The US Media’s Grave Communication Failure On The Magnitude Of GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

 I. Introduction

This is the third entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at:

This is the second paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In the last entry we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change. In this post we look at the failure of the US press to communicate about the enormous magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts.

Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:

  •  The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
  •  The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
  •  The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.

II. Communication Failures On The Magnitude Of The GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

 Most Americans are completely unaware of the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. If US citizens don’t understand the size and scope of the problem, they will almost certainly refuse to support legislation and policies necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that represents the US fair share of safe global emissionsBecause, as we discussed in the last entry, the scientific consensus is so strong that the world is headed to harsh and dangerous impacts, the US media’s failure to communicate clearly about the magnitude of the problem facing the world is a serious, grave, and tragic lapse.

No US national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is understood to implicitly be a position on the US fair share of a global greenhouse gas emissions reductions pathway capable of preventing dangerous climate change. Yet when US federal climate change legislation was under consideration between 2009 and 2010, there was almost no public discussion about whether proposed US climate change legislation would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.

To understand the urgency for civilization challenging emissions reductions it is necessary to understand: (a) what temperature increases will likely trigger harsh climate change impacts,  (b) what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause specific temperature increases that are of concern, and (c) what quantities of greenhouse gas emissions will exceed atmospheric greenhouse target concentrations. Only then can one understand the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions from business as usual that are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

A. Dangerous Temperature Increases

The international community agreed at a meeting of the conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the world must work together to limit warming to an additional 2oC to avoid rapid non-linear impacts from climate change. The 2oC warming limit was agreed to because there is widespread agreement among the vast majority of mainstream scientists that warming of more than 2oC significantly increases the probability of harsh climate impacts.

However, catastrophic harms, at least for some parts of the world, could be triggered by additional warming of less than 2oC because there is uncertainty about how the Earth will respond to different increases in temperatures. (Athanasiou and Bear 2002) The 2oC upper temperature limit is quite controversial scientifically because, as we shall see, some scientists believe that lower amounts of additional warming could set into motion rapid climate changes that could greatly harm people around the world and increases of as little as 1oC will likely greatly harm some people in some regions.

A report, “Assessment of Knowledge on Impacts of Climate Change,” prepared by the Potsdam Institute to examine the meaning of “dangerous” climate change under the UNFCCC supported the 2°C danger limit after a rigorous analysis of climate change impacts at various temperatures concluding:

Above 2°C the risks increase very substantially involving potentially large extinctions or even ecosystem collapses, major increases in hunger and water shortage risks as well as socio-economic damages, particularly in developing countries. (Hare 2003: 89)

Yet, even this report identified very serious global and regional impacts below 2°C. In fact, this report concluded that temperature increases below 1°C threaten highly vulnerable ecosystems and between 1°C and 2 °C increase the risks of damage for all ecosystems and particularly for some regional ecosystems. (Hare 2003: 89)

There is substantial scientific evidence that even a 1.5°C temperature limit would not be sufficient to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. For instance, a recent paper by Jim Hansen and seven other authors concluded that additional warming should be limited to 1°C warming to prevent serious harms. (Hansen et al 2008) To do this, existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must not only not be allowed to rise the small amount to 450 ppm CO2 from current levels of 394 ppm CO2 but must be reduced below existing levels to 350 ppm CO2. (Hansen et al. 2008) According to this paper, the world has likely already shot past the level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that will lead to dangerous climate change for many. According to Hansen and his collaborators, the world has already used up all of the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere and biosphere that has been available to buffer against dangerous climate change. As a result, this paper asserts that to prevent dangerous climate change the world must not only reduce its emissions but reduce existing greenhouse gas CO2 atmospheric concentrations from the current 394 ppm to 350 ppm CO2 to avoid dangerous climate change.

And so, although the international community agreed in Copenhagen to limit future warming to 2°C, this could prove to be a limit that is too high to protect millions around the world. As one observer recently noted:

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8 °C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.

(Real Climate 2009)

In thinking about an upper temperature limit, many scientists are concerned with avoiding runaway climate change. That is, they fear that global temperatures will exceed a tipping point that will trigger a release of stored carbon from the biosphere, an event that would cause further rapid climate change. Runaway climate change would mean that governments would lose the ability to control future climate change that they would otherwise have through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. That is, runaway climate change means that human action would be unable to stop significant temperature increase without massive geo-engineering. (Washington and Cook 2011: 30-31) This is so because, among other things, there are vast amounts of methane stored in permafrost, methane hydrates on the ocean floor, and carbon in the forests that could be released as the world warms. If the world warms too much, increased temperatures could cause huge amounts of carbon to be released that would overwhelm the quantities of carbon being released through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. This is known to be a possibility, because such releases of stored carbon have happened in Earth’s history and caused rapid non-linear Earth temperature changes.

And so, the magnitude of greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change is understood to be the reductions from business-as-usual that will allow atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to be stabilized at levels that will limit warming to between 1 to 2°C with prudence calling for a 1°C limit. We now turn to what atmospheric greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations levels are understood to prevent warming above these amounts.

B. Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Stabilization Goal

The amount of warming that will be experienced from different greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations is usually referred to as the issue of “climate sensitivity.” Climate sensitivity is somewhat uncertain as there are remaining scientific uncertainties about the magnitude of the positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.

Climate sensitivity is usually defined to mean the amount of warming that the Earth will experience if atmospheric concentrations of COreach 560 ppm of COequivalent, where COequivalent is the metric which translates other greenhouse gases into an equivalent level of CO2 . The IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) concluded that climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5 °C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C. (IPCC 2007) The IPCC also noted that climate sensitivity values substantially higher than 4.5 °C cannot be excluded. And so the temperature change that the consensus view believes is likely if all of the greenhouse gases rise to 560 ppm carbon equivalent is somewhere between 2 °C and 4.5 °C with even higher temperatures possible. The current concentration of CO2 is 394 ppm. (CO2  Now 2012)

To operationalize an upper temperature limit, the international community must set an atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization limit. Since there is scientific uncertainty about how much warming will be experienced by different atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration levels, there is significant scientific controversy about what the greenhouse gas atmospheric stabilization target should be to achieve any warming limit.

Making the calculation of emissions reductions needed at any one time is complicated by the fact that how rapidly greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced is a problem that depends upon when global emissions reductions begin. The longer the international community waits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper the necessary emissions reductions pathway becomes. It is relatively easy to calculate the amount of additional tons of emissions that can be allowed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a certain level such as 450 ppm CO2 but this number will depend upon when emissions reductions begin. At any time it is therefore possible to create a budget that identifies the total tons of emissions that can be allowed before a specific atmosphere concentration is exceeded but the longer the international community waits to begin to reduce emissions, the steeper the reductions must be.

The magnitude of the challenge entailed by the need to set a greenhouse gas atmospheric concentration target becomes evident after looking at the probability of exceeding 2°C if CO2 equivalent targets are set at specific levels such as 450 or 550 ppm. In the following chart the colored lines represent emissions reduction pathways that would stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide equivalents at various levels. The yellow line is a pathway that would stabilize at 550 ppm. The red line is a reduction pathway that could stabilize carbon dioxide equivalent at 450 ppm. The numbers on the boxes on these two lines specify the probability of exceeding 2°C if atmospheric concentration levels are stabilized at these levels.

From this chart we therefore see that if atmospheric carbon dioxide is stabilized at 550 ppm there is between a 75% and 99% chance that the world will experience temperatures in excess of 2°C. Looking at the red line we see that even at a stabilization level of 450 ppm there is between a 45% and 86% chance that the world experience increases in temperature greater than 2°C. Because CO2 levels are already approaching 395 ppm and other greenhouse gases make current carbon dioxide equivalent levels in the vicinity of 430 ppm it becomes evident that the world is running out of time to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the atmospheric concentrations that would limit warming to 2°C. Because as we have seen it is possible that temperature increases as small as 1°C will create harsh impacts for some people in some parts of the world it becomes apparent that the need to reduce greenhouse gases aggressively, and dramatically, and urgently.

C. Percentage Reductions From Business As Usual Required To Stabilize Atmospheric Concentrations Of Greenhouse Gases

The startling magnitude of the challenge to the world from climate change becomes apparent upon reflection that the world is currently increasing greenhouse gas emissions  during the last decade of an average annual increase of 2.7%. (PBL 2012) Yet to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at about 450 ppm by 2050, global emissions will have to decline by about 60% from current levels. (Hossol 2011).  Because developing countries need to expand economic activity to escape grinding poverty according to one US White House paper, industrial countries greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by about 80% by 2050. (Hossol 2011)

Given that greenhouse emissions are increasing year to year and that the entire world will need to reduce emissions by as much as 60% by 2050 to give any hope of remaining below 2°C, the challenge to the world is staggering. One observer sums up the situation as following:

The growth of emissions is making the task ahead more and more difficult. The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget. Here’s a visualization of what that means — some sample reduction curves with varying peak years (the four different lines are based on the four main IPCC scenarios):

(citing Anderson, K.  2011)

As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.

This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2°C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

(Roberts 2011)

Although the challenge of achieving sufficient global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent 2°C is extraordinarily daunting, as we have explained above a 2°C warming limit may not prevent catastrophic harm because temperature increases more than 1°C may cause great harm.

International climate negotiations have sought to find a global solution to climate change since they began in 1990 and have struggled since then to reach a global deal among most countries to prevent dangerous climate change. Because global emissions continue to rise rather than decrease after 20 years since climate change negotiations began, the international community has lost several decades in finding a way to prevent dangerous climate change. And so, the human race may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet most Americans are unaware of the seriousness and urgency of the staggering problem we are facing. The US media has utterly failed to sound the alarm about the magnitude of the threat of climate change.


Anderson, Kevin (2011)  Going Beyond Dangerous Climate Change,

 Athanasiou, T. and Bear, P. (2002), Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, Westminster, MD: Seven Stories Press, Canada.

CO2Now (2012)  Earth’s CO2 Now Home Page (March 2012).

Hansen. J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., Beerling, Masson-Delmotte, V., Pagani, M., Raymo, M., Royer, D., Zachos, J. (2008)  Where Should Humanity Aim?

Hare, W. (2003)  Assessment Of Knowledge On Impacts Of Climate Change – ‘Contribution To The Specification Of Art’, 2 of the UNFCCC, Berlin: Potsdam Institute for Climate Research,

Hossol, Susan Joy (2011)  Emissions Reductions Needed To Stabilize Climate, Presidential Climate Project,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2001) this multi-volume work was published as: (i) Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report; (ii) Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis; (iii) Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability; (iv) Climate Change 2001: Mitigation, Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) Climate Sensitivity And Feedbacks, in Pachauri, R., and Reisinger, A. (eds) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Available at:

PBL, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (2012) Trends in Global Co2 Emissions, 2012 Report.

Real Climate (2009) Hit the Brakes Hard,

Roberts, David  (2011) The Brutal Logic Of Climate Change,

 Washington, H. and J. Cook (2011) Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, by Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, Earthscan, London and Washington


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Five Grave Communications Failures of the US Media On Climate Change-The Failure To Communicate The Strength of The Scientific Consensus

I. Introduction

The US media has utterly failed to communicate to the American people about five essential aspects of climate change that they need to understand to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. has recently developed a video on these failures entitled: Five Grave Communication  Failures of US Media On Climate Change 

We now provide a more detailed written description of these failures in this and subsequent posts. In this post we look at the first of these communications failures, namely the failure  to communicate to US citizens the strength and nature of the current scientific consensus position on climate change.

Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:

  • The magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
  • The consistent barrier that the United States has been in finding a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
  • The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
  • The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.

II. The Strength And Nature Of The Current Scientific Consensus Position On Climate Change.

Most US citizens are aware that there has been an ongoing debate about the science of climate change, yet most American are completely unaware of the strength of the “consensus” position on climate change.

The consensus position is understood to be that which has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to assess for governments the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, and to identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010) The IPCC does not do original research but synthesizes and summarizes the extant peer-reviewed climate change science to make recommendations for governments and policy makers. (IPCC, 2010a) The consensus position is not the consensus on all scientific issues entailed by climate change. Yet, the consensus position has the following elements:

  • The planet is warming
  • The observable warming is very likely mostly caused by human activities
  • Under business as unusual human-induced warming will likely range from 2 to 5 degrees C (although it could be greater). This warming will harm some people more than others from rising seas, increased droughts and floods, increased storms, increased vector-borne disease, deaths from heat waves, reducing food productivity, and diminished availability to water.
  • To stabilize GHG in the atmosphere will require huge reductions from business as usual.

There are several strong reasons why the “consensus” view is  entitled to respect including the following:

One, recent reports have concluded that the vast majority of scientists actually doing research in the field support the consensus scientific view.

For example, a 2009 study–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States–polled 1,372 climate researchers and resulted in the following two conclusions.

(i) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and

(ii) The relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

(Anderegga et. al 2010)

Another poll performed in 2009 of 3,146 of the known 10,257 Earth scientists concluded that 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009)

Two, in response to arguments from some climate change skeptics, many scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change have endorsed the consensus position that “most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities” including the following:
• American Association for the Advancement of Science
• American Astronomical Society
• American Chemical Society
• American Geophysical Union
• American Institute of Physics
• American Meteorological Society
• American Physical Society
• Australian Coral Reef Society
• Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO
• British Antarctic Survey
• Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
• Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Environmental Protection Agency
• European Federation of Geologists
• European Geosciences Union
• European Physical Society
• Federation of American Scientists
• Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
• Geological Society of America
• Geological Society of Australia
• International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
• International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
• National Center for Atmospheric Research
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Royal Meteorological Society
• Royal Society of the UK

(Skeptical Science, 2010)

Three, the Academies of Science from nineteen different countries all endorse the consensus view. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position.
They are:
• Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
• Royal Society of Canada
• Chinese Academy of Sciences
• Academie des Sciences (France)
• Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
• Indian National Science Academy
• Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
• Science Council of Japan
• Russian Academy of Sciences
• Royal Society (United Kingdom)
• National Academy of Sciences (USA)

(Skeptical Science, 2010):

Among the academies of sciences around the world that have issued reports supporting the consensus view is the United States Academy of Sciences that has issued four reports.

From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by the IPCC is strongly supported by: (1) the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change (2) the most prestigious scientific organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise, and (3) academies of sciences around the world, the very institutions that have been created to advise governments on complex scientific issues. For this reason, the IPCC consensus position is entitled to strong respect that, at the very minimum, climate change poses a legitimate significant threat to human well-being and the natural resources on which life depends.

In fact, some critics have contended that the IPCC reports tend to underestimate climate change dangers and risks because the process that leads to the IPCC conclusions give representatives from countries that have consistently opposed the adoption of international climate regimes power to pressure the IPCC scientists to report only the lowest common denominator. (For a discussion of the limits of IPCC, see, Brown, 2008) In fact observations of actual greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, temperatures, and sea level rise are near or exceeding the IPCC worst-case predictions. One recent comparison of greenhouse gas concentrations, temperatures, and sea-level rise observations versus predictions concluded:

Overall, these observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change. Previous projections, as summarized by the IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respects even have underestimated the climate changes that have been observed. 
(Rahmstorf et al., 2007)

It is important as a mater of ethics to remember that if the consensus view is wrong, it could be wrong in two directions. That is, not only could IPCC be overstating the magnitude and timing of climate change in the future, they may be understating the harshness of climate change harms.

And so, the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world support the consensus view on climate change.  Yet. the United States media has almost always failed to communicate this fact when discussing controversies about climate change science. Although the US media has from time to time acknowledged that most climate scientists support the consensus view, they have almost always failed to describe strength of the consensus view that becomes apparent when one understands the magnitude of support for the consensus view by the most prestigious scientific organizations end researchers described above.

Given the enormity and harshness of impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world from climate change coupled with the fact that United States has a special responsibility for the civilization challenging problem because of the comparatively large levels of the emissions coming from America, the failure of the US media to describe strength the scientific consensus on change is a grave and tragic error.


Agrarwala, Shardul and Stiener Anderson, 1999, Indispensability and Indefensibility?:
The United States In Climate Treaty Negotiations. ” 2w Governance 5, December 1999).

Brown, Donald, 2008, Ethical Issues Raised by the Work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Report On The Bali Workshop (COP-13). Climate Ethics.

Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, 2009. Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, EOS 90 (3): 22-23

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2010a, History,

 Rahmstorf, Stepen, Anny Cazenave, John A. Church, James E. Hansen,
Ralph F. Keeling, David E. Parker, Richard C. J. Somervilles, 2007, Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections, Science, Vol 316 , May 2007

Skeptical Science, 2010, What the Science Says: s (retrieved, Jan 3, 2011)



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law




ClimateEthics Analysis Moves to Widener University School of Law As

Dear former subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors  to


After over 80 articles on the ethics of climate change at, I am moving to Widener University School of Law where the analyses formerly posted on ClimateEthics as well as new posts will continue at this site, 

Climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem. This realization has profound practical consequences for policy formation.   Yet the ethical implications of policy responses have usually been ignored in policy debates that have now spanned thirty years. Despite 20 years of international negotiations to come up with a global solution to climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ethical and justice dimensions of national positions remain the key missing element in the positions of national governments.

This site examines the ethical dimensions of climate science, economics, politics, policy responses, trading, atmospheric greenhouse gas stabilization goals, as well as the obligations of nations, governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals to respond to climate change and pay for adaptation responses and damages.

The site will follow the positions taken by governments in international climate change negotiations and subject them to an ethical critique. The site will subject arguments made by proponents and opponents of  climate change policies to ethical scrutiny.

The site believes that turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change is key to moving the world to a just solution to climate change.

Because many of the most important ethical issues that need to be faced in climate change policy formation are often hidden in dense  scientific and economic discourses that most people, including many policy professionals, have difficulty in unpacking, this sites seeks to help those concerned about climate change understand the ethical issues often obscured by what first appears to be the “value-neutral” languages of science and economics.

For these reasons, the purpose of this site is to help civil society understand, debate, and respond to the ethical dimensions of climate change.

Prior subscribers to ClimateEthics and new visitors to this site,  please subscribe to this new website by clicking on the subscribe button. 


Thank you,

Donald A. Brown
As of July 1, 2012,
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law

Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

Preface. ClimateEthics has recently completed a detailed four part series on the ethical dimensions of climate change disinformation campaign in which we distinguish between responsible skepticism and the ethically abhorrent tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. See the last entry: Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

The following entry by guest blogger, Dr. Kenneth Shockley, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, makes a strong case that the nature of the harm caused by the disinformation campaign calls for collective moral outrage.

Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

Those who deny the reality, importance, or magnitude of climate change warrant our collective outrage. Whether by action or inaction, their denial blinds us to the risks, vulnerabilities, and threats to our well-being posed by climate change. Insofar as claims of ignorance are becoming increasingly implausible, those who support or propagate the disinformation campaign about climate change are guilty of more than deception. They are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the current misinformation campaign waged against climate science. I will, therefore, take it on assumption for our purposes here that both (1) there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is taking place and (2) there is a concerted effort, through activity or negligence, to convince the public that there is no need for action. I take (2) to constitute the essence of what I will call the disinformation campaign about climate change. I take (1) to provide the focus of such a campaign, a campaign focused on convincing any and all that the science of climate change is not worth taking seriously or that the consequences of climate change are too uncertain to justify action.

What I am interested in is the nature of the harm associated with the disinformation campaign. The disinformation campaign is more than a coordinated effort at misrepresenting the science, it is a violation of body politic. Our collective well-being is being undermined, and this should provoke moral outrage, both domestically in the US and UK where it seems to have its home, and internationally where some of its more egregious and immediate consequences are felt. Just as the sense of moral outrage is the proper result to violations of one’s individual person, we owe collective moral outrage to violations of our collective body politic. The harm associated with the disinformation campaign goes beyond a simple matter of dishonesty (which it is). Insofar as the disinformation campaign blocks efforts to address climate change that campaign is complicit in increasing the risk of being subject to the more calamitous consequences of a changing climate.

The recent IPCC SREX report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Adaptation, (IPCC, 2012), paints a vivid picture of the risks and vulnerabilities presented by climate change, both now, and in the future. Similar warnings have been expressed in the United States National Academy of Science’s recent report America’s Climate Choices (US Academy, 2011) and in a wide range of other sources. What should we say about those who in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are at risk of significant harms encourage us not to act in the face of those risks? What would we say of those who convince us that an impending flood is not real, and hamper our efforts to prepare for, or minimize the effects of that flood?

This question should frame the way we think about the current effort to deny the clear and overwhelming scientific consensus that we are facing a changing climate, with the risks and concerns noted by those best able to assess them. After all, these vulnerabilities pose a risk to our well-being; they have great moral significance.
In blocking efforts to address, respond to or adapt to climate change, the disinformation campaign exacerbates our vulnerabilities to a changing climate; given the scale and magnitude of the problems we face, exacerbating vulnerabilities to climate change puts social stability at risk. This risk constitutes a threat to our well-being, and the well-being of our children; to increase this risk is to incur blame.

As the actions of the disinformation campaign put society at risk, those in support of this campaign, knowingly or out of culpable ignorance, similarly deserve our ire. Efforts to ignore this risk should provoke our individual and collective moral outrage. Political officials who endorse, accept, or adopt this campaign and its goals are in violation of the public trust; such officials are acting contrary to the public good with which they are entrusted. Those who illicitly attempt to influence the political process by means of this campaign of misrepresentation are complicit in this violation.

By misrepresenting the science of climate change, the disinformation campaign is complicit in putting social stability at risk, with the attendant moral consequences; they are complicit in increasing the probability and extent of widespread human misery. Those who are engaged in this campaign are guilty of violating the sacred trust of their office, guilty of culpable ignorance (for surely we trust those who make political decisions to use the resources of their office to find the best available data for that decision; simply failing to recognize the nature of the science is culpable when the well-being of the society they represent is at stake), or corruption (for passing off as public reason, reasons based self-serving motivations that run contrary to the long term well-being of our society is surely an inappropriate influence on the body politic, a corrupting influence of the most vile sort). Violation of public trust, culpable ignorance, or simple corruption. I see no other options. The point now is to move forward.

We must bring to light the corrupting influences. We must compel the media to make clear that there is only as much debate about the science behind climate change as there is debate about the science behind the existence of the dinosaurs (for while in both cases we may doubt the details, there is little doubt about the overall picture). We must compel our political agents to make clear, in the starkest moral terms, why they are making, or failing to make, the decisions they make. This should motivate a movement at least as ferocious as the Occupy Wallstreet movement. The Occupy Wallstreet movement was focused on the very real and morally potent concern that our economy is shifting us toward a society not in line with the basic moral principles on which our nation was founded and on which our hopes and expectations are based. To some extent that economy is reversible. The concern that motivates moral outrage at inaction and obstruction regarding climate change should be focused on the very conditions that make possible a stable society for us, and for our children. Our influence on these background conditions is not so reversible, at least on time scales that matter to our children. For the sake of our children, and for the sake of our own moral decency, this disinformation campaign should inspire moral outrage.


IPCC, 2012, Special Report on managing Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Mitigation, available at ;

US Academy of Science, 2011, America’s Climate Choices, National Academies Press,

Kenneth Shockley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
111 Park Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260