This post will raise issues that are very controversial to some. As I tell students and audiences I have talked to around the world, I am not asking you to accept all claims I make, nor will I necessarily hold it against you if you disagree. I do this to provoke critical thinking amongst us about why climate change remains an existential threat to life on earth and why these issues are relevant to making democracies work for the common good on other issues. I have very frequently benefited from discussions with others who disagreed with me but who engaged with me in critical interchange. This post will be very critical of some corporations’ and affiliated entities’ tactics to undermine democacy’s efforts to achieve the common good, which in the case of climate change includes protecting life on Earth. While acknoedging the contributions of free-markets for what they can contribute to economic growth and technical innovation, this analysis demonstraits the indispensible need for appropriate government constraints to prevent corporate interests from using their enormous wealth to undermine what citizens in a democracy decide in deliberations about the common . This post will be critical of the United States for its failure to control the power of the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation about climate change. But as this post points out, research concludes that this is a problem in other countries which have economies with strong fossil fuel sectors. As a result this is a challenge for democracies that seek to achieve the common good.
Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
This paper takes the unusual step of listing the conclusions of this entry first to help readers judge how much of this paper they want to read although readers should read and critically consider the relevant analysis below before accepting any conclusions uncritically.
All claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good implicitly have the form:
A. Because of facts A. B, and C (Factual Premise)
B. Governments should do D ( Normative/Ethical Conclusion). Here normative means right or wrong, ethical duty, or prescriptive conclusion in light of facts. We will in this article refer to the conclusion of arguments about what governments should do as the normative or ethical conclusion. Notice the normative/ethical conclusion is already part of any claim about what a government should do given certain facts.
This paper will examine why normative rules that all countries including the US had already agreed to under international environmental law failed to get traction in national climate responses. Natiions had agreed to be bound by these principles in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement. The United States aslo agreed to human rights protections for its citizens which have also been ignored in public debates about climate change. Because there is shockingly little public discussion about “normative” or “ethical” conclusions of claims in the US public debate about climate change, this paper examines why the ethical conclusions of climate change were rarely discussed in US debates about climate change policies.
a. The primary cause of the failure to get traction for key ethical principles that the US government had already agreed would guide its climate policy formation is that a well-funded, sophisticated spread of misinformation that began in a focsued way in the US in 1971 with the Powell memo, discussed below, which created a widely accepted unquestionable cultural narrative that included the claim that the government is the problem not the solution. Such cultural narratives often become so accepted that many citizens become afraid to challenge them. The tactics of the Powell memo were expanded in the climate change disinformation campaign, discussed below, which was designed from the beginning to undermine citizens faith in mainstream climate science not to get the science right, which this website has previously described as a new kind of crime against humanity despite the indispensable role of skeptictism in science and the right of free speech. Therefore a major challenge for getting traction for ethics in climate policy formation, is to get traction for truth in climate change policy making disputes to undermine lies and misinformation sophisticatedly spread throughout the government’s population by increasingly powerful computer tools and other techniques.
An example of this which hasn’t been widely reported, while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited in 1997 to participate in war games being conducted by the Army War College that considered risks from parts of the world that would that may be destabilized by climate change. During this session the Army identified Syria, parts of the Sahil area of Africa, and three countries in Central America which were drought prone and potential places where refugees would create social disruption. In 2001, a multi-year drought began in Syria which eventually caused 1000000 refugees who destabilized large parts of the world and continue to be a source of social unrest.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption and unspeakable suffering is rarely commented on in the the US media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America. While at the same time prominent US politicans are spreading misinformation about climate change such as climate science is a hoax, climate law is unfair to the United States, climate change cant be real because it snowed in parts of the United States, and numberous false claims that havent been subjected to peer review and other techniques described in the climate change disinformation campaign referenced below.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/6
While the Army College’s 2008 threat assesment 2008 became increasing confirmed by droughts, floods, diseases, increaseingly damaging tropical storms, and refugees, many American politicians continued to claim that climate change was a ‘hoax’.
2. The United States has failed to achieve the common good because it ignored the warning of Adam Smith who although convinced civil society of the value of the free market through its invisible hand but also lesser known he predicted that merchants would sometimes ruthlessly scheme against the common good . (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) Thus governments need to establish rules to make democracies work for the common good that anticipate the likely behavior of some economically powerful interests to undermine the common good while acknowledging the benefit of free markets for some purposes in a democracy. .
3. Some US founding fathers claimed that the goal of government was to achieve the common good which according to Thomas Paine and others was essentially justice. They anticipated this would create disagreements among contending parties about factual claims and normative conclusions which are implicitly present in any claims about what a government should do to achieve the common good. Thus some founding fathers recommended that citizens be educated in skills to help them evaluate factual disputes namely science, and history and ethics and other subjects to help citizens evaluate disagreements about justice.
4. The goals of higher education have increasingly shifted from teaching skills needed by citizens to participate in a democratic processes to achieve the common good to teaching skills to make students attractive to potential employers such as science, engineering, and technology. Although claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good have both factual premises and normative conclusions, this shift in higher education’s focus has increased the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame the public debate on disputes about facts which usually ignore very relevant ethical considerations including ethical principles that government have previously agreed should guide their policy formation. For instance, all governments in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change agreed to be bound by the “precautionary,” “no harm” and adopt GHG emmission reductin targets to levels required of itin accordance with ‘equity ” which principles expressly undermine the excessive costs and scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of climate change. Yet proponents of climate policies usually ignore critically evaluating the normative conclusions of the arguments made by opponents of policies while focusing on counter factual claims about uncertainty and cost.
5. Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with its ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most US citizens in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. For a discussion of these issues see:
Seven Features of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.
6. This article will examine what can be learned from the failure to get traction in national responses to climate change for several ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their obligations under the 1992 climate treaty.
7. As we have explained in many entries, for 30 years the fossil fuel industry has been successful in framing the focus of the public debate in United States so that it has focused largely on issues related to scientific uncertainty and excessive costs. This is so despite the fact that the international community including the United States under G.H. Bush had agreed in 1992 to be guided in their response to climate change by the “precautionary principle” which make’s scientific uncertainty an illegitimate excuse for a nations failing to achieve their legal obligations, and the ‘no harm’ principle which makes governments responsible for harms to others caused by activities within their borders without regard to scientific uncertainty or cost to them once they are on notice that activities within their jurisdiction are threatening others.
8. The article explains why the need in international cooperative efforts to solve serious growin threats that cant be solved at the local level frequently raise questions of fairness and justice between nations that have usually been worked out through negotiations among nations about what is fair.
The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global cooperatiive efforts to respond to emerging threats that cant be adequatey dealt with at the national level. This is a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change have little understanding of why this is important, nor how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will sometimes be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.
Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC should guide their responses to climate change but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about national responses to climate change. Some detail is included on these issues because getting traction on these principles is still crucial to getting nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime while opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment.
The sections of this paper are:
1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues when developing rules about threats that cant be solved at the national level.
2. Why opposition to international rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the international common good.
3. The failure of higher education to educate students jskills necessary to evaluate the normative conclusions made about what government should do given certain factt
4. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieve the global common good.
I . Why governments at the national and internation level have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying law or rules seeking to achive the global common good.
Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice. Although international negotiations often focus on other issues in international environmental negotiations, the most time consuming issues are usually over differences between developed and developing nations about what fairness requires. Also in the last 20 years corporate interests which are economically threatened by issues under consideration have been successful in generating political opposition at the national level often by the dissemination of sophisticated disinformation on issues most consequential to the global community including poor developing nations,
Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which usually cant be achieved without grappling with justice questions among others.
Getting traction for justice in government affairs has become more urgent since the 1970s when well organized, aggressive, sophisticated efforts have undermined governments central role in ordering society for the common good, Sociologists attribute the beginning of this phenomenon in the US to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful social and environmental movements in the 1960s. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.
He recommended 10 things that businesses should do, all of which have been well funded and aggressively pursued. See, The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo,
The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed that government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem. Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge benefits of free markets while agreeing that government is sometimes a problem, It is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most people want, such as affordable health care, protection from environmental threats, towns designed to promote social interaction, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things, protection from the scheming of some merchants and despots throughout history who have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public good as Adam Smith warned.
While I worked for EPA on UN international environmental issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty and climate law that other countries were pushing for. Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is, in my experience having worked at the UN and taught or lectured in 38 countries, is increasingly internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues although many non-nationals believe there is still hope that US can make democracy work for the common good
I have been shocked how much our democracy in the last decade has made it easier for money to dominate politics by removing limits on corporate donations, voter suppression, gerrymandering, allowing donors to hide who make donations to entities who are involved in political issues, while other countries have often made it easier to vote in ways that initially shocked me. By law, for instance, Australian citizens have a duty to vote which my Australian colleagues say is enforced. While teaching in Japan I was told political money is not allowed to be used on television, which explains why one hears political messages on loud speakers in trucks all the time. I offer these examples to encourage research on their truth and to suggest that others do research on these kinds of issues. Of course these issues will create disagreements among citizens, a matter that democracies should resolve according to the supporters of the role of democracies by making arguments about what is fair
The process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty. For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of the fact that some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 treaty established very general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that climate change is a problem that necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. Some nations have been pushing for more clarity on these issues for decades. The best initial the negotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but “differentiated responsibilities.” Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict often between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language on crucial issues. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992 on the meaning of central terms such as “equity.” Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts.
During the international negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented along with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and often arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interests.
An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is that market processes should order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there was no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice. As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment, or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.
An example, while I was working as the US Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different cost-benefit analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol. During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification. I have learned that the way power works is to spread a narrative through a culture that becomes so accepted that citizens are afraid to challenge it. That is power often works by scaring people to not discuss certain things. But we have Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the lesser known Hannah Arendt who have implied we citizens have a duty to call out injustice when we see it, although violence is never justifiable morally and will also undermine the credibility of the moral claim
During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that. For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and the events of the late 1960s.
A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i] The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs. Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy.
In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ackowledged obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to, it is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates
Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.
2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common good are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.
Although Adam Smith is widely praised around the world for convincing much of the global community of the benefits of free market. Lesser known, however, is he also warned that the merchant class would sometimes conspire against the public interest and in so doing predicted that the merchants would sometimes be ruthless and effective in manipulating policymakers and legislatures by influencing the public’s understanding of issues that must be addressed to achieve the common good. (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)
Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry has been to spread disinformation . This has been accomplished by morally ruthless tactics that will be explored in the next section.
3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs under consideration at the international level to achieve global common good.
I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues who I have often sincerely publicly praised for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical conclusions with ethical considerations.
I have have rarely met US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. They explain this phenomenon by saying people don’t need to know what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317)The failure of international community to give some guidance to nations on how to apply the concept of equity to their GHG emissions reduction obligations is a gift to the opponents of climate change policies because they are likely, like Trump has already done, to make completely false claims about the unfairness of international climate law to their government and citizens. So far I have seen no one appearing in the media that knows how to respond effectively to this because I believe their valued contributions to this problem is in technical knowledge only allows them to answer with technically derived reason. I have also learned that all disciplines are tribal in that they have a set of rules which limit what an academic can talk about. This is also a problem for academic environmental ethics which often mostly restricted itself to work on theoretical conflicts. In the 1980s I was invited to join the Editorial Board of the Journal of Environmental Ethics whose authors rarely contributed to conflicts about what ethics required on issues that arose in actual conflicts while for several decades focused almost exclusively on how to put a non-anthropocentric based value of nature. I had through my experience concluded that there were many important issues arise in actual environmental issues that need the help of ethical analysis which must be considered to protect people and animals including some for which the ethical rule appropriate to policy had already been agreed to.
This is tragic mistake because ethicists are needed to help civil society evaluate untruths about unfairness claims circulated by US opponents of climate change policy which continue to frequently circulate, for instance,a recent example is that unless sChina reduces GHG emissions at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China. According to IPCC’s attempt to describe reasonable considerations for determining equity, the US percentage reductions should be greater than China although like all claims about what distributive justice requires, for instance, which happens frequently in US environmental environmental law cases where there are multiple defendants who must find away to apportion hundreds of millions of damages among, the court system works out how to apportion the damages. This is a common problem on allocating damage awards in hazardous waste cleanup litigation in the US . In cases I have been involved with there were as many as 200 defendants fighting about how damages would be distributed. US courts are face*d with kind of problem frequently.
Notice in the charts below, US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world.
The enormous damage to the world that has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC. See discussion of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website.
The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is some evidence that the disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders. See also Ethics And Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, Brown D. Taylor, P, (IUCN, Press, 20I5)
Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy and circulating false claims about unfairness. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon. I have also experienced that with a little ethical reasoning, people agree that these rules are ethically justified.
The article will argue this US failure to abide by principles has been caused by the economically powerful forces’ successful framing the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on facts about uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.
3. The Failure of Higher Education
This problem has also been caused by a major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative dimensions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good, despite all claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage on the factual premises. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects needed to critically evaluate factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good.
Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion.
That US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences on how to critically evaluate claims about the common good became clear in a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of arguments.
Almost all claims about what a government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have publicly honored have admitted to me that they were were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in precautionary science when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.
Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems enormous practical problem because part of the tactics of the morally outrageous tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign has been to expressly undermine citizens faith in the mainstream science not to get the science right.
Most American scientists and students are unaware that some EU countries have already done this and this has been done in the US for determining a few threats like the cancer risk of low doses of toxic substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of harms from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described that in its first assessments. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.
Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal. Therefore their reassurance that ‘we have time’ is greatly misleading in a number of ways
In 1992, under the all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm” rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or they haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is widespread acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity cant continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.
Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof from government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.
Yet most US climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC,
I also urge hat activists who are pushing for an economically based solutions couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because market-based solutions that admittedly could be one tool to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools to achieve zero GHG emissions needed soon and the market-based tools implementation will not be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an god trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal tools to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matte. Therefore the laudable efforts of many to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes into law could be pursued as a tool to achieve a legally enforceable target. But this tool needs to be supplemented with other legal tools to get to zero emissions ASAP.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate strategies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues in the nation that instituted international human rights law although it is now behind much of the world in adopting civil and procedural rights
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points. or positive feedbacks that ”that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.,
To defend itself against charges that climate programs needed to implement the Kyoto Protocol under the Climate Change Convention were too costly, the Clinton Administration in July of 1998 prepared a CBA that showed that costs to the United States of complying with Kyoto would not be great.[i] More specifically, the Clinton Administration concluded United States compliance with Kyoto would cost the United States:
- $7 to $12 billion per year or 0.1% of GDP
- 4 to 6 cents per gallon of gasoline
- an increase of $14 to $ 23 energy costs per household[ii]
The Clinton Administration’s analysis concluded that these costs were justified because damages from a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of greenhouse gases would cost the United States economy about 1.1 percent of GDP per year, that is $8.9 billion per year.[iii] In so doing the Clinton Administration seemed to acknowledge the validity of climate change counter-movement’s basic argument that domestic action should be limited to actions justifiable by CBA. That is, at no time did the Clinton Administration assert that the logic of CBA that supported the position of the opponents to Kyoto was ethically problematic; the Clinton Administration simply asserted that the CBA calculations of those that opposed Kyoto were overly pessimistic.
The Clinton administration did not acknowledge any of the specific ethical problems with CBAs applied to environmental problems discussed on this website. In fact, remarkably there was no discussion in EPA or in the US media’s coverage of the Kyoto Protocol about the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change raised the following ethical problems.
- If climate change is an ethical problem, nations may not determine the acceptability of national climate change policies on the basis of national interest alone; they must acknowledge the duty to not harm others who have not consented to be harmed. Yet the debate in the US about the Kyoto commitment remarkably only focused on harms and benefits to the United States alone. The fact that US ghgs were harming and threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world was not considered or even commented on in my experience when the Clinton administration CBA on the Kyoto Protocol was discussed inside the government. The Clinton administration CBA did not deal with issues of distributive justice such as the harms from climate change will most harshly impact poor people around the world and particular places including small island nations.
- The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge the duty of high-emitting nations to compensate those who are greatly harmed by climate change, despite the fact the US had agreed to the “polluter pays” principle in the Rio Declaration in the in 1992. [iv]
- The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge that the duty of the United States to not cause human rights violations despite the fact that the least contentious human rights, including the right to life and security, will be violated by climate change.
- The Clinton administration CBA treated all harms to human health and the environment form climate change as commodities whose value could be determined in markets or by asking people what they are willing to pay for the entity harmed.
- The Clinton administration CBA failed to acknowledge that those who might be harmed by UG ghg emissions had a right to consent to be harmed thus violating principles of procedural justice.
In response to the Clinton CBA, opponents of Kyoto argued that the Clinton Administration’s analysis understated the costs to the United States economy. The fossil fuel industry and others continued to oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol mostly on the basis that costs to the United States compliance with the Protocol would exceed benefits.
The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes that I have seen that have undermined the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.
I have struggled to express the depth of the moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science. Skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.
Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.
Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.
Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal. Because, no other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic , have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses that need to consider input from different disciplines.
The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is almost never discussed in the US media, which is even more startling when the media turns it attention to issues involving migrants.
Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican Border was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College decades in 1997 that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.
In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
Yet, I cant stress enough the moral unacceptability of using violence or disruption as a tactic to respond to injustice as Martin Luther King stressed He also claimed that it will undermine the credibility of the protestor’s claim.
Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,” I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro.
Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump’S deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC a allows nations to decide what equity requires of them.
In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard never mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.
Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.
higher education, namely the failure to educate students on how to spot ethical issues that arise in concrete policy questions.
I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became understood to be more and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.
By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.
About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation he casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.
It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said economic conclusions by themselves cant determine justice. .
This is another example of the dismal failure of higher educations to teach critical thinking skills needed to effectively evaluate normative conclusions already present in claims about what a government should do given certain facts. For identification of ethical issues raised by climate change policy making relying on cost-benefit analysis, see Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/,
In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US in a UN negotiation that was considering a document in which all governments, not IPCC scientists, would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused. By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates and some democrats would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance.Many scientists and academics usually respond to issues about models. In addition to the models being able to usually predict future temperature and when backward usually explain prior warming, other evidence that deepen the moral duty to take action is the for me, finger prints evidence and attribution studies that test whether natural forces that have driven Earth’s natural heating an cooling cycles are extraordinary strong evidence that warming is very likely human caused more than enough to crate moral responsibility to act in most peoples views.
Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.
In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good. And why this has happened has also been the subject of social research
The next entry on this topic will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change
There over 200 entries on these issues on this website which can be found
Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics also in international negotiations on these additional threats and so the problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for global governance.
All of this is necessary for any hope that the US around the world will be see again as the an inspirational leader, This will only happen if reforms to current US law are made that makes citizens decide issues needed to achieve the common good. This effort could benefit from people with very different skill sets, everyone has something to contribute. I would recommend that US citizens look for examples from other countries while acknowledging benefits to the world from markets, but as Adam Smith predicted watch out for the potential power of merchants to scheme against the common interest.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Winner of the UNESCO prize for excellence in ethics in science