by the over three decade delay in responding to climate change which is attributable to the success of this climate denial countermovement.

Now that: (a) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are in excess of 403 ppm, (b) the world agreed to try and limit warming to 1.5 degrees C in Paris at COP21 under the UNFCCC to prevent potentially catastrophic harm to hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world and the ecosystems on which they depend,  (c) to stay within the 1.5 degrees C warming limit will require rapid civilization challenging GHG emissions reductions in most countries, and (d) these needed reductions are so steep that it may be impossible to stay within a carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to prevent warming from exceeding the limit, the denial countermovement discussed in this the book is likely responsible for enormous amount of harm around the world particularly to those poor people who are most vulnerable to rising seas, storm damage, drought, floods, vector borne disease, killer heat waves and,acidifying oceans. For this reason, the denier countermovement is not just a morally and ethically reprehensible phenomenon, but a heinous global tragedy.

Although the new book on sociology and climate change contains many insights about how economically powerful entities have changed the cultural understanding of climate change and thereby prevented the United States and some other countries from responding to the growing threat of climate change, one chapter, in particular, titled Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement describes how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depended on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).

Before describing this chapter’s contribution to understanding how the climate disinformation campaign accomplished its goals of preventing the regulation of fossil fuel, we note that this website includes 17 entries on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, Start Here and Index Tab above under Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics).

On this website, we have consistently noted that scientific skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we have explained in many articles on this website, these tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally reprehensible disinformation. (See for instance, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a countermovement. A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement.  The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests that would be threatened by regulation of fossil fuels. The climate denial countermovement is often identified as an extention of an anti-environmental countermovement that began to form after Earth Day in 1970 when some corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations reacted to the large number of environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s at the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

The chapter in the new Dunlap/Brulle book on the climate denial countermovement both reviews some previously published sociological analyses of this countermovement and contains new information on how powerful economic interests have undermined government policy-making on climate change.

The Dunlap/Brulle book asserts that efforts to deny climate change began to get organized in the United States shortly after James Hansen testified in the US Senate in 1988 that climate change was already visible, testimony which put climate change squarely on the US public agenda (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 300). The book further claims that organized denial continued to grow and reached an unprecedented level in 2009 when the newly elected Obama administration and the Democratically controlled Congress increased the likelihood of US action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the result that no climate change legislation was enacted. The book claims that these efforts have continued relatively unabated since then (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.300). Further, climate change denial has become a virtual “litmus test“ for Republican politicians, strongly enforced by elements of the conservative movement (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p. 300).

The book outlines the historical and cultural conditions that have provided fertile soil for the climate denial countermovement including the rise of the anti-government sentiment in the United States that grew with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. This analysis attributes the displacement of Keynesian  economics from the late 1940s until the 1970s by the anti-regulatory economics of  neoliberalism as responsible for a fundamental shift in governing philosophy that significantly reduced constraints on capital accumulation and growth. This created a “global growth imperative” that was hostile to the kind of government regulation required to reduce the threat of climate change (Dunlap R., and McCright, A., 2015, p 303).The authors stress that an understanding of the success of the denial countermovement requires some understanding of the growth of the global economic system and its ideological grounding by conservative politicians (Dunlap, R. and McCright,  A., 2015, p. 303).

The chapter asserts that  leading fossil fuel corporations (most notably  ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, industry associations (e.g. for example American Petroleum Institute and Western Fuels) initially led efforts to deny climate change. (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p 310). These fossil fuel actors were joined by a wide range of other corporations and business associations to fund climate science deniers and Conservative Think Tanks and various groups promoting climate change science denial  (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 310).

The book explains some corporations and their allies viewed the rise of the environmental movement in the1970s with alarm and as a result opposition to environmental programs developed particularly in the American West where battles over access to natural resources raged and became a component of a wider conservative countermovement that was born in the 1970s in reaction to the progressivism of the 1960 (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p 304).

The chapter also notes that the international environmental policy agenda in the early 1990s, symbolized by the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit,” greatly threatened conservatives’ and industries’ neoliberal agenda and unfettered global markets (Dunlap. R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p. 305).

The book claims that conservatives in the United States learned from the Reagan administration’s experience that it was unwise to attack environmental protection directly, given that Americans were generally supportive environment protection (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306). As a result, the book claims the conservatives and their industry allies learned to prevent the implementation of government policies that might threaten their political and economic interests by undermining the scientific foundations of environmental policy proposals (Dunlap R.and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.306). As result conservatives seized upon the strategy of “manufacturing uncertainty” that had been previously effectively employed for several decades by corporations and entire industries, most notably the tobacco industry in efforts to protect their products from regulations and lawsuits by questioning the scientific adequacy of claims that their products were hazardous (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306).  As a result, conservatives began labeling  science supporting the need to regulate industry to protect the environment as “junk science.” This strategy became the favored tactic employed by conservatives and their industry allies when government showed interest in expanding environmental regulation and the major focus of attempts to prevent the adoption of climate change policies in the early 1990s (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306).

The book explains that participants in the denial movement undermined the public’s confidence in climate change science by attacking the validity of climate models, the use of paleoclimate data to establish climate trends, attacked individual climate scientists and scientific institutions, published  dubious non-peer reviewed climate science reports, funded self-proclaimed climate scientists exporters,  and many other tactics that manufactured scientific uncertainty.

The book explains why the complexity of climate change science made it particularly vulnerable to a strategy of manufacturing uncertainty designed to defeat proposed government regulation of industry and to create public controversies about the science (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also explains how the denial countermovement has evolved, changed, and expanded over the past quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing uncertainty has expanded into manufacturing public controversy about climate science up until the present (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which include portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia,  and recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Dunlap R. &  McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)

The chapter on the denial countermovement ends with an acknowledgment that further sociological research is necessary to better study the evolving countermovement’s components, strategies, and tactics not only within individual nations but also across nations to better understand how this phenomenon has become a full-fledged global advocacy network.

The last post in this series will identify the importance of sociological insights about government responses to  climate change for advocates of climate change policies.


Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.

Brown, D.  (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan.

Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University, Commonwealth Law School