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.

wizard

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.

References:

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainable Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Urgent Call to Climate Journalists Around The World: Research Concludes You Are Tragically Failing to Cover Climate Change Issues Through An Ethical and Justice Lens

Slide1

Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:

(a)  It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.

(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)

(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate  policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail  to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.

Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world  have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.

Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:

  • Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
  • When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
  • Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
  • What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
  • What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
  • How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
  • Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
  • How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
  • To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
  • What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
  • Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
  • Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
  • Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
  • How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
  • How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
  • Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
  • How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
  • What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
  • If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
  • Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
  • Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
  • What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
  • What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
  • What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
  • What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions  to climate change?
  • What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
  • Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
  • What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
  • What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
  • What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
  • When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
  • Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
  • What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
  • Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
  • Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
  • When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
  • To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?

This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.

ipcc_postcard

jutice climate

 

This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters 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 offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.

References

Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Visuallizing Why US National and US State Governments’ GHG Reductions Commitments Are Now Woefully Inadequate in Light Of Recent Science.

Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.

These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.

These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts  must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change  science.

As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.

I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted  To Take Equity Into Account.

The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can  be further enhanced by using the zoom function.

US states and federal reductions

What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to.  This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s  fair share of safe global emissions.

a. The Carbon Budget Issue

These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.

A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of  mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C  warming limit should be adopted  is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper.  (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)

Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250  gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C,  does not take into account the additional undeniable need of  high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.

b. The Justice or Equity Issue

Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:

(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.

(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.

The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C).  The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)

Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.

The above  chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has  a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg  reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and  many other policy considerations.)

Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above  chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.

 II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050. 

A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 %  by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.

states 80 percent

This chart can be examined in higher resolution on the Global Commons Institute website at: http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Emissions_Cuts_States_by_State.pdf

What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.

III. Conclusions

These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.

As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen,  is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue.  Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on

these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing China

dabrown57@gmail.com

Has Discussion Of What “Equity” Requires Of Nations To Reduce GHG Emissions Disappeared From Climate Negotiations? If So, What Should Be Done About It?

ambition and equity

I. Introduction

Has the leadership of international climate negotiations under the UNFCCC lost the desire to require nations to expressly examine what “equity” requires of them? Recently there has been no evidence that the UNFCCC Secretariat or the leadership of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (known as the ADP) has any intention of discussing the meaning or practical significance of “equity” in climate negotiations. This paper examines: (a) what has happened recently in climate negotiations in regard to national obligations to reduce ghg emissions reductions on the basis of equity and justice, (b) arguments that have been made in support of ignoring express discussion of equity and justice issues in climate negotiations, (c) arguments in support of a greater focus on equity and justice at both the international and national levels, and (d) what should be done to increase the focus on equity and justice in light of the resistance of nations to acknowledge their equitable and justice obligations.

II. Recent Disappearance of Equity In Climate Negotiations

The ADP is a subsidiary body under the UNFCCC. It was established in 2011 with the mandate to develop a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 and to come into effect in 2020.

While there have been negotiations under way on the new agreement, there has also been an attempt to increase national commitments on greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions in the short-term because mainstream science is telling nations that much greater reductions in emissions are necessary in the next few years to maintain any hope of keeping warming below 20 C, a warming limit that all nations have agreed should not be exceeded to give some hope of preventing catastrophic warming. In fact, the international community has understood that much more ambitious commitments are necessary, both in the short- and long-term to maintain any hope of keeping warming to tolerable levels. For this reason, the agendas of the last few Conferences of the Parties (COP) UNFCCC meetings have sought to increase the ambition of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments both in the short- and long-term. There has also been a fairly wide-spread understanding that the international community will not avoid very dangerous climate change unless nations increase their national commitments to levels required of them based upon equity while working with other nations to keep atmospheric concentrations of ghg from exceeding dangerous levels.

Two years ago it appeared as if the ADP was proceeding to seek some agreement on what equity requires under the UNFCCC. In May of 2012, the UNFCCC held a workshop on equity in Bonn. A report on the workshop is on available.  As expected, nations were not able to come close to agreeing on what equity requires at this initial Bonn workshop. Yet, the workshop concluded that a work program on equity is needed and made a decision that “equity” should be taken up at COP-18 in Doha, Qatar.

nw book advThere was no focused discussion of “equity” in Qatar despite the recommendation from the Bonn workshop. The United States opposed language in the final Qatar document that included language on “equity” according to the report on COP-18 by the Earth Negotiation Bulletin http://www.iisd.ca/vol12/enb12567e.html. Is this the reason why discussions on “equity” were not resumed in Qatar? The public record is not clear.

Nor was there any focused discussion on “equity” in Warsaw at COP-19 with the exception of a proposal pushed by the Brazilian government and 130 other nations to define equity in a way that took historic responsibility into account. The United States, the EU, Canada, and Australia refused to discuss this proposal.

And there was virtually no discussion of what equity would require of nations in regard to emissions reductions commitments in the last few years at the UNFCCC annual meetings which seek to create an adequate global solution to climate change.

The Warsaw meeting did discuss “co-benefits of climate change commitments” at the urging the UNFCCC leadership thereby implicitly reverting to a category of self-interest rather than national obligation. Co-benefits were discussed presumably to convince nations that it was in their national economic interest to adopt climate policies, a tactic which may implicitly confirm the notion that national economic interest rather than national obligations should be the basis for climate change policy.

And so it would appear that discussions of what equity would require of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments is no longer on the UNFCCC agenda.

Yet nations have already agreed under the UNFCCC to adopt programs and measures to prevent dangerous climate change based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. We might add, however, even if nations did not agree to reduce their emissions based upon equity, basic and uncontroversial theories of justice would require nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. However most nations are making ghg reduction commitments based upon national economic interest, not on their fair share of safe global emissions.

Differences among nations about the significance of equity and justice plagued the Warsaw meeting in regard to funding for adaptation and loss and damages, yet the ADP discussions never took up express consideration of what equity would require in regard to these issues either.

equity and ambitionThis failure to discuss equity is somewhat curious given that there has been a strong level of agreement among many observers to and commenters on the climate negotiations that if nations are going to increase their ambition on ghg emissions reduction to levels that prevent catastrophic warming, they will need to make commitments based upon their equitable obligations to keep atmospheric ghg concentrations to safe levels rather than on self-interest. That is, without a recognition by nations of their ethical and justice obligations to the rest of the world to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

Based upon the negotiations in Warsaw at COP-19, it would appear that the future treaty that was agreed to in Durban in 2011 and is to be finally negotiated in Paris in 2015 will be comprised of “bottom-up” pledges without any formal recognition or operational definition of equity. Although it is possible that “equity” could be taken up in a meeting scheduled for March in Bonn this coming year, it would appear that at least for the moment, the UNFCCC secretariat has abandoned any hope of getting nations to operationalization “equity” in the negotiations.

In fact, several observers of the negotiations have advised the international community to abandon any direct discussion of “equity” because it is too contentious. This paper reviews some of the reasons that have been advanced for avoiding any direct negotiation of what “equity” requires along with arguments for resumption of negotiations expressly focused on equity. Finally this paper argues for continuance of a discussion on “equity” that anticipates some of the problems that have arisen when equity has been previously discussed in the negotiations.

III. Arguments Against Direct Negotiation of “Equity”

Several observers of the climate negotiations have counseled against any further direct negotiation of “equity” because it is too contentious and will not likely lead to agreement.

For instance, a recent World Bank paper recommends that climate negotiations abandon attempts to achieve national ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equitable” obligations after a somewhat rigorous review of the extant literature on “equity” and a brief summary of what has happened in the negotiations. The paper is entitled “Equity in Climate Change, An Analytical Review.” The paper identifies four formula or frameworks for operationalizing equity under the UNFCCC that have appeared in the relevant literature. These include emissions allocated: (i) equally on a per capita basis; (ii) inversely related to historic responsibility for emissions; (iii) inversely related to ability to pay; and (iv) directly related to future development opportunities.

The paper argues that none of these formulae have attracted sufficient support because each is dramatically inconsistent with many nations’ national interest and therefore will not likely receive the level of consensus required in international negotiations. In light of the fact that any attempt to reach consensus on the operationalization of equity will run into conflicts with national interest, the paper recommends a completely new approach that would fund a new carbon revolution while abandoning the current approach in which nations make individual emissions reductions commitments consistent with what equity requires of them. Equity considerations, according to the paper, would then play a role, not in allocating a shrinking emissions budget, but in informing the relative contributions of countries to funding a technological revolution.

The World Bank paper further asserts that conflicts of interest are created by any of the equity formulas that have been advanced that are both inherent and stron. They are inherent because any allocation must distribute a fixed aggregate carbon budget. They are strong because the budget is not really fixed but shrinking dramatically relative to the growing needs of developing countries. Since mainstream science has concluded that drastic compression in aggregate emissions is now necessary to keep temperatures below dangerous levels, shrinking emissions budgets are likely to require even greater ghg emissions reduction commitments that are in even greater conflict with national interests.

Therefore, the paper recommends abandoning negotiations about “equitable” emissions reduction commitments and attack climate change through commitments on funding climate friendly technologies.

Others have also recommended abandonment of “equity” considerations because any reasonable definition of equity would require nations to agree to cuts that were not in their national interest coupled with the fact that there is no consensus about what equity requires. It would appear that these people believe that if nations cannot agree on what equity requires it is unproductive to discuss equity in climate negotiations. They appear to fear that discussions of equity will lead to no agreement.

IV. Justification For Requiring Nations to Agree on Equitable Responsibilities

There are several reasons why nations should be required to make emissions reductions expressly consistent with what fairness and equity require of them including the following:

1. Nations have been entering negotiations as if only economic national interest counts and in so doing have failed to make emissions reductions commitments based upon equity that in the aggregate will avoid dangerous climate change. In fact, when some nations have been asked to explain why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have frequently justified their unwillingness to make greater commitments because such reductions are not in their economic interest. For this reason, it is likely a practical mistake to not insist that any national commitment conforms to some reasonable definition of what equity requires. To ignore this obligation is to encourage the continued dominance of national self-interest in national responses to climate change.

2. Although there is some reasonable disagreement on what equity requires, this fact should not relieve nations of the obligation to demonstrate that their emissions reductions commitments are based upon reasonable expectations of fairness and distributive justice. Some nations seem to be arguing that because there are differences among nations about what equity requires, this is justification for totally ignoring equity and justice issues entailed by making allocations among nations. Because allocation of national ghg emissions is inherently a matter of justice, nations should be required to explain how their ghg emissions reduction commitments both will lead to a specific atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration that is not dangerous, that is, what remaining ghg CO2 equivalent budget they have assumed that their commitment will achieve, and on what equitable basis have they determined their fair share of that budget. Any national ghg emissions reduction is implicitly a position on a safe atmospheric ghg concentration and that nation’s fair share of total global emissions that will reach that target. Because of this, nations should be required to expressly disclose their assumptions on safe global emissions and what fairness requires of them because such assumptions are implicit but usually hidden in their commitment.

3. Although there may be some reasonable disagreement of what equity requires among various equitable frameworks that have been proposed, this does not mean that any proposal for what equity requires is entitled to respect. The problem of allocating emissions reductions among nations is a classic problem of distributive justice. Distributive justice allows people to be treated differently but requires that those who want to be treated differently from others in some distribution of public goods identify a morally relevant justification for being treated differently. For instance, a person whose justification for obtaining a larger share of food is the fact that he or she has blue eyes will not pass ethical scrutiny because the color of someone’s eyes is not a morally relevant justification for different treatment. Similarly a nation’s justification for the refusal to reduce ghg emissions is that reductions in emissions will affect the nation’s economic interest is not a morally relevant justification for refusing to cut ghg emissions. If it were any polluter could justify continuing to pollute as long as pollution controls cost the polluter money. Because many of the justifications for national ghg emissions commitments are based upon economic self-interest, rather than ethical duty to others, these justifications fail to satisfy minimum ethical scrutiny. And so, strong claims can be made that certain justifications for national commitments on ghg emissions reductions fail to pass any reasonable ethical analysis even though one cannot say absolutely what perfect justice requires. It is therefore fairly easy to spot ethical problems with national ghg commitments even though one cannot claim unambiguously what justice requires. Therefore it is possible to get traction for ethics and justice issues despite disagreement on what justice precisely requires.

4. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of national ghg emission reduction commitments, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (a) per capita considerations, (b) historical considerations, (c) luxury versus necessity emissions, (d) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (e) levels of economic development, and (f) and combinations of these factors. The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, discussions on equity should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires. Some reasonable compromise among these criteria should be a goal of the negotiations. In fact, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.

 5. The insight that nations will not agree to what equity requires of them because it is not in their national interest should not be the basis for abandoning an equitable approach to climate change as recommended by the above referenced World Bank paper because national interest is not a morally acceptable justification for national climate change policy yet it is likely to remain the criteria for setting national climate change policy unless a nation is shamed for its ethically bankrupt position on climate change. The fact that changes in national responses to ethically unacceptable behavior can be demonstrated from the spread of human rights around the world which can be attributed to shaming nations for their failure to provide human rights protections. The same naming and shaming approach to equity and national ghg emissions reductions commitments should be followed on climate change emissions reductions commitments by adopting better understanding of the ethical bankruptcy of some nations’ approach to climate change.

6. The need to turn up the visibility on the ethical and equitable unacceptability of national ghg commitments is not only important to get nations to increase their emissions reductions commitments in international negotiations, it is also important to change the way climate change policies are debated at the national level when climate change policies are formed. For instance, when some nations including the United States and New Zealand have debated climate change policies at the national level there has been a complete failure to acknowledge that proposed policies must respond to the nation’s equity and ethical obligations. Because of this, national economic interest rather than global obligation dominates debates on proposed climate policies at the national level. There is an important need to change the focus of national debates on climate change policies at the national scale so that citizens understand the ethical problems with their country’s national commitments. And so, there is an important need to increase awareness of the equity and justice issues entailed by national climate change policy debates.

V. How To Make Equity Part Of National Responses To Climate Change

For the reason stated above, there is an urgent need to increase the focus in international climate negotiations and at the national level on equity and justice and simply ignoring these issues because they are difficult or contentious is likely a huge practical mistake that has potential catastrophic consequences. However, given the resistance thus far on nations’ willingness to openly discuss the equity and justice dimensions of their climate policies, the first order question is how to do this. Because of the unwillingness of nations to agree on what equity requires of them, initial steps should be taken to increase awareness of the ethical and justice failures of national responses to climate change.

1. The first priority is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. The UNFCCC secretariat has the authority to ask nations specific questions. In the past, when the nations have been asked questions about their position on equity, the questions have been too general with insufficient follow up. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their ghg emissions commitments which include but are not limited to the following:

A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below a 1.5 °C or 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment, in combination with others, achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 2°C or the 1.5°C warming limit that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic warming?

B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?

C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” In other words, how have you operationalized equity quantitatively in making your emissions reduction commitments?

D. What part of your target was based upon “equity”?

E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:

a. the “polluter pays”;

b. citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction under the “no harm” principle; and,

c. your country should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?

F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?

G. In debating national climate policy, to what extent have you apprised citizens of your country that nations have ethical and justice responsibilities to other vulnerable people and nations?

H. To what extent have you informed high emitting entities and individuals within your nation that they have ethical responsibilities to decrease their ghg emissions in cases when this can be done without a major sacrifice to an entities or individual interest.

2. Because debates about climate change policy formation at the national level have often ignored questions of equity and fairness, there is a need to publicize how debates at the national level about proposed climate change policies acknowledge or ignore questions of equity, ethics, and distributive justice. To accomplish this, researchers around the world should be requested to report on and document how ethics and equity issues are being considered in public policy debates about national policy within each country.  This analysis should determine, among other things, the extent to which the debate about climate policy has specifically considered an atmospheric ghg concentrations goal and on what equitable and distributive justice basis has the target commitment selected.

3. There is a need to establish an international data base on how nations have considered equity and distributive justice issues at the national level and specific excuses that nations have relied upon for their failure to support an ethically justifiable international climate regime.

4. The starting point for any negotiations session under the UNFCCC should be a submission by each government on their position on their equitable obligations for issues under negotiation. This submission should be detailed to include specific ethical issues under consideration during each negotiation.

5. Each nation should be required to identify what policy steps it is taking to provide, protect, and fulfill the human rights that may be adversely affected by climate change to both people in their own country and vulnerable people around the world.

6. As part of climate negotiations, each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions should be reviewed by a panel of experts who would evaluate each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions on its merits as a matter of distributive justice.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law,

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

US Media Finally Acknowledges That Ethics and Justice Issues Are At the Center of Contention in Climate Change Negotiations, Yet Has Not Caught On to the Significance of This for US Policy.

 

climate justicenow

During the climate negotiations in Warsaw that concluded late Saturday, some of the most prominent US media institutions  finally acknowledged that ethics and justice issues were at the very center of the most contentious issues in dispute.

For instance, the New York Times ran a story on November 16 entitled: Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis. This article expressly acknowledged that growing demands about ethics and justice have become an emotionally charged flash point at the Warsaw climate negotiations

The Washington Post reported that: Hundreds of activists march for climate on sidelines of UN talks in Warsaw and in this story there was acknowledgment that the ethics and justice issues were the central focus of unresolved issues on national ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding needed funding for poor, vulnerable nations for adaptation and climate change caused losses and damages.

Bloomsberg News also ran a story entitled:  U.S., EU, Reject Brazilian Call for Climate Equity Metric. This story described great disagreements among nations on how to allocate national emissions targets on the basis of equity.

This recent recognition of the importance of ethics and justice issues in international climate change negotiations marks a possible sea change in on how the US press has thus far covered international climate change issues. Yet it is too early to predict such a transformation will actually take place and reason to believe that the US media still does not understand the practical importance for US climate policy that an ethical focus on climate change entails. In fact there is no evidence that the US press understands the policy significance for the US if climate change is understood as a civilization challenging global distributive justice problem.

As we have frequently reported in EthicandClimate.org  over the last several years, (See articles on the website on the US media in the Index), the US media has been utterly ignoring the climate change justice issues that increasingly have become the most contentious issues in dispute in the international search for a global solution to climate change.

movbilization for clima justice

Although there has been a US press presence at international climate negotiations since they began over 20 years, the US media reports on the climate negotiations has usually focused on the failures and small success of previous negotiations. Also, sometimes the US press also has reported on specific disagreements among nations on contentious issues in negotiations. And so, the US media has covered climate negotiations like they would a baseball game, that is they usually focus on the score, who batted in the runs, and who prevented runs from scoring.

In the meantime, during the debates about US domestic policy on climate change that have been taking place for almost thirty years, the US media has reported on climate issues almost exclusively by focusing on issues of scientific certainty about climate change impacts and economic cost to the US economy.  This phenomenon is partly attributable to the fact that economic interests opposed to US climate change policies have skillfully and successfully framed the US climate change debate as a matter about which there is insufficient scientific evidence or too much adverse impact on the US economy to warrant action. And so, although climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice, the US media has largely ignored the justice issues particularly in regard to their significance for US policy. For  instance, if the the US not only has economic interests in the climate change policies in political debate but also obligations and duties to poor vulnerable nations to not cause them great harm from US ghg emissions, the United States may not justify failure to act to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of economic cost to the US.

Yet now that the scientific community is telling the world that is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that there is a very small amount of ghg emissions that can be admitted by the entire world if the international community seeks to have any reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, the ethics and justice issues are becoming undeniable and it is almost possible to ignore that the ethics and justice issues are at the very center of international disputes about how to structure a global climate solution. And so, cries about the justice issues will mostly likely continue to become louder in the future. This is so because if the entire global community must limit total global ghg emissions to a specific number of tons of ghgs and this number requires radical ghg emissions reductions from the entire global community, the obvious question becomes what is any nation’s fair share of allowable emissions.  And so, issues of climate justice may no longer be ignored, in fact, the longer the world waits to arrive at a global solution to climate change the more important and visible the ethics and justice issues will become. For this reason, it will become more and more difficult for the US press to ignore the practical significance of ethics and justice questions.

new book description for website-1_01At the center of the Warsaw negotiations was not only the question of what was each countries fair share of safe total allowable greenhouse gas submissions, but also what does justice require of high-emitting  countries to both pay for the costs of climate adaptation and compensation for damages for poor vulnerable countries that have done very little to cause climate change.

And so this new interest in ethics and justice about climate issues could become a growing media focus. However, this recent new interest of the US media is not evidence that the US press has begun to pay attention to the implications of these issues for US climate change policy. In fact, there is no evidence that the US media has figured out how the ethics and justice issues will need to radically transform how domestic climate change policy is debated in the United States. We will know that the US media this is seriously paying attention to the ethical dimensions of climate change if it examines the following questions when it covers US climate change policy debates.

1. What is the ethical justification for any proposed US greenhouse gas reduction target in light of the fact the US has duty to reduce its emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. In setting a ghg emissions reduction target, what ethical obligations to nations and people outside the US has it taken into account.

2. If the United States is a very large emitter of gigs compared to most other nations in terms of historical and per capita emissions, why doesn’t the United States have an ethical duty to fund reasonable climate change adaptation measures in and losses and damages of poor developing countries that have done little or nothing to cause human-induced warming.

3. If a US politician argues in opposition to proposed US climate policies on the basis of cost to the US economy, why doesn’t that politician acknowledge that in addition to US economic economic interests, that the United States has duties to people around the world and future generations to reduce ghg US emissions.

4. If United States actually has ethical duties for the rest of the world to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, why is there no national policy encouraging everyone in the United States including individuals and corporations to reduce unnecessary ghg emissions.

5. On what basis may the United States argue that it need not reduce US ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global missions because China or some other developing country has not yet adopted strong climate change policies, given that any US ghg emissions in excess of the US fair share of safe total omissions is harming hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pa.

Visiting Professor,  Nagoya University School of Law

Nagoya, Japen

Part-time Professor,  Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution to Climate Change

natural gas

 

Is Natural Gas Electricity Combustion A Solution to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Introduction

Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon.  Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.

Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.

One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions.  More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation.  The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.

(Naturalgas. org, 2013)

The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation.  In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.

 (Reuters, 2012)

The US  natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less COper unit of energy produced than  coal combustion.  For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)

The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural  gas, oil, and coal combustion.

coalandnaturalgas

As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.

II. The Controversies

Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.

A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012)  Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4%  and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013)  As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature.  In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.

Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.

(b) The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel

To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the  long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C.  (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)

Limiting warming to 2°C or less will require reductions in global ghg emissions below current emissions by as much as 80 percent by mid-century for the entire world and as we explained in the a recent article on “equity” at even greater reduction levels for most developed countries. (see On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) 

And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous  human problem.

Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.

three reductions pathways

(Anderson, 2012)

And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.

Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed.  Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)

This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels.  In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

There  are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012)  Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their  carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.

Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy.  It is  also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95%  reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.

III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.

Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term.  Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone.  As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We  now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.

A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible

No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions.  Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.

As we have previously explained in EthicsandClimate.org there is now a scientific consensus that developed countries must limit their ghg emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and between 80% and 95% below1990 levels by 2050 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change which would require atmospheric ghg concentrations to be stabilized at 450 ppm. (IPCC, 2007: 776)   (Also see, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat) 

The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.

One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries.  (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.

As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.

As we have also explained in EthicsandClimate. org, US reductions need to be much greater than average reduction levels required of the entire world as a matter of equity because the United States emissions are among the world’s highest in terms of per capita and historical emissions and there is precious little atmospheric space remaining for additional ghg emissions if the world is serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.  (See, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat)

No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.

Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See,  On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)

Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural  gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of  non-fossil energy.

And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations.  Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.

B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation

There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil  fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)

Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis.  There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include

  •  Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
  •  Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
  • Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
  • Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
  • Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility.  Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
  • Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
  • Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion.  We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political  supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article,  such opposition is ethically problematic.

By:

Donald A Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

The Practical Importance For Policy Of Ignoring The Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change

 I. Introduction

 Here we  examine the practical importance of identifying and expressly examining ethical issues that must be faced in policy formation as policy is debated and unfolds.

What distinguishes ethical issues from economic and scientific arguments about climate change is that ethics is about duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others while economic and scientific arguments are usually understood to be about “value-neutral” “facts” which once established have usually been deployed in arguments against action on climate change based upon self-interest. For instance, proponents of climate change often argue that costs of action to reduce the threat of climate change to a nation such as the United States should not be accepted because it is not in the US economic interest.

By ethics we mean, the domain of inquiry that examines claims that under certain facts, something is right or wrong, obligatory or non obligatory, or when responsibility attaches to human action.  Since policy disputes are about what should be done given certain facts, ethical claims are usually already embedded in arguments about what should be done about policy questions, yet the ethical basis of these claims are often hidden in what appear, at first glance,  to be “value-neutral” scientific and economic arguments. As a result, the ethical bases for arguments in support or in opposition to policy action on climate change are frequently ignored in policy debates. a phenomenon frequently discussed in EthicsandClimate.org

II. The Consequence For Policy Of Ignoring Ethical Issues. 

If the ethical issues raised by climate change policies are ignored, several consequences for policy follow. The failure to examine arguments opposing climate change policies trough an ethical lens virtually guarantees that:

  •  Those opposing climate change policies on ethically dubious grounds will not be challenged on the basis of their ethically problematic positions.
  • Those making economic arguments based upon short-term narrow self-interest will not be forced to admit that those causing climate change have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others who can do little to reduce climate change’s threat but who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest consequences.
  •  The ethical dimensions of economic arguments will remain hidden in public debates in cases where economic arguments against climate change policies appear to based on “value-neutral” economic “facts” although the calculations of the “facts” contain ethically dubious calculation procedures such as: (a) discounting future benefits that make benefits to others experienced in the middle to long-term virtually worthless as a matter of present value. (b) economic arguments usually only calculate the value of things harmed by climate change on the basis of market-value thus translating all things including human life, plants, animals, and ecological systems into commodity value, or (c) the economic calculations often ignore distributive justice issues including the fact that some people and places will be much more harshly impacted by climate change than others.
  • Important ethical issues entailed by decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty will remain hidden including: (a) Who should have the burden of proof? (b) What quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof when decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty? (c) Whether the victims of climate change have a right to participate in decisions that must be made in the face of uncertainty? and, (d) Whether those causing climate change have obligations to act now because if the world waits to act until all uncertainties are resolved it will likely be too late to prevent catastrophic impacts to others and to stabilize greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at safe levels?
  • Because no national, regional, local, business, organization, or individual climate change strategy makes sense unless it is understood to be implicitly a position on its duties and obligations to others to prevent climate change, whether the strategy is just or fair in relationship to the entity’s obligations to others will go unexamined.
  •  Given that the world needs a global solution to climate change, and that only just solutions to climate change are likely to be embraced by most governments, barriers to finding an acceptable global solution will continue.
  • Unjust climate change policies will be pursued that exacerbate existing injustices in the world.
  • Because those who cause climate change are ethically responsible for damages caused by them, funding for adaptation projects needed by those most vulnerable to climate change will not be generated.
  • Because no nation may ethically use as an excuse for non-action on climate change that it need not reduce its greenhouse gases to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations act, nations will continue to inappropriately refuse to act on the basis that other nations have not acted.
  • Because the amount of reductions that nations should achieve should be based upon principles of distributive justice and not-self interest, nations will continue to make commitments to reduce their emissions based upon self-interest rather than what is their fair share of safe global emissions.

III. Whose Ethics Counts?

Climate change raises not one civilization challenging ethical issue, but a host of them including:

  •  What greenhouse gas atmospheric concentration stabilization goal should be agreed to by all nations?
  • What is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions?
  • Who is responsible for paying for the costs of climate change adaptation needs or damages in poor, vulnerable nations?
  • Ethical issues that arise when arguments are made against action on the basis of scientific uncertainty or cost to national economies?
  • Are individuals, sub-national governments, organizations, and businesses responsible for climate change?
  •  What ethical issues arise from the solutions to climate change such as geo-engineering, nuclear power, or biofuels, just to name a few?
  • Are nations responsible for historical emissions?

These and other very challenging ethical questions need to be faced when climate change policies are developed. Yet a reasonable question might be asked at this stage about whose ethics should count in resolving these questions given that there are different ethical theories that are supported by different people that might reach different conclusions about what ethics requires.

We would agree that climate change raises some civilization challenging ethical questions about which different respectable ethical theories might reach different conclusions about what should be done.  However, the fact that different ethically acceptable positions may lead to different ethical conclusions about climate change issues does not lead to ethical agnosticism or even confusion about all climate change issues including some of the most important ethical questions that must be faced in climate change policy formation. Three possibilities exist:

  •  For some climate change ethical questions, there is an overlapping consensus among ethical theories about what ethics requires.
  •  For some climate change issues, ethics issue spotting sometimes leads to conflicts among ethical theories about what ethics requires.
  •  For some climate change issues, ethical issue spotting may lead to disagreement among ethical theories about what should be done yet very strong agreement that some positions taken on these issues are ethically bankrupt even though there is disagreement on what ethics requires.

Although it is beyond the scope of this paper,  there are some climate change ethical issues about which there appears to be agreement about what ethics requires. For instance, most cultures and religions support variations of the golden rule that holds that individuals should not be able to severely harm others because of economic self-interest, polluters should pay for harm that they caused, and nations should prevent their citizens from harming others beyond their boarders.

More importantly, even on matters about which there are legitimate differences about what ethics requires, there appears to be ethical agreement that the position of some nations are ethically bankrupt despite disagreement about what ethics requires.

For this reason, ethical issue spotting often can lead to narrowing positions in contention to those that pass minimum ethical scrutiny.  For this reason alone, spotting the ethical issues that arise in policy formation may be key to making progress.

And so, perhaps the most important practical consequence of spotting the ethical issues raised by climate change is that failure to do so will likely create a missed opportunity to make progress to an urgently needed global solution.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology in collaboration with the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University organized the first conference on climate change ethics in China that was held on October 29 and 30 in Nanjing. This conference examined the ethical dimensions of climate change as well as other economic, legal, and policy issues entailed by climate change policy-making. Papers presented included nine papers on climate change ethics, eight papers on climate change policy and law, and eight papers on social and economic issues entailed by climate change.
This conference was particularly notable because both Chinese and non-Chinese participants appeared to agree that climate change must be understood to be essentially an ethical matter that can only be solved through reliance on some common global values. To this writer’s knowledge, this was the first conference in China that expressly explored the ethical views of Chinese and Western ethicists about climate change.
The papers presented at the conference included the following:
A. Climate Change Ethics And Philosophy
1. The Practical Significance of Understanding Climate Change As An Ethical Problem (Donald A. Brown, Penn State University)
2. The Border Between Climate Change And Libertarianism (Jun Chen, Hubei University)
3. Thoughts On Climate Change And The Conflict Of National Interest (Gang Guo, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
4. Review On The Climate Change Ethics (Jun Shi, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Philosophical Review On Climate Change (Fan Chen & Guozhang Liu, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
6. Analysis On The Root Of Climate Crisis Through Biological Marxism (Feng Xu, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
7. Possibilities Of Global Cooperation On Climate-the Dilemma Of Nation-State Theory And World Theory (Fangxing Ye, Hehai University)
8. Climate Justice And Climate Ethics (Rongnan Zhang, Department of Philosophy-East China Normal University)
9. Climate Change: Ethical Dimension On Sustainable Development (Siwei Dai, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
B. Section Two: Climate Change Policy And Law
1. Discussion, Debate, And Democratic Negotiation: The Choice Of Tools In Global Climate Change Policy Making (Xiangrong Su, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
2. Adaptation To Climate Change Impacts: Challenges To China’s Environmental Law And Changing Directions (Xiangbai He, Law School-Western Sydney University)
3. Response And Choice To The Climate Legislation And Regulation Under Multiple Pursuits Of Benefits (Xiaodan Song & Zhangjun Pang, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
4. Research On Regulation Of Atmospheric Property Under Climate Change (Shibin Wu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Study On The Legislation Of Human-impact Climate Change (Zhi Qiao, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
6. The Inspiration of “Others Theory” Of Ethics On Contemporary Public Policy (Xi Wang, China mMeteorology Bureau)
7. A Brief Analysis On The Cooperation On Climate Study Across Taiwan Straits In The Last 60 Years (Suhua Yong & Xiangping Liu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
8. Research On The NGOs’ Influence In Coping With Climate Change (Meili Tang, Huijuan Shi, & Fengjiang Cheng, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
Section Three: Economic And Social Management In Climate Change
1. Climate Change And Ecocities In China: Challenges And Opportunities To Building A Sustainable And Equitable Society (Erich W.Schienke)
2. Efficiency And Reduction In China: Carbon Tax Or Sectoral Cap And Trade? (Rongxiang Cao, Central Bureau of Translation)
3. Energy Saving In China: Tax, Control On Total Amount In Each Department, Or Trade? (Rongxiang Cao, Central Bureau of Translation)
4. Democratic Governance: Probe On The Democratic Mode In Coping With Climate Change (Zhijiang Li, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
5. Change Of The “Leadership” Of Global Environmental Control: Case Study In Canada (Laihui Xie, Central Bureau of Translation)
6. Path Selection Of China’s Ecological Regulation Construction Through Ecological Civilization (Fen Sun & Jie Cao, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
7. Climate Change, Eco-system, And A Sustainable Developing Society (Zhangguo Liu, Institute of Climate Change and Public Policy-Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
8. Research On The Factors That Drive Low Carbonization On China’s Traditional Manufacturing (Decai Tang & Changshun Li, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
9. Discussion On The Practical necessity And Basic Ideas On China’s Ecological Regulation (Fen Sun & Jie Cao, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
10. Analysis Of The Influence Of REDD On Slowing Down China’s Climate Change Process (Jichuan Sheng, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology)
For further information about this conference, contact Donald A Brown, Penn State University, dab57@psu.edu
By
Donald A. Brown,
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu