The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as an Ethical Problem.

Why is practically important for policy-making to see climate change as an ethical problem?
ClimateEthics begins with this entry using YouTube technology to explain the ethical dimensions of cliamte change. The following is our first attempt to do this. This video explains why it is practically important to understand climate change policy issues as ethical questions. We hope to improve our ability to do this in the future. This entry is 16 minutes long. It argues that it is practically important to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu

Ten Practical Policy Consequences of Acknowledging That Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.

I. Introduction.

If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it would appear there is widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.

Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.

The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask those governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of national economic cost alone whether they deny that in addition to national economic interest nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep or a whisper about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.

Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. Many have asserted that climate change is an ethical problem, but few appear to understand what practical difference it makes if climate change is seen as an ethical problem.

Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?
First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people around the world. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them. .

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world if not the entire world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.

Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created at the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of the problem. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

Although many have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be widely not understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem.

Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles and are not repeated here to reduce complexity.

II. Ten Practical Consequences of Acknowledgement Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then:
1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.

2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individual must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.

3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.

5. Because it has been scientifically well established that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.

6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed are will be harmed by climate change.

7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.

8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very latest nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.

9. In determining what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.

10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that don’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.

By:
Donald A. Brown,
Associate Professor,
Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu

The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms.

I. Introduction.

Although some progress was made on a number of procedural issues and voluntary emissions reductions commitments at the conclusion of the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in December, the international community had failed for the 20th year in a row to agree to a meaningful global approach to climate change.

That is, Cancun failed to produce binding and equitable national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change nor dedicated and predictable funding needed for adaptation by vulnerable developing nations.
In fact, the voluntary emissions reduction commitments agreed to in Cancun, even if fully complied with, virtually guarantee that rising global temperatures will exceed dangerous levels.

Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change. In fact, as we shall see, the United States among the developed countries is the only nation to make no binding commitments on climate change.

Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages from human-induced climate change now are becoming more visible around the world. And so, as the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States is ignoring its global obligations.

Even though the election of President Obama was widely seen as a basis for hope in the international community that the United States would for the first time accept its international responsibilities on climate change, it would appear that at least for his first term President Obama will not be able to deliver on his promise to make the United States a responsible participant in solving climate change.
Because the United States recently elected a Congress that shows no interest in developing national climate change policies and there are reasons to believe that the Obama administration will not be able to make meaningful reductions through administrative action under existing law, the international community is becoming increasingly pessimistic that it will be able to achieve a global deal on climate change in the continuing absence of US leadership. The international community needs the United States to commit to reduce its emissions not only because of the relative size of the US emissions as a percentage of global emissions (over 21%), but because other countries have signaled that they will not act without the United States greenhouse gas reduction commitments.

This post reviews: (a) the state of international climate change cooperation in light of COP-16 in Cancun, (b) the unfortunate and tragic history of the failed US response to climate change, (c) the political domestic opposition to climate change policies, and (d) the need of the United States to respond to its ethical duties to reduce the threat of climate change.

II. Cancun Outcome.

To understand the state of the global deal on climate change, one needs to examine the agreements reached at COP-16 in Cancun. In a recent post, ClimateEthics examined in considerable detail the positive outcomes and huge disappointments of COP-16 in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010. See, An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome.

In summary, despite a few agreements on mostly procedural matters and non-binding national emissions reductions commitments and aspirations for adaptation funding that have kept hope alive for some eventual global deal on climate change, the Cancun agreements failed to achieve legally binding agreements on national greenhouse gas emissions reductions and sufficient dedicated funding for adaptation efforts to climate change in vulnerable countries around the world.

Although Cancun made progress on voluntary national greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments, these commitments even if complied with, will not avoid dangerous climate change. In short, Cancun made some progress but deferred decisions on the most difficult international climate change issues to later COPs. As we explained in the previous post, Cancun utterly failed to achieve an agreement that: (a) was environmentally sufficient, (b) adequately funded needed adaptation, or (c) allocated national responsibility on the basis of equity.

A. Environmental Sufficiency Criteria

As we have seen the Cancun agreements fail to modify the inadequate voluntary commitments on ghg emissions reductions made pursuant to the Copenhagen Accord. Not only does the Cancun agreements fail to require sufficient ghg emissions reductions to assure that the international community is on a ghg emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change, the emissions reductions commitments that have been identified under the Cancun agreements almost guarantee that millions of poor people, plants, animals, an ecosystems will be harmed by climate change. That is, the voluntary emissions reduction commitments made in Cancun leave at a very minimum a 5Gt gap between emissions levels that will be achieved if there is full compliance with the voluntary emissions reductions and what is necessary to prevent 2°C rise, a warming amount that most scientists believe could cause very dangerous climate change.

B. Just Adaptation Criteria

The second criteria for judging the sufficiency of any second commitment period under the UNFCCC is that it must provide adequate funding to support adaptation programs in developing countries given that some developing countries have done nothing to cause climate change and must now or soon take steps to avoid harsh impacts. Although the Cancun agreement did manage to create an adaptation framework to enhance adaptation efforts by all countries and a process to help least developed countries (LDCs) to develop and implement national adaptation, Cancun failed to identify dedicated sources of funding to implement an adaptation agenda that is based upon “mandatory” contributions to “new, predictable, and additional sources of funding.”

C. Equity Criteria

As we explained in the recent post on Cancun, a third criteria that all post-Kyoto proposals must meet is the requirement that national emissions reduction proposals must be consistent with what “equity” and “justice” demands of nations. That is, equity requires that each nation reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. In other words, each nation’s emissions reduction levels should be based upon what distributive and retributive justice demands, not on national self-interest. As we explained in the recent post, the voluntary emissions reductions commitments made under the Cancun agreements utterly failed to satisfy the requirement that national emissions reductions be based upon “equity” or are otherwise distributively just.

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An Ethical Analysis of the Cancun Climate Negotiations Outcome.

I Introduction

Two dramatically conflicting headlines about the outcome of the recently concluded Cancun United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change’s 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) are initially defensible. One might be: Nations At Cancun Tragically Fail to Make Meaningful Commitments on Climate Change for the Twentieth Year In A Row Another might be: Cancun Surprises Many By Keeping Hope Alive for A Global Climate Change Deal.

This post looks at these conflicting conclusions about Cancun through an ethical lens. This post will explain that although some hope for a global solution to climate change is still alive due to decisions adopted in Cancun, one must see Cancun in the context of a twenty-year failed attempt to prevent dangerous climate change. From that standpoint Cancun must be seen as another troubling ethical failure of those most responsible for climate change. This is a tragedy because each year when there has been a failure to commit to adequately reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions has made it more difficult in subsequent years to get on a ghg emissions reduction pathway capable of preventing serious climate change.

For some, the modest progress in Cancun toward a global approach to climate change has been seen as a positive step forward. (BBC, 2010). This is so because many thought that the UNFCCC architecture for a global solution to climate change was in jeopardy of completely unraveling before Cancun; a legal structure that had been gradually been put into place since 1990 when negotiations on a global solution to climate change began. Yet, this post will argue that Cancun must be seen in the context of what has failed to happen in the last twenty years on climate change and not only on the basis of the very limited positive steps made in Cancun.

To many others, Cancun was another tragic lost opportunity for the international community to prevent dangerous climate change, as well as, the most recent in a series of moral failures of those most responsible for climate change to commit to steps necessary to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts. One observer of Cancun concluded, for instance, that:

The Cancun Agreements of the 2010 UN Climate Summit do not represent a success for multilateralism; neither do they put the world on a safe climate pathway that science demands, and far less to a just and equitable transition towards a sustainable model of development. They represent a victory for big polluters and Northern elites that wish to continue with business-as-usual. (IBON, 2010)

We must see climate change as an ethical problem because: (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world that puts others and the natural resources on which they depend at great risk, (b) the harms to these other people are not mere inconveniences but in some cases catastrophic losses of life or the ability to sustain life, and (c) those who are vulnerable to climate change cant petition their governments to act to protect themselves but must rely upon a hope that a sense of justice and responsibility of those causing the problem will motivate them to change their behavior. Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions, any proposed climate change regime must be examined through an ethical lens.

This post reviews the Cancun outcome through an ethical lens in light of the overall responsibility of those nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions in regard to their duties: (a) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels necessary to prevent harm to others, (b) to reduce greenhouse gas emission to levels consistent with what is each nation’s fair share of total global emissions, and (c) to provide financing for adaptation measures and other necessary responses to climate change harms for those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for climate change.

To understand the significance of what happened in Cancun, it is necessary to briefly review the history of international negotiations leading up to Cancun. That is, it is not sufficient to simply examine what happened in Cancun without seeing Cancun in the context of the twenty-year negotiating history whose goal has been the prevention of dangerous climate change and the harms that each year of delay in agreeing to a global deal exacerbate.

II. The Path To The Cancun Agreement

The Cancun conference took place from November 29 to December 10, 2010. The Cancun goals were modest in light of the failure of COP-15 in Copenhagen the year before to achieve an expected global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was expected to produce a global solution to climate change pursuant to a two-year negotiating process and agenda that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.

To understand the ethical significance of the Cancun Agreements, it is necessary to review the twenty-year history of climate change negotiations that led to Bali, Copenhagen, and Cancun. This history constitutes a failed attempt over two decades to adopt a global solution to climate change.

Negotiations on a global climate change deal began in 1990 and led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 (Bodansky,2001) The climate change negotiation process began in December 1990, when the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, to negotiate a convention containing “appropriate commitments” in time for signature in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Because of the opposition of the United States and a few other countries, this treaty itself did not contain binding greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions limitations for countries but nevertheless included numerous other binding national obligations. Among other things, for instance, the parties to the UNFCCC agreed that:

(a) They would adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system;
(b) Developed countries should take the first steps to prevent dangerous climate change;
(c) Nations have common but differentiated responsibilities to prevent climate change;
(d) Nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action; and,
(e) Nations should reduce their ghg emissions based upon “equity.” (UN, 1992)

In the early UNFCCC negotiations, the European Union and Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) advocated establishing a target and timetable to limit emissions by developed countries in the UNFCCC, while the United States and the oil-producing states opposed this idea. (Bodanksy, 2001). Other developing states generally supported targets and timetables, as long as it was clearly understood that these targets and timetables would apply only to developed states. (Bodanksy, 2001)

The UNFCCC has 192 parties, a number that includes almost all countries in the world including the United States which ratified the UNFCCC in 1993.

The UNFCC is a “framework” convention because it has always been expected that additional requirements would be added to the initial framework in updates that are known as “protocols” or in annual decisions of the conferences of the parties (COPs).

Each year as the parties to the UNFCCC meet in COPs , decisions were made that affect the responsibilities of the parties. The UNFCCC COPs were as follows:
• 1995 – COP 1, The Berlin Mandate
• 1996 – COP 2, Geneva, Switzerland
• 1997 – COP 3, The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change
• 1998 – COP 4, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 1999 – COP 5, Bonn, Germany
• 2000 – COP 6, The Hague, Netherlands
• 2001 – COP 6 (Continued), Bonn, Germany
• 2001 – COP 7, Marrakech, Morocco
• 2002 – COP 8, New Delhi, India
• 2003 – COP 9, Milan, Italy
• 2004 – COP 10, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 2005 – COP 11 Montreal, Canada
• 2006 – COP 12, Nairobi, Kenya
• 2007 – COP 13 Bali, Indonesia
• 2008 – COP 14, Poznań, Poland
• 2009 – COP 15, Copenhagen, Denmark
• 2010 – COP 16, Cancun.

Each year nations have meet in COPs to achieve a global solution to climate change and each COP for the most part continued to add small steps toward the goals of the UNFCCC. Yet in all COPs some nations have resisted calls from some of the most vulnerable nations to adopt a solution to climate change that would prevent dangerous climate change.

As the international community approached Cancun, no comprehensive global solution had been agreed to despite the fact that the original negotiations on the UNFCCC began in 1990 with a goal of achieving a global climate change solution. For this reason, Cancun must be understood as the latest attempt in a twenty-year history of mostly failed attempts to structure a global solution to climate change.

The first major addition to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated in 1997 because the international community had been convinced by then by the emerging climate change science that developed nations needed to be bound by numerical emissions reductions targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005 and currently has 190 parties. The United States is the only developed country that never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
Going into the Kyoto negotiations, the European Union proposed a comparatively strong
target, requiring a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2010, while other industrialized states such as the United States and Australia proposed weaker targets, with Japan somewhere in the middle. (Bodansky, 2001) Ultimately the issue was resolved by specifying different emission targets for each party, ranging from an 8 percent reduction from 1990 levels for the European Union, to a 10 percent increase for Iceland. (Bodansky, 2001)

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. The developing countries had no binding emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto.

The Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 were necessary not only to expand the modest commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol but also because the emissions reductions obligations of developed countries set out in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.

Kyoto was never understood as the final solution to climate change but only as a small initial step of developed nations to begin to take responsibility for climate change. As we have seen, the developed nations had agreed in the UNFCCC that they should take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change because they were mostly responsible for the build up of ghg in the atmosphere and Kyoto was understood to be a modest initial step toward a global solution. That is, Kyoto negotiators understood that a global solution would be negotiated later in future meetings of the UNFCCC parties. From the standpoint of some the most vulnerable countries,including some of the small island developing states making up the organization AOSIS, Kyoto was not aggressive enough to prevent climate change threats to them.

At the COP-13 negotiations in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a second commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement was referred to as the Bali Roadmap, which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions. The original UNFCCC climate treaty had neither a quantified temperature limitation goal nor a ghg concentration atmospheric stabilization goal. In the Bali Roadmap the international community agreed to work on such a goal.

The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), meaning climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed and extended in Copenhagen.

Although some progress was made on a few issues in the two-year lead-up to Copenhagen, little progress was made on the major issues needed to define a global solution for climate change and particularly on legal commitments for GHG emissions reductions and funding for adaptation, deforestation programs, and technology transfer.

As Copenhagen approached, optimism about a Copenhagen deal faded although there was a short spurt of renewed hope several weeks before the conference started in December 2009 as the US, China, and a few other nations publicly made non-binding commitments on emissions reductions.

During the Copenhagen conference representatives from poor vulnerable nations begged developed countries to: (a) commit to reduce GHG emissions to levels necessary to prevent dangerous climate change;and (b) to fund adaptation programs in developing countries that are necessary to protect the most vulnerable from climate change impacts that could be avoided or compensate for the damages that could not be avoided.

Despite these pleas, not much happened during the Copenhagen conference to resolve the most contentious issues until US President Obama appeared on the morning of the last day, Friday, December 18, 2009. For much of that day, President Obama negotiated with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma. (Lerer, 2009) Yet, a large part of this time was focused on a dispute between the United States and China on whether China would agree to monitoring and verification of Chinese climate change commitments.

President Obama could not commit to anything in Copenhagen that he knew he could not get through the US congress. Because a climate change bill that had passed the US House of Representatives was very weak compared to what science said was necessary to protect the world’s poorest people, the United States took a position in the lead-up to Copenhagen that continued to be the weakest of all the developed countries’ commitments on emissions reductions. The US could only commit to a 13% reduction below 2005, a 4% reduction below 1990 levels. Yet most scientists were asserting that the world needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% reductions below 1990 levels to have any confidence that the international community would limit warming to 20 C, a level which was widely believed to trigger dangerous climate change.

Because none of the developed countries were willing to make emissions reduction commitments congruent with what scientific community said was necessary to protect them, some of the most vulnerable developing countries saw the developed countries’ positions in Copenhagen as ominous, perhaps a death sentence.
President Obama personally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord during last hours of the conference. Yet, to get this deal, President Obama had to ignore many of the positions of the most vulnerable nations that were unresolved in the two negotiating documents that had been created in the lead-up to Copenhagen over two years. That is, for instance, among other things, the Copenhagen Accord failed to get commitments from the United States and some other developed countries to reduce ghg emissions at levels necessary to prevent serious climate change damage.

President Obama managed to get fairly wide spread support for the Copenhagen Accord on the last day of the Copenhagen negotiations despite the fact that the United States was not able to commit to emissions reductions at levels to prevent dangerous climate change. Politically President Obama’s hands were tied in regard to his ability to commit to issues of interest to those nations most vulnerable to climate change because of domestic political constraints. Before Copenhagen, the US House of Representatives had passed a bill requiring a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 and this was a practical limitation on what the United States could commit to in international negotiations.

For domestic political reasons, the US President also wanted agreement from China and other large developing countries on transparent procedures for verifying their non-binding emissions reduction commitments.

Those opposing climate change legislation in the United States often have argued that it would be unfair to the United States if it was bound to reduce GHG emissions and China was not required to do the same. In fact, a decade earlier, when the Kyoto Accord was under consideration in the United States, opponents of the Kyoto deal frequently ran TV commercials that argued that the Kyoto Protocol was unfair to the United States because China was excluded from emissions limitations. This argument was often made without e critical comment in the United States even though the United States had committed itself to take the first steps to reduce emissions along wAlthough President Obama originally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with just four other countries, in the last few hours of the Copenhagen conference the United States successfully convinced most large emitting countries to support the Accord.

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Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations

I. Introduction

As we have seen in prior ClimateEthics’ posts, with the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate change legislation can’t be afforded by the public. This post is one of a series that identifies ethical problems with these cost arguments made against the adoption of climate change policies and legislation.
In the entry entitled Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens, ClimateEthics explained how cost arguments were usually deeply ethically problematic because they ignored duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an entry entitled Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, ClimateEthics explained that cost arguments were ethically flawed because they:

(a) ignore 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, and

(b) implicitly rely on “preference utilitarianism,” a justification for non-action on climate change that is deeply ethically problematic.

This post now identifies another ethical problem with the use of cost arguments made against proposed climate change policies and legislation:They ignore the duty to prevent human rights violations.

II-Cost Arguments and Human Rights Violations

A recent report by Sir Nicolas Stern, the chief economist for the United Kingdom, acknowledged that if climate change violates human rights there could be a moral, if not legal, obligation that those nations or groups most responsible for climate change to reduce their emissions not withstanding what cost-benefit analysis conclude. (Stern, 2006, 42). Therefore, according to Stern, if climate change policies are viewed to create human rights violations, it could be argued that all have the right only to emit some very small amount of greenhouse gases, equal for all, and that no one has the right to emit beyond that level without incurring the duty to compensate. (Stern, 2006: 42).

According to Henry Shue, a human right provides: (1) a rational basis for justification: (2) that actual enjoyment of the substance of the right may be enjoyed by the right holder, and (3) that the right be socially guaranteed. (Shue, 1980: 13). In other words, to have a right is to be in a position to make demands on others about one’s entitlement to enjoy the right. As Shue asserts, if a person has a right, the right can be insisted on without embarrassment. (Shue, 1980:15). To have a right also entitles the right holder to expect that those who can do so guarantee that the right can be enjoyed by the right holder. For this reason, if a person has a right to be protected from climate change caused by others, then they may expect that those who can act to prevent climate change caused harm will take protective action. This obligation is not modified by the fact that reducing pollution will impose costs on the polluter. In other words, if climate change violates human rights, high-emitters can’t use cost arguments to minimize their responsibility to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emission levels that don’t cause human rights violations.

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On The Moral Imperatives Of Speaking Publicly About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change-And How It Must Be Done.

I. Introduction

One of the great privileges of writing ClimateEthics is that it exposes the writer to the good, bad, and ugly of climate change arguments being made around the world. Actually quite frequently we receive thoughtful comments that force us to go a little deeper and in some cases correct mistakes or correct reasonable misinterpretations. Often we get inspiring comments.

One such example of this was a comment received on another website, Climate Progress, to an article of ours that they had cross-posted from Jeff Huggens. See, http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/17/are-ethical-arguments-for-climate-action-weaker-than-self-interest-based-arguments/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+climateprogress%2FlCrX+%28Climate+Progress%29

Mr Huggens said in part:

MANY MORE PEOPLE should be speaking out about these arguments. If only a dozen ethicists, moral philosophers, and others are conveying the strong argument in clear ethical/moral terms, the lack of others speaking out defeats the entire enterprise. People (the public, the media, and so forth) naturally wonder, if only 1 percent of all ethicists, spiritual leaders, moral philosophers, other philosophers, “wise women and men”, and so forth are speaking out in ethical/moral terms, then those ethical/moral arguments must truly be “not all that important”, or “highly controversial and not broadly accepted”, or “only held by theoretical folks”, or whatever. So, the efforts of the one percent or two percent of folks who DO speak out in those terms are somewhat nullified, in reality, if more and more people in the fields that are supposed to have views on such matters do not also join in to form a larger chorus of voices. In this sense, and for this reason, choosing to be silent, or indifferent, or “too busy” to take a stand on this IS making a choice — that is, one of indifference.

We believe that those who understand the ethical dimensions of climate change have a duty to speak up strongly because with knowledge comes responsibility.

II. How this Must Be Done

Now, one important reservation needs to be made, however, at this point. We believe that identifying the ethical issues entailed by climate change arguments will lead to three possibilities and all need to acknowledge this:

One, on some issues there will be an overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories about what should be done. For example, no nation or individual may deny, given what is now indisputable about the threat of climate change even if some uncertainties about actual impacts are acknowledged, that they have immediate obligations to others to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. We believe all ethical systems and views require this. Yet nations are frequently acting as if only their national self-interest counts. And fewer individuals have recognized their duties on this. (A matter that we expect to write a lot about in the near future.) Particularly in regard to the assertion that nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses and individuals have duties and responsibilities to others we need people of conscience to speak out.

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Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
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Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.

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Stopping the Worst Environmental Disaster?: An Ethical and Scientific Comparison of the Gulf Oil Spill and Climate Change.

I. The Oil Spill and Climate Change Compared.

Over the last two months the U.S. Congress has been engaged in a great operatic drama over what many have called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history: the BP Gulf oil spill. Last week U.S Congressman angrily grilled BP CEO Tony Hayward about the causes of the disaster and BPs inability to shut off the oil flow. As this took place, the brown and orange slick continued its daily assault on fisheries, birds, and livelihoods.

Although oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform site may in fact be creating the greatest environmental and economic harm in U.S. history so far, there is new evidence that another looming environmental problem is likely to produce far worse environmental and economic impacts not only for the United States but particularly for some of the poorest people around the world. It is also a problem about which the U.S. Congress has done nothing for twenty years: human-induced climate change.

While the US focuses on the Gulf tragedy, climate change causing greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at ever more dangerous rates. This past week the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that by the end of May atmospheric concentrations of the chief greenhouse gas CO2 had reached an all-time high for at least 2.1 million years, 392.94 parts per million (ppm).

NOAA also announced that May continued a streak that is making this year, 2010, the hottest year on record so far from January through the end of May. Globally the May temperatures was 0.99°F above the 20th century average of 61.3° making it the hottest May on record.

As the globe has been experiencing record heat during the spring of 2010, floodwaters that have been predicted by climate change science are wreaking havoc in many locations world-wide. Disastrous flooding was experienced this spring in France where flash floods hit the back hills of the French Riviera and turned streets into rivers of surging, muddy water. The death toll from the flooding has risen to 25. In Myanmar and Bangladesh, floods and landslides triggered by incessant monsoon rains have killed more than 100 people. China has also experienced devastating flooding this year as well as Brazil. In the United States, flooding in Texas, Nebraska and Wyoming has caused massive damage to farms and homes. Although science cant say that all of these flooding events are directly attributable to human-causation, this flooding is predicted by climate change science.

Climate change not only threatens more people, animals, and ecological systems around the world than the Gulf spill; it promises to be a problem that will continually wreck havoc for centuries while harming the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people with drought, floods, killer storms, rising sea levels, and vector borne disease.

BP may shut down the oil gusher in the Gulf by the end of the summer, yet the harms from human-induced climate change will likely plague the world for centuries. While the threat from the BP gusher to the wild life in the Gulf is huge, the threat to people, animals, and ecological systems from climate change is much larger.
While it is proving difficult to shut down the oil flow from the Deepwater Horizon site, the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change is truly civilization challenging. This is so because the world will need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from current levels by 80% or greater by the middle of this century to prevent catastrophic climate change as greenhouse gas emissions increase world wide increase at 2% per year under current trends.

Yet, some of the members of the U.S. Congress that are outraged at BP have been resisting meaningful action on climate change. In fact the U.S. Congress has been a barrier to responsible U.S. climate change action since the early 1990s.

There are a few things in common about the Gulf spill and climate change. One lesson of the Gulf oil spill that is an ominous warning about climate change is that the Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrates that what are often initially believed to be low probability, in fact unforeseeable, catastrophic impacts do happen. (See article on unforseeability) Although even more optimistic predictions of climate change impacts are disastrous for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, the upper end of possible human-induced temperature increases in this Century of 5 to 9 o C will be catastrophic and perhaps unimaginable for the world.

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Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask Opponents of Climate Change Policies.

I. Introduction

This post identifies twenty questions that the US press has failed to ask opponents of proposed US climate change policies that should be asked if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical issues.
To understand why these questions should be asked, it is first necessary to review the kinds of arguments that have usually been made in opposition to US climate change policies, programs, and legislation and why these arguments fail to deal with the profound ethical questions raised by the threat of human induced climate change.

Since international climate change negotiations began in 1990, the United States has yet to adopt meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction legislation For almost 20 years arguments against US climate change legislation or US participation in a global solution to climate change have been made that have almost always been of two types.

By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are economic predictions of various kinds such as claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, or increase the cost of fuel. A variation of this argument is that the United States should not adopt policies on climate change until other nations such as China take steps to reduce their emissions because if the United States acts and other nations don’t reciprocate this will harm the US economy.

The second most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that governments should not take action on climate change because adverse impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “main-stream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate change researchers are unproven.
Both the economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies implicitly argue that climate change policies should be opposed because they are not in the US national interest.
The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

By simply opposing the factual claims of the opponents of climate change, the advocates of climate change policies are implicitly agreeing with the assumptions of the opponents of climate change action that greenhouse reduction policies should not be adopted if they are not in national self-interest.

Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. By ethics is meant the domain of inquiry that examines claims that given certain facts, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibilities attach to human activities.

If nations or individuals have ethical obligations, they are likely to have duties, responsibilities, and obligations that require them to go beyond consideration of self-interest alone in making decisions. And so, if climate change raises ethical considerations, governments may not base policy decisions on self-interest alone.
Given this, one might ask what aspects of climate change raise ethical questions. In fact there are several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.

First, climate change creates duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic.

The third reason why climate change is an ethical problem stems from its global scope. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of climate change. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

And so if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions which imply duties, responsibilities, and obligations what questions should the press ask opponents of climate change policies when they make economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies?

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Ten Reasons Why Examining Climate Change Policy Controversies Through an Ethical Lens Is A Practical Imperative.

I. Introduction

If ethical and justice arguments about why climate change policies are necessary are taken off the table in the climate change debate, it is like a baseball pitcher unilaterally agreeing to not throw any fast balls or breaking balls during a World Series game. Yet, as we will explain, there is almost a complete absence of ethical arguments for climate change policies in the US debate about proposed approaches to climate change. This failure to expressly examine the ethical issues entailed by arguments made by opponents of climate change action has important practical consequences.

This post first looks at how climate change policies are usually debated. Next, the post looks at why these controversies must be understood to raise ethical questions. And finally, this post lists ten practical reasons why climate change policies must be examined through an ethical lens.

II. Common Climate Change Policy Arguments

Arguments against climate change policies are usually of two types. By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are assertions of various kinds of adverse economic impacts that will flow if climate change policies are adopted.

Examples of this are claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or will destroy the recovery from a recession. The second most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that adverse climate change impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven.

The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation or policies, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

Although these alternative economic and scientific arguments are relevant to whether climate change policies should be adopted, noticeably missing from the US debate are ethical and justice arguments for action on climate change. In fact, there is a hardly a murmur in US press coverage of climate change controversies about the ethical and justice reasons for adopting climate change policies when arguments against adopting climate change policies are made. This failure of the press to examine these issues is because advocates of climate change policies are rarely racing these issues.

III. Why Climate Change Policy Issues Must Be Understood to Raise Ethical Questions.

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 are often deployed in arguments about self-interest.

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