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
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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What Needs To Be Done To Assure That Ethical Principles Guide Climate Change Policy Making: A Look At The Bridge at The End OF The World

I. Introduction.

Every once in a while a book is published that goes to heart of issues examined in ClimateEthics This is a review of such a book. This post reviews The Bridge At The End Of The World, Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis To Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. (Speth 2008)

Although this new book examines the causes of an unfolding failure to protect the environment on a matter of a number of global environmental issues, this book makes a major contribution to many issues that have been of interest to ClimateEthics. It is a provocative book, but in the best sense of the word. It is a compelling exhortation to look deeper and more critically at the institutions, dominant discourses, and reigning ideas structuring and defining global environmental controversies-matters that for the most part have gone unchallenged by civil society including environmental groups.
According to Speth, it is the current form of capitalism and its influence on governing institutions that it has that is most responsible for global environmental deterioration. If Speth is right, the dominant ideas shaping our environmental discourses must be confronted if there is any hope of moving away from the approaching environmental abyss.

Speth’s new book is a clearly written, exhaustively researched, courageous, and compelling description of why the global environment has continued to deteriorate despite forty years during which the modern environmental movement has risen. Seeing a huge failure to make progress on protecting the global environment after almost four decades, Speth explains that in this book he is attempting to go deeper than he has before to examine the root causes of the growing global environmental crisis.

Speth’s conclusions are remarkable coming from someone who has been called an “insider’s insider.” Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, member and chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President during the Carter administration, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, founder of the World Resources Institute, a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and now a professor at Vermont Law School. There are few people in the United States that have been in a better position to diagnose the worlds environmental problems and their causes.

Because Speth so forcibly attributes the causes of the daunting global environmental crises to an out-of-control global capitalism, given his background as a very well connected Washington insider, the books conclusions are an astonishing lightening bolt that illuminates both the nature and causes of the environmental abyss the world is facing. That this book has come from the dean of the prestigious Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with high-level ties to some of the most respected environmental institutions is astonishing.
The main idea of this book is that there is no hope of solving the world’s major growing environmental and social problems unless there is much more robust government intervention in global economic markets. Although Speth in the end is not completely anti-market-he is very strongly critical of market failures and the hegemony of market ideas. Speth wants to keep a place for markets, but believes governments must keep markets in their place.

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

I. The Oil Spill and Climate Change Compared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading


This post examines ethical issues raised by the cap and trade regimes that have emerged to solve the climate change crisis in the last decade. These regimes have emerged: (1) at the international level under the Kyoto Protocol, (2) at the regional international level including in the European Union and between US states and the Canadian provinces, and (3) at the sub-national level including among Northeastern U.S states. There is also a large voluntary carbon trading market that has emerged around the world that is not the focus of this post although these regimes raise many ethical issues considered here.

At the international level, under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change there are three different trading regimes. They are:

(a) Emissions Trading (ET) -A mechanism that allows a nation with a Kyoto target to buy d allowances from a country with a Kyoto target that does need all of its allowances.

(b) Joint Implementation (JI)-A mechanism that allows project financing by nation with a Kyoto target in another country with a Kyoto target.

(c) Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)-A mechanism that allows nations with Kyoto targets to finance projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The goal of this post is to spot the major ethical issues raised by carbon cap and trade regimes that have emerged around world, not necessarily to resolve these issues.

Spotting ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes will not necessarily lead to a consensus about what should be done about these issues because there are competing ethical theories that might reach different conclusions about these trading regimes including utilitarian, rights, virtue, relationship, and ecological based theories among others. However, for some issues there may be an overlapping consensus among ethical theories about what ethics requires. (Brown et al., 2006). For other issues there may be agreement among ethical theories that some positions on cap and trade issues are ethically problematic no matter what ethical theory is applied to analyze the issue under consideration. Therefore, spotting ethical issues raised by carbon cap and trade regimes may be practically valuable despite the inability on some issues to determine unambiguously what ethics demands, if spotting the ethical questions leads to eliminating from consideration some positions on these issues that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. (Brown et al., 2006)

The purpose of this post is not to resolve all ethical issues entailed by cap and trade regimes but to encourage further ethical reflection about these issues. Cap and trade regimes have in a very short time reached wide support around the world with only very limited ethical reflection on the issues discussed in this chapter. Because uncritical acceptance of these existing regimes may lead to significant injustices and given that there may be opportunity to change and restructure existing regimes in the future, this post is meant to encourage ethical reflection on existing as well as future cap and trade regimes.

Although existing cap and trade regimes differ in many of their details, they all have the following common steps. First a government establishes an emission limitation for total emissions from the government’s jurisdiction and then permits or allowances are either given away or auctioned off and in this way create a society-wide “cap.” The cap is expected to be “tightened,” that is, reduced over the years, thus increasing the costs over time of future allowances. The permits allow holders to emit ghgs usually in tons of carbon for a specific period. To enable trading, rules are established that allow those entities with caps to meet their obligations either by purchasing unneeded allowances from others that have caps, funding projects that reduce emissions at places under the control of others, or purchasing off-sets created by carbon reduction projects somewhere in the world.

Cap and trade regimes are usually justified on several different grounds including:

• Trading provides a mechanism for making carbon emissions reductions at lowest possible cost. Because carbon is well mixed in the atmosphere, it doesn’t make any difference where reductions are made in the world to lower future atmospheric concentrations of ghgs. Therefore emitters of carbon can finance inexpensive projects to reduce carbon emissions and apply reductions achieved by these projects against their reduction obligations and in so doing reduce ghg emissions that cause climate change. In this way, cap and trade regimes maximize the efficiency of carbon reductions. And so cap and trade regimes are usually supported on the grounds that they provide the flexibility to achieve the greatest reductions at lowest possible cost.

• Proponents of cap and trade regimes often point to a successful program still in place in the US that has been declared to reduce 40% sulfur emissions (SOx) by coal-burning power plants in the period
1990-2004. (EDF, 2009)

• Cap and trade regimes provide economic benefits to developing countries through CDM credits and other “off-sets” thus helping developing countries economically.

• Cap and trade regimes keep high-cost emitters in the political game because they can reduce their emissions at low cost and thereby help minimize political opposition for climate change legislation.

This post next looks at the following ethical issues entailed by cap and trade regimes:

a. Justice of the Cap

b. Allocating Global Commons Resources as Property Rights.

c. Environmental Effectiveness

d. Distributive Justice

e. Procedural Justice

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Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs

I. Introduction

Economic analysis of climate change issues can help policy makers in many ways including identification of the least costly methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how to structure incentives to encourage society’s maximum reduction of carbon footprints. Without 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 are found, the more hope there is to reduce climate change’s immense menace. Yet there are ethical limits to the use of some economic arguments frequently made in opposition to proposed government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of some environmental regulatory programs can help identify proposed market regulatory interventions whose costs significantly outweigh environmental benefits. Yet CBA of some government environmental programs including climate change emissions reduction strategies often ignore serious ethical limitations on the use of this tool to guide climate change policy.

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