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

I. Introduction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Signers Of US Climate Ethics Statement Statement Wanted

Introduction.

A group of representatives from conservative and liberal business, financial, youth, labor, racial justice, civil rights, faith, and conservation organizations from across the nation have written a statement about the moral obligations of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change and are now looking for signatures in support of the statement.

The statement has been prepared in recognition of the fact that our nation has a moral obligation to address climate change in light of the fact that: (1) Climate change is a real, dangerous, and rapidly worsening problem with deep moral implications; (2) Yet U.S. has done little to reduce its contribution to the crises.
The statement asserts that the US has a duty to to prevent unjustifiable suffering and death among current and future generations in the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, this obligation requires that the US acts significantly and rapidly to reduce our carbon pollution.

The “Statement of Our Nation’s Moral Obligation to Address Climate Change” seeks to definitively make those points to elected officials, business, community, and civic leaders, and the public nationwide.
The committee is now looking for signatures.

If you want to know more about this effort or if you are willing to add your name go to
climateethicscampaign.org

II. Statement

STATEMENT OF OUR NATION’S MORAL OBLIGATION
TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE

 


We, the undersigned current and former elected officials and representatives from the business, labor, youth, national security, financial, conservation, racial justice, civil rights, and faith communities of the United States, recognize that climate change is a real, dangerous, and rapidly worsening problem with deep moral implications.

Although reducing carbon pollution will have costs, it will also produce incalculable benefits. Our response must therefore be driven not solely by near-term economic or national self-interest. We must also acknowledge and act on our long-standing moral obligation to protect current and future generations from suffering and death, to honor principles of justice and equity, and to protect the great Earth systems on which the well-being of all life, including ours, depends.

We call on every citizen to act on these moral principles without delay. Individually, and collectively as a nation, we must rapidly reduce carbon pollution by significant levels, prepare for the consequences of an already warming planet, and insist on public policies that support these goals and create a just transition to a low-carbon economy. The risks of inaction are exceedingly high. The benefits of acting on these moral principles are even greater.

The Moral Obligation to Prevent Suffering and Protect Human Life

The most fundamental of our guiding moral principles is that it is wrong to unjustifiably cause human suffering or death. Climate change-related impacts are already harming and killing people here and abroad. Unless carbon pollution is rapidly reduced, the resulting natural disasters, floods, diseases, illnesses, water and food shortages, and environmental degradation, along with associated rising violence and social breakdown, will injure or kill millions more every year.
Climate change-induced suffering from food shortages and the dramatic spread of disease and illness will be especially significant. Millions of people worldwide will be affected. Suffering will also result from the job losses and disruptions to families and communities caused by the billions of dollars in direct and indirect annual costs of climate impacts, as well as from the escalating market volatility, supply chain disruptions, and other impacts businesses will experience.

Over the past century, the U.S. has been the world’s largest overall contributor to climate change, generating about 30 percent of the total energy-related CO2 emissions that are destabilizing the climate.

Today, we continue to produce far more emissions on an annual basis than any other nation except China. Even if the costs are high, we must avert one of the worst violation of human rights the world has ever seen by acknowledging our contribution to the climate crisis and significantly reducing our emissions.

Business dislocations and job losses are also likely as we reduce our carbon pollution. These impacts must not be unduly borne by any group. A ‘just transition’ is necessary that spreads the costs as well as the investments in solutions and the benefits of new approaches equitably, provides for workers and communities that are adversely affected by climate protection policies, assists whole industries to make the necessary shifts, and ensures that all Americans have a democratic voice in how those decisions are made.

The Moral Responsibility to Honor Principles of Justice and Equity

Those who suffer the most from climate change are not the same people who now benefit greatly from the overuse of fossil fuels and other natural resources. As a matter of justice and equity, we have a moral obligation to reduce our carbon pollution in order to prevent suffering and death among people who have contributed little to climate change but who are, at least initially, most impacted: those living in the Arctic; people in less developed, hotter regions of the world; low-income and working-class communities, communities of color, women as well as children in the U.S.; and future generations everywhere.

In addition, even as we reduce our emissions we must do our part to ensure that vulnerable populations and nations have the financial and technological capacity to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of a warming planet and grow clean energy economies.

The Moral Obligation to Honor and Protect the Processes that Make Life Possible

Because we have a moral obligation to protect human life and prevent suffering and injustice, and because Earth’s gifts have intrinsic value, we have a responsibility to protect the ecosystems and organisms that provide the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the materials we use to sustain life and prosperity, and the natural beauty that lifts our spirits.
Whether we believe that the Earth and its great abundance is a product of natural processes or, as millions of people nationwide believe, that the Earth is the gift of the Creator, or both, our obligations are fundamentally the same–we must be good stewards of what we have inherited. Humanity is not in command of creation, but merely part of it. To disrupt the climate that is the cornerstone of all life on Earth and to squander the extraordinary abundance of life, richness, and beauty of the planet is morally wrong.

We Already Have the Know-How and Tools

The people of our great nation have the spirit, knowledge, and tools required to reduce climate change. The greatest obstacle is lack of human will. History is watching us. Our legacy will be determined by what we do now and in the next few years.
We call on everyone in the U.S. to act on their moral principles now by rapidly and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their homes, places of work and government.

We call on every citizen to actively prepare for the consequences of climate change.

Moreover, we urge every citizen to insist that their government adopt policies to foster emission reductions and prepare for climate change, and to provide sufficient resources to build the capacity of the most impacted people worldwide to do the same.

This is not just about avoiding harm. Acting on our moral principles will foster the growth of a sustainable economy that creates millions of good jobs in clean energy fields, supports healthy families, and builds vibrant communities. That, itself, makes this imperative.
The need for action is urgent, the possibilities enormous. Please join us in heeding this call.

To know more about this campaign or to sign go to: climateethicscampaign.org.

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

Free Markets, Externalities, and A Question of Integrity

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

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

II. The Man and A Stream

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.

Preface: Most arguments against climate change policies are short-term economic arguments of various types that almost always raise serious ethical problems. The following article by guest blogger Nicholas Krause is one in a series of ClimateEthics posts that look at ethical issues raised by economic arguments againts climate change policies. This post looks at three specific economic arguments that are frequently made against climate change policies and identifies ethical isues raised by these arguments. These arguments are climate change policies should be opposed because they: (a) increase fuel costs, (b) decrease GDP, and (c) destroy jobs. Other ClimateEthics articles on this topic include:

Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Made In Opposition to Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Value The Harms That Will Be Caused by Doing Nothing.
Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations
Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens.

I. Introduction
Ethical issues are everywhere. Perhaps the greatest ethical issue of the time arrives as a problem that has the power to change the planet. Climate Change is a grave issue that is facing the world today. This can be seen from evidence stated by the UNFCCC.

“The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas. Significantly increased precipitation has been observed in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. There is also observational evidence for an increase of intense tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic since about 1970. Drying has also been observed over large regions, i.e. the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and parts of southern Asia.” (UNFCCC)

It is not a future problem to deal with; it is affecting people now and needs to be dealt with accordingly. There are several arguments that oppose action to limit the effects of climate change but perhaps none are more publicized (or argued) than those based on economic reasoning. This post will focus on the ethical issues of three economic arguments opposing climate change policy. These are ethical questions because they imply that there should be no action taken because of economic and cost arguments. The three economic arguments are increased energy prices, decrease of global GDP, and significant loss of jobs.

II. Three Economic Arguments

A. Increased Fuel Costs

The first argument of increased energy prices is being made by oil companies. The oil companies claim that due to the lack of cheap alternative fuels, the cost of energy will increase.

“Oil companies and industry -backed groups argue there aren’t good alternatives to gasoline. Efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions from fuel use in the Northeast won’t have impact on global emissions and could raise oil prices.” (Snyder, 2010)

The oil companies have the most to lose if climate change policies are adopted. They profit from fuel for nearly every industry imaginable. The downfall of oil companies are the amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted from their product. The only concern oil companies have is the amount of profits they will lose if climate change polices are put into action.

“The Big Oil and Dirty Coal lobbies are working hard to stop reforms so that they can protect their enormous profits.” (Weiss, 2010)
These arguments are not based on factual statements. The oil companies are consumed by greed so make statements based on their best interest without regard to the consequences they will have on others. This brings up the issue of ethics within the decisions of the oil companies to reject climate change policies. The oil companies are making their arguments on utilitarian grounds meaning that the most favorable decision is the one in which happiness is experienced by the most people. However, even within this argument are violations of utilitarian principles. This boils down to being a simple calculation without regard to keeping anything sacred. They are making the statement that the benefits of using oil (keeping energy costs “low”) outweigh the costs that consumption will have. In this, they are saying that allowing warming to continue and have devastating effects on the planet and its inhabitants is an acceptable cost of keeping oil as the main source of energy. This is ultimately taking life without consent. The oil companies are benefiting from loss of human life. This may seem indirect but it is exactly what is happening. Michael Sandel comments that the right thing to do is not simply a matter of calculating consequences by using cost and benefit analysis. He suggests that morality has a greater meaning. It pertains to the proper way human beings are to treat each other (Sandel, 2009). The oil companies are implicitly suggesting that a proper way to treat other humans is destroying their lives for the singular purpose of gaining profit. This is not how people are meant to be treated. All people deserve a greater respect than to be abused by companies with motives that disregard human life. Sandel suggests that the biggest weakness of utilitarianism logic it that it fails to respect the individual rights (Sandel, 2009). The case of climate change is a perfect example of this weakness. The oil companies are disregarding individual rights by continuing to fight policy regarding carbon dioxide emissions based on the argument of increasing energy costs.

Individual rights may seem like a loose term but there is a document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which outlines rights of all persons.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Article 1)
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” (Article 3)

These rights are being violated by the oil company’s rising price argument. They are using people as a means to and end thereby violating Immanuel Kant’s theory of rights. Sandel writes about Kant’s philosophy that morality is not about maximizing happiness or some other end, such as increased profit. Morality requires that persons are to be treated as ends in themselves.

“For Kant, respecting human dignity means treating persons as ends in themselves. This is why it is wrong to use people for the sake of the general welfare, as utilitarianism does.” (Sandel, 2009)

Kant makes the argument that we are not to use people for personal gain. The oil companies are using the argument of rising energy costs as a way of convincing people that climate change policy is not a good idea. They are completely rejecting scientific literature and using public ignorance of the subject in order to maintain a high level of profits. This method is a complete failure to acknowledge Kant’s ideals of not using people as a means to an end.

Thus, the economic argument of rising energy costs brings up several ethical issues. First, it brings up the issue of the proper way to treat other people. Next it violates the idea of individual rights based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, it contests Kant’s principle of not using people as a means to an end. Instead persons should be treated as ends in themselves because everyone deserves at least that much.

Continue reading

The Practical Significance of US Congressman Waxman’s Achnowledgement That Climate Change Is A Moral Issue

I Introduction.

On March 7th, US Congressman Henry Waxman, speaking at the Center for American Progress, encouraged Americans to see US action on climate change as a moral responsibility. To our knowledge, Congressman Waxman is the first US elected national politician to speak about the moral dimensions of climate change despite the fact that climate change must be understood as essentially a problem that creates a host of civilization challenging ethical issues. For this reason, Congressman Waxman should be commended.

Congressman Waxman did not, however, discuss the practical implications of understanding climate change as moral matter and for this reason this post identifies some of the logical conclusions that necessarily follow from seeing climate change as a moral issue. If these principles were followed it would transform how climate change has been debated in the United States.

II. The Significance of Waxman’s Ethical Claim

After riling against many efforts underway in the Republican controlled US House of Representatives to prevent the US government action on climate change that are based upon fraudulent scientific views propagated by some fossil fuel interests, Congressman Henry Waxman said:

We are at a pivotal time in which every member of Congress will decide whether they will be on the right side of history or the wrong side of history,” Mr. Waxman said. “Civil rights in the 1960s was a moral issue, and there was a right side and a wrong side. Climate change is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue. But it is also fundamentally a moral issue. (Broder, 2011)

If climate change is a moral issue it is important to identify the practical significance of this understanding. If climate change is a moral issue then, at minimum:

1. High-emitting nations and individuals may not make decisions about greenhouse gas reductions by looking only at self-interest alone. Any position on climate change must respond to duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others.

2. A nation that is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions may not refuse to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of increased domestic cost alone.

3. A nation may not refuse to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that put others and the ecological systems on which they depend at risk of harm on the basis of some scientific uncertainty once it is established that great harms are possible.

4. A nation must limit its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. In deciding what is fair, a nation must look to ethically relevant criteria for being treated differently than others.

5. Some of the economic analytical tools that are often used to judge the acceptability of public policy such as cost-benefit analysis are ethically problematic when harms and costs are greatly disaggregated among those who would bear costs of action to reduce the threat and those who experience harms of non-action as they are in climate change.

6. Those who cause damages to others have a duty to compensate them for their harms.

7. National policies on greenhouse gas emissions must take into consideration their responsibility to limit their emissions to their fair share of global emissions that will achieve safe levels of levels of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

8. Before setting domestic climate change policies, nations must consult with those who could be harmed by non-action on climate change.
9. Nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals have responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.

If climate change is a moral issue as Congressman Waxman has asserted that it is, then it follows that how the climate change debate has been conducted in the United States must be transformed. No longer can the climate change debate focus exclusively on whether proposed climate legislation or policies are in the US interest alone.

The US must consider its duties, responsibilities, and obligations it has both to living people around the world and future generations. So far, ethics is the missing crucial element in the US debate about climate change because the US climate change debate has up until now focused exclusively on whether climate change legislation and policies are in the US interest alone.

By:

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

References:

Broder, 2011, Waxman Angrily Assails G.O.P. ‘Science Deniers’, New York Times, March 7, 2011, http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/waxman-angrily-assails-g-o-p-science-deniers/

Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Made In Opposition to Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Value The Harms That Will Be Caused by Doing Nothing.

I. Introduction

This post is one of a series of entries that has looked at ethical problems with cost arguments made in opposition to the adoption of climate change legislation and policies.

As we have seen in prior ClimateEthics’ posts, with the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much.

These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate change legislation can’t be afforded by the public. This post is one of a series that identifies ethical problems with these cost arguments made against the adoption of climate change policies and legislation.

In the entry entitled Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens, ClimateEthics explained how cost arguments were often deeply ethically problematic because they ignored duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce greenhouse gas 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 are vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts in the future.

In an entry entitled Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs< ClimateEthics explained why cost arguments were also ethically flawed because they often:

(a) ignore the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world, and thereby are inconsistent with theories of distributive justice; and

(b) implicitly rely on “preference utilitarianism,” a justification for non-action on climate change that is ethically flawed when applied to climate change for several reasons.

In another recent post entitled recent post, ClimateEthics explained why costs arguments could not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions led to human rights violations Climate Change Policies: Increased Costs May Not Justify Human Rights Violations,

This post now looks at how cost-benefit arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are also often ethically problematic because they fail to accurately identify the full damages of doing nothing on climate change.

The failure to adequately deal with the full costs of doing nothing stems from two problems with how the values of the benefits of taking action are calculated.

First cost arguments fail to fully identify all potential harms and damages from climate change.

Second cost arguments usually discount the values of future benefits to be experienced from climate change, an approach which raises numerous ethical problems.

This post looks at ethical issues that arise because of the failure to fully identify and appropriately value all potential damages and harms that will be avoided if climate change policies and programs are enacted. A later post will look at the problems of discounting future benefits.

Continue reading

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

I. Introduction

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

(a) ignore the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world, and

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

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

II-Cost Arguments and Human Rights Violations

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

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

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Are Fossil Fuel Industry Commercials Encouraging Americans to Engage In Unethical Climate Change Causing Behavior?

I.Introduction

Are commercials currently being run in the United States paid for by the fossil fuel industry encouraging Americans to continue unjust and unethical behavior in regard to climate change? These commercials encourage Americans to organize politically against any legislation that would increase the cost of fossil fuel even though the US use of fossil fuel beyond its fair share of safe global emissions is already contributing to misery around the world and threatens many of the world’s poorest people in the years ahead with catastrophic threats to human life and the resources on which life depends.
ClimateEthics has written frequently about some obvious ethical problems with cost arguments often made by opponents of climate change policies. Among other problems with cost arguments are that they (a) don’t acknowledge duties, obligations, and responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts, (b) ignore obligations to prevent human rights violations, (c) wind up being used to give polluters permission to cause great harm to human health and the environment around the world, and, (d) often ignore the costs of doing nothing to reduce the threat of climate change. For instance, see: Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens.

Despite the obvious ethical problems with these arguments that oppose climate change policies on the basis of increased cost to the United States alone, there is virtually no recognition of the ethical problems with these arguments by US politicians, the media, nor often even by environmental groups. This post explores this reality in regard to commercials currently being aired that have been paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

To examine the strange anomaly of the failure to spot the obvious ethical problems raised by the type of cost arguments embedded in the API commercials, it is helpful to consider the following hypothetical:

If a Canadian manufacturer of garbage cans emitted toxic chemicals that migrated across the US border and killed Americans and harmed the environment and this company at the same time tried to convince Canadians that: (a) the chemicals were not toxic when there was strong scientific evidence that the chemicals would kill humans and harm the environment, and, (b) tried to convince Canadian citizens to oppose proposed Canadian government actions to prevent emissions of the toxins only because of adverse impacts on the Canadian economy, Americans would likely easily see the Canadian company as unethical if not criminal.

Yet there is no evidence that Americans see the obvious ethical problems with very similar behavior of some fossil fuel companies in regard to climate change. That is some American fossil fuel companies have been supporting the dissemination of misleading information about whether climate change is a huge threat particularly to poor people around the world and we now know that climate change is already harshly affecting some of the worlds poorest people. Some of these companies are also fighting any US government policies that would lead to reduction in use of fossil fuels on the basis of increased costs to the United States alone without acknowledging that the United States has duties, responsibilities, and obligations to people who are at great risk from human-induced global warming. Yet there is virtually no discussion of the ethical problems with this behavior in the US press, among US politicians, or in any civil society debate about climate change.

A current example of a fossil fuel industry attempt to generate public opposition to climate change policies on the basis of cost to Americans alone is a commercial frequently currently being run by API in many US states. This commercial’s goal is to defeat legislative proposals that would eliminate tax write-offs for the petroleum industry or impose new taxes on fossil fuel companies through a variety of mechanisms including cap and trade legislation.. The API commercial pictures ordinary working class people claiming that taxes on the petroleum industry will destroy jobs and ruin the economy. The commercial urges Americans to organize to defeat any legislation that would increase fossil fuel costs. Since most solutions to climate being seriously considered in the United States work by putting a cost on carbon, these commercials appear to be designed, at least in part, to generate political opposition to any climate change legislation.

(Although the fossil fuel industry is also opposed to the reduction of subsidies that will reduce oil company profits profits)

API is the key oil industry lobby organization in the United States, representing some 400 companies that cover the spectrum of the oil and gas industry, from the largest major to the smallest independent corporations. .

API has a long history of lobbying against climate change legislation For instance API was one of the major funding sources of the Global Climate Coalition along with ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum (now BP), Texaco, General Motors, Ford,

DaimlerChrysler, the Aluminum Association, the National Association of Manufactures, and others (Hoggan and Littlemore, 2010:13). The Global Climate Coalition was the major US industry group fighting against a global climate regime from the late 1980s to 2002. The Global Climate Coalition frequently opposed climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty that human releases of greenhouse gases were threatening human flourishing and the environment and cost to the United States economy.

Last year, Green Peace asserted that they discovered a memo leaked from API that urged oil companies to encourage their employees to act in such a way that would give the impression that there was a spontaneous bottom-up citizen rebellion against climate change cap and trade legislation. (Green Peace, 2009) If the Green Peace claim is true, API engaged in activities designed to fool the media and US citizens that opposition to climate change legislation was being mounted by regular citizens voicing their spontaneous concerns rather than employees of petroleum companies that had been encouraged by their employers to make a ruckus at public meetings.

The API ads currently playing in many parts of the United States also attempt to make the case against taxes on the petroleum by showing opposition from what appear to be ordinary working Americans. The logic of the advertisement is it is not in the US interest to increase fossil fuel costs, and therefore Americans should act only in their self-interest and oppose any legislation that would increase fossil fuel costs, which means any solution to climate change under serious consideration.

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Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens

I. Introduction

With the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that the proposed legislation can’t be afforded by the public.

Of course, not all cost arguments about climate change policies are irrelevant to enlightened climate change public policy. For instance, economists can often help decision-makers reduce greenhouse gas emissions to target levels at the lowest cost, create economic incentives that will most effectively achieve climate change protection goals, and help with questions about how to distribute climate change reduction burdens in society with the least disruption to human flourishing. Without a doubt, economic analyses of climate change reduction strategies are vital to finding the most efficient solutions to human-induced climate change’s immense threat. The more low-cost solutions to climate change that are found, the more hope there is to reduce climate change’s immense menace.

Yet many cost arguments in opposition to climate change policies are both ethically and factually flawed. This is not surprising as many of the arguments against climate change policies are often defensive moves by parties who are trying to protect themselves against a perceived reduction in their profits if climate change policies are enacted.(Oreskes and Conway. 2010) Climate change policies will clearly create economic winners and losers and those who perceive that their economic interests will be adversely affected have organized to attack climate change policies as being too costly. This is not to claim that all costs concerns about climate change policies are illegitimate but to suggest why so many cost arguments about climate change policies contain deeply problematic ethical assumptions.

As we shall see, cost arguments also sometimes raise ethical questions about which different ethical theories may reach different ethical conclusions. In these cases, spotting ethical issues can lead to disagreement about what ethics requires. Yet, the paper will identify ethical conclusions that can be made about some cost arguments that have a strong overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories. Philosopher John Rawls defined an overlapping consensus as a matter about which citizens support the same basic laws or justice outcomes for different reasons. (Rawls, 1987) For instance, both utilitarians and Kantians require the interests of people be considered regardless of where they live in the world, but reach these conclusions based upon different ethical theories. In cases where there is an overlapping consensus on ethical principles, different ethical theories support the same prescriptive guidance but for different reasons. This paper will identify some ethical conclusions that can be used to criticize some cost arguments about climate change that are supported by different ethical theories.

A third outcome of ethical issue spotting are matters about which there is disagreement on what ethics requires when different ethical theories are applied to the issues under consideration yet most ethical theories would condemn positions taken on these issues by some parties despite this disagreement about what ethics requires. In other words, some responses to climate change justified on the basis of cost are universally rejected by ethical theories despite disagreement on what perfect justice would require. In these cases, spotting ethical problems raised by these cost arguments can restrict alternatives about appropriate climate change policies to ethically acceptable options about the use of cost considerations in climate change policy.

Recent arguments made against US climate change legislation are typical of cost arguments that have been made in opposition to climate change policies in the United States for over 30 years.
For example, a comment made by US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in reaction to US House climate change legislation:

“The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch, or fill up their car–but that’s exactly what this bill would do.” (Trygstad, 2009).

Another typical example of common cost arguments made against climate change is the following statement about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on climate change, a proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under existing US air pollution law.

Virtually every concern heightened by the economic downturn, especially job losses, would be exacerbated under the ANPR. As with cap-and-trade legislation, the EPA’s suggested rulemaking would be poison to an already sick economy. But even in the best of economic times, this policy would likely end them. The estimated costs–close to $7 trillion dollars and 3 million manufacturing jobs lost–are staggering. So is the sweep of regulations that could severely affect nearly every major energy-using product from cars to lawnmowers, and a million or more businesses and buildings of all types. And all of this sacrifice is in order to make, at best, a minuscule contribution to an overstated environmental threat. (Lieberman, 2010)

There are often problems with these cost arguments that go beyond the ethical concerns discussed in this post. For instance, cost claims often: (a) include factual errors in calculating the costs and benefits of proposed climate change policies, (b) are based upon assumptions in the economic models on which the cost claims are based that ignore other potentially valid assumptions, (c) fail to consider costs that society would bear from inaction on climate change, and (d) include outright falsehoods.

An example of an outright falsehood is a claim recently made by Glen Beck, a US television personality, who informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that the Waxman-Markey US House of Representatives bill would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. There was no such study. (Krugman, 2009)

Despite these and other problems with cost arguments that need to be seriously considered to critically evaluate them, this paper focuses exclusively on ethical issues that often arise when cost arguments are made against climate change policies.

This is the second in a series of posts that have looked at the ethical limitations of cost arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to climate change policies. In a prior post, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2008/06/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs.html, ClimateEthics examined why cost-benefit analysis in which “cost” arguments did not consider how the “costs” of action were disaggregated from the “benefits” of taking action or which exclusively relied upon “preference utilitarianism” as the ethical justification for non-action are deeply ethically problematic.
This post looks at arguments that attempt to justify non-action based upon claims of excessive costs to one country alone. Future posts will examine other ethical problems with cost arguments such as; (a) The failure to see the ethical limitations on cost arguments when climate change creates human rights violations, (b) ethical limitations of exclusive use of ” willingness-to-pay.” as justification for non-action, (c) procedural justice problems with cost arguments, (d) ethical problems when cost arguments try to calculate the dollar value of harms avoided by climate change, and (e) ethical problems with discounting future generations.

Many of the cost arguments made against climate change are simply assertions that climate change policies are too costly. They do not explicitly compare costs of taking action against the benefits of taking action, the form of arguments made in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). To the extent that these arguments are based upon additional costs alone, serious ethical objections can be raised because, as we shall see, one may not do harm to others on the basis that it will be less costly to the one proposing the harm. For instance, it would be ethically problematic for a husband who owed child support to his ex-wife to refuse to give the support on the basis that he would like to use the money for a trip to Bermuda (Garvey 2008:98)
Although many objections to climate change policies are based upon cost alone, this and other posts will focus on CBAs as they more explicitly compare costs of climate change reduction strategies against the benefits to society of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One can usually understand other kinds of cost arguments against climate change policies as implicitly taking the form of CBAs because even though they don’t explicitly compare the costs of climate change policies against the benefits of taking action, they usually can be understood to this implicitly do this.. That is, behind any objection against climate change policies that simply states that the policy costs too much is usually the unstated assumption that the benefits to society that would be obtained by the implementation of the policy are not worth it. Therefore, ethical analysis of CBA is also usually relevant to simple claims that the policy is too costly.

CBA is a generic term for a variety of techniques designed to allow decision-makers to determine in a rigorous way whether the payback from a program will be greater than the costs of implementing it. If costs of an environmental program are greater than environmental benefits produced by a program, according to mainstream CBA theory, the program should be abandoned. The economic justification for this use of CBA is the notion that society must decide how to spend its scarce resources and it should spend its money in the most efficient way possible. If money is spent by society on environmental protection programs that don’t produce an environmental payback that is greater in economic value than the cost of the program, it is a bad investment and should not be supported. (Shogren and Toman, 2000) This is so, according to CBA theory, because public money should be spent on programs that will produce the largest aggregate benefits. As we have seen in the prior post referenced above, the philosophical justification for this approach is often a form of utilitarianism sometimes referred to as “preference utilitarianism.”

II. The Ethical Duty Of Nations to All People, Not Just Citizens.

Proponents of CBAs often argue that governments should not take action to reduce greenhouse emissions if the cost to reduce emissions is greater than the value of climate change caused harms avoided because of the government action. Although CBA may be a very valuable tool for decision-makers who are trying to decide whether investment in a particular project will provide an adequate payoff compared to other projects or investments, CBA’s use for some environmental problems such as climate change can be ethically dubious, particularly when it is applied to environmental problems such as climate change where harms and benefits are significantly disaggregated. That is, climate change is a problem being caused by some people around the world who are often separated by significant time and space from those who are most vulnerable to a warming world. Therefore, the costs that CBAs seek to avoid often fall on different people than those who will benefit from climate change policies.

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

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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