The New York Times reported on August 19 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon issue its 5th assessment report that will state that the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change has increased from a 90% probability in 2007 to a 95% probability in the new report. This new report, according to the New York Times, will assert that expected warming in this century will lead to wide-spread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions. Yet such predictions about climate change’s impacts have been made for well over thirty years.
One might ask whether the change in confidence levels from 90% to 95% makes a difference as a matter of ethics. We believe it does not because those causing climate change have had clear ethical duties to reduce the threat of climate change once they were put on notice that their actions were likely putting others at great risk. This is information that was widely available three decades ago. Ethical duties to not create harm begin once someone is put on notice that their behavior is likely to cause great harm particularly in regard to actions about which:
Waiting to take action will make the problem worse;
Delays will make it much harder to prevent catastrophic impacts;
Those who are most at risk have not consented to be placed at further risk;
The harms from the dangerous behavior are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic destruction of life and ecological system on which life depends;
Much of the science on which the projections of catastrophic harms is based is not controversial and has been well established for many decades;
The vast majority of the scientists that do peer-reviewed science on climate change support the conclusion that humans are likely changing the Earth’s climate in ways that will create great harms for the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Under these circumstances, one does not need complete certainty before ethical obligations to do no harm are triggered. Once someone is put on notice that his or her behavior is greatly dangerous, they have a duty to stop the dangerous behavior. This duty is particularly strong when the harms are potentially great as they are in the case of climate change. This ethical duty to cease dangerous behavior is widely recognized in criminal codes around the world that make many kinds of dangerous behavior criminal. In the United States, for instance, reckless driving and reckless endangerment are criminal violations. (For more on ethics and uncertainty see, On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.)
Some economists will argue that a change from 90% to 95% confidence levels is ethically relevant when calculating expected utility from climate change policies when cost-benefit analyses of policies are applied to climate change policies. Yet, as we have explained in many articles on this subject, cost-benefit analysis is a deeply ethically problematic policy tool for climate change. Its use seeks to find polices which maximizes utility while ignoring questions of distributive justice, ethical obligations based upon duties to prevent harm, human rights violations, procedural justice considerations that would give victims of harms rights to participate in decisions that impose risks, and many other ethical issues. (See, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.)
We do not deny that higher levels of confidence that activities are harming others strengthen the ethical duty to take action, however the duty to reduce ghg emissions has existed since the scientific community has been describing the threats of climate change three decades ago.
Insistence on absolute certainty before governments intervene in markets on climate change has been a tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign on climate change for several decades. As a matter of ethics high-emitting nations and individuals have had clear ethical duties to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions for over thirty years.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University, Nogoya, Japan
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.
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.
There 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.
On June 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on climate change in which he announced what his administration would do to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions in the United States. Although the US Congress has continued to fail to act on climate change since climate negotiations began in 1990, President Obama identified administrative actions that he would take that did not depend upon US congressional action. As we shall see, the speech was significant for some of the ethical issues touched upon in the speech.
As expected some US politicians vigorously attacked the speech on the basis that the announced actions would destroy jobs and the US coal industry. We now look at this speech, the political response to it, and the US media reaction through an ethical lens.
In light of the US’s strong moral duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change that has been virtually ignored by most previous US leaders. many parts of this important speech are worthy of praise.
President Obama promised to use this authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases from electric power plants. He also dismissed climate change skeptics as Flat Earthers and urged US citizens at all levels to take steps to reduce climate change causing emissions and push back against those who would work to undermine US policy to reduce the threat of climate change. He further announced plans to double wind and solar power while increasing the use of renewable energy in federal facilities to 20 % in 7 years. He also identified a number of policy responses to reduce energy demand with the goal of significantly reducing the waste of energy.
In response to climate skeptics he said:
So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.
He also acknowledged some US responsibility to help developing nations transition to clean energy and announced a number of policy initiatives in support of this goal.
In regard to the the ethical responsibility of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change, President Obama said:
[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility.
This statement is very significant for its ethical implications. In fact, this is the strongest statement of any US President in regard to acknowledging that US policy on climate change can not solely be based upon US interests alone. That is, it is notable for its recognition of US responsibility to act on climate change. Thus, in addition to US interests in climate change policies, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has obligations, responsibilities, and duties to act. This fact has profound significance for US climate change policy. It means, that the US must consider its obligations to others not to harm them through our ghg emissions. Yet, as we have seen over and over again, US climate change policies are usually debated in the United States as if only US interests count.
This speech also acknowledged that it is probably too late to avoid the need of nations to adapt to climate change’s adverse impacts.This is so because even if aggressive action it taken on climate change around the world, some adverse climate change impacts are inevitable. Notable in this regard was the speech’s acknowledgement that:
We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.
And so, President Obama seems thus to acknowledge US obligations to help developing nations to adapt to climate change.
Another part of the speech with ethical significance is remarks about a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in Durban, South Africa that is to be completed in 2015 and come into effect in 2020. In this regard, President Obama said:
Two years ago, we decided to forge a new agreement beyond 2020 that would apply to all countries, not just developed countries. What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs.
This statement is of considerable ethical significance because it acknowledges that different nations have different responsibilities and needs in regard to climate change policies. This idea was agreed to by the United States but has largely been ignored. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 under then president George H. W. Bush, the United States promised to reduce its ghg emissions based upon “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” to prevent dangerous climate change. This idea, which entails looking at the US response to climate change through the lens of distributive justice, has been almost completely ignored by the US Congress and former US presidents. It is also an idea that entails that the United States must reduce its emissions more aggressively than developing nations that have done significantly less to cause increasing atmospheric ghg concentrations.
This statement also implicitly acknowledges that all nations. including the United States, have an ethical duty to increase the ambitiousness of its ghg emissions reductions commitments in climate negotiations that are under discussion until 2015.
President Obama also acknowledged our ethical responsibility to future generations to reduce the threat of climate change when he said:
Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future. And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.
And so as a matter of ethics, President Obama acknowledged that the US has a special responsibility to act on climate change in response to our ethical obligations, not our national interests alone , in proportion to our responsibility as a matter of distributive justice and our obligations to future generations while at the same time assisting vulnerable developing nations to adapt to the inevitable adverse climate impacts that now can not be avoided.
President Obama also ended his speech with a call to recognize the sacred importance of protecting Earth by recalling the astonishment of the astronauts when they saw the Earth from outer space as they came around the moon for the first time.
For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.
“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.
And so as, a matter of ethics, Obama’s speech was laudable and historically significant in many respects. That is not to say, however, that the Obama speech cannot be criticized for some omissions in regard to the US’s ethical obligations for climate change. These omissions included: (a) the lack of recognition that dependence on natural gas as a bridge fuel for reducing the US carbon footprint raises several ethical questions, a matter reviewed here in detail, (b) acknowledgment of the US special responsibility for climate change for its unwillingness to take action on climate change for over 20 years since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, see, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms, and, (c) failing to communicate the extreme urgency of quickly and significantly reducing ghg emissions in the next few years to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, see, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity. In this regard, Obama’s speech utterly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions that are ethically required of the United States in the next decade.
And so, all in all, the Obama speech can be praised for its express recognition of many of the ethical ethical obligations entailed by climate change despite some quibbles about a few ethical issues not covered well.
As was expected, the political opposition in the US to the speech was rapid and intense. For instance Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama’s plan on climate change was was a “war on coal” and on jobs.
Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, went further saying that the Obama climate plan was not just a “war on jobs” and a “war on West Virginia,” but also, a “war on America.”
Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok, who has consistently claimed that the mainstream scientific view on climate is a “hoax,” said the Obama plan will cost the US economy $400 billion a year while ranting about other aspects of the Obama climate plan.
The most frequent justifications for the strong opposition to the Obama climate plan have been the claimed severe economic harms to the US economy, lack of scientific certainty on adverse climate impacts, and the inability of the United States acting alone to prevent climate change.
As we have explained in considerable detail before, these excuses utterly fail to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Economic harm arguments made in opposition to Obama’s climate plan, for instance, even if true, both fail to recognize the ethical obligations that the United States has to not harm others through our ghg emissions and to acknowledge the costs of not acting. US climate policy cannot be based upon US interests alone. The United States has obligations to others. In addition, economic arguments for not acting on climate change ignore obligations that nations have if they are creating human rights violations and duties entailed by distributive justice. These are only a few of the ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies. For a detailed ethical analyses of economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies, see Ethicsandclimate.orgindex under Economics and Climate Ethics.
Scientific certainty arguments made in opposition to climate change fail as a matter of ethics for a host of reasons including the fact that almost all of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world and the vast majority of scientists that do peer-reviewed science support the consensus view that has concluded that climate change is a growing civilization challenging threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends around the world, uncertainty in these situations raises ethical questions about burdens and quantity of proof, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put at risk from climate change, and the longer the world waits to reduce the threat of climate change the worse the problem becomes. For detailed ethical analysis of scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Ethics.
And so, the arguments made in opposition to the Obama speech fail to withstand ethical scrutiny.
The US media response to the Obama speech and the political response thereto has once again completely ignored the ethical problems with the strong political opposition to the speech. As we have noted over and over again in regard to the US media coverage of the US response to climate change, the US press is utterly failing to cover ethical issues entailed by opposition to climate change policies in the United States. This is particularly true of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to proposed US climate change policies. Nor is the US press covering ethical issues entailed by the urgency and magnitude of the need to reduce ghg emissions given that the world is likely running out of time to prevent warming of 2 degrees C, a warming amount which is widely believed could create rapid, non-linear climate change. For a discussion of this issue, see: On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To What Equity Requires of Them In Their Responses to Climate Change.
One might ask why the US media is failing to cover the obvious ethical questions raised by climate change issues given that the ethical issues have profound consequences for climate change policy and climate change raises obvious civilization challenging ethical issues. We might ask why the US press is failing to cover the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change given that vulnerable countries around the world have been screaming for developed nations including the United States to respond in accordance with their ethical obligations. Is the US press so connected to the economic interests of the United States, that it is blind to the US ethical obligations for climate change? If the US press has not been corrupted by the economic interests of the United States, the only plausible explanation for the US media’s failure to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change is that the reporter’s covering climate change don’t understand the civilization challenging ethical issues raised by climate change. If this is the explanation, there is a huge practical need to demand that the US press turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
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.
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.
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 CO2 per 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.
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)
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.
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 CO2 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.
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.
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.
Donald A Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
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.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
This is the third in a three part video series that looks at the ethical obnoxiousness of the climate change disinformation campaign. All three of these are available on http://ethicsandclimate.org. The first in the series introduced the concept of the disinformation campaign that has been described in a rich sociological literature while explaining why this movement has been so ethically abhorrent. The second entry looked at some of the specific tactics of this campaign while distinguishing this phenomenon from responsible skepticism. This entry continues the examination of specific tactics and concludes with lessons learned about this disinformation campaign.
To view the other two videos in this series see the two proceeding entries on this website.
A much more detailed four part written analysis of the disinformation campaign is available on this website under the category of “climate disinformation.”
Why is it practically important to identify the ethical questions that need to be faced in making climate change policy? A new video, 14 minutes long, is the second in a two part introduction on the basics of climate change ethics that answers this question. Part two identifies a number of specific civilization challenging ethical issues, looks at these issues briefly, and makes the case for the urgent practical need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of these issues. Part one in this series explained why climate change must be understood essentially as an ethical problem and why this understanding has profound practical consequences foe policy. Par one is found on this web site and is 11 minutes long. This second part takes up the issues introduced in part one in the context of several specific climate change ethical issues.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Dear former subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to Ethicsandclimate.org:
After over 80 articles on the ethics of climate change at ClimateEthics.org, I am moving to Widener University School of Law where the analyses formerly posted on ClimateEthics as well as new posts will continue at this site, EthicsandClimate.org.
Climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem. This realization has profound practical consequences for policy formation. Yet the ethical implications of policy responses have usually been ignored in policy debates that have now spanned thirty years. Despite 20 years of international negotiations to come up with a global solution to climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ethical and justice dimensions of national positions remain the key missing element in the positions of national governments.
This site examines the ethical dimensions of climate science, economics, politics, policy responses, trading, atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilization goals, as well as the obligations of nations, governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to respond to climate change and pay for adaptation responses and damages.
The site will follow the positions taken by governments in international climate change negotiations and subject them to an ethical critique. The site will subject arguments made by proponents and opponents of climate change policies to ethical scrutiny.
The site believes that turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change is key to moving the world to a just solution to climate change.
Because many of the most important ethical issues that need to be faced in climate change policy formation are often hidden in dense scientific and economic discourses that most people, including many policy professionals, have difficulty in unpacking, this sites seeks to help those concerned about climate change understand the ethical issues often obscured by what first appears to be the “value-neutral” languages of science and economics.
For these reasons, the purpose of this site is to help civil society understand, debate, and respond to the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Prior subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to this site, please subscribe to this new website by clicking on the subscribe button.
Donald A. Brown EthicsandClimate.org
As of July 1, 2012,
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
This is the third post in a series that examines the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign through an ethical lens. As we have seen, the purpose of this series is to distinguish between reasonable scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often ethically offensive.
This series is not a criticism of skeptical approaches to mainstream climate change science provided skeptics comply with the rules of science including publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, don’t make claims unsupported by the relevant scientific evidence, and don’t participate in the tactics discussed in this series.
(1) Examined what is meant by the climate change “disinformation campaign” and how it has operated.
(2) Conducted ethical analyses of the following climate disinformation tactics:
a. Reckless disregard for the truth.
b. Focusing on unknowns and ignoring knowns.
c. Specious claims of “bad” science.
d. Front Groups.
This entry examines the following additional tactics:
a. Think Tanks
b. PR campaigns.
c. Astroturf groups.
d. Cyber bullying attacks.
II. Conservative Think Tanks.
As we saw in the last post, conservative counter-movements evolved as a reaction to the social movements in the 1960s and 1970s on the environment, civil rights, human rights, and woman’s rights when conservative philanthropists began to fund, typically through their family foundations, the establishment of conservative think tanks to wage a war of ideas against the progressive gains made by the social movement. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149)
Conservative think tanks are non-profit, public policy research and advocacy organizations that promote conservative ideals such as “free enterprise,” “private property rights,” “limited government,” and “national defense.” (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
It was the conservative think tanks, the key organizational component of the conservative movement that launched a full-scale counter-movement in response to the perceived success of the environmental movement and its supporters. (Jacques et al., 2008: 352) Some conservative think tanks aggressively mobilized between 1990 and 1997 to challenge the legitimacy of global warming science. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 349) While many fossil fuel and energy related corporations including ExxonMobil joined conservative foundations in funding the conservative think tanks, the major financers of the right-wing think tanks recently have been conservative foundations, some controlled by people such as Richard Mellon Schaife and David Charles Koch, as well as other conservative philanthropic foundations. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149) Both the conservative philanthropic foundations and the corporations funding these think tanks sought to protect unregulated free markets and therefore had a strong interest in undermining scientific claims that support the need of governments to regulate the private sector in regard to greenhouse gas emissions.
Some of the most engaged think tanks working to foreground scientific uncertainty about climate change have included:
• National Center for Policy Analysis
• Heartland Institute
• National Center for Public Policy Research
• Competitive Enterprise Institute
• Marshall Institute
• Cato Institute
• Centers for a Sound Economy Foundation
• American Enterprise Institute
• Reason Public Policy Institute
• Foundation for Research On Economics and the Environment
• Pacific Research Institute
• Claremont Institute
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 508)
As we shall see, the tactics of some of these think tanks have often been ethically problematic. Some of these think tanks have often:
(a) sought to emphasize the unknowns about how human actions may affect the climate system while ignoring what is known,
(b) repeated untruthful claims about climate change science,
(c) manufactured bogus scientific claims by such strategies as organizing dubious scientific conferences and paying for scientists to produce criticisms of mainstream climate change science, and
(d) widely published scientific climate change claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
Those conservative think tanks that deploy these tactics both to protect the interests of their corporate funders and advance the ideological positions of their conservative philanthropic supporters. And so, these think tanks are not serious scientific organizations that consistently promote an unbiased scientific search for the truth, a goal of responsible scientific skepticism, but advocacy organizations engaged in advancing the agendas of their financial backers.
According to McCright and Dunlap some conservative think tanks frequently have:
• Obfuscated the results of scientific research by:selectively promoting publications of contrarian scientists with positions at odds with the scientific consensus;
• Funded contrarian scientists to produce reports that are often not peer-reviewed.
• Misrepresented the results of scientific research by spinning the results or committing errors of omission.
• Manipulated the results of scientific research by editing government agency reports prior to publication.
• Suppressed (by stalling or canceling) scientific reports from government agencies
• Attacked individual scientists who work at public and private universities to discredit their work.
• Worked to silence, censor, or otherwise target individual scientists who work at government agencies by influencing what they can say and to whom they can say it to.
• Enabled politicians to hold seemingly open-ended investigatory hearings where results were pre-determined.
• Exploited the mass-media’s “balancing norm” to promote fringe scientists’ views to near parity with mainstream scientific consensus.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010; 508)
Some of the specific think tank tactics have also included the following:
• Emphasizing unknowns
As we have seen in the last post, a major tactic of the disinformation campaign has been for participants to publicize a few issues in climate change science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge number of well-settled climate change facts that are not in serious scientific contention. To foreground scientific uncertainty in the public’s understanding of the state of climate change science, a major tool employed by the conservative think tanks has been the production of an unremitting flow of printed material ranging from books and editorials designed for public consumption to policy briefs aimed at policy-makers and journalists, combined with frequent appearances by spokespersons on TV and radio. (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
In these publications, the science these think tanks use is not always bogus. As George Monbiot writing for the Guardian notes:
On the whole, they use selection, not invention. They will find one contradictory study – such as the discovery of tropospheric cooling….They will continue to do so long after it has been disproved by further work. So, for example, John Christy, the author of the troposphere paper, admitted in August 2005 that his figures were incorrect, yet his initial findings are still being circulated and championed by many of these groups, as a quick internet search will show you. (Monboit, 2006)
Out of 141 books published between 1972 to 2005 that promoted environmental skepticism, 130 had affiliations with conservative think tanks. (Jacques et al., 2008: 360). The number of books connected to think tanks have continued to increase over the last four decades not only in the United States but also in Europe, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. (Jacques et al., 2008: 361)
To support the claim that the consensus view on climate change is weak, conservative think tanks routinely rely upon contrarian publications that stress scientific uncertainty about climate change while ignoring the scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that humans are affecting the climate system. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111). As we have seen in the last post, stressing what is not known while ignoring elements of climate science that is not in contention is misleading and therefore ethically troublesome.
There are many facts about climate change science that are not in contention. These include:
• The undisputed fact that if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations increase in the atmosphere there will be increased absorption and re-radiation of heat energy or what is usually referred to as climate “forcing.”
• The initial forcing of each greenhouse gas is known precisely even though there is uncertainty about final global warming at equilibrium or “climate sensitivity.”
• Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing in the atmosphere in direct proportion to human use of fossil fuel and activities that release greenhouse gases.
• The planet is roughly warming as expected as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increase.
• The CO 2 in the atmosphere is largely coming from fossil sources. There are several robust lines of evidence to support this including carbon isotope evidence.
• Although the models to predict future warming will always contain uncertainties that will limit the ability to predict impacts precisely, they have roughly accurately been predicting observed warming.
• There are numerous attribution and fingerprint studies that point to human causes for warming.
Now these uncontested facts do not absolutely prove that future warming described by the IPCC will happen as predicted, nevertheless these uncontested matters clearly are support for the conclusion that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. Thus, to claim there is no evidence that humans are threatening the climate is a falsehood.
The materials produced by the conservative think tanks often rely upon a handful of cherry-picked studies by contrarian scientist that ignore the evidence on which the scientific consensus position is based. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 112) Such tactics are not consistent with reasonable skepticism but constitute deceptive misinformation.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org By
Donald A. Brown,
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University