What Explains the Cataclysmic Failure To Get Traction For Several Principles That The US and 185 Countries Agreed Should Guide National Climate Responses that Completely Invalidated the Scientific Uncertainty and Excessive Cost Arguments That Have Been the Dominent Focus of the US Climate Debate for 30 Years

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This post will raise issues that are very controversial to some. As I tell students and audiences I have talked to around the world, I am not asking you to accept the claims I make, nor will I necessarily hold it against you if you disagree. I do this to provoke critical thinking amongst us all about why climate change remains an existential threat to life on earth and why these issues are also relevant to making democracies work for the common good on other issues.  I have very frequently benefited from discussions with others who disagreed with me but who engaged with me in critical interchange.  This post will be very critical of some corporations’ and affiliated entities’ tactics to undermine democacy’s efforts to achieve the common good. While acknowledging the contributions of free-markets, and the private sector for what they can contribute to economic growth, technical innovation, and private sector employment, this analysis demonstraits the indispensible need for appropriate government constraints on the corrosive power of money in politics to prevent corporate and financial interests from using their enormous wealth to undermine what citizens in a democracy decide in deliberations about how to achieve the common good.  This  post will be critical of the United States for its failure to control the power of the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation about climate change.  This ruthless scheming of some elements of the private sector was actually predicted by Adam Smith who also convinced civil society of the benefits of the free market. This strong criticism in this paper is believed to be in response to the duty of citizens to fix the flaws of democracies as long as there is the possibility to do so, particularly when the flaws are seriously harming others. As the second verse of Kathrine Lee Bates song America the Beautiful says: ” America, America, God Mend Thine Every Flaw, Confirm Thine Soul in Self-control, Thy Liberty in Law.  But as this post points out, research concludes that this is also a problem in other countries which have economies with strong fossil fuel sectors. As a result this, getting trsction for ethical principles that nations have already agreed to or have negotiated is a challenge for democracies with strong economic interests which are threatened by legislation or treaty making that seeks to achieve the common good. This paper was originally initiated in response to UNESCO’s interest in getting traction for ethics in interternational cooperative efforts to protect the international community from several growing threats that cant be solved at the national level. Because the author had concluded most Americans would have no idea of why global cooperative efforts to solve growing global threats must grapple with ethical issues,  section 1. of this paper explains the indespensible need of countries seeking to work cooperatively to solve global threats to grapple with ethical issues in treaty making and other global responses to growing global threats.

Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/65

I. Introduction 

This paper takes the unusual step of listing the conclusions of this entry first to help readers judge how much of this paper they want to read although readers should read and critically consider the relevant analysis below before accepting any conclusions uncritically.

This paper deals with the failure to get traction for ethical principles in all claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good, given all such claims implicitly have the form:

A. Because of facts A. B, and C (Factual Premise)

B. Governments should do D ( Normative/Ethical Conclusion).  Here normative means right or wrong, ethical duty, or prescriptive conclusion in light of facts. We will in this article refer to the conclusion of arguments about what governments should do as the normative or ethical conclusion. Notice the normative/ethical conclusion is already part of any claim about what a government should do given certain facts.

This paper will examine why normative rules that all countries including the US had already agreed to under international environmental law failed to get traction in national climate responses. This analysis will be particularly focused on the failure to get traction for the ‘no harm’, ‘precautionary’. and ‘equity’ principles natiions had agreed to be bound by in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreementt.  The United States also agreed to human rights protections for its citizens which have also been ignored in public debates about climate change. These principles are focused on in this paper because they completely undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive cost arguments that the publically visisble climate debate has focused on for thirty years due to the successul framing of the debate by fossil fuel intersts,  Because there is shockingly little public discussion about “normative” or “ethical” conclusions of claims made by opponents of  climate change policies in the US public climate  debate, this paper examines why the ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their responses to  climate change were rarely discussed in US debates about climate change policies by examining what actually happened.

A. Conclusions

a. The primary cause of the failure to get traction for key ethical principles that the US government had already agreed would guide its climate policy formation is that a well-funded, sophisticated spread of misinformation that began in a focused way in the US  in 1971 with the Powell memo, discussed below, created a widely accepted unquestionable cultural narrative that included the claim that the government is the problem not the solution to many of society’s most troubling problems. Cultural narratives often become so accepted that many citizens become afraid to challenge them.The tactics of the Powell memo were expanded in the climate change disinformation campaign, discussed below, which were designed from the beginning to undermine citizens faith in mainstream climate science not to get the science right. This  website has previously argued that the disinformation campaign is a new kind of crime against humanity despite the indispensable role of skeptictism in science and the right of free speech. Therefore a major challenge for getting traction for ethics in climate policy formation, is to get traction for truth in climate change policy making disputes to undermine lies and misinformation sophisticatedly spread throughout the government’s population by increasingly powerful computer tools and other techniques. Poltical Scientist Hannah Arendt described in her paper Truth and Power, that politicians whose power is threatned have throughout human history responded with lies, and so getting traction for truth in the climate debate is not a new political challange but is nevertheless much more challanging now given the effectiveness of the computer tools to spread the disinformation that targets people who will be most receptive.

An  example of this which hasn’t been widely reported, while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited  in 1997 to participate in war games being conducted by the Army War College that considered risks from parts of the world that would that may be destabilized by climate change. During this session the Army identified Syria, parts of the Sahil area of Africa, and as I rember three countries in Central America which were drought prone and potential places where refugees would create social disruption. In 2001, a multi-year drought began in Syria which eventually caused 1000000 refugees who destabilized large parts of the world and continue to be a source of social unrest. 

The US army also predicted  over 20 years ago that three countries in Central  America  were vulnerable to drought and  therefore  likely  to  produce  refugees. Yet this aspect of  the refugee problems that are causing social disruption and unspeakable suffering is rarely commented on in the the US media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America. While at the same time prominent US politicans are spreading misinformation about climate change such as climate science is a hoax, climate law is unfair to the United States, climate change cant be real because it snowed in parts of the United States, and numberous false claims that havent been subjected to peer review and other techniques described in the climate change disinformation campaign entries referenced below.

The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict.  Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/6

While the Army College’s 2008 threat assesment became increasing confirmed by droughts, floods, diseases, increaseingly damaging tropical storms, and refugees, many American politicians continued to claim that human-induced climate change was a ‘hoax’. I particularly paid attention to these claims because while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations I was asked by the State Department in June 1997 to cochair with a colleague from the Energy Deartment a negotiation that would ask governments to agree as governments to the IPCC conclusion that the balance of the evidence demonstrates a discernable human influence on the climate system.

2. The United States has failed to achieve the common good because it ignored the warning of Adam Smith who although convinced civil society of the value of the free market through its invisible hand but also lesser known he predicted that merchants would sometimes ruthlessly scheme against the common good .  (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) Thus governments need to establish rules to make democracies work for the common good that anticipate the very likely behavior of some economically powerful interests to undermine what democratic processes want to determine the common good while acknowledging the benefit of free markets and private sector institutions for some purposes in a democracy. .

3. Some US founding fathers claimed that the goal of democracy was to achieve the common good which according to Thomas Paine and others was essentially justice. They anticipated this would create disagreements among contending parties about factual claims and normative conclusions which are implicitly present in any claim about what a government should do to achieve the common good. Thus some founding fathers recommended that citizens be educated in skills to help them evaluate factual disputes namely science,  history, among others,  and ethics and other subjects to help citizens critically evaluate disagreements about justice.

4. The goals of higher education have increasingly shifted its major empasis from teaching skills needed by citizens to participate in a democratic processes to achieve the common good to teaching skills to make students attractive to potential employers such as science, engineering, and technology.  (The support for this claim wil be the subject of the next entry on this website). Although claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good have both factual premises and normative  conclusions, this shift in higher education’s major focus has increased the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame the public debate on disputes about facts which usually ignore very relevant ethical considerations including ethical principles that governments have previously agreed should guide their policy formation. For instance, all governments in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change agreed to be bound by the “precautionary,” “no harm” and adopt GHG emmission reductin targets to levels required of itin accordance with ‘equity ” which principles expressly undermine the excessive costs and scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of climate change.  Yet proponents of climate policies usually ignore critically evaluating the normative conclusions of the arguments made by opponents of policies while focusing on counter factual claims about uncertainty and cost.

5. Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with its ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most US citizens in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are  different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. These features include all CO2e emissions mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric CO2e concentrations globally and thus increasing harms globally, because although 80% of CO2e emissions are removed feom the atmosphere  by carbon sinks in 100 years, some remain for tens of thousands of years thus contributing to future harms everywhere including atmospheric concentrations that trigger abrupt climate change, the most vulenerable countries are usually least responsible for the harms, delays by a nation in reducing its emissions makes it more difficult and expensive for the whole world to achieve any warming limit goal, the setting of any national GHG emissions target implicitly takes a position on four ethical questions. (the warming limit goal the nation is seeking to achieve, the carbon budget it is basing its reduction amount on given different budgets with different probabilities are options, the equitablle basis it has used to calculate the nation’s fair share, and date by which the reduction will be achieved which effects the amount of carbon budget available for the whole world.  For a discussion of these issues see:

Seven Featuresu of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.

6. This article will examine what can be learned from the failure to get traction in national responses to climate change for several ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their obligations under the 1992 climate treaty. 

7. As we have explained in many entries, for 30 years the fossil fuel industry has been successful in framing the major focus of the public debate in United States so that it has focused largely on issues related to scientific uncertainty and excessive costs. This is so despite the fact that the international community including the United States under G.H. Bush had agreed in 1992 to be guided in their response to climate change by the “precautionary  principle” which make’s scientific uncertainty an illegitimate excuse for a nation’es failing to achieve their legal obligations, and the ‘no harm’ principle which makes governments responsible for harms to others caused by activities within their borders without regard to scientific uncertainty or cost to them once they are on notice that activities within their jurisdiction are threatening others.  

8. The article explains why the need in international cooperative efforts to solve serious growing threats that cant be solved at the local level frequently raise questions of fairness and justice between nations that are usually worked out through negotiations among nations about what is fair.

The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global cooperatiive efforts to respond to emerging threats that cant be adequatey dealt with at the national level. This is a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change have little understanding of why this is important, nor how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will sometimes be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.

Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC should guide their responses to climate change but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about national responses to climate change. Some detail is included on these issues because getting traction on these principles is still crucial to getting nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime while opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment.

The sections of this paper are:

1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues when developing rules about threats that cant be solved at the national level.

2. Why opposition to international rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the international common good.

3. The failure of higher education to educate students in skills necessary to evaluate the normative conclusions made in claims about  what government should do to achieve the common good given certain facts

4. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieve the global common good.

I .  Why governments at the national and internation level have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying law or rules seeking to achive the global common good.

Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice. Although international negotiations often focus on other issues in  international environmental negotiations, the most time consuming issues are usually over differences between developed and developing nations about what fairness requires.  Also in the last 20 years corporate interests which are economically threatened by issues under consideration have been successful in generating political opposition at the national level often by the dissemination of sophisticated  disinformation  on  issues  most  consequential  to  the global community including  poor  developing  nations.

Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which usually cant be achieved without grappling with justice questions among others.

Getting traction for justice in government affairs has become more urgent since the 1970s  when well organized, aggressive, sophisticated efforts have undermined governments central role in ordering society for the common good, Sociologists attribute the organized beginning of this phenomenon in  the US to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful social and environmental movements in the 1960s. This is deeply ironic because the very reason why many in the world saw hope for the world in the US system was because the US democracy in the 1960s successfully found remedies for the racial, voting, woman’s rights and many more justice issues. Yet the Powel memo construed these very victories on rights and  injustice as a threat to  the corporate power. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.

He recommended 10 things that businesses should do, all of which have  been well funded and aggressively pursued. See, The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo, 

The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed that government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem.  Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge benefits of free markets while agreeing that government is sometimes the problem, it is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most people want, such as affordable health care,  protection from environmental threats, towns designed to promote social interaction, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things protection from the scheming of some merchants and despots throughout history who have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public good as Adam Smith warned. This scheming is inevitable when the solution to growing global threats requires the regulation of new technologies that have admitted value but dangerous potential for harm. Curent potentially beneficail technologies of concern include, for example, artificial intellegence and bioengineering.

While I worked for EPA on UN international environmental issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty and climate law that other countries were pushing for.  Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is, in my experience having worked at the UN and taught or lectured in 38 countries, is increasingly internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues although many non-nationals believe there is still hope that US can make democracy work for the common good. The 2008  Army War College Threat Assessment in fact concludes that the failure of the US to adequately respond to climate change may result in more violence against the US.

I have been shocked how much our democracy in the last decade has made it easier for money to dominate politics by removing limits on corporate donations, voter suppression, gerrymandering, allowing donors to hide who make donations to entities who are involved in political issues, while other countries have often made it easier to vote in ways that initially shocked me. By law, for instance, Australian citizens have a duty to vote which my Australian colleagues say is enforced with a routine fine. While teaching in Japan  I was told  political money is not allowed to be used on television, which explains why one hears political messages on loud speakers in trucks all the time. I offer these examples  to encourage research on their truth and to suggest that others do research on these kinds of issues. Of course these issues will create disagreements among citizens, a matter that democracies should resolve according to the supporters of the role of democracies by making arguments about what is fair

The  process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty.  For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of the fact that some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 UNFCCC  established very general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to  prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that climate change is a problem that necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. Some nations have been pushing for more clarity on these issues for decades. The best the initial round of neegotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.”  Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict often between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language on crucial issues. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992 on the meaning of central terms such as “equity.” Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts. 

During the international negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented along with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and often arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interests.

An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is not obvious but is usually understood as market processes should order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there was no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice.  As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment, or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.

An example, while I was working as the US  Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different cost-benefit analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol.  During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification. I have learned that the way power often works is to spread a narrative through a culture that becomes so accepted that citizens are afraid to challenge it. That is  power often works by scaring people to not discuss certain things. But we have Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the lesser known Hannah Arendt who have implied we citizens have a duty to call out injustice when we see it, although violence is never justifiable morally and will also undermine the credibility of the moral claim.

During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that.  For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and other successes on justice issues in the late 1960s. A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i]  The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs.  Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment Report on Climate Change not only draws the same conclusion about deminishing respect around the world for a country which was once more widely thought of as the shining city on the hill but may generate more violence against US interests from parts of the world increasingly stressed by water shortages.

In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ackowledged obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to would guide their policy, it  is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates,

Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.

2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common good are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.

Although Adam Smith is widely praised around the world for convincing much of the global community of the benefits of free market. Lesser known, however, is he also warned that the merchant class would sometimes conspire against the public interest and in so doing predicted that the merchants would sometimes be ruthless and effective in manipulating policymakers and legislatures by influencing the public’s understanding of issues that must be addressed to achieve the common good. (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) 

Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry has been to spread disinformation . This has been accomplished by morally ruthless tactics that will be explored in the next section.

Another tactic which has been used with increasing effectiveness is the use of what I call false intimidating manipulative smears (FIMS), that are aimed at anyone who appears in the media who challanges the cullurally unchallengable narrative. Currrent frequently used FIMS hurled against anyone challenging the hegemonic cultural narrative  are the person is an “alarmist.” “socialst,” or recently believers in “entitlements.’ Because most people dont know how to respond to these FIMS, false intimidating smears, a future entry will critically evaluate the dominent FIMS.

3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs under consideration at the international level to achieve global common good. 

I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues   who I have often sincerely publicly praised for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical conclusions with ethical considerations.

I have have rarely met US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. They explain this phenomenon by saying people don’t need to know what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:

There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).

The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317) The failure of international community to give futher guidance to nations on how to apply the concept of equity to their GHG emissions reduction obligations is a gift to the opponents of climate change policies because they are likely, like Trump has already done, to make completely false claims about the unfairness of international climate law to their government and citizens. So far I  have seen no one appearing in the national  media that knows how to respond effectively to this because I believe their valued contributions to this problem is in technical knowledge that only allows them to answer with technically derived reason. I have also learned that most academic disciplines are tribal in that they have a set of rules which limit what an academic can talk about. This is also a problem for academic environmental ethics which often mostly restricted itself to work on theoretical conflicts.

In the 1980s I was invited to join the Editorial Board of the Journal of Environmental Ethics whose authors rarely contributed to conflicts about what ethics required on issues that arose in actual environmental controversies while for several decades focused almost exclusively on how to put a non-anthropocentric based value of nature.  I had through my experience concluded that there were many important issues arise in other environmental policy conflct that need the help of ethical analysis which must be considered to protect people and animals including some for which the ethical rule appropriate to policy had already been agreed to. So just spotting the implicit ethical issue is often all that is needed because some ethical issues that arise in policy are sometimes  surprizingly easy to resolve once spotted.

Academic environmental ethics focus on resolving theoretical conflicts is a tragic mistake because ethicists are needed to help civil society evaluate untruths about unfairness claims that have been circulated by US opponents of climate change policy continue to frequently circulate, for instance,a recent example is that unless China reduces GHG emissions  at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China.  According  to  IPCC’s  to description of reasonable considerations for determining equity,  the  US  percentage  reductions  should  be  greater  than  China although  like all  claims about what distributive justice requires, for instance, which happens frequently in US environmental environmental law cases where there are multiple defendants who must find away to apportion hundreds of millions of damages among, the court system works out how to apportion the damages. This is a common problem on allocating damage awards in hazardous waste cleanup litigation in the US . In cases I have been involved with there were as many as 200 defendants fighting about how damages would be distributed. US courts are face*d with kind of problem frequently.

Notice in the charts below, US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world. 

 

The enormous damage to the world that has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC.  See discussions of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website. 

The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See   NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is some evidence that the disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders. See also Ethics And Climate Change, A Study of National  Commitments, Brown D. Taylor, P, (IUCN, Press, 20

Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy and circulating false claims about unfairness. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon. I have  also experienced that with a little ethical reasoning, people agree that these rules are ethically justified.

The article will argue this US failure to abide by principles they have agreed  has been caused by the economically powerful forces’ successful framing the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on facts about uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.

3. The Failure of Higher Education

This  problem has also been caused in part by the major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative conclusions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good. Despite all such claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage in critically evaluating the factual premises of arguments about what governments should do to achieve the common good. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects that facilitate crital evaluation factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good. (This claim will be the focus of the next entry on this website) Also, academics, as well as citizen activists often become preductively engaged in responses to climate change that they judge have some potential to make a difference given the poltical status quo. The focus of their energy thus is often responses to climate change that they believe have a chance of working given the acceptance of cultural narratives about excessive cost is an enormous urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero ASAP a topic I argue should be mentioned in every discussion of a response to climate change. It is also an understandable tactic to justify climate policies solely on the basis policy will create jobs because it implicitly confirms the unreasonableness of the claim if this policy causes some job loss the policy should not be adopted. A more enlightened use of the jobs argument would be we must reduce GHG emissions immediately because they are causing and threatening enormous harms around the world, a byproduct of this policy will be some job creation but job creation is not why we should do this.

After Paris Agreement in 2015, I conveened meetings of the leaders of the 5 largest environmental groups to explain and document that that the 1.5 C and 2.0 C warming limit goals required the whole world to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and 2070 yet all five leaders who I greatly respect said they would not publically talk about it because they would be labelled as ‘alarmists.’ Thus confirming the power of developing an unquestionable cultural narrative coupled with the widespread use of false,intimidating, manipulative smears  FIMS discussed above.

 

Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion. This criticism does not deminish, in my view that many academic climate change scientists should be publically honored for the courage they displayed in correcting the misinformation on climate science that was undermining the political will to reduce national GHG emission.

That US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences on how to critically evaluate the normatve conclusions in claims about the common good  became clear in a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of climate policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of claims made about what governments should do to achieve the common good.

Almost  all claims about what a government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have sincerely publicly honored have admitted to me that they were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in “precautionary science” when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.

On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

 

 

Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement  precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do  so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems is a  enormous practical problem because part of the tactics of the morally outrageous tactics of the climate change disinformation has been to call all scientific conclusions that have not been based upon the epistemic norms of science that have been established to prevent a false positive or a type 1, statistical error, “junk science”.

Most American scientists and students are unaware that some EU countries have already created routine procedures to apply precautionary science when scientific norms designed to prevent false positives prevent timely descriptons of dangerous risks done this and this has been done in the US for determining  a few threats like the cancer risk of low doses of toxic substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of  harms from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described in its few first assessments, an issue encouraging research on.. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.

Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal. Therefore their reassurance that ‘we have time’ is greatly misleading in a number of ways

An example of delays cost  was given in the 2019 UNEP report is as follow

In 1992, under the UNFCCC all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which  stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their jurisdiction.  A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm” rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or they haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is widespread acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity cant continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.

Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof from government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.

Yet most US climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC.

I also urge that activists who are pushing for an economically based solutions couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because market-based solutions that admittedly could be a productive tool to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools to achieve zero GHG emissions needed  ASAP and market-based tools implementation will not likely  be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal tools to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matter. Therefore the laudable efforts of many climate activists to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes into law could be pursued as a helpful tool to achieve a legally enforceable target. But this tool needs to be supplemented with other legal tools to get to zero emissions ASAP.

In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate strategies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation. Yet this is a missiing subject in the  American conversation about climate change

A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues in the nation that instituted international human rights law although the US is now behind many parts of the world in adopting procedural rights to bring human rights claims that continue to be hurdles to enforcements of some human rights largely because of difficult standing hurdles in US LAW

Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world.  Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways including the increase in pandemics and vector borne diseases.It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.

As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points. or positive feedbacks that that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.,

To defend itself against charges that climate programs needed to implement the Kyoto Protocol were too costly, the Clinton Administration in July of 1998 prepared a CBA that showed that costs to the United States of complying with Kyoto would not be great.[i] 

The Clinton Administration’s analysis concluded that these costs were justified because damages from a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of greenhouse gases would cost the United States economy about 1.1 percent of GDP per year, that is $8.9 billion per year.[iii] In so doing the Clinton Administration seemed to acknowledge the validity of climate change counter-movement’s basic argument that domestic action should be limited to actions justifiable by CBA.  That is, at no time did the Clinton Administration assert that the logic of CBA that supported the position of the opponents to Kyoto was ethically problematic; the Clinton Administration simply asserted that the CBA calculations of those that opposed Kyoto were overly pessimistic.

The Clinton administration did not acknowledge any of the specific ethical problems with CBAs applied to environmental problems discussed on this website. In fact, remarkably there was no discussion in EPA or in the US media’s coverage of the Kyoto Protocol about the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change raised the following ethical problems.

  • If climate change is an ethical problem, nations may not determine the acceptability of national climate change policies on the basis of national interest alone; they must acknowledge the duty to not harm others who have not consented to be harmed. Yet the debate in the US about the Kyoto commitment remarkably only focused on harms and benefits to the United States alone. The fact that US ghgs were harming and threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world was not considered or even commented on in my experience when the Clinton administration CBA on the Kyoto Protocol was discussed inside the government.
  • The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge the duty of high-emitting nations to compensate those who are greatly harmed by climate change, despite the fact the US had agreed to the “polluter pays” principle in the Rio Declaration in the in 1992. [iv]
  • The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge that the duty of the United States to not cause human rights violations despite the fact that the least contentious human rights, including the right to life and security, will be violated by climate change.
  • The Clinton administration CBA treated all harms to human health and the environment form climate change as commodities whose value could be determined in markets or by asking people what they are willing to pay for the entity harmed.
  • The Clinton administration CBA failed to acknowledge that those who might be harmed or killed  by US ghg emissions had a right to consent to be harmed thus violating principles of procedural justice.

In response to the Clinton CBA, opponents of Kyoto argued that the Clinton Administration’s analysis understated the costs to the United States economy.  The fossil fuel industry and others continued to oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol mostly on the basis that costs to the United States compliance with the Protocol would exceed benefits.

The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes that I have seen that have undermined the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.

I have struggled to express my view of the depth of the moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate  science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science, skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.

Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.

Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.

Its tactics have included the following which are  further described in several articles and videos on this website under  the  category  climate disinformation.

Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal.  Because, no other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic , I  have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses that need to consider input from different disciplines.

The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is never discussed in the US media in my experience, which is even more startling when the media extensively covers the migrant problem on the Mexican Texas border.

Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican Border was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College in 1997 during war games and that i attended and later described in more detail in the 2008 Army War College report referenced above that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.

In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was  invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.

The US army also predicted  over 20 years ago that three countries in Central  America  were  vulnerable  to  drought and  therefore  likely  to  produce  refugees. Yet this aspect of  the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.

The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict.  Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/65

Yet,  I cant stress enough the moral unacceptability of using violence or property damage as a tactic to respond to injustice as Martin Luther King stressed He also claimed that it will undermine the credibility of the protestor’s moral claim.

 Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,”  I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro. 

Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump’s deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC a allows nations to decide what equity  requires of them.

In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard ever mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.

Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.

I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became understood to be more  and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One  of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.

By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.

About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation he casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change  kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.


It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said economic conclusions by themselves cant determine justice. .

This is another example of the dismal failure of higher educations to teach critical thinking skills needed to effectively evaluate normative conclusions already present in claims about what a government should do given certain facts. For identification of ethical issues raised by climate change policy making relying on cost-benefit analysis, see Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/,

In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US in a UN negotiation  that was considering a document in which all governments, not IPCC scientists, would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused.   By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the balance of the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates and some democratic politicians would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance. Many scientists and academics usually respond to issues about models. In addition to the models being able to usually predict future temperatures  and when run  backward usually describe  prior warming, other evidence that deepen the moral duty to take action is the for me,is  finger prints evidence  and attribution studies that test whether natural forces that have driven Earth’s natural heating an cooling cycles are extraordinary strong evidence that warming is very likely human caused more than enough to crate moral responsibility to act in most peoples views.

Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.

In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions in claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to academic philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good. And why this has happened has also been the subject of social research that we will write about next

The next entry on this topic  will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change despite the continuing need to praise some academics for their courage in helping civil society understand the validity of mainstream science. To say that higher education is part of the problem should not be interpreted to demean the academics who are making valient contributions but to explain why the US universities ever increasing focus on technical issues is lamentable.

There over 200 entries on these issues on ths website which can be found in the search bar.

Conclusion

Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics  in international negotiations on these additional threats. Thus problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for  nations to  cooperate on global governance

 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Winner of the UNESCO prize for excellence in ethics in science

dabrown57@gmail.com

bio 

What the Media Should Learn From Its Intense Coverage of COVID-19 About How to Cure Its Failed Reporting On the More Devastating Threat of Climate Change

 (L.Thieblemont)

I. Introduction

This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19.  This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.

Continue reading

New Evidence That Climate Change Poses a Much Greater Threat to Humanity Than Recently Understood Because the IPCC has been Systematically Underestimating Climate Change Risks: An Ethical Analysis

 

Three papers have been recently published that lead to the conclusion that human-induced climate change poses a much more urgent and serious threat to life on Earth than many have thought who have been relying primarily on the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This paper first reviews these papers and then examines the ethical questions by the issues discussed in these papers.

I. The Three Papers

On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories of  the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et.al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positi climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, and acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world. This paper explains that, contrary to common assumptions made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures and 20 C. Moreover, once triggered the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over preventing disastrous warming.

Another recent paper published in mid-August in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, concludes that models used to predict climate impacts have failed to incorporate abrupt carbon feedback from permafrost decay that recent evidence has revealed is now possible. In fact, the paper claims that early stages of processes that lead to permafrost degradation are already underway, a phenomenon which leads to release of dangerous amounts of methane and CO2. This paper further concludes that carbon emissions from melting permafrost could increase soil carbon emissions by 125–190% compared to gradual thaw alone.

This paper summarizes major conclusions from a third recent paper which analyzes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts. This paper, What Lies Beneath: On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, (hereinafter “WLB”), recently published by the Breakthrough Institute, claims both that the risks posed by climate change are far greater than is evident from the conclusions of IPCC and examines why IPCC has frequently underestimated threats from climate change.

The WLB report also further concludes that climate change is now an existential risk to humanity, that is an adverse outcome that could either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and dramatically curtail its potential. (WLB, p.13)

Although the WLB report acknowledges IPCC has done “critical, indispensable work of the highest standard in pulling together a periodic consensus of what must be the most exhaustive scientific investigation in world history” however, the IPCC process suffers from all of the dangers of consensus-building in such a wide-ranging and complex arena. (WLB, p. 5) The report also attributes the overly conservative conclusions of the IPCC to the consensus building nature that IPCC must follow to get governments to approve IPCC final reports and to IPCC’s following scientific norms that condemn speculation. (WLB. p. 5) As a result, the report concludes that much of the climate research on which IPCC has relied has tended to underplay climate risks and as a result, IPCC has exhibited preferences for conservative estimates of climate change impacts. (WLB, p. 5)  This practice the WLB reports labels as “scholarly reticence.” (WLB, p. 5)

This WLB report further claims that climate science has succumbed to the norm followed by most physical sciences to refrain from any speculation that cannot be grounded in empirically determined probability calculations. This epistemic norm, the report claims, is not well-suited to guide predictions about very scientifically complex matters such as earth system dynamics. The report calls this approach the Probability Obsession of science which is not well suited to predict future states of complex systems about matters for which there are no historical antecedents. (WLB, p. 2)

The WLB report also notes that a conservative approach to climate science began to dominate and as a result, the planetary future has become a hostage to national economic self-interest. Thus, the paper claims it became “alarmist” to claim the climate change is an existential threat to life on earth. (WLB, p.4)

The report further notes that although “a fast emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change…. yet this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive.” And so the paper claims “we have a policy failure of epic proportions.”  (WLB, p. 4)

The WLB report further notes that although it has widely been reported that if the ghg emissions reductions commitments or Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs)  made by governments so far under the Paris Agreement are complied with, the Earth’s temperature is expected to rise to  3.40 C by 2100 without taking into account “long-term” carbon cycle feedbacks. (WLB, p.15) Yet if the positive feedbacks are fully considered, the temperature path defined by the NDCs could result in around 5° C of warming by 2100 according to a MIT study. (WLB, p.13) Yet, the report claims that even if warming reaches 3° C, most of Bangladesh and Florida would drown, while major coastal cities – Shanghai, Legos, Mumbai – would be swamped likely creating larger flows of climate refugees. Most regions of the world would see a significant drop in food production and an increasing number of extreme weather events, whether heat waves, floods or storms. (WLB, p.13)

The WLB report concludes warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%, and the World Bank reports “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C temperature rise would be possible.” Quoting Professor Kevin Anderson, the report claims a 4°C future “is incompatible with an organized global community and is likely to be beyond adaptation by the majority of people.” (WLB, p. 14)

The WLB report also claims that the often-quoted prediction of likely temperature increases if current NDCs are complied with of approximately 3° C rise does not take into account the considerable risk that self-reinforcing feedback loops could be triggered when certain thresholds are reached leading to an ever-increasing rise in temperature. These potential thresholds include the melting of the Arctic permafrost releasing methane into the atmosphere, forest dieback releasing carbon currently stored in the Amazon and boreal forests, with the melting of polar ice caps that would no longer reflect the light and heat from the sun. (WLB, p. 14)

The report cites a recent study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center found that if global temperature rose to 4° C that extreme heat waves with “apparent temperatures” peeking over 550 C (1310 F) will begin to regularly affect many densely populated parts of the world, forcing much activity in the modern industrial world to stop. (WLB, p.14)

The paper claims that one study found that even a 2° C warming “would double the land area subject to deadly heat and expose 48% of the population to deadly heat.” (WLB, p.14)

According to the WLB report, a 4° C warming by 2100 would subject 47% of the land area and almost 74% of the world population to deadly heat which could pose existential risks to humans and mammals alike unless massive adaptation measures are implemented. (WLB, p.14)

The WLB paper also explains how IPCC’s understatements of likely climate change impacts affect what is generally claimed among climate policy-makers about elements of climate science including climate models, climate tipping points, climate sensitivity, carbon budgets, permafrost and carbon cycles, arctic sea ice, polar ice-mass loss, and sea-level rise. The following summarizes some of the main paper’s conclusions on these matters, although we recommend that interested parties read the WLB’s full description of these issues. The full paper also should be consulted for footnote sources of the following conclusions.

Climate Models

Climate modeling is at the core of the work by IPCC, and in developing future emission and warming scenarios a 2007 report by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies Center for New American Security recognized the that: “Recent observations indicate the projections from climate models have been too conservative,” and  “the effects of climate change are unfolding faster and more dramatically than expected,” and, “multiple lines of evidence support the position that the 2007 IPCC reports’ projections of impacts are systematically biased low.” (WLB, p.18) For instance, the paper concludes:

The models used to project future warming either omit or do not account for uncertainty in potentially important positive feedbacks that could amplify warming (e.g., release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost, reduced ocean and terrestrial CO2 removal from the atmosphere, and there is some evidence that such feedbacks may already be occurring in response to the present warming trend. Hence, climate models may underestimate the degree of warming from a given amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by human activities alone. Additionally, recent observations of climate system responses to warming (e.g. changes in global ice cover, sea level rise, tropical storm activity) suggest that IPCC models underestimate the responsiveness of some aspects of the climate system to a given amount of warming. (WLB, p.18)

Climate models simply omit emissions from warming permafrost, but we know that is the wrong answer because this tacitly assumes that these emissions are zero and we know that’s not right. (WLB, p.18)

The WLB report characterizes IPCC reports as presenting “detailed, quantified (numerical) modeling results-such as feedbacks that the models account for in a descriptive non-quantified form. Sea-levels, polar ice sheets, and some carbon-cycle are three examples. Because policymakers and the media are often drawn to the headline numbers, this approach results in less attention being given to the most devastating, high-end, non-linear and difficult to quantify outcomes.” (WLB, p. 19).

The WLB report concludes about this tendency: “The emphasis on consensus in IPCC reports has put the spotlight on expected outcomes which then become anchored via numerical estimates in the minds of policymakers.” (WLB, p. 19)

The WLB report also notes that one of the problems with IPCC is the strong desire to rely on physical models. (WLB, p. 20)

Tipping Points

A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate systems component – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. (WLB, p. 21) Progress toward a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in the component leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic case is global warming is the ice-albedo feedback, or decreases in the area of polar ice change surface reflexivity, trapping more heat, producing further sea ice loss. (WLB, p. 21)

In some cases, passing one threshold will trigger further threshold events, for example, where substantial greenhouse gas releases from polar permafrost carbon stores increase warming, releasing even more permafrost carbon in a positive feedback, but also pushing other systems, such as polar ice sheets past their threshold point. (WLB, p. 21)

In a period of rapid warming, most major tipping points, once crossed are irreversible in human time frames, principally due to the longevity of atmospheric CO2 (a thousand years). (WLB, p. 21)

Climate models are not yet good at dealing with tipping points. (WLB, p.21) This is partly due to the nature of tipping points, where particularly complex confluence of factors abruptly change the climate system characteristics and drive it into a different state. (WLB, p.21) To model this, all the contributing factors and their forces have to be well identified, as well as their particular interactions, plus the interactions between tipping points. (WLB,  p.21)  Some researchers say that “complex, nonlinear systems typically shift between alternative states in an abrupt, rather than the smooth, changes, a challenge that the climate models have not yet been able to adequately meet. (WLB, p. 21)

Risks associated with tipping points increase disproportionately as temperature increases from 1° C to 2° C and become high above 3° C. Yet political negotiations have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

IPCC has published few projections regarding tipping-point thresholds, nor emphasized the importance of building robust risk-management assessments of them in absence of adequate quantitative data. (WLB, p. 210)

The world is currently completely unprepared to envision and even less deal with the consequences of catastrophic climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

Climate Sensitivity

Climate sensitivity is the amount by which the global average temperature will rise due to a doubling of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, at equilibrium. IPCC reports a focus on what is generally called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The 2007 IPCC report gave a best estimate of climate sensitivity of 3° C and said it is likely to be in the range 2° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The 2014 IPCC report says that “no best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given, because of lack of agreement on values across lines of evidence and studies” and only gives a range of 1.5° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The IPCC reports fail to mention that the ECS measure omits key “long-term” feedbacks that a rise in the planet’s temperature can trigger. (WLB, p. 22) These include the permafrost feedback, other changes in the terrestrial carbon cycle, a decrease in the ocean’s carbon-sink efficiency, and the melting of polar ice sheets creating a cold ocean-surface layer underneath that accelerates the melting of ice shelves and hastens the rate of ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 22)

There is a wide range of literature that suggests that climate sensitivity which includes these feeedbacks-known as Earth System Sensitivity (ESS), is 4-6 0 C. (WLB, p. 22).

Long-term feedbacks have already begun to appear on short time frames, climate-carbon cycle coupling is expected to add carbon to the atmosphere as the climate warms, although the magnitude of feedback is uncertain. (WLB, p. 22)

Conclusions about climate sensitivity should take into account that:

  1. Biogeochemical feedbacks (such as less efficient land-ocean sinks, including permafrost loss) effectively increases carbon emissions to 2100 by about 20% and can enhance warming by up to 0.5°C, compared to the baseline scenario. (WLB, p. 23)
  2. Warming has been projected to increase methane emissions from wetlands by 0 – 100% compared with present-day wetland methane emissions. A 50% increase in wetland methane emissions by 2100 is expected in response to high-end warming of 4.1 – 5°C which could add at least another 0.5°C warming. (WLB, p. 23)
  3. It is important to use high-end climate sensitivity because some studies have suggested the climate models have underestimated three major positive climate feedbacks: positive ice albedo feedback from the retreat of Arctic sea ice; positive cloud albedo feedbacks from retreating storm track clouds in mid-latitudes, and positive albedo feedback by the next phase (water and ice) clouds. When these are taken into account the ECS is more than 40% higher than the IPCC mid-figure, at 4.5 to 4.7° C. (WLB, p. 23)

Some recent research concludes that climate sensitivity is higher in warmer, interglacial periods (such as present) and lower in colder glacial periods. Based on a study of glacial cycles and temperatures over the last 100, 000 years one study concludes that in warmer periods climate sensitivity is 4.88 0 C. (WLB, p. 23) The higher figure would mean that an atmospheric concentration 450 ppm CO2, a figure that current trends will reach in 5 years, would be around 30 C in rather than the 20 C number bandied about in policy making circles. (WLB, p. 23)

Carbon Budgets

A carbon budget is the estimate of the total future human-caused ghg emissions in tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalent, that would be consistent with limiting warming to a specific figure, such as

1.5 0 C or 20 C with a given risk of exceeding the target such as 50%, 33%, or a 10% chance. (WLB, p. 24)

Carbon budgets are usually based on mid-term climate sensitivity numbers of around 30 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Yet there are reasons to believe climate sensitivity is closer to 4C. In fact, as we have seen, climate sensitivity may be between 4-60 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Carbon budgets are routinely proposed that have a substantial and unacceptable risk of exceeding specified targets and hence entail large and unmanageable risks of failure., (WLB, p. 24)

Research in 2017 the compared role climate models used by IPCC with models that are “observationally informed” produce 15% more warming by 2100 than IPCC claims and therefore supports the conclusion that carbon budgets should be reduced by 15% for the 20C target. (WLB, p. 24)

The IPCC reports fail to say that once projected emissions from future food production and deforestation are taken into account there is no carbon budget for fossil-fuel emissions for a 20C target. (WLB, p. 24).

There are also problems with carbon budgets which incorporate “overshoot” scenarios, in which warming exceeds the target before being cooled by carbon drawdown. (WLB, p.24)  Pam Pearson, Dir. of International Cryo-sphere Climate Initiative, said that most cryo-sphere thresholds are determined by peak temperatures, and the length of time spent at the peak warning rather than “later decreasing temperatures after the peak are largely irrelevant, especially with higher temperatures and longer duration peaks.” Thus “overshoot scenarios” which are now becoming the norm in policymaking hold much greater risks. (WLB, p. 24)

Permafrost and the Carbon Cycle

The failure to adequately consider long-term feedbacks in IPCC models, and hence in projections of future warming, lies at the heart of the problem with the IPCC reporting process. (IPCC, p.25) Over century time-scales, amplifying feedbacks may ultimately contribute 28-68% of total warming, yet they comprise only 1-7% of current warming. (WLB, p. 25)

The land sink (storage capacity) for CO2 appears much smaller than is currently factored into some climate models. Thus future patterns of warming may be distinctly different from past patterns making it difficult to predict future warming by relying on past observations. (WLB, p. 25)

Soil Carbon. A 2016 study concluded that a soil carbon cycle feedback “has not been incorporated into computer models used to project future climate change, raising the possibility that such models are underestimating the amount of warming that is likely to occur. (WLB, p. 24) The projected loss of soil carbon from climate change is a potentially large but highly uncertain feedback to warming, however, there is likely to be strong carbon-climate feedbacks from colder northern soils. (WLB, p.24)

Forests. At the at the moment about one-third of human-caused CO2 emissions are absorbed by trees and other plants. But rapid climate warming and unusual rainfall patterns are jeopardizing many of the world’s trees, due to more frequent droughts, pest outbreaks, and fires. (WLB, p. 25) This is starting to have profound effects on the Earth’s carbon cycle. (WLB, p. 25)  In 2009 researchers found that 2° C of warming could cut in half the carbon sink of tropical rainforests. Some tropical forests – in the Congo and Southeast Asia – have already shifted to a net carbon source. The tropics are now a net carbon source with losses owing to deforestation and reductions in carbon density within standing forests being double that of gains resulting from forest growth. Other work has projected a long-term, self-reinforcing carbon feedback from mid-latitude forests to the climate system as the world warms. (WLB, p. 25)

There has been an observed decline in the Amazon carbon sink.  Negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern, and central Amazonia at 20 – 25% deforestation. Researchers say that severe droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015-16 could well represent the first flickers of this ecological tipping point and say the whole system is oscillating. (WLB, p.25)

Permafrost. The world’s permafrost holds 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. On land it covers an area of 15,000,000 km². The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on earth, and some permafrost degradation is already occurring. Large-scale tundra wildfires in 2012 added to the concern, as have localized methane outbursts. (WLB, p. 25)

The 2007 IPCC assessment on permafrost did not venture beyond saying “changes in snow ice and frozen ground have with high confidence increase the number and size of glacial lakes, increased ground instability in mountain and other permafrost regions and led to changes in some Arctic and in Antarctic ecosystems. It reported with high confidence that methane emissions from tundra and permafrost have accelerated in the past two decades and are likely to accelerate further. It offered no projections regarding permafrost melts. (WLB, p.25).

The effect of the permafrost’s carbon feedback has not been included in the IPCC scenarios including the 2014 report. (WLB, p. 26). This is despite clear evidence that “the permafrost carbon feedback would change the Arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42 – 88% of the total global land sink. (WLB, p. 26)

In 2012, researchers found that, for the 2100 median forecasts, there would be a 0.23 – 0.27°C of extra warming due to permafrost feedbacks. Some researchers consider that 1.5°C appears to be something of a “tipping point” for extensive permafrost thaw. (WLB, p.26)

A 2014 study estimated that up to 205 billion tonnes equivalent of CO2 could be released due to melting permafrost, This would cause up to 0.5° C extra warming for the high mission scenario and up to 0.15° C of extra warming for the 2° C scenario. The authors say that; “climate projections in the IPCC Fifth Assessment report, and any emissions targets based on these projections, do not adequately account for emissions from thawing permafrost and the effect of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. (WLB, p.26)

Recently attention has turned to the question of the stability of large methane hydrate stores below the ocean floor on the shallow East Siberian Arctic shelf. (Methane hydrates are cage-like lattices of ice within which methane molecules are trapped). (WLB, p. 26)

These stores are protected from the warmer ocean temperatures above by a layer of frozen sub-sea permafrost. The concern is that warmer water could create taliks (areas of unfrozen permafrost) through which large-scale methane emissions from the hydrates could escape into the water column above and into the atmosphere. (WLB, p. 26)

A deceptively optimistic picture is painted when the potential impacts from the degradation of permafrost and methane hydrates are underplayed. (WLB, p. 26)

Arctic Sea-Ice

IPCC has consistently underestimated the rate of Arctic sea ice melt. (WLB, p.27)

Arctic sea ice is thinning faster than every IPCC climate projection, tipping points have been crossed for sea ice free summer conditions, and today scientists say an ice-free Arctic summer could be just years away, not many decades. (WLB, p. 27)

The loss of sea ice reduces the reflectivity of the planet and adds to warming but this feedback is not fully incorporated into models in circumstances where the rate of sea-ice loss is more rapid than expected in the models, as is occurring now. (WLB, p.27) To keep global temperature increase below 20 C, global CO2 emissions would need to reach zero 5-15 years earlier and the carbon budget would need to be reduced by 20-51% to offset this additional source of warming. (WLB, p. 27)

Because climate models are missing key real-world interactions and generally have been poor at dealing with the rate of Arctic sea ice retreat, expert elicitation’s play a role in considering whether the Arctic has passed a very significant and dangerous tipping point. But the IPCC has done none of this. (WLB, p.27)

Polar Ice-Mass Loss

2001 IPCC report said little change in Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet is expected over the next 50-100 years.  (WLB, p. 28)

Greenland Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC report said there were “uncertainties in the full effects of ice sheet flow” and a suggestion that “partial loss of ice sheet on polar land could imply meters of sea-level rise….Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales.” The reality is very different.” (WLB, p. 28)

IPCC said in 2007 that current models suggest virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea-level rise of about 7 meters if global warming were sustained for millennia in excess of 1.9 to 4.60 C relative to pre-industrial values. (WLB, p. 28) This was despite that two 2006 studies found that the Greenland ice cap “may be melting three times faster than indicated by previous measurements, warning that we are close to being close to being committed to a collapse of the Greenland ice cap and reports that rising Arctic regional temperatures are already at “ the threshold beyond which glaciologists think the [Greenland] ice sheet may be doomed.” (WLB, p. 28)

In 2012 then NASA climate science chief James Hansen told Bloomberg that: “our greatest concern is that the loss of Arctic sea ice creates a great threat of passing over passing two other tipping points – the potential instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet and methane hydrates…These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.’ On this very grave threat, IPCC is mute. (WLB, p. 29)

Antarctic Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC assessment proffered: “Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and gain mass due to increased snowfall.” (WLB, p. 29) However, the net loss of ice mass could occur if dynamical ice discharge dominates the ice sheet mass balance. Reality and new research would soon undermine this one-sided reliance by IPCC on models with poor cryosphere performance. (WLB, p. 29)

By the 2014 IPCC assessment, the story was: “Based on current understanding from observations, physical understanding, and modeling, only the collapse of the marine-based sectors of the Antarctic ice sheet, if initiated could cause global mean sea level to be substantially above the likely range during the 21rst Century.” (WLB, p. 29) There is medium confidence that the additional contribution would not exceed several tenths of a meter of sea-level rise during the 21rst Century. And “abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic is sheet is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment.” This was another blunder. Observations of accelerating ice mass in West Antarctic were well established by this time. (WLB, p. 29) It is likely that the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has already been destabilized. (WLB, p. 29) Ice retreat is unstoppable for current conditions, and no acceleration in climate change is necessary to trigger the collapse of the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which comes with a 3-5 meter sea level rise. (WLB, p. 29), Such an event would displace millions of people worldwide. (WLB, p. 29)

In 2016, another significant study concluded that: “Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a meter of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 meters by 2500.” Compare this to the IPCC report, just a year earlier, that Antarctica’s contribution to sea levels “ would not exceed several tenths of a meter…during this century. ” (WLB, p. 29) As well, partial deglaciation of the East Antarctic ice sheet is likely for the current level of atmospheric CO2 contributing ten meters or more of sea-level rise in the longer run, and five meters in the first 200 years. (WLB, p. 29)

A 2018 study showed that ocean-driven melting has caused rates of ice-loss from West Antarctica to triple from 53 + or – 29 billion to 159 + or – 26 billion tons per year from 1992 to 2017. (WLB, p. 29) Forty percent of the total mass loss over that period has occurred in the last and five years, suggesting a recent and significant acceleration in the loss rate. (WLB, p. 29)

Over the same period, ice-shelf collapse had increased the rate of ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula almost five-fold from 7 + or – 13 billion to 33 + or- 16 billion tonnes per year. (WLB, p. 29)

Sea Level Rise

In the 2001 assessment report, the IPCC projected a sea-level rise of 2 millimeters per year. By 2007, the researchers found that the range of the 2001 predictions were lower than the actual rise. Satellite data had shown that sea levels had risen by an average of 3.3 millimeters per year between 1993 and 2006. (WLB, p. 30) IPCC did not use this data to revise its projections. (WLB, p. 30) James Hansen warned of “scientific reticence” in regard to ice sheet stability and sea-level rise. (WLB, p. 30) In 2008, the US Geological Survey warned that sea-level rise could top 1.5 meters by the end of the century. And by the end of 2009, various studies offered drastically higher projections than IPCC. (WLB, p. 30) The Australian government identified research that estimated sea level rise range from 0.5 to 2.0 meters by 2100. (WLB, p. 30) Yet in 2014, IPCC reported a smaller figure (0.55 meters compared to 0.59 meters in 2007) despite mounting evidence of polar ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 30) Noting inconsistent evidence, IPCC said that the probability of specific levels above the likely range cannot be evaluated. (WLB, p. 30)

An NOAA sea level report in August of 2017 recommends a revised worst-case sea level scenario of 2.5 meters by 2100, 5.5 meters by 2150 2150, and 9.7 meters by 2200. (WLB, p. 31)

Today the discussion among experts is for sea-level rise in this century of at least one meter, and perhaps in excess of two meters. (WLB, p. 31)

Goals Abandoned

The WLB report claims that the warming levels already reached at approximately 1.10 C are already “dangerous” and that future warming would need to be limited to 1.20 C to save the Great Barrier Reef. (WLB. p. 37) Therefore, the WLB report concludes that the UNFCCC process has already abandoned the goals of the UNFCCC of “preventing dangerous interference with the climate system.” The report also argues that other key goals of the UNFCCC including that “food production is not threatened’’ and “achieving reductions in a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change” have been abandoned for all practical purposes.”

Conclusion-Ethical Issues Raised by IPCC’s Consistent Underestimation of Climate Change Impacts.

A. Failure to Apply a Precautionary Science

As we have seen, the “What Lies Beneath” Report attributes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts to both the consensus process that IPCC follows in which governments must approve aspects of final IPCC reports and to IPCC’s following norms often followed by scientists which eschew making any claims that cannot be supported by empirically tested observations.

As we have claimed before in Ethicsandclimate.org, there is a potential conflict between IPCC’s mission to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change scientific literature, which normally requires adequate levels of scientific proof before drawing conclusions, and the precautionary principle stated in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which requires governments to act despite scientific uncertainties. A precautionary science would identify all scientifically plausible impacts, not only those impacts that can be identified with high levels of scientific certainty or impacts about which quantitative probability statements derived from empirical observations can be stated.  If the precautionary principle is to be taken seriously then decision-makers should be informed about all potentially dangerous impacts even if quantitative probability statements about these impacts can’t be derived from observations of how a physical system works.  Since the UNFCCC expressly adopted the precautionary principle, a strong case can be made that IPCC should identify all scientifically plausible impacts. If it were to do this, IPCC should, of course, be clear that some impacts are less certain than others.

Identifying all scientifically plausible climate impacts is also required as a matter of ethics once there is a reasonable basis for concluding that certain human behavior is dangerous to others.

Who should have the burden of proof and how much proof should be required to satisfy the burden of proof in the face of scientific uncertainty about dangerous behavior are fundamentally ethical questions, not ‘value-neutral’ scientific matters, yet scientists are rarely trained in ethical reasoning and very rarely spot the ethical issues raised by decisions about dangerous human behavior that must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty.  Given that the potential harms from climate change include an existential threat to life on Earth, as a matter of ethics, those who claim that scientific uncertainty is justification for not taking strong action to reduce the threat of climate change should have the burden of proof of demonstrating with very high levels of proof that ghg emissions levels are safe.

Ethics would require higher levels of proof of those who are engaged in dangerous behavior to prove their behavior is safe in proportion to how potentially dangerous the behavior is especially for harms to others who have not consented to be harmed and for behaviors that become more dangerous the longer one waits to reduce the uncertainty. Given that climate change actually threatens life on Earth including billions of people who have not consented to put at risk, and given that waiting to reduce ghg emissions makes the problem more threatening, ethics would shift the burden of proof to those who are most responsible for raising ghg emissions to prove with very high levels of proof that human emissions of ghg are safe even if there is some uncertainty about the amount of warming that different levels of ghg emissions will cause. For this reason, the problem created by IPCC’s underestimation of climate change impacts may not be exclusively the fault of IPCC.  The problem may also be the fault of policymakers who fail to respond to the enormous potential harms entailed by human-induced warming by demanding that opponents of climate change policies shoulder the burden of proof by demonstrating with high levels of proof that ghg emissions will not cause serious harms.

This website includes many articles which explain why policymakers and citizens have a strong duty to reduce ghg emissions in the face of some scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts. See, for example:

1. The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions the face of Scientific Uncertainty;

2. On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

Policymakers have a vital need for scientists to explain all scientifically plausible harms that may result from human activities even if the magnitude and creation of potential harms are uncertain. In fulfilling these responsibilities, scientists may not ignore potential harms because they are unable to determine probabilities about the likelihood of their occurrence based on empirical observations. Yet because scientists often follow the epistemic norms of their science when engaged in scientific research which usually require adequate levels of proof before making causal claims, policymakers need to be clear when interacting with scientists that their policymaking responsibilities require that they, the policymakers, protect citizens from all plausible harms.  Therefore policymakers need scientists to identify all scientifically plausible harms. Because IPCC’s mission is to synthesize the existing peer-reviewed climate science, which very likely does not include scientific conclusions about plausible harms partly based on speculation, IPCC cannot fulfill the role of science that policymakers need when policymakers are seeking to protect citizens from all plausible harms, namely to inform humanity about all plausible climate change impacts. Thus, there is a basic conflict between IPCC’s mission of synthesizing peer-reviewed climate change science and providing policy-makers with information about all scientifically plausible climate change impacts.

This need of policy-makers to understand all plausible harms creates an enormous challenge for mainstream scientific institutions which usually rely on peer-review in which scientists normally review scientific claims by comparing claims to empirically tested observations which are the ground of the scientific enterprise. Yet, as Hans Jonas explained in The Imperative of Responsibility, In Search of an Ethics in a Technological Age, the power of modern technology to create catastrophic harms such as those harms now foreseeable from human-induced climate change, ethics requires that policy-makers approach these matters with a “heuristics of fear,” replacing the former “projections of hope” that traditionally guided policy (Jonas, 1984, p.x), Yet, mainstream science is often uncomfortable with conclusions not grounded in scientific observations. If this is so, ethics requires that IPCC’s mandate be amended to synthesize scientifically plausible conclusions about climate change outcomes.

B. The Ethical Bankruptcy of Arguments Which Demand High Levels of Certainty Before Taking Action to Reduce the Threat of Climate Change

The WLB report also claims that quoting a 2014 article in the Guardian increasing evidence ‘that policy summaries on climate impacts and mitigation by the IPCC were significantly “diluted under political pressure from some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, and the United States.” (WLB. p. 34)

The WLB report consistently argues that the remedy to IPCC’s tendency to underestimate climate impacts is to allow or require more speculation about uncertain but plausible climate impacts. However, those governments that seek to restrict discussion of all impacts to those that have been proven with relatively high levels of proof would likely argue that speculation could lead to an overstatement of climate impacts. Yet following a precautionary science that identifies all plausible climate change impacts including those that have been based on speculation can guard against overstating the seriousness of climate impacts by allowing those who claim that the plausible impacts have been overstated to provide reasons for their claims so that policymakers can judge whether some of the plausible but not fully proven impacts are arbitrary or without any plausible scientific support. This would place the burden of proving harm appropriately, as a matter of ethics, on the parties that seek to justify continuing dangerous behavior.

Nations which have demanded high levels of proof before reducing their contributions to climate change have failed to abide by their ethical and legal duties to not harm others and not abide by the ” precautionary principle” which they agreed to UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

C. Ethical Problems with Economics Arguments Against Climate Change Policies

The WLB report also claims that some governments have advocated policies that would not be sufficient to achieve the goals of the UNFCCC to prevent dangerous climate change because they thought policies that achieve safer levels of warming ‘were too economically disruptive.” (WLB, p. 39). This report claims that in so doing,” policymakers are complicit today in destroying the very conditions which make life possible.” (WLB, p. 39) Further, the WLB report claims “There is no greater crime against humanity.” (WLB, p. 39)

An ethical analysis of those nations that refuse to adopt policies that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic harm on the basis of their economic interest would also strongly condemn these nations as deeply morally bankrupt.

References:

Anthony et. al., 2018, 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, Nature Communications ,https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05738-9#author-information

Breakthrough Institute, 2018, What Lies Beneath, On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_a0d7c18a1bf64e698a9c8c8f18a42889.pdf

Jonas, H, 1984, The Imperative of Responsibility; In Search of an Ethics for a Technological Age, University of Chicago Press

Steffen et.al., 2018, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, http://macroecointern.dk/pdf-reprints/Steffen_PNAS_2018.pdf

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Harrisburg, Pa.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

How to ask questions of opponents of climate change policies to expose ethical problems with cost and scientific uncertainty arguments

 

Most arguments against climate change laws and policies are based on claims of unacceptable costs or scientific uncertainty, arguments that hide or ignore ethical problems with these arguments, This video explains how to ask questions of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or scientific uncertainty which questions are designed to expose ethical problems with these arguments.

The list of questions referenced in the video follows:

Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, or job destruction.

When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, or kill jobs:

  1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
  2. Do you deny that a high emitting nation needs to take responsibility for the harms to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations
  3. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
  4. Do you agree that a nation’s climate change policy is implicitly a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise?
  5. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels?
  6. Do you agree that no nation has a right kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
  7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
  8. Do you agree that the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?\
  9.  Given that the United States has for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to it and that due to delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if the United States acted twenty-five years ago, is it just for the United States to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost

Questions to be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty.

  1. When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emission because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
  2. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
  3. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
  4. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
  5. Should a nation like the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2.Oo C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
  6. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
  7. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
  8. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
  9. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
  10. Do agree if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
  11. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to  reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that    is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of others and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

 

Comments are welcome.

 

 

By 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Harrisburg Pa.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

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

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I. Introduction 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener Commonwealth University Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.

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This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.

References

Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Five Common Arguments Against Climate Change Policies That Can Only Be Effectively Responded To On Ethical Grounds

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Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:

 1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.

This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others.  Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.

new book description for website-1_01 It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change.  In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.

 

2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so.  Implicit in this argument  is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so.  Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global  emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.

A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was  emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.

4.  No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of  human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies  on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:

  • It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific  view of climate change is later vindicated;
  • It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
  • The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.

For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.

Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.

A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.

Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.

And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

An Ethical Analysis of Obama’s Climate Speech, the Adverse Political Reaction to It, and the Media Response.

 

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mcconnell_thumb Joe Manchin

 

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.

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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.”

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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.org index 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.

Arguments in opposition to action on climate change based upon the claim that the  United States  acting alone will not significantly reduce the threat of climate change fails any ethical test because all nations  have a duty to act to reduce their emissions to their fair share without regard to what other nations do. For detailed ethical analysis of this issue, see, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

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.

By:

Donald  A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Widener University School of Law.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

Why Politicians May Not Ethically Rely on Their Own Uninformed Opinion About Climate Science and 10 Questions That The Press Should Ask Politicians About Climate Science In Light of This Responsibility.

Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change.  Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses,  strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.

Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.


The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.

In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the  United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.

In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:

Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. (UNFCCC Preamble)

In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.

 

The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)

Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d)  a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise.  Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.

In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of  their personal opinion.

Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:

1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?

2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists  with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?

3.  On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?

4. When you claim that the United States need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?

5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?

6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?

7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?

8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?

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

(UNFCCC, Art 3)

 9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?

10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

By:

dabrown57@gmail.com

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

 

 

Will Hurricane Sandy Remedy The US Media’s Grave Failures To Adequately Cover Climate Change?

 

 

(CBS News, 2012)

 

 

Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change.  For a  good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of  press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,

Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to  communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?

Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages  to the United States as our planet continues to heat up.  As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:

Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)

And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied.  In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real.  Still missing  from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have  explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:

  • the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
  •  a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
  • a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue, 
  • acknowledgments  that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
  • an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.

EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of the US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

In previous entries, Ethicsandclimate.org examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations, and (f)  the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.

Unless these other features of climate change are understood, there is a huge risk that Americans will not support strong climate change policy measures of the scale needed in the United States.

References:

Linden, E. (2012) Sandy and The Winds of Change, Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-linden-sandy-climate-change-20121102,0,2994914.story

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com