What the Media Should Learn From Its Intense Coverage of COVID-19 About How to Cure Its Failed Reporting On the More Devastating Threat of Climate Change


I. Introduction

This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19.  This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.

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Free Markets, Externalities, and A Question of Integrity

Preface: ClimateEthics has frequently examined ethical problems with many economic arguments made in opposition to climate change policies. See, for example, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies. Also see, Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations. Economic arguments against climate change policies often have been made by people and organizations that believe in “free market fundamentalism” or the idea that unfettered markets will solve virtually all social and environmental problems. This post by guest blogger Jeff Huggins examines the unstated assumption of many free market fundamentalists that laissez-faire markets are always free.

I. Introduction

One of the defining premises of any “free market” is that parties participate in transactions voluntarily.
Shoving, imposing, and force–not allowed.

Indeed, voluntary participation is a vital part of the justification–and defense–of free markets. Why are free markets supposedly “free”? Because people participate in transactions freely, voluntarily, as free human beings. Why are free markets considered beneficial? Because the outcomes are often beneficial to the participants and, often, to a broader community.

But what if the nature of a transaction forces you to take part? What if someone else’s so-called free market imposes costs or harmful consequences on you involuntarily? What if ambitious aliens from another solar system were to run their economy as a free market that utilized Earth as a cost-effective dumping ground–ignoring the concerns, rights and pleas of mere humans?

More concretely, what if someone’s free market forces harms–such as a destabilized climate and associated problems–upon someone else who wants nothing to do with those harms and hasn’t agreed to suffer them?

Ultimately, as I’ll explain, we arrive at this question: Can a free market retain any credibility, coherence, and integrity if it violates the deepest principles upon which its own existence is justified?

II. The Man and A Stream

The problem becomes obvious once you think about it carefully, but let’s begin by considering an interesting source.
In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote about one of the principal limits of free markets that justify and sometimes necessitate government involvement. Here’s a passage:

“A second general class of cases in which strictly voluntary exchange is impossible arises when actions of individuals have effects on other individuals for which it is not feasible to charge or recompense them. This is the problem of ‘neighborhood effects’. An obvious example is the pollution of a stream. The man who pollutes a stream is in effect forcing others to exchange good water for bad.” (Friedman, 1962)

Friedman’s main focus here was on “neighborhood effects” that occur within a market system and that represent a limit, or failure, of the market. Most present-day economists use the term ‘externality’ to refer to such effects. Friedman’s ultimate point was that neighborhood effects often justify government regulation, the aim of which is either to prevent them (if they are unwanted) or to ensure that benefits and costs are borne fairly by the responsible parties. If participants in a market and others who are subject to the market’s consequences all fall under the auspices of a particular government or regulatory authority, that government or authority can–and often should–act to regulate such effects.

Let’s revisit, however, an obvious and consequential point in Friedman’s passage:

“The man who pollutes a stream is in effect forcing others to exchange good water for bad.”

Friedman’s observation here holds whether the “others” are within a nation’s border or beyond it, whether they’re participants in the market or not, and whether they accept the values of a particular type of market economy or not. In other words, just as a man who pollutes a stream in his own town forces others to exchange good water for bad, so also a market economy that undermines climate stability forces those consequences upon the entire world. Markets, of course, can fail people within them or outside of them.

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A Comprehensive Ethical Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord.

I. Introduction
If climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, what can be said about the positions taken by governments and results achieved at the recently concluded Copenhagen conference?
To evaluate what happened in Copenhagen one must understand that the Copenhagen meeting was only the last in  almost two decades of meetings that have failed to achieve a global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was the 19th meeting of governments from around the world that have been meeting every year since 1990 to forge a comprehensive climate change regime. Copenhagen was also the 15th conference of the parties (COP-15) since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into effect in 1994. (UN, 1992)
For more than twenty years some nations have been taking positions on climate change that raise serious ethical concerns. Copenhagen meeting was no exception. However, as we saw in a prior ClimateEthics post, there were two issues that arose with a new force in Copenhagen. They were the intensity and frequency of calls for: (a) global justice, and (b) increased funding for adaptation programs in vulnerable developing countries. See, ClimateEthics, Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation, http://climateethics.org/?p=331.
Yet, at the conclusion of the Copenhagen conference, as we shall see, little was accomplished in response to these issues or the other climate change disputes that have now plagued climate negotiations for almost two decades. Although, as we shall see, some have pointed to a few positive Copenhagen outcomes, most observers have judged COP-15 to be a disaster.
This post begins with an analysis of what actually happened in Copenhagen and contains the following sections:
• The path to the Copenhagen Accord
• Arguments about whether Copenhagen was a disaster or a positive step forward.
• Analysis of the “disaster-step forward” controversy
• Ethical analyses of the Copenhagen Accord
• Climate change ethics after Copenhagen
II. The Path To The Copenhagen Accord
The Copenhagen conference took place from December 7-19, 2009. Copenhagen was intended to be the culmination of a two-year negotiating process that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.
In 1990 negotiations began that led in 1992 to opening for signature and ratification of the UNFCCC. This treaty itself does not contain binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limitations for countries but nevertheless includes numerous other binding national climate change obligations.
To understand the significance of what happened in Copenhagen, it is necessary to understand the goals and objectives for an international climate regime that were originally set out in the UNFCCC. Among other things, for instance, the parties to the UNFCCC agreed that: (a) They would adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, (b) Developed countries should take the first steps to do this, and (c) Nations have common but differentiated responsibilities to prevent climate change, (d) Nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action, and (e) Nations should reduce their GHG emissions based upon “equity.” (UN, 1992) As we shall see, some national proposals in Copenhagen, seventeen years after the UNFCCC was agreed upon, failed to abide by many promises made by governments in the UNFCCC.
As of December 2009, the UNFCCC had 192 parties, a number that includes almost all countries in the world including the United States which ratified the UNFCCC in 1994.
The UNFCC is a “framework” convention because it has always been expected that additional requirements would be added to the framework in updates that are known as “protocols” or in annual decisions of the conferences of the parties.
The first major addition to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated in 1997 because the international community had been convinced by emerging climate change science that developed nations needed to be bound by numerical emissions reductions targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005 and currently has 190 parties. The United States is the only developed country that never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
Under the Kyoto, Protocol, the developed countries agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. The developing countries had no binding emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto.
The Copenhagen negotiations were necessary because the emissions reductions obligations of developed countries set out in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.
At climate negotiations at COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a second commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement is referred to as the Bali Roadmap which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions.
The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), that is climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed in Copenhagen.
At Bali the parties also agreed on a two-year negotiating process to achieve the objectives of the Bali Roadmap. Under this action plan, nations would proceed on two negotiation tracks. One under the UNFCCC and the other under the Kyoto Protocol. The first track was know by the acronym “AWG-KP,” standing for the Ad hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol. The second track was referred to as “AWG-LCA,” standing for the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action. The Bali agreement also included a deadline for concluding these negotiations in Copenhagen in December of 2009.
Intense negotiations in preparation for Copenhagen took place during the two years between Bali and Copenhagen including four separate meetings in 2009 alone. In these deliberations, many contentious issues surfaced. Among other things, these disputes included particularly strong disagreements about the magnitude of developed country emissions reduction commitments and institutional arrangements and funding amounts for financing developing country needs for technology cooperation, adaptation, reducing emissions from deforestation, and capacity building.
Although some progress was made on a few issues in the two year lead-up to Copenhagen, little progress was made on the major issues and particularly on commitments for GHG emissions reductions and funding for adaptation, deforestation programs, and technology transfer.

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Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reports from the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.

I. Introduction.

There is something new in the air here in the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.These new developments have profound implications for the international community but particularly for developed nations such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union countries.

I have been participating in international climate change negotiating sessions since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 including seven conference of the parties (COPs) under the United States Framework Convention on Climate Change. I also negotiated climate change and other environmental issues for the United States EPA at the United Nations from 1995 to 1998. This experience leads me to conclude that there are two new big stories here in the Copenhagen that have implications far beyond those generated by the perennial climate change debates about whether nations should make meaningful commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the world is still watching which nations will make significant greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Yet other climate change issues are pushing to be the central focus in  Copenhagen.

II. Ethics and Climate Change.

The first is the frequency and centrality in which the claim that climate change is an ethical problem, that is responses to climate change must be guided by ethical, justice, and human rights considerations. Unlike previous years, the agenda in Copenhagen has included dozens of meetings and side-events expressly devoted to the ethical dimensions of climate change. In addition claims that climate change raises ethical issues have also been frequently heard in other Copenhagen meetings and events devoted to other topics. Clearly, developing countries and NGOs have been successful in turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Of course, one occasionally heard that climate change triggers ethical issues at prior climate change COPs, yet here in Copenhagen it is as if the ethical, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change has become the central organizing principle for resolving climate change disputes. As we shall see, this development has important practical consequences.

However, despite the apparent growing recognition that climate change is an ethical, justice, and human rights issue, many nations continue to negotiate as if national economic interest alone is a sufficient justification for domestic climate change policies on the slate of Copenhagen issues under consideration including greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, and funding adaptation, technological transfer, and programs that will prevent deforestation. Yet, if climate change is an ethical issue, several practical consequences follow.

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Ethical Failures of National GHG Emissions Reduction Proposals Approaching Copenhagen

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts that examine ethical issues that nations need to be guided by as they engage in climate change negotiations in December in Copenhagen, Denmark at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The last post looked at these issues over a year before the Copenhagen COP. http://climateethics.org/?p=50. This and following posts will examine in more detail some of the issues written about in the earlier post in light of developments in the last year. This post examines ethical issues entailed by the need of nations to agree to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets. Subsequent posts will examine ethical issues that are also important part of the negotiating agenda in Copenhagen, including adaptation funding issues, reducing GHG emissions from deforestation, and technical transfer issues, among others.

I. Introduction

The nations of the world will reconvene in December, 2009 to negotiate a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol which expires by its own terms in 2012. This post examines the willingness of nations to commit to GHG atmospheric concentration goals and national GHG reduction targets in these negotiations compared to their ethical obligations in light of positions nations have taken as they approach Copenhagen. First, this post examines the features of human-induced climate change that calls for classifying the issues to be negotiated in Copenhagen as ethical problems. Next, the post looks at ethical guidance that nations should consider in regard to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions targets, an issue of huge significance on the Copenhagen agenda. The post then looks at the position of some governments on emission reduction targets in light of these ethical obligations.

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Minimum Ethical Criteria For All Post-Kyoto Regime Proposals: What Does Ethics Require of A Copenhagen Outcome

I. Introduction

During the first two weeks of December of 2008 in Poznan, Poland, international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) considered various proposals for replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a new climate change regime. This was done because the Kyoto Protocol ends by its own terms in 2012. The Kyoto regime is often referred to as the first commitment period under the UNFCCC. In Bali, Indonesia last year, the international community agreed to negotiate a climate change regime that will constitute the second commitment period under the UNFCCC in two negotiating sessions. The first of these took place in Poznan last month and the second will take place December, 2009 in Copenhagen.

Although little progress was made in Poznan on the architecture of a new second commitment period, various proposals were considered by the international community in discussions about a vision statement to guide future negotiations and in Poznan side-events sponsored by governments and NGOs.

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Collaborative Program on Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change Calls for Ethical Leadership in Poznan, Poland Climate Change Negotiations

I. Introduction

The Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change (EDCC) (see below) participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP-14) that took place in Poznan, Poland from December 1st through 12th, 2008.

The Poznan COP was the first of two meetings that the parties to the climate convention had agreed in COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia would be devoted to replacing the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. COP-15 will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark in December of 2009. The decisions reached in Bali defining the issues to be negotiated to replace the Kyoto Protocol are referred to as the Bail Road Map.
During COP-14, EDCC held a seminar on ethical issues that need to be considered in implementing many specific issues in the Bali Road Map and discussed these issues in a side event during the negotiations. A later post will review the conclusions arrived at in the EDCC seminar.

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Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions To Their Fair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do

I. Introduction

One frequently hears the argument that it would be unfair to the United States to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because some large emitting countries including China and India have not done so. Although this argument has waned somewhat since it was first strongly made in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, recently this contention has arisen again in response to proposed new US climate change laws and in discussions about what the US position should be when it negotiates a post-Kyoto regime this December in Poland and next December in Copenhagen.

In response to this argument, proponents of US government emissions reduction commitments often argue that the world needs the United States to take action to show leadership to the rest of the world even if China and India do not commit to binding emissions reductions targets. This response appears to concede that the United States has no duty to act until other emitting nations agree to act but, nevertheless, the United States should act to show “leadership” to reduce climate change’s great threat. The ideas seems to rest on the conclusion that if the United States acts to reduce emissions others will follow and therefore as a matter of “prudence” the US should make commitments given climate change’s potential catastrophic impacts. This position seems to concede that the United States has no ethical obligation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the reason for moving ahead despite the fact that other countries have not done so is the practical need to show leadership. Can a case be made that the United States and other high-emitting nations have an ethical duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even if other nations do not do so?

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