If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Scientific Uncertainty?


I. Introduction 

This is the second of three articles that makes recommendations on how NGOs and citizens should debate climate change policies if Pope Francis claim that climate change is essentially a moral problem is correct. The first of these three articles looked at how NGO’s should respond to arguments against climate change policies based on cost if climate change is a moral problem. This entry makes recommendations about how NGOs and citizens should respond to arguments based on scientific uncertainty. The third in this series will make recommendations on how to respond to arguments based on  the unfairness or ineffectiveness of a nation acting if China or India does not reduce their ghg emissions.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and  fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is also strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times,  it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate. The opponents of climate change policies have largely succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness of one country acting while others don’t rather than the moral problems with these arguments.

This series argues  following the example of Pope Francis that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on scientific uncertainty.  Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.

Some of the arguments against climate change policies based upon scientific uncertainty should and can be responded to on scientific grounds especially in light of the fact that many claims about scientific uncertainty about human-induced warming are great distortions of mainstream climate change science.  Yet in addition to the scientific responses to arguments made  against climate policies on scientific grounds, there are a host of ethical problems with these arguments which the following questions are designed to expose.

II. Questions to be Asked of Those Opposing Action on Climate Change on the Basis of Scientific Uncertainty.

When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:

1. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences, and numerous other Academies of Sciences around the World including the Royal Academy of the UK,  over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society,  and according to the American Academy of Sciences, 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change whose conclusions hold that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.

This question is designed to expose the ethical conclusion that nations who are put on notice by the most prestigious and responsible scientific organizations in the world that ghg emissions from their jurisdictions are causing great harm to vulnerable people around the world have an ethical duty to accept the burden of proof to prove that their ghg emissions are not causing harm. That is once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that some nations or entities are causing great harm, the question of who should have the burden of proof is an ethical and not simply a scientific question. Thus the question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of those who are engaged in risky behavior to produce credible scientific evidence that demonstrates with relatively high levels of proof that their behavior is not causing harm if they choose to persist in behaving in a way that might be dangerous.  That risky behavior is not acceptable because there is some uncertainty about the harm that will be caused by the behavior is clear from law around the world that makes dangerous behavior unacceptable and often criminal. For instance, it is not a defense to a charge of reckless driving that the police could not prove the driving would cause harm. Nations and people have a moral duty to not engage in behaviors that might cause harm if there is a reasonable basis that the behavior could cause harm.  Therefore opponents of climate change have a strong burden of proof to prove that human release of ghgs is not dangerous. For this reason, opponents of climate change policies have an ethical duty to explain the scientific basis for concluding that human activities are not causing dangerous climate change.

2. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?

This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty to take action in the face of uncertainty if waiting until the uncertainties are resolved will produce greater harm particularly for problems like climate change that are predicted to cause catastrophic harms to some people and regions if strong action is not taken. 

3. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?

This question is designed to expose the ethical duty entailed by procedural justice to obtain consensus about waiting until uncertainties are resolved before taking action from those who will be harmed by any delay in taking action on the basis of uncertainty when delay will most likely increase the harms to those who are most vulnerable. 

4. Should a developed nation such as  the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2 degrees C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.

This question, following up on question one is designed to expose the ethical duty of high-emitting developed countries like the United States to refrain from further delay on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty given that the nation’s non-action on climate change is already responsible for putting the international community in great danger from climate change. 

5. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?

This question, following up on question one, is designed to expose the fact that there is a strong ethical duty to assume human causation of climate change if there is reliable evidence of human causation and that those who seek to justify non-action on climate change because they claim that human causation has not been proven have a very strong ethical duty to demonstrate that humans are not causing climate change with high levels of proof. More specifically in regard to the question of human causation, opponents of climate change policies that deny human causation should be expected to specifically respond to the numerous “foot-print” and “attribution” studies that the international community has relied on to make conclusions about human causation.

6. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?

This question is designed to expose that those who seek to rely on scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change have a strong ethical duty to produce very credible scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that human activities releasing ghgs are not causing climate change and its impacts. 

7. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those nations most responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?

This question is designed to provoke express ethical reflection on the fact that those most responsible for dangerous atmospheric concentrations of ghg have a strong ethical duty to demonstrate that additional levels of ghg in the atmosphere are safe. 

8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)

This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that because all nations that ratified the UNFCCC agreed to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing their ghg emissions, they have an ethical duty to keep their promises.

9. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of vulnerable people around the world and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be financially responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of nations to pay for damages that result from their delays in taking action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. 

10. Do you agree that if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?

This question is designed to expose that those politicians who refuse to reduce their government’s ghg on the basis that they are not scientists cannot ethically justify non-action on climate change on this basis because once they are put on notice by respected scientific organizations that ghg from their government jurisdiction are harming others, they have a duty to prevent dangerous behavior or establish credible scientific evidence that the alleged dangerous behavior is safe. 


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener Commonwealth University Law School


“What Is Wrong Climate Politics And How to Fix It” A Review of a New Book By Paul Harris



Given the strength of the scientific evidence that the world is rapidly heading to a climate catastrophe, it is vitally important to ask what has gone so terribly wrong with the world’s political response to climate change.  Understanding the cause of the utterly irresponsible and tragic political inaction on climate change provides some hope for changing course.

A a new well-written book by Paul Harris, What is Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It, examines the failure of the global community to reduce the civilization challenging threat of human-induced warming. This book is an excellent, easily understood review of the sorry status of international cooperation to find a global solution to climate change. The book is valuable for its contribution to the growing literature on climate change policy particularly in regard to its clear description of the sorry history of international climate negotiations.

The main thesis of the book is that the  international focus in these negotiations on the obligations of nation states, rather than on individual responsibility, is a major cause of  what has gone wrong.

The book makes a compelling case that the almost exclusive national focus of climate change negotiations is problematic for two reasons.

First, nations have historically always engaged in international problems from the standpoint of national interest rather than global obligations.

Second, from the initiation of the climate negotiations, the international community has assumed that national responsibility will be apportioned largely according to two broad categories, namely developed and developing countries.  This categorization is problematic because this classification into these two categories arguably made some limited sense when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for ratification in 1992, but it doesn’t now given that some of the countries that were initially classified as developing countries, including India and China, are quickly emerging as the among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (ghg).

In addition, in almost all developing countries there is a growing middle and affluent class of high consumers. If developing nations understand that they have no responsibility to curb high consumption of their affluent citizens in regard to ghg, there is absolutely no hope for reducing global emissions  to levels necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.

In addition, if high emitting consumers in developing nations assume that the duty to reduce ghg emissions is solely a national obligation, not a personal one, they will more likely continue to emit ghgs at high levels without being haunted by ethical or moral failure.

And so, Harris compellingly explains why a reliance on national responsibility alone in the global search for an adequate response to climate change will likely guarantee continuing international failure to reduce the enormous threat of climate change.

The book also reviews in some detail the mostly dysfunctional role that the United States and China have played in international negotiations for over two decades while at the same time describing the centrality of these two countries in maintaining hope for a global climate change solution.

Harris also provides strategies for changing the world’s response to climate change so that citizens around the world understand that they have individual responsibility.

The first recommendation is to expand the use of a “human-rights” approach to policies on climate change. Implicit in this strategy is the idea that if individuals understand that they are responsible for human rights violations, they may take their obligations to reduce their gig emissions more seriously.

There is little doubt that climate change is already preventing many people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights, a phenomenon that is sure to grow in the years ahead.  Furthermore there are several practical reasons why an increased emphasis on human rights has considerable potential utility for improving the international response to  climate change.

One is that a greater understanding of climate change as  a human rights problem should lead to more widespread rejection of many justifications for non-action on climate change. For instance, some of the excuses often used to justify non-action on climate change by nations and others, such as it is not in their economic interest to adopt climate policies, are widely understood to be irrelevant to affecting human rights obligations.

However, although turning up the volume on the human rights significance of climate change is something that should undoutably be encouraged, it is not clear why an increased focus on human rights is likely to achieve a greater acceptance of individual responsibility. In fact, human-rights obligations are currently understood to be the responsibility of nations, not individuals, under existing international law. Thus non-state actors, including businesses,  currently have no or very limited obligations under human rights regimes.

And so, although it is unquestionably true that a greater emphasis on human rights in climate change policy disputes has practical value, it is not clear how this will lead to the shift to a focus on individual responsibility appropriately called for by Harris.

Harris’s second strategy to achieve the needed shift to individual responsibility is a public movement to get individuals to understand that current unsustainable consumption patterns are disastrous.  According to Harris, it is the unquestioned assumed benefits of the economic growth model that dominates the world that is a major cause of  irresponsible consumption generating more and more ghg emissions.

On this issue, Harris is undoubtably correct that an economic growth model that is oblivious to the environmental destruction that it is causing is dominating international relations. What is not clear, however, is why a call for change in the growth model by itself will likely undermine the dominant discourse. A deeper understanding of the sociological forces that enable  the current dominant capitalist development model to dominate international affairs is likely necessary to develop an effective  strategy to dislodge this discourse.

In addition some explanation is necessary for why some developed nations (most of whom are in Northern Europe) have taken climate change more seriously than others if the problem is the international dominance of the economic growth model.

In this regard, Harris’s analysis leaves something of great importance off the table. Harris almost completely ignores the role that economically interested corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations have had in undermining climate change policies in the United States for over two decades.

As we have written about many times, there has been a huge, well-organized, well-funded climate change disinformation campaign that is largely responsiblse for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. See, for instance: The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part Two: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Human Rights Violation Or A Special Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing ? and The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?

This campaign, through the use of sophisticated public-relations honed tactics, has successfully prevented political action on climate change in the United States for over two decades. It also has had some effect on the the United Kingdom and Australia but much less so in some  other developed countries.

Therefore, the two strategies recommended by Harris to shift  global understanding about who has duties to reduce ghg toward individual responsibility will likely not be successful without a direct, dramatic, and vigorous confrontation with the climate change disinformation campaign. In fact, as we have argued before in considerable detail, this climate change disinformation campaign should be understood as  some new kind of crime against humanity.

The other failure not discussed by  Harris worthy of considerable attention is the failure of the media in many parts of the world to report on several aspects of climate change that need to be understood to fully understand personal and national responsibility. They include, the nature of the scientific consensus position, the civilization challenge entailed by the quantity of emissions reduction necessary to stabilize ghg in the atmosphere at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change, the fact that one can not think about national or individual responsibility clearly without considering equity and justice  questions, and the utter ethical bankruptcy of the scientific and economic justifications for non-action on climate change that have been the dominant excuses for non-action on climate change for 35 years.  At least in the United States, the media has dramatically failed to help citizens understand these crucial features of climate change.

new book description for website-1_01There is no doubt that Harris’s call for a shift to individual responsibility and away from national obligations alone is worthy of serious and expanded  reflection.  Therefore the book is recommended for anyone engaged seriously in climate change policy issues. However, to think strategically about how to generate a greater awareness of individual ethical responsibility, Harris’s book  should be supplemented by additional strategic considerations.  We have attempted to explain some of these considerations  in the recent book: Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm.  



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law.

Widener University School of Law